Sixty Five Years Later

Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.

It’s been quite a long time since I stood on the bluffs and cliffs overlooking these beaches. It was an experience that I shared with a large contingent of my extended family, including my Grandfather. Though he was not there during his service in The War, he is a battle weary veteran who understands what went in to a landing. He in fact, understands it better than most men alive. It was what he did for years and under horrifying conditions at that. As a skipper of LST’s, LCI’s and LCM’s, he became a member of an elite group of landing craft captains specializing in unusual or particularly difficult combat landings. His war, however, was in the Pacific.

As we walked around and over the battlements of a lifetime ago, he pointed out small things here and there that we might not have noticed. Things like how the tide was running and what that would do to soldiers in the water, the position of gun emplacements and how the fire would have converged out to sea and where it would be most intense. I have always been fascinated with the Second World War and having been glued to my television set when ever “Victory at Sea” was on, I was well versed in the Pacific War. Whenever I had asked him about his own stories though, I was brushed off. He had a handful of funny tales he liked to tell and retell. I can recall him recounting memories of watching B-25’s and B-26’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley Mountains in New Guinea. That was always a favorite for him.

“They’d come over the range high and in formation, then, one by one, dive like sparrows down the side of the mountains. We’d count them as they peeled off and thundered at tree top level with their engines wide open. Then they’d disappear over the jungle. We’d count them again as they came back into our view over the water and figure out how many we’d lost. At that speed, nobody had a chance to bail out.”

That was about as detailed as he would get. I never really heard much about the landings he made at all.

Even though I knew the stories by heart, I would still sit and listen, eager to hear what ever he’d give me. France however, was different for him. He hadn’t been here during the fighting and so, he was in a reflective mood and willing to share his views on how he saw this field of battle. It was a fascinating trip.

As I stood on a German pillbox, its sides crushed under the weight of Allied shelling and bombing, I remember wondering if it was a tomb for the soldiers who would have been manning on that day long ago. There are missing men in every battle, but the thought that under my feet and few feet of concrete and steel, may hold the unremovable, mortal remains of the German war machine, was a sobering one. They would have been young boys. They never grew old, but died as teenagers for the dreams of a madman. The loss from every stone, dune and bunker was palpable.

As we visited the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, we split up as we walked with a sort of hushed reverence. These were the heroes who had given their own “last full measure of their devotion” and the emotion for me was overwhelming. As I humbly walked among the graves, I couldn’t miss hearing the voice from a young British girl as she pointed me out to her parents.

“Look mum! That man is out walking on the grass! It says right here not to do that!”

She was right, naturally. I had walked deftly past the neat little sign admonishing this very thing. We were to “stay on the paths, please.” I smirked… and kept reading and saying the names to my self in a soft whisper. These were my countrymen. They were from my home and I did not think for a moment that I didn’t have the right to be there. In the cemeteries of the other nations involved, I would stick to the paths, but not here. This was U.S. soil and I was here to pay respects. I was twenty-one years old then, and older than most of the soldiers who surrounded me as they lay in peace.

Besides, Americans have never been great at following rules. It’s actually how we started out with our own country.

On this sixty-fifth anniversary of the invasion, I think back to my time walking the peaceful and quiet beaches of Normandy. I thank the French whom we met there and the kindnesses they gave us during our stay. I think of my Grandfather as he stood on the cliffs with the knowledgeable eye of a veteran landing craft captain as he wondered aloud how they got anyone past the sandbars and onto the beaches or over the cliffs.

We remember this day for the great sacrifice of youth that took place and because it marked the turning of the tide in, what had looked all too often, like an unwinnable war against a juggernaut that knew no defeat.

The beaches are beautiful now but still carry deep scars, much like the individuals who were there on the day of invasion. Their scars will be gone soon. They are leaving us by the hundreds every day. The scars on the land will outlive them all.

If you have not seen them, I suggest you should.

If you know someone who saw it for themselves sixty-five years ago, ask them about it now, for they will likely be gone tomorrow.

d-day letter

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Flight of a Lifetime, Part II

When the time got close, we needed to help get the plane ready for take off. Both aircraft have four massive radial engines. The radial is a fantastic design. Tough, easy to work on, very powerful and air-cooled. The only problem with them is that if you shut them down and let them sit, all the oil collects in the lower cylinders. To fix this, you have to “turn them through”. That means is that you rotate the propeller by hand to get the oil up into the top cylinders. It took a group of about ten of us ten minutes on each engine. By the time we had finished, all of us were sweaty and my hands hurt. For the record, those blades might be massive but, boy, are they ever sharp and they only spin with a good deal of effort. It was like pushing a piece of sheet metal, edge on, through mud.

When it was done, it we headed for the door. Doors, actually. There are two access hatches on a B-17. One is the smallish door on the right hand side, aft of the wing. That’s where everyone was heading except me. There is another, far smaller hatch, three quarters of the way under the nose on the left side. When the door opens, you are at eye level, looking directly into the navigator’s station. The opening is only about twenty inches square and there is no ladder. To get in you have two options. First is to reach through, and pull your self through as your legs bicycle foolishly in the air. The other option is the cool one. It’s what the boys who flew this plane over seventy years ago did. You reach up, palms toward you, and grab the top lip. Then, like an overenthusiastic chin up, legs are pulled up, shot through the hole and you push off with everything you’ve got, hopefully, flinging all parts of your body after them. There was no one at the hatch and I was sure that if I asked, the answer would not be the one I wanted. A quick glance around, a grab and… Heave! In I went, just like on the newsreels and, off came my hat. I looked through the hatch from inside the bomber at my hat as it lay on the tarmac. To go back out and get it would both kill the “I’m so cool!” sensation that was coursing through my veins and open me up to being in trouble with the ground crew. Crap. Just then, a face appeared through the hole covered with a big toothy smile. It was one of the ground crew. I smiled back sheepishly. With one hand, he scooped up my hat and handed it to me through the small opening.

“Ever see ‘Twelve O’clock High”? He asked, still grinning.
“Um.. Thanks. Yah, a few times. I own a copy, actually.” I replied as I retrieved the hat.
“Heh, me too. Have a great flight!” And with that, he reached in, grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. I scrambled back to the radio room for takeoff, happier than ever.

FAA regulations dictate that all passengers must be belted in for take off and landing. The B-17 was not built for regulations like that and accommodations had to be made to fit the times. The floor of the radio room is wooden and along the sides, against the fuselage, they had bolted seatbelts right to the floor. You simply sit down with your legs out straight and buckled in. The sitting portion of the flight would be short anyway.

As I sat down on my bit of plywood, I looked around at the others who had paid for this privilege. I knew that it would be a few minutes before takeoff and I was curious what drove the other guys here to plunk down enough cash for a flight to Europe, just for an opportunity to fly in a plane that used to drop bombs on the same. To my left sat an older man. He looked like he was in his seventies and unlike the rest of us who were casting our gazes around the interior of the plane; he looked more like he was meditating. I decided to ask.

“I used to fly in these during the war. I was a waist gunner.”

This is always a trick moment for me. I desperately want to know all the details but at the same time, don’t want to be intrusive. I don’t remember asking him any more questions, but I probably did ask a few. He was defiantly there for a personal experience and I quickly left him alone with his ghosts. It seemed like what he wanted, I recall.

Across from me, lashed to the floor sat another man. He looked like he might be in his late fifties or early sixties and was well dressed. He looked like someone who didn’t spend much time sitting in anything other than an executive, leather office chair. I decided to chat with him a bit and found him to be quite affable. I also detected a hint of an accent. After a few minutes, I asked him why he wanted a ride. With out skipping a beat, he told me.

“ I grew up in Germany during the war. I remember as a little boy, running for the air raid shelter with my mother as the planes came over from England. Even then, I thought that these planes looked so beautiful and I always wanted a ride in one. Now, I finally will get my wish.”

Two men who were on opposite ends of the bombing of Europe, together in one of the planes that was used. Amazing.

Before I could pester anyone else, engine one barked and puffed to life. The B-17 was built for fighting, not for comfort and when the engines are running, you can forget about holding a conversation. Little could be seen from our seats as we took off, but once in the air, we could roam all over. I felt like I was living a dream. I poked my head through the open radio room top window and the slipstream hit me like a tidal wave. The force was amazing and I let out a long, “WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!” into the prop wash

Eventually, I found my way to the nose and sat in the bombardier’s seat. A huge, bowed window of Plexiglas sat in front of me and as I pressed my forehead against its center, the rest of the aircraft disappeared from my view. All I could see was the rolling hills and open air in front of me. It was an amazing view and it made you feel as though you were alone in the sky.

I crawled back through the plane and visited each station. I stopped and watched the pilot and copilot for a while and stood in the top turret and looked around. With no German fighters present, I decided was safe to keep moving. The radio room was empty for the most part as I passed through on my way to the tail. The openings for the waist guns yawned open on either side of the plane and the wind and sound of the engines made an amazing noise. You had to shout to be heard. In the port waist window, the old gunner stood at his post, just looking out at the rolling countryside. Like the others here, I gave him his space. It was obvious that he had wanted the ride for very different reasons than we did.

The only restricted areas were the tail gun position and the belly turret. The turret on the bottom of the plane is very difficult to get in and out of and you need the help of someone in the aircraft. It’s also very cramped and during wartime was reserved for the smaller crewmembers.

The tail too was roped off. This was due to the fact that you have to step over the yawning opening that the tail wheel mostly fills. Essentially, it’s a hole in the floor that is big enough to fall out of if you aren’t careful. OSHA would have a field day with one of these things.

The ride was just as fantastic as I’d dreamed. As luck would have it, because it was the last ride of the day and the last day of the visit to my area, the half hour flight went on for well over an hour. By the time we landed, they had the strobes and landing lights on.

It took about an hour after we landed and shut her down for my hearing to work correctly again, but I didn’t mind in the least. It was grueling and deadly work to ride those planes into war and I feel like I can imagine what it was like a little better now. We didn’t need oxygen or flack suits. No one was shooting at us and no live bombs were on board, but the mixture of excitement and fear must have made a toxic cocktail for those young men who did it every day. I’m feel honored that I had the chance to do what I did and marvel at what others went through in the name of duty.

Epilogue:

The Nine-O-Nine is still flying today, as is the B-24 that I opted not to fly on. They belong to a group called the Collings Foundation and if they come to your area, they are worth the visit. I don’t know if they still offer rides, lawsuits what they are these days, but I’d ask if you care to. It’s a almost vanished part of our world and some day soon, they will no doubt be put on permanent display in some worthy museum, but never fly again. Grab the chance while you can.

Flight of a Lifetime, Part I

I knew that they were going to be coming to town and I had made darn sure that my schedule was open. There was no way that I was going to miss this.

I have always found history in general to be fascinating and Second World War history, in particular. Perhaps it was because of all the ‘Victory At Sea’ episodes that I soaked up or maybe the fact that there were still so many veterans of that war still around. What ever the reason was, it captured my imagination completely and I spent a lot of time researching the various bits of equipment used, the vehicles that carried men into battle and where and when those battles took place. Having been born an aviation junkie, I naturally put a lot of effort into learning as much as humanly possible about as many of the war’s aircraft as I could find. Knowledge, like anything else, fades away with disuse and I doubt that I could talk in anything close to the complexity now, that I could back when I was young. At my height of research, I could have easily been employed at the Air and Space museum, if they let sixteen year olds lead tours.

A job at an air museum would have been welcomed with open arms by me but alas, there were none anywhere near my home town. I spent my time scrounging up bits of WWII history to fill my own personal museum in my room. So, with no job to discuss the intricacies of how a Bendix ball turret works or what the overhaul time was on a Merlin Kestrel engine, I was reduced to a more perfunctory job of working behind a counter at a retail shop. Even then, I managed to work Second World War aircraft into the odd conversation.

One day as I ground down the hours until I could close up the store, an elderly man came up to the register, took a look at my t-shirt and remarked with a smirk, “Mine was faster.”

I glanced down. Emblazoned on my chest was the GeeBee R-1 racer.

James Dolittle had raced it in 1932 and in it had set the land plane world speed record at 296 miles per hour. It’s top speed was printed directly under the image of the aircraft.

“So… What did you fly then?” I enquired.
“Oh, mostly P-47’s. I was based in England”

Well, that kicked off a lively chat. The two of us had a ball, I was amazed just to find someone willing to share some stories and I think he was surprised to find a kid who knew what the stories were about. We talked about fighters and bombers long past and about the visitors that were expected at the local airport some time soon. We would both be there.

The visitors were two old bombers that flew together all over the U.S. One is the “All American”, the last flying B-24 in the world. The second is the “Nine O’ Nine”, one of about ten flying B-17’s left in the world. I love these aircraft with a passion and there was no way that I wouldn’t be there to see them. Then the revelation came that, for a fee, a ride could be had if there was room and if the weather permitted.

The day that the two bombers came to town, I was informed by my boss that I had to work late. I figured that there would still be time and anxiously awaited the time when I could leave. I’m willing to bet that I had a fair shot at breaking Jimmy Dolittle’s record as I sped to the airport. I bought my admission ticket, walked up to the little table that the crew had set up, slapped down my checkbook and asked the price of a ride.

“$300 will get you in the air. The flight will last about a half hour.”

I don’t spend that kind of money lightly and back then, not only was $300 a lot more than it is now, but with my counter clerk job, I wasn’t exactly raking in the cash. I immediately opened the flap, filled out the check and handed it over. I knew that this wasn’t likely to happen again. Then a tough question was posed to me.

“So, which plane do you want to ride in?”

This was hard. The B-24 was the last of its type still in the air, but the B-17… That plane is the symbol of America’s involvement in the war. That, and it is one beautiful bird. Just sitting there with its engines silent, and its nose pointed skyward, it looked like it wanted to take to the air. I chose the Nine o’ Nine, the B-17.

Part two next…

Normandy, with Grandpa

On the year of the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I got to walk the beaches with my Grandfather.

He hadn’t been there all those years ago, you understand. His war had taken the young New Hampshire boy to much stranger fields of battle. His war had been going on for years. His war was full of malarial mosquitoes and sunstroke. His war was mostly ignored, or so it seemed to him.

On June 6th, 1944, Tech Sgt. N.B.H. was most likely floating off the shore of New Guinea watching B-25’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley mountains and wondering where the next landing would be. He was the skipper of various landing type craft, sometimes LCI’s like you see on the beaches of Normandy, but more often LCM’s or LST’s. Those are the big boats for getting machinery and tanks into the landings. His boats were often the first ones in and some of his battle ribbons, which he gave me years ago, hold bronze stars.

He had signed up in 1942, waiting until he had finished high school before joining the army. He had picked the army because he was a hunter, confident in his ability with a rifle and was comfortable in the woods. He knew little about airplanes, so stayed away from the Air Corps. and didn’t like the idea of being in the Navy. His logic was that if his ship was hit, there was little he could do about it. He’s a hands on person and relies on his own judgment and wits as they rarely let him down.

So, off to the Army he went. Then they found out that he grew up on a lake. Next they found out he could run a boat. before he knew it, he was off to lake Pontchartrain, being schooled in the art of running landing craft. His leadership qualities quickly sent him to the wheelhouse and his athletic abilities got him sent to the Combat Engineers.

The Combat Engineers were often the guys who went in ahead of the landing to get it ready for the infantry and the marines or to fix a degrading landing. These were the guys who got shot at first or under the worst conditions. They were specialists and his unit badge sported a shield with an eagle, anchor and tommy gun, meaning that they would get there by air, sea or foot, and they did.

He survived the war, but just barely. His only physical injuries came from falling through a hatch, carelessly left open by a green replacement, a partially crushed finger from a 55 gallon drum of oil that fell on him, a concussion from a falling signal light that was shot off his mast, and a case of sunstroke that nearly killed him. He made it though though, and he’s still around to this day.

He mostly tells you the funny stories. The painful ones he keeps to him self. The men he talks about were the ones who came home with him. I’ve never heard him mention the name of a single friend who was killed in action, and there must have been many. Where he was, it was inevitable. If I press for more than the five or six stories he tells and retells, he’ll go off on a line about how there are millions of stories out there from millions of people and that his don’t matter. I disagree, but it’s not my place to argue that. The memories are his, and he is entitled to share them or not. I just make sure that I’m there to listen.

When we walked the beaches in Normandy all those years later, I had the chance to watch an old man learn something new. He had always sort of talked down the European war. In many ways, I think he resents the coverage and interest it gets, while his conflict remains little more than a foot note. For years, when ever he saw footage of the D-Day landings he would speak disparagingly about how the men had to wade, if not swim to shore. “We never did that! If we brought you in, you had dry boots!”

Standing on the bluffs in the old German positions, this old man looked down and saw the beach with the eyes of a military landing craft captain. After a few minutes he remarked that now he understood.

“This is a hell of a place to land. Look, there are at least six sand bars that you’d have to plow through before you’d hit beach. You’d never have the momentum to get past the fourth one. This is an awful place to bring them in. No wonder they had to swim.”

Later that night, it started to rain as we all went out for dinner. There were thirteen of us in the group and it wasn’t easy to find a place where we could all fit. We finally found a nice little restaurant and nearly filled it with our family. As the evening came to a close, the owner came out to our tables to ask if we had enjoyed our meal. When he spotted the white hair on my Grandfather’s head, he asked if he was a veteran. “Yes, but not from here. I ran landing craft in the Pacific.”

The two old men chatted a while and as the bill came out, the owner grabbed it quickly and removed the cost of my grandparent’s meal. My grandfather objected but the owner insisted. “It is my gift to you. Wait one moment, I have something else.” The owner disappeared into the back for a few minutes and emerged, holding a labelless, corked wine bottle. “This is sand from the beach. I picked it up my self just a few days after the invasion. It has the blood of American soldiers in it. I want you to have it. I remember. Here, in Normandy, we all remember.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather so much as tear-up, and to be honest, I don’t know if he did just then. I know I would have. I had to look away. It was too much to see.

It’s June 6th today. A day of loss for so many families. Many dreams stopped forever on a long stretch of beach or on the cliffs over the French coast. So many more dreams however, were made possible by the loss. We remember that day for the heroism and loss on those beaches but I’ll try to think of my Grandfather, all those miles away, floating on a steel deck in the Pacific, wondering when it will all be over so he can finally go home.

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