In my younger days, I pretty much lived at the airport. My boss, a member of the greatest generation, an Air Force Colonel, and a B17 captain had started a civilian flight school post retirement. Every once in a while he’d show me a letter from the USAF where they wanted him to return, and had even carved out some loopholes in order to make it possible for folks of his age… He often said it was tempting, but then he’d say “I like my life the way it is”.
At 60+, he’d gotten married just a few years before and had a young son. It was a totally new life for him. In his younger days, he’d been married, had a family, sent the kids off to college and then his wife passed on. The joy in this new life of his and the great faith he had was an awesome inspiration… and yet, his WWII experiences came across as vivid as if they were yesterday. He’d flown his 25 missions, became an instructor, and then lived an air force career for many years, followed by a corporate job and years of the reserves.
Short of really bad weather when nothing was flying, there wasn’t a day when the office didn’t come across as an American Legion or VFW post with the number of veteran aviators and other veterans stopping by. There was an air of intense bravado and self sacrifice… it was if nothing could rattle these guys. The proverbial hands of steel ran very strong. I heard stories of the hardship of the B17, or folks having to bail out, the fear of being captured, being captured, the horrors of war…
I also heard of crazy pilot stuff, like drinking until 2AM, sleeping a few hours, and then putting on their facemasks at ground level and turning the O2 to max as a means of clearing their hangover for the next mission. The proverbial eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die ran very strong. A lot of fellows didn’t make it back…
But some of this was only inferred… hearing of the amount of damage a B17 could take, and still be airworthy enough to make it back, and/or get it down on the ground was amazing. But then, when the fuselage would get hit with flak to an extreme, there were guys back there too and some were either were killed instantly, or passed on shortly there after. Few if any would talk about that aspect, and if they did, the firehoses turned on in a huge way. At times, the eyes and hands of steel got hit with a hammer and while it didn’t win, there was great silence.
I saw a photo of my old boss’ son a while back, and I could see his father through him. It got me thinking about the horrors these young guys experienced. As a 20 something captain, how does one process the partial loss of ones crew, ones friends? The mission has to became the primary and near exclusive focus, and future life became a sequential series of missions… in between one would go off, process things a bit, and then be back on task for the next one.
This is not so easy though… many fellows chose the path of the bottle, and a fair number of them entered 24/7 alcohol land and succumbed to it. My boss talked about such too, had it not been for the grace of God, he too would have never made it to 60, or even 40 for that mater.
The fact is war continues for many, well after the initial time of combat has passed… and some won’t make it. In today’s, world, unlike WWII, there’s a newer phenomena occurring, where in folks are getting hit with PTSD, even apart from combat situations… followed by ending their lives. Its a difficult, and very troubling sociological and psychological issue and one which is not so easy to address. Its far easier to wipe such under the carpet as its too hard to think about… but think about it we must.
Today, let us remember those who have passed. Tomorrow, let us work to keep those who served, and are currently serving from ending their lives prematurely. It doesn’t have to end that way.