Memories of My Father

  • Posted: June 18, 2021
  • Category: Blog
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Living through the oppressive madness birthed in the Year of Covid, I sometimes sought refuge from the snowflake imperium within the comforting embrace of old movies. One finds solace where one can. While the coming of the Internet, increasingly curated by the “woke”, has nearly erased our culture’s link to the past, paradoxically it also allows easy access to that past. I can find old movies with ease. And so it was last summer that I spent a hot Sunday afternoon out on our deck in the grip of one such hoary veteran, “Twelve O’Clock High”.

“Twelve O’Clock High” is a dramatic look at the 8th Air Force and WWII’s daylight bombing offensive against Festung Europa through the lens of a single squadron, the 918th Bomb Group. Gregory Peck is the hard-nosed Brig. Gen. Frank Savage brought in to fix a problem. The 918th Bomb Group is not cutting the mustard. The movie has an unmistakable feel of reality about it, even though portraying a culture so alien to the present day as to be almost science fiction. Unworldly as well is the tone of the movie. One is given over to a strange emotion, pride in one’s country.

The authenticity of the movie is a testament to the author of the book and screen playwright, Bernie Lay Jr. Bernie Lay lived this movie as a B-17 bomber pilot flying combat missions over Europe, including that day over Schweinfurt known as Black Thursday. The Black Thursday mission, a deep penetration into Germany by unescorted bombers against a heavily defended target, served as the dramatic crisis of the movie. On the real Black Thursday, Oct. 14, 1943, 291 B-17’s of the 8th Air Force attacked the critical ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Bavaria; 60 of the airplanes went down, 17 suffered heavy damage, nearly all suffered damage.

When last I saw the movie, probably on late night TV forty years ago, I was left with memories formed by the aerial action, in reality only a few minutes of actual combat footage. This movie is definitely not a Michael Bay summer blockbuster or manifestation of the Marvel Universe, not even John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima. But this time, my older and less adrenaline focused self was struck by how little aerial action there is in the movie. Instead I left the movie this time with memories of a different scene, one that sticks with me even now.

Early in the movie is a scene looking out over the airfield as the B-17’s are returning from a mission over Germany. These old awkward and ungainly airplanes are in a low and slow turn before landing on the runway. As they turn in succession, each one is clearly visible to crowds of waiting men along the runway. The waiting crowd is the ground crews, some of them sitting, some of them standing, but all of them with faces intently focused on the returning planes.

It was a somber scene of emotional intensity early in the movie and it made me think of my Dad. That shot of the waiting men was a picture of him. My Dad served as an engine mechanic with the 8th Air Force’s 379th Bomb Group, a clone of the movie’s 918th Bomb Group. What was it like for my dad, a 22 year old kid fresh off the farm watching these lumbering war machines returning from their mission over Nazi Germany?

Another Father’s Day is here. Father’s Day, that ersatz copy of Mother’s Day. If it weren’t for corporate America’s need to sell tools and BBQ paraphernalia, would Father’s Day even be a thing? Father’s Day is meant to honor our fathers, but can we meaningfully honor someone whose thoughts and emotions are closed to us? Most of us know our mom with an intimacy very different from that of our dad. Do you even know your father?

Any further opportunity for me to better know, to begin to understand, my own father is gone. He has crossed the great divide to grasp the nail scarred hand of his Savior. I am left with a great storehouse of memories of my Dad, but so little understanding. During my teens and early twenties, I spent a great deal of time with my Dad. In summer months, I was his constant companion from early morning to evening, sitting beside him in the pickup as we traveled the fields, doing the work of irrigation, feeding and caring for the cattle.

As I have matured in years, raised my own family and now tread the garden paths of a retired Grandpa, I realize more deeply every day that I never knew my Dad. All my memories are simply pictures of a man that meant so much to me, a man I loved but never knew.

I have always rebelled against authority, and our fathers, at least my Dad, are the ultimate authority figure. But even as I strained against the traces, I remember that we had an easy way of being together. Being a dad, he would tell me what to do and I would do variations on a theme, wordlessly testing the limits and striving for independence.

Despite my need to be “independent”, I don’t remember angry words or a harsh tone despite my many mishaps well deserving such. As one example among many, I went out one night after the water was set with a friend and had a few too many samples of the brewer’s art. I came home, possessed by the idea that I should check the set of water irrigating our crops. Driving out into dark fields, I got the pickup stuck in mud.

Walking the mile back to the house, I woke my Dad around 2:30 AM. A man who almost never had more than a single beer once or twice a week, he said little, dressed, got up and we took a tractor out to pull the pickup out of the mud. I can still remember standing on to the back hitch of that old John Deere “B” as we went out, sobered up and deeply ashamed of myself. There were no angry words or harsh criticism.

My Dad was a quiet man, with a kind heart and a gentle spirit. He was diligent in all that he did, a man of honesty and integrity. Despite living among an extended family and neighborhood of unreliable and fractious Ukrainian Germans, my Dad very seldom, almost never, had a bad thing to say against any of them, or anyone else for that matter. At least that is how I remember him.

But there was something else about him, an indefinable sense of forbearance – even innocence. There was a sadness of spirit or disappointment that seemed to lurk in his inner recesses. Although he was my dad, my rock and protector, even as a very young boy I always felt a need to protect him, to shield him from the inevitable discouragements of life or in me.

Our culture no longer honors or even recognizes rites of passage, those unique experiences that mold the plastic of our protean self into a hardened structure shaping us for the rest of our lives. The male of the species, far more than the female, is a malleable lump of clay taking form as he matures shaped by that defining set of circumstances. So much of that man is a black box, unknowable to those who do not share in those defining circumstances.

As I have grown older, my own sense of an unbridgeable divide from those I love has made me think about my own Dad. That scene in the movie of the B-17’s slowly turning in front of their watching ground crews. was an “aha” moment for me in my muddied thoughts about Dad, He never said much to us about his time in the war, just occasional asides and quirks strongly expressed.

But as time and distance have given me perspective on my Father, it has become clear to me that his time in the Army Air Corps shaped his life. As I think back, there were scattered remarks from various friends and family about how different he was when he returned from the Army. It is now my belief that his service was the unseen black hole’s gravity controlling the orbits of our family.

What was it like for Dad as an engine mechanic on a B-17 living for three years on Kimbolton AFB (50 miles north of London) in wartime England? On the surface, it seems like the best possible wartime gig. It’s the Army, but you’re not getting shot at, you eat regularly and sleep in a safe warm bed every night. On top of that, you learn a very marketable trade – aircraft engine mechanic.

And that’s how I thought about Dad’s Army service for most of my life. And Dad never said anything to make me think differently. But I couldn’t get that movie scene out of my mind – those young men watching those turning B-17’s, a nervous hope, a stomach churning fear, in their faces. Their hearts were riding with those airplanes.

The B-17 Flying Fortress, the workhorse of America’s bombing campaign in WWII’s ETO (European Theater of Operations), a cramped aluminum cylinder 75 feet long carrying 10 men on missions up to 10 hours long. Imagine spending 10 hours, wearing an oxygen mask at 25,000 feet with very little room to move about in temperatures of a -40 DEGF, wind whistling through open gun windows and the roar of four 1,200 HP piston engine driven propellors.

Air crews might be over Germany itself for 3-4 hours, not counting the time over occupied France or open ocean. Until fairly late in the war, they were alone, with no fighter protection. Their safety, such as it was, lay in maintaining tight box formations, seemingly within touching distance of sister aircraft above, below, ahead, behind and to the side. Thirteen .50 cal. machine guns manned by six of the crew during action defended the B-17.

Over their target they were themselves the target of intense anti-aircraft fire. The famed German 88, probably the best antiaircraft artillery produced in WWII, fired a shell 3.5” in diameter and over 3 feet long. Firing 10 shells per minute, batteries of 88’s would fill the air with storms of metal fragments that the B-17 formations must fly through, as straight and steadily as possible. To do otherwise would make the problematic accuracy of their bomb runs disappear completely.

On the way to and from the target they were subject to relentless attacks by fighters of the German Luftwaffe, flown by combat veteran pilots. Primarily flying the FW-190, “affectionately” known by the American airman as the “Butcher Bird”, the FW-190 fired both machine gun and cannons. Its 20 mm cannon could bring down a B-17 with only a few hits. Their preferred mode of attack was from straight ahead, diving down through the B-17 formations, hence the name of the movie – “12 O’Clock High”. Diving at nearly 500 mph, they were fearsome birds of prey for the B-17’s traveling in tight formations at 175 mph.

What was it like waiting for “your” plane to return? What if “your” engine had crapped out and the B-17 had been forced to drop out of formation, an easy target for waiting “Butcher Birds”? Had you done the best you could do? For a diligent man like my Dad, the “what if’s” must have kept him awake many nights.

What was it like unloading “your” plane? Because that was what the ground crew did along with their other duties. The movie probably dared the censors of the time with its muted inferences to cases of shock among aircrew – But how did people handle the strain of these missions?

Heavy drinking was endemic. Amphetamines were standard issue, handed out like aspirin, to keep the crews alert. It was not unusual for aircrew to be so debilitated by the strain, unable to walk or talk, they must sometimes be carried out, levered out of the airplane through its tight spaces. Pilots, muscles frozen rigid in their seats, must have fingers pried from the controls.

Scenes of carnage were also common. The Flying Fortress was a tough airplane, able to sustain a lot of damage and difficult to bring down. All that metal flying around in the air over Germany might not bring the B-17 down, but it punched through that thin aluminum skin like tissue paper. Sometimes a human being was in the way.

Once on the ground, the ground crew pulled out those human beings, their pieces and parts, flash frozen in the -40 DEGF environment. There is definitely a hierarchy, a caste system in place, but air crew and ground crew get to know each other. Friendships form. These are people you know, share a beer and a joke with.

How do you handle this, day after day? I am sure you are grateful, thanking God that you don’t have to go up there and face this airborne hell. But if you are a man, you must also feel a sense of betrayal, maybe shame, that you are left behind, not sharing in the terrible burden and danger of those you rub shoulders with every day. The knowledge that your near sighted eyes have kept you on the ground is no comfort or protection from that sense of guilt.

What was life for Dad on Kimbolton AFB? Again, I don’t know, but consider Gen. Curtis LeMay, a familiar figure in the debates of the 1960’s, lampooned repeatedly by the snarky and insulated Hollywood culture of the time, most notably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Bernie Lay, the screenwriter for “12 O’Clock High” was a friend of Curtis LeMay. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see Curtis LeMay as Bernie Lay’s model for the movie’s Frank Savage.

LeMay commanded the 305th Bomber Group based at Grafton AFB, not that far from Kimbolton AFB and my Dad. Robert McNamera, Secretary of Defense during the 1960’s, served in the Office of Statistical Control in WWII where his major responsibility was analysis of US bomber effectiveness. He had this to say about Gen. Curtis LeMay:

“He was the finest combat commander of any service I came across in the war. But he was extraordinarily belligerent, many thought brutal. He got the report. He issued an order. He said, “I will be in the lead plane on every mission. Any plane that takes off will go over the target, or the crew will be court martialed.” The abort rate dropped overnight. Now that’s the kind of commander he was.”

This is a hard man to work for. Mistakes, any kind of softness or weakness are not tolerated. Today’s workplace focus on issues close to a kindergartener teacher’s heart seem dreamlike to the culture of the 8th Air Force in WWII England. Even for someone growing up in the unforgiving, fractious and belligerent Ukrainian German farming community, this must have been very hard service for my Dad.

Again, though my Dad never talked about it, one gains a certain knowledge by osmosis through the steady accumulation of chance remarks during one’s life. I think my Dad was “Daddy’s boy”, a man very close to his own dad. Both of them were farmers at heart, sharing in a deep love of the land. I know from personal experience that Dad was also a very diligent and hard working farmer, perhaps to a fault.

My Dad’s father, my grandfather, was killed in a farm accident while Dad was on that airbase in England. Clearing some weeds plugging his machinery, my grandfather had his shirt caught in a rotating shaft. His arm was torn off and he bled to death. It was an accident happening to a man taking a short cut by not stopping the drive shaft in order to save time, a man with too much to do in too little time.

My Dad learned about his father’s death weeks later, not from his mother or siblings, but in a letter from a cousin, noting that the cousin had attended my Dad’s funeral. Again, in that aforementioned process of osmosis, I have gained the impression that one of Dad’s brother’s, a man perhaps less diligent and hard working than my Dad, had not been helping in the field as he should have been, being AWOL at the time. Looking back, I think my Dad forgave and forgot whatever needed to be forgiven and forgotten, but some wounds are too deep and painful to ever truly heal.

On this Father’s Day, I think about my Dad. I will see him again some day and this time we will get to know each other better. But also in the here and now, I think about my own kids and grandkids. It seems only in the twilight of our life do we have the desire to know, to really know and understand those we love. And then it is often too late.

But I know too that this life is not the end of the matter, simply a prologue to eternity. I take comfort in the words of St. Paul in the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians:

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.

For now we see as through a dark glass dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I am known”

 

2 Responses to “Memories of My Father”

  1. My father grew up on a farm, went to Penn State, and majored in animal husbandry,
    he never returned to farm as he was drafted into US Calvary short time, Gen Patton
    mechanized it. Dad was at Omaha Beach, Battle of the Bulge, and Hughertan Forest{sp}
    Winter 0f 1944 coldest in 50 years. No fires allowed as the Germans 88’s take them out. Dad says belly crawl to farm houses to drink what ever was in the basement.
    If Germans heard them the 88’s would blow the farm house the junk.
    My father never raised his voice to me. Only movie I saw with my father was the
    “Longest Day” black and white film about D- DAY landing.
    Looking back on my fathers life he never sleep well,I think he had PTSD, he was always working, I think that’s how he overcame it.

  2. Sandi Mitchell says:

    A good read, Bill. I knew my dad. I worked at the store with him, American Furniture, helped him paint, we worked on cars together and fixed things around the house. He helped me with the horses and would scold me when I didn’t do my best. He was at Red Rocks when I graduated from Lakewood High and made sure I went to college. What I didn’t know was death. When he passed while I was in college, I was devastated. It took years before I came to terms with that. There had been other family members who passed before him but, I wasn’t close to them, not like I was to my dad. He was a good man, and he loved his family. I think about him often and with fondest memories during holidays and family gathering. These were the things he especially enjoyed. I only wish he would have lived longer so I could have known him as an adult.

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