The Flight: A Broad and Belated Veteran’s Day Salute
Class of 1964
On October 25 this year, I was able to fulfill a long-held wish: to take a flight in a B-17 Flying Fortress. This warbird, a replica of the famous Memphis Belle, is part of the dwindling collection of World War II aircraft that are still flyable. Several organizations, scattered across the country, work at restoring and maintaining the planes and making them available for viewing and air tours. That Saturday was a little like the old barnstorming days, but instead of being introduced to the thrills of those new-fangled aeroplanes in the 1920s, one was stepping (and flying) reverently into the past.
I’ve wanted to do this for a number of years. Preservation outfits have brought historic planes to small airports around Huntsville several times in the past few years, but the timing was never right for me for one reason or another. This time I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. The cost is high. I paid more to fly 30 minutes in the B-17 than it cost me to fly to Charlotte, NC and back for the recent wedding of my son. But Gudrun, my wife, understood how much this chance meant to me, and I pitched it as a very early Christmas present. And, besides that, I would be supporting a worthy cause.
I arrived at the airport (Madison Executive Airport, about 15 miles outside of town near Meridianville) an hour before the first flight was scheduled. That gave me a chance to walk out to the plane, marvel at its classic lines, get my picture taken, and talk to a few other enthusiasts. Before we boarded the plane, we received our earplugs and a short lecture on passenger protocol and what we were going to experience.” Let’s be careful up there, folks. Stow those hats and loose items. It’s going to be windy!” Had I hustled and boarded the plane sooner, I could have secured a comfortable seat in the area where the radioman and flight engineer had their stations, with a great view of the cockpit as a bonus. Instead, I had to settle for a canvas sling seat next to the ball turret. The business part of the plane, the bomb bay, lay right past that, toward the front. The catwalk traversing it was about 12 inches wide.
Once we were well airborne, we were free to check out other sections of the plane, which didn’t take that long. Because of their storied past and almost mythical status, B-17s loom larger in our imagination than they are in reality. We’re used to the larger dimensions of jets—even though we’re crammed into them when we fly, as another kind of payload. Had I been younger and more limber, I would have been able to clamber into the plane’s nose, where the bombardier performed his deadly job and where the view of our flight would have been the most thrilling, but that wasn’t possible anymore for this senior gent. Obviously, this flight gave me a direct appreciation for the tight quarters of a plane developed in the 1930s that was built for wartime effectiveness and efficiency.
The weather that morning was crisp and absolutely clear, and we experienced no turbulence. The views from the two open hatches of the waist gunners were spectacular. ( Machine guns and the .50 caliber ammo feeds were still installed for authentic effect). We probably flew at about 2500 feet. That altitude brought us above the mountains around Huntsville, but we still flew close enough to enjoy the muted autumn colors, the general details of the countryside below us, and the magnificent contours of the mountainous landscape. We flew south from Meridianville and circled back over Jones Valley. When we taxied to the tarmac, the airport was swarming with hundreds of other folks, ready for their turn in the air, tours of the plane, or to catch the stirring sight of a B-17 in flight.
There is irony, of course, in the fact that I would so relish this flight in a plane which, massed in several wartime raids, threatened my father’s life—and could have made me impossible. According to my father’s account in his brief autobiography, the Royal Air Force targeted Peenemuende, the German missile development center, for the first time in an August 1943 night-time raid. My family escaped that attack because my father had just taken my mother and older brother to safety in East Prussia, beyond the reach of bombers. When he returned, he found that the house that they lived in had been severely damaged—walls buckled, furniture tossed around, and glass shards all over the dwelling from shattered windows. The houses to either side were completely destroyed.
In October 1944, the United States 8th Air Force began its daytime bombing missions of Peenemuende. Because of the damage from the previous attacks, the V-2 and other missile development activities had been dispersed to outlying areas. My father’s section was moved to an airport near Anklam, a small city several miles south of Peenemuende. When the alarms of an imminent attack began sounding, it was, of course, common practice for the workers to dash to their concrete bunkers. Once, my father, thinking that he might be safer away from the buildings in some nearby woods, hopped on a bicycle and peddled furiously for cover. He didn’t get too far before he saw the approaching bombers, and he dove into a ditch. “I lay there on my back and saw the bombs coming out of the aircraft. They tumbled slowly at first, gaining momentum, and then came down and there were explosions all around.”
These are two brief anecdotes about some conditions of the war. The allied airmen fulfilled their hazardous and heroic duties in trying to destroy the twisted Nazi regime and its terrible war machine. My father had helped to develop a terrifying new weapon, but my family was always at the mercy of forces they could not control.
When I got home to Madison, Gudrun was puzzled that I wasn’t bubbling over with excitement about my flight. I was wearing my new Memphis Belle ball cap, but where was the expected enthusiasm? In spite of all its pleasures and the educational nature of the experience, I had not taken a light-hearted, sentimental journey. I’m still recovering from knee surgery and maneuvering carefully around the cramped quarters of the bomber had been a bit of a strain. The short trip had been an exhilarating experience, but also somewhat overwhelming. I was tired as I drove home and knew it would take some reflection to sort through the unusual and long-awaited event and realize its significance.
Sorting, reflecting, and realization have brought about this brief composition. There’s more to the story (isn’t there always?), but maybe this will suffice for now: “It was my son’s birthday that Saturday, and I felt a profound gratitude to be soaring above the landscape and folks that I had long come to love in that venerable aircraft. Sweet Home Alabama.”
Memphis, TN - Football season is getting interesting and will be so for the rest of the year I believe. I watched some exciting games over the weekend.
We are back home for a while, awaiting word that Sue's daughter's family has found a house and we can go move their stuff out of storage and hopefully into their house before the holidays.
We have not made any definite plans yet, but with no family in town we may go have our Thanksgiving dinner out at the Navy Base. They put on a good spread for a reasonable price, and it saves us from having to cook a big meal for just the two of us.
TV Shows of the Fifties and Sixties
12 O'Clock High
(To augment Rainer's Story, we look back at one of the TV Series we watched
which featured the B-17 aircraft.)
12 O'Clock High (also known as Twelve O'Clock High) is an American drama series set in World War II. This TV series originally broadcast on ABC-TV for two-and-one-half TV seasons from September 18, 1964, through January 13, 1967; was based on the motion picture Twelve O'Clock High (1949). The series was a co-production of 20th Century Fox Television (Fox had also produced the movie) and QM Productions (one of their few non-law enforcement series).
The series follows the missions of the fictitious 918th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), equipped with B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, stationed at Archbury Field, England (a fictitious air base). For the first season, many of the characters from the book and 1949 movie were retained, including Brigadier General Frank Savage, Major Harvey Stovall, Major Cobb, Doc Kaiser, and General Pritchard, albeit played by different actors than in the motion picture. In addition to these characters, several other infrequently reappearing characters were introduced, including Captain (later Major) Joseph "Joe" Gallagher, who appeared in two episodes.
The Gallant Men
Last week we asked for the name of the other WWII series inspired by Combat! The show I was looking for was this one.
The early 1960s saw ABC reliving the horrors and heroism of World War II on two fronts – the European campaign on the acclaimed Combat! and the battle for Italy on The Gallant Men. Both programs enjoyed the creative input of directorial genius Robert Altman, who lent his signature layered, humanistic approach to both shows. Altman directed The Gallant Men’s pilot, setting the template for what was to follow. Robert McQueeney stars as the series' unique framing device, an Ernie Pyle-type war reporter embedded within Captain Benedict’s (William Reynolds) platoon. As McQueeney’s reporter narrates the events of the invasion, we see war as it’s lived by its foot soldiers, so-called pawns in the game of war, whose determination to finish a fight they didn’t start proves that sometimes a pawn can save a kingdom. Also starred Robert Ridgely and Richard X. Slattery.
From Our Mailbox
Subject: Lee Veterans
Brooks Glover Jr.
I am not sure who compiled the list of Lee graduates who served in the military but I see that my name is not there. I was in the U.S. Army from September 1968 to September of 1970. I have a younger brother whose name is Thomas Glover, LHS '66. He served in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1966 till 1969. I am sure that some of the Lee graduates were also killed while serving our country. They made the ultimate sacrifice and their names should cartainly be recognized. BTW, thanks for all you do and have done to keep up with our former classmates.
(Editor's Note: As stated in the Veteran's Tribute, I have no knowledge of any members of the Classes of '64-'65-'66 who were killed in Vietnam, and have found none of them listed in the list of Madison County Alabama residents who were killed in action there.)
This is not a story from LHS but the year after. Rainer Klauss and I were both residents of Magnolia Dormitory at Auburn and the next year would be room mates. “Mag” had one area that seated 50-60 people to watch what looked like a 18” black & white TV. I don’t know who controlled the channel selection but Combat! was one of the shows that didn’t get any debate when it was chosen. For those who do not know him, he has a strong German heritage and just as strong a comic wit. I will never forget that first evening watching Combat! at AU with Rainer cheering for the Germans during the fighting scenes. AU has never been known for it’s liberalism, especially during the mid ‘60’s. With all of the pumped up testosterone from watching Combat!, I am glad that he made it out alive.
W. Dale Meyer
Would have been LHS '66
I write to you to first thank you for your service and for remembering our veterans. i remember writing to you and reflecting that while traveling to a contract gig, a man on a rental car shuttle bus asked if there were any veterans aboard. After raising my hand, he said he just wanted to thank me for my service. I think that is the first time I ever had that happen and each year I reach out to all my veteran friends to do the same.
I was recently reflecting on my training and service in the Navy. I joined the Navy in 1966 at the age of 17. If you were 17 and had your high school diploma you could get out the day before you were 21. I joined on the basis of guaranteed Hospital Corps School. It dawned on me that my professed goal of becoming a physician was without the knowledge of whether I even liked patient care or not.
While there was a glitch in my paperwork, listing me as an Aviation Tech, I was assured there would be no problem with my request as they were killing lots of corpsman in Viet Nam. Undaunted, I went to Corps school in Great Lakes. Even though I reside in Michigan I remember it as the coldest place I have ever been but I am sure that the severity did not rival the jungles of Viet Nam.
I was lucky enough to be accepted for Operating Room School in Portsmouth, VA. The school was one of the best and built on the premise that you know the surgery as well as the surgeons. They never had to ask for an instrument. You placed it in their hand because you understood the Anatomy and had spent the time with Christopher's textbook of surgery. This training led to an offer from Duke to be considered for their first class of Physician Assistants. I turned this down because I did not believe that Physician Assistants would ever be allowed to do procedures that would hold my interest. OK...I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer at 18.
I was assigned to a 50 bed hospital in Patuxent River, Maryland. We did not have interns or residents so I was allowed to do many things I could not do on the outside. Although 100% of my staff got orders to Viet Nam, I did not. I even called up the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to find out why. Ok...so I was not the brightest 19 year old either. Despite an error on their part I was assured I would remain right there until the end of my service. I was in charge of the operating room, central supply and inhalation therapy.
I was able to parlay this experience into a very successful career in healthcare and hired many corpsman that have succeeded in their own rite. Although I own my own consulting firm, my efforts now center around taking care of my seriously ill wife. Although I retired my patient care duties nearly 50 years ago, I am grateful to have had the training and experience.
I hereby challenge the other veterans to write about the influence of their military experience on their careers and lives.
Thanks again Tommy for all you do. It is appreciated.
Subject: TV War Series
Escoe G. Beatty
Just taking a guess and I am not going to cheat ( and look it up ) was the 'other' WWII program "Rat Patrol"? I loved Combat! but never watched Rat Patrol much. And, by the way, I just want to thank all of you who have served our country. We can never thank you enough for the sacrifices you made with all those years of your lives.
Subject: Veteran's Tribute
Tommy that video and the accompanying music is just FANTASTIC!! I could have missed their names but I was sure that Ken Martz (66) and Don Jarman (66) spent a hitch in the Air Force. I'll see if I can confirm that info for your next update. I'm sure I saw every episode of Combat! - what a great show! I believe they stopped the show shortly after Vic Morrow was killed in a helicopter crash on set. I can feel your pain - I helped my daughter's family move back and forth across the country four times and my son's local moves five times ......and actually enjoyed every one!
Thanks for another great issue.