My father fought in World War II. He was the radio operator on a B-17 bomber. Actually, it was three B-17 bombers. Though there were successful missions in between, all three planes went down.
The first was hit after the target was bombed. Consecutive anti-aircraft bursts almost cut the plane in half from end to end, allowing the wings to actually flap like a bird. The pilot got it back to base, where he touched down with no landing gear. Inexplicably, all on board were safe, but the plane was a total loss.
The second plane had engine failure, midway across the boot of Italy, and returned to base. Standard operating procedure required that all bombs were to be jettisoned, prior to landing. All the bombs fell away, except for one. It got tangled in cables by its own stabilizer fins. The release triggered the arming mechanism. The bomb was live. No effort to dislodge it was successful. To make matters worse, it was soon realized by the crew that the nose of the bomb, the end with the detonator, was hanging beneath the plane, lower than the landing gear would reach. The bomb would touch before the wheels. My father remembered the co-pilot joking over the plane’s com system, “You know, if that bomb touches first and explodes, it could cause a flat tire, and they’ll charge us for it.” With only one engine, the best altitude the pilot could maintain was a few hundred feet, too low for parachutes to have time to open, so jumping was not an option. The pilot dropped the landing gear, then guided the plane in, tilted to one side, so one wheel could touch the ground, but keep the bomb safely in the air. As the pilot held this posture for hundreds of feet, he ordered the crew, “Now or never, boys. Jump and roll.” They did. Everybody but the pilot got out safely, though bruised. When the pilot was sure the whole crew was out, he let the plane level off. The bomb hit the ground with the explosion causing far more destruction than a flat tire. The entire mid-section was destroyed. Only two parts remained. The tail section, unblemished, looked as if it was still flying. The nose, including the cockpit, was thrown another three hundred feet down the runway, coming to rest with the pilot safe, his only ‘wound’ being a loud ringing in his ears for several days.
Plane number three? This was the life changer for my father. The bombing mission, East of Berlin, had just been completed, when the plane was hit and disabled, many thousands of feet in the air. As the plane plummeted to earth, among close-packed antiaircraft explosions, the entire crew bailed out. The long, parachute-slowed descent to the ground left the flyers exposed to the enemy’s exploding fragments, as well as falling debris from friendly planes. Everyone was wounded by something. My father was hit in the leg by three pieces of shrapnel from three different explosions. Within minutes of landing the whole crew was captured by the Nazis, who, less than half an hour later, were overrun and captured by the Russians. Preflight briefing had included instructions of what a flyer should say if captured by the Russians, “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!” So, all the Americans were shouting this to their Russian captors, who immediately became gentler. Then the Nazis noticed the change of attitude, and also copy-cat shouted. Unfortunately for them, two things gave them away, thick German accents, and uniforms emblazoned with swastikas. Within a short time all the Americans had been culled from the prisoners, and taken to medics for treatment. The Nazis were shot, immediately.
Falling toward the ground, after plane number three was destroyed, my father made a promise to God, “If You save me, I’ll become a minister.” Attributing his survival to intervention by God, my father kept his promise, and became Reverend Walter Bozeman of the Methodist Church.
Like all members of The Greatest Generation, he never volunteered to talk about his wartime experiences. I, possessing all the skills of a pestering son, had to drag it out of him; and that took years, involving one little snippet at a time.
Even though he didn’t talk about it directly, I heard his fearless faith expressed in every sermon he ever preached, whether for a service in church, a wedding, or a funeral. He firmly believed in God the Father of Liberty. His favorite bible stories were about Jesus and his lessons: to be fulfilled, not emptied out; to live fully, not die in vain; to love, not to hate.
In his last months he volunteered only one remark that stemmed from his time in the war. We were sitting together watching a news broadcast. The four main stories described : 1) Hatred between Muslims and Jews, 2) Hatred between the white and black races, 3) Hatred between heterosexuals and homosexuals, 4) Hatred between the two U. S. political parties. He said, “I didn’t get wounded, and my buddies didn’t get killed, so people can have more liberty to hate. We fought for the right for everyone to grow, to prosper, and to be happy. But all these people?….. they’re already dead and don’t even know it; and all they can think of is to make everyone else dead, too. We didn’t fight for this America. Not for this.”
As we observe yet another Veteran’s Day, honoring all veterans of all wars, may we not only remember that they gave all they had, but why they did it.
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