Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Big Noise From Kentucky [GUEST POST]

In honor of Veteran's Day, I am posting my dad's account of his experience with Honor Flight. I first heard of Honor Flight while I was in A-School in Great Lakes, IL, although I was unable to volunteer at that time. Around the same time, my dad was flying through MDW and got to experience first-hand how amazing an Honor Flight welcome can be. He even ran into some gals from my class, ironically enough! For those of you who aren't familiar, Honor Flight is a volunteer program that aims to honor and respect veterans who may have missed an "appropriate" welcome home from the war in which they served. Volunteers escort the veterans up to DC, where they tour many memorials, pay their respects, and receive many thanks. This was a very moving experience for him, and he felt driven to share his account. I am still honored that he asked for my time and contribution as an English Major and ex-editor to assist on refining this touching tribute to our fellow servicemembers.

}-----> The following is an account of a day spent with a group of Veterans from the “Greatest Generation” and their flight to Washington, DC to visit the World War II Memorial on 21 June 2014. Pictures may be found on the Space Coast Honor Flight web site. <-----{

I left my daughter’s birthday party early the night before, so I could at least lay down for a couple hours before our 0230 show time at the Melbourne Senior Center. General William Welser, ret., the Honor Flight head honcho, had some patriotic speeches and safety briefs prior to us meeting our Vets for the day. One of his major points was that “if you don't cry today, we’re sending you to the doc [escorting us for backup safety] because there's something wrong with you.”

The Honor Flight staff gave us “Guardians” a button with the picture of the Veteran we would be escorting. The picture was of them in their prime, during the war, when they served. I was assigned the honor and privilege of escorting 96 year old U.S. Army Air Corps Captain, Jim Cady, a B-24 Liberator Bombardier.

At about 0400, we were called by the name of our Vet to board the bus from Melbourne to the Orlando Airport. We walked through a reception line—the first of many that would fill the day— to the sound of much applause. We were escorted to the airport by a gang of retired motorcycle police. The active motorcycle police crew also blocked traffic at all the intersections, so we did not have to stop at a single red light! I wish I could go to the airport like that all the time.

Arriving at the gate, I proceeded to get to know Jim better over a quick breakfast provided by Chick-fil-et. The first couple things I learned were that he was from Indiana, and he was drafted. He figured that "since he was going anyway, he wanted to be in some form of transportation." I guess somehow he managed to be selected for the Army Air Corps, so it was off to Tennessee for training. He off-handedly mentioned that one time at a Sunday in church, he had first seen the most beautiful redhead he'd ever laid eyes on, playing the organ.

After getting “trained up,” Jim took the southern route to the war. Through South America, then Africa, and finally on to Italy, the trip took about 10 days. He said they didn't carry side arms then, which I thought was strange. He explained that it was because if you wound up on the ground with a gun, the Germans would just shoot you. That prompted me to ask what he thought about the recent prisoner swap (five Taliban Generals for one questionable soldier). With a flat dead serious look he said, “I think it stinks.”

Leaving the Orlando airport, we were given a water salute by the fire department, and again upon landing at the Baltimore airport. I knew what to expect when deplaning, as I usually join the reception line if I happen to be passing through at the same time as an Honor Flight. We were greeted by a 2-Star General, several men and women in uniform, several Southwest Airlines staff, and many passengers that were near the gate. Jim was a bit watery eyed, impressed, thrilled.

On the bus ride to DC, we snacked on a lunch provided by Pot Belly's—a sandwich shop I always stop at when I pass through Chicago's Midway airport. An audio recording from the WWI era about the selection of who was to be 'entombed' in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was played. Orders came down from Washington to a young officer, who was instructed to choose a soldier to be entombed in a memorial for Washington DC that would be called "The Tomb of the Unknown." The young officer did not see it fit for himself to decide who would be entombed, and instead delegated the choice to Sergeant Edward Younger. Sergeant Younger had to choose one from four unidentified KIAs… Any one of whom he quite possibly had fought alongside in the previous day's battle. He circled the caskets three times. It was extremely difficult for him to determine such a permanent choice, but as the audio said, "there was a godly power that pulled me towards the third casket from the left." The bus ride to DC was quite somber.

As we continued into DC, I asked Jim if there was a favorite Officer or Enlisted person whom he remembered well. It didn’t take long for his face to light up and answer. His pilot was a vivacious one, full of _____ and vinegar, from Kentucky. Hence the name on their B-24: “Big Noise from Kentucky.” Unfortunately, after some time in theater this pilot was tasked to fly with a newbie crew, which was shot down and killed. Jim said he visited the pilot’s parents in Kentucky after the war. The fact that she still called her husband Mr. Potter was normal for him, but I found it very nostalgic—they were probably born in the late 1800's.

The first stop in DC was the Air Force Memorial [pictured above]. I enjoyed that, as the Air Force being the “little brother” of the services (established in 1947); I knew the names well! The next was the Mall and the WWII Memorial. As soon as we pulled up, Congressman Posey from Florida boarded the bus and welcomed us to DC. Someone reminded us that when the Government (our own!) barricaded the free, open air Memorials in DC, Mr. Posey was one of the people who started physically taking the barricades down. Some of the Vets had family and welcoming committees who met us there. Some were planned, and some were surprises. One surprise was a cousin of one of the Vets; a 3-Star General in charge of AF Logistics Command. After the group photo, we got to spend over an hour visiting the Memorials of our choice, whether it was WWII, Korean, or Vietnam.

When we re-boarded the bus, the 3-Star came aboard to say her farewell. She thanked the Vets and told them, pointing a finger towards them, “anything we [the younger generations] have done in our lives, we can only take credit for, because we are standing on YOUR shoulders.” Then she returned to the sidewalk and snapped to attention with a crisp salute, which she held as the bus rode away. It was quite an impressive and meaningful sight to me.

Most everyone who has ever served and deployed—air crew, sailors, soldiers, or Marines—has had a difficult mission at one point, a “tester,” usually at the beginning of the tour. It’s the one that makes you gel and bond with your team, and makes you function better together; if it does not, it could end in disaster. Mine is referred to as “the Croatian Wedding Festival,” but that’s another story. I asked Jim if he had a story like that. He did indeed! From the moment he said "there was one day when we couldn’t get the bombs to release," I understood the scenario he went through, since I have experienced almost the same dilemma. Having flown AC-130 Gunships in the same theater, for Bosnia, I could almost tell the story before he did. When returning to base, they were instructed NOT to land! The fuses on those bombs are armed by propellers that spin in the wind. So with the doors open, there was no telling if—or how many of—the bombs could be armed. They were instructed to fly out over the Adriatic Sea and they would have the rest of their fuel load to figure out how to jettison the bomb load, since the releases were locked up. If they didn't, they would have to jettison themselves and ditch the plane into the sea. In the winter, the life expectancy in the cold Adriatic with no “poopy suit” (cold weather gear) is about five minutes. Jim and his crew crawled into the bomb bay and got the bombs loose and out of the plane. He said, “after that, I thought I just might make it through this alive.” There was no PTSD back then, they just dealt with it.

Our next stop was Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the changing of the guard. We had all the Vets use the wheelchairs this time, so we could go right up close, in the handicapped accessible area. Again very solemn, as I thought about how the Sargent had made his choice of who to entomb, and how lucky I am to thrive in this country. Then I saw and understood the enormous respect for the historic ritual of the “changing of the guard.” As we stood across from the majority of the regular crowd, I noticed more and more of them looking and take pictures... of us? But why? Then I turned my head to my left, and realized that another Honor Flight group had filed in behind us! So now we had about 50 WWII guys, in wheelchairs, with Veteran hats and flags. It must have been quite a sight. This is where I cried, which is also where my phone died. Which was fortunate, because I would not have been able to take any good pictures.

Jim flew about 25 missions in Italy before they bumped up the “magic number” to go home to 30 missions. Then he went up to England to fly five more. He flew on D-Day. Naive on my part, I asked "how were your able to sleep the night before such a big mission?" His reply: “As normal as any night," because they didn’t know D-Day was actually “on” until they showed up at the briefing that day! His first target for the mission was obscured, so they pressed deeper and bombed another. He was supposed to fly another mission that day but didn't. His 36th and last mission was a long one; all the way to Berlin. I'm sure that was longer in more ways than just time.

We also stopped at the Women in Combat Museum and the Iwo Jima Memorial. Then it was time to head back to the airport. There was no more impressive sight than us driving down the Baltimore-Washington expressway during rush hour. You see, our motorcycle police escort was waving off traffic, from the left and from the right, and from the right and left, continuously, as we rolled right down the dashed line behind him, in the middle of the highway, at about 30-40 MPH. At one point I saw him waving off the traffic with no hands on the bike—hence “Moses on a motorcycle.”

Inside the airport I told the coordinator who matched us up that she had done a great job: “Jim and I flew combat missions over some of the same cities,” such as Mostar, Yogoslavia. She gave me an odd questionable look, until I added, “Well, I flew there 50 years after Jim!” We were able to eat at the food court before boarding; Jim was perfectly happy with Mcdonald's. We sat down and he asked me if I minded if he prayed. I said not at all, so he did. Afterwards, I asked him how he thought he’d managed to live so long. He replied, “I don't drink, and I've never smoked, and I consider myself a Christian.”

While we waited for our plane, the Honor Flight folks conducted a very familiar military ritual: Mail Call! They had solicited mail from the Vet's families and friends, and they passed out the letters and cards. Jim got 21 letters (including one from me), and he remarked, “I didn't know I knew 21 people!” He was the oldest Vet in our group, at 96. I thought it would be good to go for a walk and stretch our legs before the long flight back to Orlando. Of course, it didn't take long for me to run into someone I knew, since we were in an airport after all. When I introduced Jim to a co-pilot I have flown with, he was more than happy to thank him for his service: Guy gratefully said: “I'm from Holland, and if it weren't for you, I really would be speaking German.” I told the Honor Flight crew that if I had been working right now, my airline would have sent me to a hotel—the day was getting a little longer than I’d realized.

I also asked Jim what was one of the lowest points he struggled with during the war. He responded with the story of how they flew way up into northern Italy to bomb the Germans. The crew got shot up pretty bad and had lost an engine. As a result, they had to come back lower and slower than normally. To me, it sounded just like the movie Memphis Belle. They were long overdue to land, but at least they made it back. But when he got to his tent, his mates had already divvyed up his uniforms and clothes! He didn't say it, but I know what got him through that scare... the redhead. Married 63 years, 4 kids, 10 grand-kids, and 4 great-grand-kids. That is what gets you through the tough times, and that is why we do it—for your loved ones back home; to not let them down, and to see them again.

After the war, Jim went onto be a draftsman and later a vice president in engineering. He didn't care much for airplanes anymore; the smell of aviation gas, the exhaust, the ramp, all brought back not so good memories. He seemed to not have reveled in a big welcome home—rather, he was just glad to be home, like most of us usually are. But today, he would get the celebration that he perhaps skipped out on in 1944. The previous Honor Flight reception I had participated in at Orlando, had been a bit underwhelming… But this time I was not disappointed!

Honor Flights always let the regular passengers deplane first. On this day, we were running late and it was about 11 pm. There were also passengers waiting for flights leaving Orlando that had been delayed. As we finally deplaned, Jim was ready as ever to get off the plane, and would not use the wheelchair. As we came up the jet-way, we could hear bagpipes. A lone piper was playing the hymn of each of the military branches, one after the other. No doubt someone in the airport had made an announcement about the arrival of our Honor Flight, and about three plane-fulls of delayed passengers lined up on each side as we walked out to more applause and more hand-shaking.

A final salute for the day, thanks to Patrick AFB Color Guard
Normally, passengers whose flights are delayed are cranky, and for good reason. But on this night I had at least two people come up to me and say, “I'm so glad our flight was late, otherwise we would have missed this!” The piper led us out of the concourse, playing the hymns continuously, and then, on the other side of security, was another welcoming home party. Jim loved it all. The bus ride home was quiet, as it was getting late, but we both still enjoyed one last police escort and a welcome home by the Patrick Air Force Base Color Guard.

Four hundred dollars for a ticket on my own company's plane; breakfast, lunch and dinner included. But seeing Moses on a motorcycle part DC traffic, total strangers applaud and shake the hands of these walking, talking, living, breathing pieces of history: PRICELESS!

Our Honor Flight reunion was about three weeks later. A chance to get together one more time and share pictures and stories of our trip to DC. There were many great inspiring speeches from the General again, but also from anyone involved—whoever felt like standing up to contribute something. One daughter of a Vet on our trip thanked her dad's guardian publically. He just volunteered out of the blue, not knowing which Vet he would be assigned. The daughter, a middle aged school teacher, said; "there was so much he had never told anyone about his experience in the war, until this Honor Flight trip." Near the end of her praise of both her Dad and his new found friend the guardian, her Dad burst into tears.

I wanted to write this, but I was unsure if I should; could it be too personal for Jim to share these stories? My question was answered by one of the Generals’ speeches. In short, his father-in-law was on the Bataan Death March and lived. For a long time, the father-in-law did not share details about the war and his captivity, now he is gone. The General pointed out that, “once these guys go, so do their stories.” And that was my answer, that was what helped me decide that I must write and share this. Unfortunately, Jim didn't make the reunion so we couldn’t catch up. His bomber squadron also had a reunion on the same day, at the Air Force museum at Write Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio!

Captain Pat Madden
Southwest Airlines

Veteran's Day 2014

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