Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Thank You, Sir, For Your Service."

That's Dad and me at Moffett Field, with the famous dirigible hangar in the background. He was awarded a Bronze Star in World War II and though, at 89, his memory isn't good for everything, he told me about the P-51 Mustang behind us, the "Betty Jane,", as if he had just seen her come in from a dogfight the day before.

The planes have names that evoke a time when a run over Berlin could cost a crew their lives. Or could bring them in safely, on one engine and a big sigh of relief. There was a B-24 Liberator, "The Witchcraft." A B-17 Flying Fortress, "Nine O Nine." And a P-51 Mustang, called "Betty Jane."

I took my father out to Moffett Field on San Francisco Bay to see these planes, which are touring under the aegis of the Collings Foundation's "Wings of Freedom Tour." Since my Dad was a captain with the 38th Engineers, and they built runways for these planes, I thought he might like to see some of them again. And that he did.

"That Mustang was the best fighter we had and boy when that Packard 1650 engine cranked it made a noise," he said to me as we went over together to see the "Betty Jane." I was hoping to interview some other World War II veterans for my blog, but my Dad was the only one on the scene. We're losing about a thousand veterans of World War II each day, and the ones who remain aren't all anxious for a day in the wind and the sun.

"Now that B-17 was a big old bomber," Dad said as we turned to look at the "Nine 0 Nine" sitting on the other side of the field. And then, as if he saw them every day of the week he said, "Dual .50 cals," pointing to the lethal looking machine guns poking out of the fuselage. "Those gunners," he shook his head, "They didn't have a great job. Lost a lot of them."

The "Nine O Nine" is a fully restored B-17, finished just days too late to play a role in World War II. She now belongs to the Collings Foundation and tours the United States, one of just fourteen of the Flying Fortresses still in the air.

We walked over to see an even larger monster, the B-24 Liberator, the "Witchcraft." "Can you see the twin tails?" My father asked. "That's the B-24. Kind of looks like a flying boxcar."

He was getting tired and I could see it. As I stepped away to use my cell phone I saw him sitting there under the wing of the enormous bomber, looking so fragile. For him, as for all of us in life, it was just an eye blink ago that he was young and strong. Bronzed by the sun and wearing the uniform of his country: a man in his prime. Hoping he'd make it home to his new wife. And, in another instant he was there beneath the wings that had preserved his freedom. His life is nearing its end and it has been a life he can be proud of. It makes me proud to know him.

"Did you ever know you were my hero? Everything I would like to be? I could fly higher than an eagle. You are the wind beneath my wings."

And it turns out I'm not the only one. Several people approached us and asked if Dad had been a bomber pilot. No, we said, he'd been an officer doing other aviation work, with the Corps of Engineers. The strangers, young and old, didn't seem disappointed at all.

They reached out to shake his hand.

"Thanks for your service, sir," they said. And my Dad gave them a smile.

Dad meeting the young pilots of the "Witchcraft."

Collings Foundation "Wings of Freedom Tour"

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