As memories of WWII dim, let’s notforget the reasons we recognized thosewho served on our behalf.
Thank you. Now, how often does your boss, spouse, kid, customer, or anyone else thank you for doing what they had expected you to do anyway? Same goes to those we “expected” to protect us from threats that few of us today can remember–threats of Germans and Japanese bombing our cities, invading our shores and denying us our freedom.
Looking back, it seems those concerns, real or not, fueled a willingness, even an enthusiasm, among the populace to support the war effort in the early 1940s. How many readers remember bringing into school your mom’s old aluminum cookware or empty tin cans to help the war effort? We even collected seed pods for kapok-filled life preservers for our naval servicemen who sailed the seas in the defense of freedom.
I remember accompanying my father, who was an air raid warden, to his assignment during air raid drills with headlights blacked out. I remember searchlights probing the sky during these drills. At night in our northern New Jersey home, we fell asleep to the nightly drone of aircraft engines in test cells as the nearby Curtiss-Wright plant broke in newly manufactured engines destined for U.S. military aircraft.
But I actually met none of the aircrew members I held as my particular heroes of the war. Recently, though, I spent a day with one of the guys who was in the air on the other side of the Atlantic, being borne aloft by those same engines I fell asleep to way back then. He’s retired now, able to enjoy the good life in peace and security. Good thing, for he flew 58 missions right up front as navigator-bombardier in a Martin B-26 Marauder in the European theater.
We were, appropriately, attending the annual airshow at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, a three-geezer jaunt organized by my brother-in-law, Bruce, who lives nearby but didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Mel Dickler, the former B-26 navigator-bombardier, and I never shut up–during the drive, during the airshow, and all the way back home. This guy had enlisted before Pearl Harbor; was shuffled around gunnery, flying, gliding and other schools; and finally was sent into combat, flying from bases in England and France to attack targets in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. They flew at between 9,000 and 15,000 feet and mostly bombed targets such as bridges and rail lines to cut Nazi supply and transportation lines.
Were they shot at? Of course. Flak made sounds from hail to hell as the metallic fragments chewed into the thin aluminum fuselage. Mel manned both the bombsight and the forward machine gun, shooting Daisy Mae’s forward machine gun as German fighters played chicken with his pilots during front-on shooting challenges. They once came back with unexploded 20mm shells in their wing. Their airplane was frequently holed by flak. Did they kiss the ground when they came home in one piece? Yes, again. Literally.
Mel’s six-man crew included the two pilots, Mel as bombardier-navigator, a tail gunner, a middle gunner, a radio operator and a turret gunner. When did he get to rest from flying missions, each one of which he knew some of his buddies would not return from? Not until April 1945, days before Hitler’s remaining troops belatedly threw in the towel. An entire war.
So thanks, Mel, and to your buddies in the air, on the ground, on and under the water, who did what we wanted–and naively expected you to do, scared or not, tired or not, cold or not.
And Bruce, can we do it again next year?
Kelly Flinn Controversy Revisited
The November 1997 Aviation History editorial focusing on U.S. Air Force officer Kelly Flinn generated a spate of mail, most of which came from readers who disagreed with my contention that she was “publicly castigated and drummed out of the service for…the same off-duty behavior for which many of her male peers were forgiven.” The majority of those who wrote mainly took issue with Flinn’s refusal to break off her affair when ordered to do so.
Illinois reader Thomas E. Kupferer wrote, “Anyone whose behavior includes lying, disobeying lawful orders and engaging in conduct that is destructive to the respectful relationship between officers and enlisted personnel is not a military professional and has no place in the military.” Florida reader Russ Smith echoed that sentiment: “Unless ordered to do so, I would not want to fly with a pilot who willingly disobeys orders.” Another Florida reader, Carlos R. Diaz, wrote: “Kelly Flinn was not unfairly treated, either as a female or as an Air Force officer. She knew the rules, and she knew they applied to all officers, male or female.”
Frank K. Rabbitt, a docent at the National Air and Space Museum’s Garber facility, agreed with the editorial: “It was a tragic loss when the Air Force discharged Kelly. Their intent was not to discipline her, but to humiliate, crush and destroy her. I hope things will change.”
Thanks to all of you who wrote in to comment on the editorial. I agree that Flinn was wrong to disobey direct orders. My point was that all individual commanders and the services they represent should engender equal behavioral expectations for both male and female personnel. I have worked with–and for–men and women who have shown equality, fairness and professionalism while striving to keep gender issues completely out of the equation. And, after all, isn’t that what equality is all about?
Arthur H. Sanfelici, Editor, Aviation History