44 Missions–Chapter 14 Posted

April 8, 2008 at 3:36 am (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

There have been lots of good stories written about fighter pilots, their heroic exploits, their memorable battles against skillful enemies. I grew up with these stories–collected every book I could find about WWII fighter pilots. I viewed them as chivalrous knights of the sky, the last true solo warriors doing their best one on one against the best the enemy could put up against them.

That is the heroic, romantic image and to tell the truth, I don’t want to give it up. Because part of it is still true. But an increasingly small part. The reality is more prosaic, more mundane, more real. Getting to know Joe has helped make the reality of a fighter pilot’s life more visible than I thought possible. I keep thinking about this sweet, incredibly quiet, incredible humble and loveable old gentleman as a 22 year old P-38 jockey. In many ways it doesn’t compute, but in many other ways it does. Joe is just an average, well, Joe. But of such was the Greatest Generation made. And that makes him and his kind far from average. They were just regular old boys, farm boys, construction boys, manufacturer boys, lawyer boys–just boys who learned how to manage the fastest most powerful technology weapons the brightest in our land could design at the time. They climbed into them early in the morning, late at night. Flew them into the air where the temperatures matched the South Pole, dove them toward the ground until their machines almost flew apart in their hands. They woke up in the morning groggy and tired and wearied of climbing into the freezing cockpit one more time knowing that today just very well might be their day. They returned home after hours of flying or dodging flak that was so close they felt they must be covered in soot from the explosions. And when they did, they frequently found their bunkmates gone forever, perhaps in the hands of the fearful enemy or plowed deep into the ground with the burning hulk of their machines above them.

43 missions completed–that’s what Joe did. There was more great flying in them than I could possibly convey. More heroics and fear and dread and sorrow than he has been able or willing to tell me. But after spending what little time I have with him, I know just a little bit more what it meant to be a 22 year old kid climbing into those cramped cockpits and facing fear and uncertainty every day. 43 missions. Just an ordinary man doing what hundreds of thousands of his fellow warriors did. I hope somehow in telling his story here I can convey my deep gratitude, respect, appreciation and awe over what he and so many others did.

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