MARCH 2007 – NO. 13
Of the 16.5 million Americans who served in WWII, 3.25 million are still alive, and the war's living memory decreases by 1000 each day
After basic training in the early part of 1942, my dad had a short leave to go home, and then it was on to field artillery school. Or so he thought.
Aboard the train, my dad asked a porter if he could tell him which field artillery school they were going to. The porter told my dad he wasn't going to any field artillery school. "You're in the Air Corps now," he said.
The train headed south from Illinois to Barksdale Field in Louisiana. Unbeknownst to my dad, he had been selected for the Army Air Corps while he was home on leave. His civilian occupation was portrait photographer, and to the Air Corps that possibly meant reconnaissance work. In Louisiana the boys took him up in the air and he found it beautiful, but he wasn't crazy about the idea of lying in a Plexiglas bubble and flying behind enemy lines to take pictures. He bowed out, he said, and instead was trained to service armaments for and load heavy bombers.
Before long he was on his way to North Africa on an Italian freighter with a British crew that served them inedible mutton. They had a Navy escort for the first day, and then they were on their own. A few days out a periscope was spotted in the water, and the ship took evasive action by zigzagging sharply. My dad said he thought the ship was going to keel over on its side. But they got away, and when it was over the captain came on the loudspeaker and said it was time to give thanks with prayer. There wasn't a Jewish chaplain on board, so my dad's buddy George Ferry, an Italian boy from New York, said "Come on, Cappy, you'll pray with us."
My dad said that in the North African desert they burned up during the day and froze at night. And the flies. And the dust. And the sanitary facilities. He swore that if he ever got out of the desert, he'd never miss a daily bath, and it was a resolution he rarely broke.
Bearing the brunt of the fighting, the British pushed the Germans back across North Africa and the Americans provided air support. My dad was in a B-24 outfit, the 98th Bombardment Group of the 9th Air Force. After service in many wars, the 98th Bomb Group is still called the Pyramidiers. The group's leader during World War II, Col. John Kane, was dubbed Killer Kane by German intelligence for his successful disruption of Rommel's supply lines and shipping.
Sometimes when we saw an old war movie on late-night TV, like Twelve O'Clock High, my dad would complain that they always showed B-17s and never B-24s. Hollywood had made an icon of the streamlined Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. In contrast to its sleek lines, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator had a squarish fuselage with a deep belly, high-set wings, twin tailpieces that looked like elephant ears, and a blunt nose. Its nickname was the Flying Boxcar.
With their long range and big capacity, the B-24s were chosen for the famous air raid on the German-controlled oil refineries around the town of Ploesti in Romania. My dad said the planes practiced low-level flying for months, and in August of 1943 they flew 1,200 miles from Benghazi, Libya, to Ploesti.
According to my dad, half the planes didn't come back. It must have seemed that way. The actual figure was 30 percent — of 179 planes that took off, 54 didn't return. Ploesti was heavily defended, and the refineries, although damaged, were not put out of commission as hoped. In 1944, though, operating from bases in Italy, American bombers returned to Ploesti and flattened the refineries with repeated strikes.
One day in Italy, my dad heard an airplane mechanic playing the guitar in the barracks. He said it was wonderful to hear music, and it gave him an idea. He put up a notice for musicians and from the various squadrons was able to assemble an 11-piece band.
My dad obtained permission to requisition the instruments they didn't have, and he sent to the States for orchestrations. The band rehearsed in a barn with an old broken-down piano, and when they were ready, the Red Cross arranged a dance in town.
The night the band made its debut unfolded with the glossy perfection of a scene from an old movie. The GI's were in their dress uniforms and under strict orders for decent behavior. Nurses were officers and didn't go to dances for enlisted men, but there was a good turnout of local girls. My dad got up to make the introduction, and when he turned around and said "One O'Clock Jump," the band took off.
The band was in business. For any outfit that wanted a dance, my dad's terms were $10 for each member of the band, $10 for him as manager, and all the food and booze they could consume. The band was composed entirely of enlisted men, and my dad liked it that way. When the officers wanted a dance, they had to come to enlisted men to ask for it.
Once, the black outfit came to my dad to request a dance. My dad said OK, but the Southerners in the band objected. My dad had never turned anyone down before. He told the Southerners the black soldiers were doing the same job they were doing and asked if they would play as a special favor to him. They said, OK, Cappy, we'll do it for you.
The same Italian girls as usual showed up and danced with the black GI's, and they were very appreciative. My dad always said he wasn't a hero, but he made a few people happy. At the end of the war, he received a special written citation recognizing the contribution he made to morale through his work with the band.
My dad had a computer in his room at the retirement home he lived in for the last several years of his life, and with the help of my cousin Charlie he found a 98th Bomb Group association on the internet. In the list of names there was one my dad recognized — George Ferry. My dad sent George a letter, and he replied with details of his career and family life. George wanted to know if my dad was still taking pictures.
It was great the way the vets at the retirement home looked out for each other. In the last year of my dad's life, one of his buddies drove him out to the VA hospital in North Chicago and helped him with the paperwork so he could get his expensive prostate cancer medicine at no cost. Another friend wrote to the VA and obtained service medals my dad was due but had never received. Less than three weeks before he passed away, he received his medals in a Flag Day program at the retirement home covered by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune, and Channel 5.
My dad was in the service nearly four years. The day his ship landed in Boston Harbor there were tears in his eyes. He was stationed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while waiting to be released from the service. There he met my mom, who was working as a typist in a government office. "Wherever I go, I get into trouble," my dad once quipped. But that's another story.
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