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Thursday, May 5, 2016

They yet live among us

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Veteran's Day has come and gone but the memories continue. As a reminder of the annual commemoration of service by American GI's someone went me a YouTube video, produced by the History Channel, of a World War II B-17E mission in the Pacific, circa 1943. A lone B-17, Old 666, out on a long overwater photo reconnaissance mission to Bougainville and Buka Islands, was besieged by 17 Japanese fighters, collectively called the "Zero." The crew shot down at least two of the Zeros in a 45-minute combat, which ended only due to low fuel state of the Japanese combatants.

Of that nine-man bomber crew, no fewer than six were wounded and received the Purple Heart award. The Bombardier, 2nd Lt. Joseph Sarnoski, mortally wounded, was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously for returning to his guns and continuing the battle until he died. The pilot, Captain Jay Zeamer, also received the Medal of Honor for continuing to fly and fight his aircraft and crew even though he too was gravely wounded.

The B-17 crew then managed to nurse their badly shot-up aircraft back to a safe landing in Dobadura, New Guinea. For their valiant efforts, in addition to the two Medals of Honor six more crew members received the award of the Distinguished Service Cross. Theirs was the most highly decorated mission by an American Aircrew in World War II.

Valiantry in action by those heroes richly deserves to be remembered.

That video clip reminded me of the exploits of one of my neighbors when I farmed south of McCook. His name was Wayne Boyer, a good farmer, lover of horses, forever a coyote hunter, and who died in 2005. Wayne was born in Red Willow County, grew up on a farm and graduated from Danbury High school in 1940. In short order, he volunteered for the Navy and became an aerial gunner on the Navy version of a B-24, they called it the PB4Y-1, and was assigned to the Pacific Theatre.

Wayne's Plane Captain evidently took note of the fact that this farm kid who grew up hunting coyotes was an excellent marksman with superb eyesight and placed him in the critical nose gunner position.

Missions flown in the Pacific were long, in the neighborhood of eight- to 10-hours airborne and most of that over water. On a similar sortie to that flown by the B-17 crew commemorated above and probably in the same general area Wayne's crew also was attacked by a flight of Japanese fighters.

The favorite tactic of the Zero was to make a head on pass to shoot at the bomber pilots. Then the Zero would roll inverted and dive away from the hail of gunfire put up by the 13 50-caliber guns on the bomber aircraft. The bomber crews would negate that advantage by flying close to the surface of the ocean when they came under attack.

Wayne told me that the secret was to wait until just the right moment then start shooting when the enemy came at him head on. He said that if he would start shooting too early the Japanese pilot would break off and circle to try again. At the most effective range of his twin 50s in the nose, he could hit the Zero and put it out of action.

Unfortunately, on one mission, his aircraft was bounced by a flight of Japanese fighters and Wayne waited a bit too long to shoot. The Japanese foe that day was also an accurate marksman and a 23 mm round came into the nose, and exploded on the bulkhead just below and behind Wayne's seat.

With the explosion beneath his feet Wayne's pilot just knew that they were doomed as his best gunner would be out of action. The Plane Captain was overjoyed when the next Zero rolled in and Wayne opened up, shooting again causing the Zero to break off his attack.

That day, his plane and crew made it back home to put Wayne in the hospital and they all lived to fly again. Hence the submission for the Silver Star and Purple Heart Awards to their star gunner. Wayne carried shrapnel from that cannon round until his death.

Years later, home on leave from the Air Force, I brought Wayne the definitive book, "Log of the Liberator." When I presented it to him. he quickly scanned the index and was pleased to find a chapter on his old Navy Squadron. Olive told me later that he'd spent hours and hours quietly sitting with the book in his lap pondering and remembering.

Incidentally, in one of the Squadrons where Wayne was assigned, the XO was a fine officer named Henry Fonda. Wayne mentioned that the crews always hated to see Commander Fonda show up to fly because he only went on the toughest missions. Their Henry Fonda was held in high respect by all his crews, kind of like his movie star pal, Jimmy Stewart, another B-24 commander who acquitted himself well in the European Theatre.

A little-known fact is that our aircrews, Army and Navy combined, suffered more casualties than did the total of all the Marine Corps during World War II. The survivors of that worldwide conflict are now in their late 80s and 90s and their numbers are rapidly dwindling.

Yet a few still live among us, Lester Webb, Kenny Martin and Willis Jones, come to mind, and there are more. All richly deserve a "thank you for your service" when you encounter them on the street. In my mind, they are all heroes who have also been blessed with a long life.

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

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Dick, the eight Airforce alone suffered more casualties than the Marine Corps did during the entire war. Read that in the Airforce times a couple years ago.


-- Posted by greb on Thu, Nov 17, 2011, at 12:44 AM

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Dick Trail
The Way I Saw It