Opinion

Crisis in peace time

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Another week of leisure. Well not doing much in physical labor but the mind still explores history and the current state of our nation. Coronavirus.

I picked up a book on the B-17 of WWII. This author meticulously researched the building of a particular B-17G (the latest model built in large numbers), the training of its crew and its missions over Europe until it was shot down. The crew gathered and trained together at Grand Island rather than at the McCook Army Airbase but the routine was the same as for those who passed through here.

It was an amazing time in America. The depression was in hopes of ending and young men from throughout the nation were called upon to serve for Uncle Sam. There were no riots objecting to the war. When asked it seemed that every male physically qualified either volunteered of humbly accepted the draft. A little different than “my” war in Vietnam.

I have never flown in the B-17 but I did serve with several men who did fly missions in it during WWII. I flew with them in the KC-97, another Boeing product, which was an offshoot of the B-29 which dropped the bombs that eventually led to the Japanese surrender in WWII.

I was privileged to fly the old four engine prop driven KC-97 to England, to Greenland and to many locations throughout the United States. It is a somewhat sad memory that I, with other crewmembers, delivered five of the proud birds to the boneyard in New Mexico when the Air Force was upgrading its current air refueling tanker fleet the KC-135.

When I flew in the bitter cold high altitudes we were in airplanes that pressurized cabin air down to comfortable altitudes. We also had cabin heaters so were comfortable. Not so those WWII birds, there the crewmembers dressed for the below zero cold some in electrically heated coveralls. Those didn’t always work and those crewmembers just suffered the bitter cold.

I remember as a youngster of perhaps seven years that my father traded labor, machinery and farming advice from a neighbor John Amann. I think that dad was trying to learn to grow potatoes at that time. I was at their farm along Driftwood Creek just a few miles south of McCook one summer day and a letter arrived. Sylvia read it and became excited as it was from their son Hugh who was a gunner on a B-24. She ran outside and yelled at John over across the creek that Hugh is in Italy. Seven years old I had no clue what or where Italy was but later learned that we flew a lot of missions against the German allies from Italy. Not long after the parents got word that Hugh had suffered severe frostbite on one or other of his feet and was taken off flying status.

The B-17 crew in my book wasn’t so lucky. On their 20th mission they were hit with flak and caught fire. Nine of the ten bailed out and became POW’s for the duration. Think Willis Jones a deceased friend from McCook. They all survived but the pilot, the oldest at age 21 went down with the aircraft and was killed.

A character that I served with in KC-97’s was one Major Joe Procopio and his WWII story had a happier ending. He had flown the B-17 on bombing missions over Germany. He told of his aircraft being shot up and how he had staggered back toward England but had to land in Sweden. Sweden being an officially neutral country at that time the aircraft and crewmembers were interned for the rest of the war. Joe was a large barrel chested Italian still very athletic when I knew him and he told us that he ended up playing on the National Swedish Soccer team during his incarceration. Not bad war time duty!

Another Pilot that I flew with in 97’s had been the pilot of a B-24 flying bombing missions over Germany. I had asked him how the cockpit crew had evacuated the airplane after it had made a gear up landing. Normal entry and exit for that airplane was through the nose gear wheel well but that wouldn’t be available after a belly landing. “Well the way I did it was just crawl out the windshield opening.” I pried more of the story out of him. He had two engines shut down and was slowly losing altitude with only the remaining two running. He had planned on making it back to England before touching down on friendly soil. Over Belgium it became obvious they couldn’t make it so he cried out for help on the radio. A voice came up and gave him a heading to fly to a large open field. The voice wouldn’t identify itself but what do you do when help is offered? Sure enough the field appeared and he touched down on the belly for a good if short landing where the windshield departed forward. The crew exited the airplane right into the hands of a Belgium partisan group that hid them from the Germans and eventually smuggled them back to safety in England.

I am reminded of the willingness to serve in WWII where it seemed the entire population stepped forward to help out. At this moment our whole country is under an Emergency to keep the coronavirus from spreading. School are closed as are most places where numbers of people congregate. Again from what I am seeing most people in the US are cooperating without dissention and I wonder how long that will last! Of course old guys like me over 60 years of age with some prior medical history are the ones at greatest risk of dying from the virus. Grannie Annie and ME! So it is that we are paying strict attention to those telling us to wash hands and surfaces and stay away from other people.

That is the way I saw it.

Dick Trail

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  • Thanks for sharing from the richness of your memory. Your column reminds me of a documentary we watched last night: "Eric Brown, A Pilot's Story". If you can find it anywhere, I strongly recommend it. We watched on Amazon Prime streaming video. Here in Arizona we are hunkered down, minding our manners and following the rules. I am grateful for the many many lessons I learned from our mother and the women in our neighborhood about managing in a time of crisis. Best of everything to you, Ann and all your near and dear.

    -- Posted by Virginia B Trail on Wed, Mar 18, 2020, at 10:09 AM
  • Wow, thanks for sharing about stuff.. You, supported an incompetent President, and repeatedly admonished the democratic party for being off base.. Of course, this current president (and Republicans) gave tax breaks to the same corporations that are now asking for bailout. I'm thinking a tax on all stock buy backs over the last two years. Of course, the republicans, which you tout, will block that in favor to corporate bail-outs...

    -- Posted by haneyg on Sun, Mar 22, 2020, at 9:13 PM
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