I don't know enough about my dad's heroism in World War II. I know that he must have suffered some damage from those years in Hell, since he was never able to enjoy fireworks displays and didn't watch war movies because they reminded him of that time. He didn't like to talk about his service, but would if I asked him. I regret not asking him often enough. Here is what I do know....
My dad was in the Army Air Corps, 308th Bomb Group, 374th Bomb Squad, stationed in China for most of his service. Officially, he was an AP Armorer Gunner.
He was a Ball Turret Gunner, probably the scariest and one of the most dangerous things he could have done. He served in a B-24, a monster of a bomber, which featured, among other things, a man-sized metal ball equipped with machine guns. The ball, with the gunner in it, would drop from the belly of the plane when the enemy approached and would twirl this way and that while the gunner defended the plane from the enemy. The gunner would pretty much lay on his back with the guns between his legs, and his legs propped up on the pedals, turning the ball to face the approaching planes.
As if bombing missions were not enough, he also flew with his crew "over the hump" of the Himalayas to India for supply runs. Numerous planes crashed into the mountains and flying these missions were extremely dangerous. My dad always spoke of his pilot reverently, and said that the pilot saved the lives of his crew several times with his expertise.
Here's the thing....If you knew my dad, you would never suspect that he was a war hero, with bronze stars, numerous medals and accolades. He was just a quiet farm boy, a shy cowboy that smiled a lot and only talked when he had something to say. He grew up in a tiny town, worked the farm, went to college, then went to war and came home. Never complained about anything. Never said anything bad about anyone (although he quietly refused to buy automobiles made in Japan - only General Motors for him).
I can't imagine the horrors he faced in this war. How he felt the night before each bombing run, his terror when that pilot was flying blind over the hump to India. Twirling in the ball to aim at an enemy that was aiming and firing at him, shivering in the freezing altitude. The aching pain of missing another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, the birth of his first child. For a boy that only wanted to stay on the farm, this must have been unbearable. And yet, he and his friends bore it.
Thousands died, but my dad lived to come home. Home. Sweet home. The farm. He said it felt as if the trip home on the ship took years. His nice leather fleece-lined flight jacket was stolen on the cruise home. He didn't care. He was coming home. When he finally arrived, he pulled on his boots and cowboy hat, bought a ranch and he and my mother went to work. He was offered a teaching job in a high school eight miles away and turned it down flat. He couldn't imagine spending so much time away from home again. Eight miles was just too far.
By all accounts, the quiet and shy farm boy was crazily popular with his war buddies. He was always getting letters, cards and phone calls from his buddies all over the United States. A couple of years ago, out of the blue, I received a call from a man in Arizona who said he had gone to college with my dad. A couple of years out of school, the man went to war and saw my dad in uniform waiting to cross a street in Perth, Australia. Sixty years later he was thinking of my dad and decided to see if he could find him or at least a relative, and he found me. There were some things he wanted me to know. I really appreciated the call and the wonderful things the man said about my dad. Funny how a quiet cowboy could make such an impression....
My dad never stopped being a hero. To my big brother and I, there was no one that could top him. He was simply perfect. No one, at least to my knowledge, did not like him. He was a warm friend, the kind that was always there to feed a family's cattle or plow their field or haul in their hay if they were suffering an illness or misfortune. Always dug deep into his pocket at the church offering. Never missed his kids' school performances or ball games. Was good to his parents, my mom's parents, my mom and everyone else he came into contact with. Perfect.
In his last years, I bought him a jacket that said "World War II Veteran". Everywhere we would go, people would ask about his service and would often thank him. He was so proud to wear that jacket. After a lifetime of avoiding "war talk", he seemed to warm to it more as he got older.
My mom was a good match for him. Tough and smart, she was with him step by step, raising their two children, working her fingers to the bone and supporting him in every way.
My dad had a good life, by his measure. He never lived more than a couple miles from his own parents and my mom's parents, his sister and his brother. His entire family was within two miles of his doorstep. Our little town was filled with family and close friends, and that, to my dad, was heaven. He stepped out of his house every morning to a big, wide country with kids and family and horses and cattle and dogs and cats and trees and streams and blue sky and it was all his.
My dad has been gone for some time now and I'm sure he's building fences up in Heaven right now.
Whenever Veterans' Day rolls around, I think a lot about my own personal war hero, and how lucky I was to have him in my life. I still miss him terribly.