Many times I have written about my Dad’s time in the war, and what he went through, but I’m not sure I truly understood what he went through. Dad never talked about the war much, and maybe that led us to believe that what he went through wasn’t so bad for him. In reality, I don’t think I knew much about Dad’s service time at all. My nephew loaned me a movie called Fortress, and I was very interested in watching it. I don’t know what I expected it to be, but it was not. Everything on the B-17 happened so very fast.
While the movie was quite graphic, and not one that some people would like to watch, it was based on a true story and it gave me a very different perspective about what it was like to fly in a B-17 Bomber. I knew that the life of a ball turret gunner in combat was a mere twenty minutes, and I knew that during the time Dad was on the B-17, there was at least one ball turret gunner who was killed. They tried to save him, but it was not to be. In an instant it was over.
The Flying Fortress, as the B-17 Bomber was called, was one of the safer parts of the war, but that meant nothing when you are flying to a bomb drop and the enemy doesn’t want you to make it. The movie brought home just how hard it was to really spot the enemy planes. They would say that the enemy was right there, and I found myself thinking, “Where?” Then suddenly there they were, and the men on the plane had been firing for several seconds already. It felt like trying to explain how to spot the enemy, and by the time you get the word “well” out, you have already been hit.
While any gunner position was dangerous, I was struck by how exposed the waist gunners were. In case you don’t know, the waist gunners are the guys that shoot out the side doors of the plane. The doors are open, leaving them with very little protection. They had to be on their toes, because the enemy was shooting for their gun, and if they weren’t paying attention, they were shot before they got a second chance to pay attention. That made things really hard, because they also felt a close commraderie with their partner, the other waist gunner, and if their partner got shot, it was hard to stay on task…but that was hard for any one of the men on the plane.
Watching the men they worked with every day, get shot and killed became a normal thing. Being normal and being able to cope, are two very different things. These men had to hold it together, while quietly falling apart inside. They knew their friend was dead, and yet they had to do their job. They couldn’t grieve. They couldn’t stop. They had to push that picture of their dead friend way back inside themselves, and do their job. Lives depended on it…including their own. I knew that my dad was on a B-17, but until I watched that movie, I really didn’t understand all of what that meant.
My Uncle Jim had a different kind of life than what many of us can understand. His dad passed away when Uncle Jim was only 8 years old, just shortly before his dad’s youngest son, my Uncle Jim’s brother David was born. Most kids his age would have crumbled, so to speak, but not Uncle Jim. His mom needed his help. There were the children to care for, and the new baby was coming. There was little time to grieve, because there was much work to do. When his brother arrived, Uncle Jim instantly became a surrogate father of sorts. He took on the big responsibility if helping to raise his younger brother, and of showing him the kind of man their dad would want him to be. I know that as a little boy, you would think that he couldn’t do much, but he did what he could, and as he got older, he took on more and more responsibility where his younger siblings were concerned.
Even though Uncle Jim had lots of responsibility at home, he didn’t let that interfere with his school activities. While I can’t say what kind of a student he was, I can tell you that he was an amazing athlete…especially in the area of the hurdles. He and his brothers set a number of records in Bassett, Nebraska for various sports, and Uncle Jim, especially in the hurdles. Uncle Jim also set a standard of behavior in that high school. When he went back for one of his class reunions, another student, who was a self confessed wild child, told Uncle Jim that if it weren’t for him, he probably wouldn’t have survived high school…explaining that there were a number of times that he was driving home drunk, and wouldn’t have made it if he had not been able to follow my Uncle Jim home. I’m sure that the man probably surprised Uncle Jim with that revelation, because I know that if Uncle Jim would have know that the boy was driving drunk, he would have just taken him home.
After high school, Uncle Jim and several of his brothers would move to Casper, and some would live with Uncle Jim, including his youngest brother Dave. Later after he married my Aunt Dixie, his mother would move to Casper, and live with them for some time. He and my Aunt Dixie have always been all about family, whether it was his, hers, or their own family. They are close to all of them, and they are a blessing to all of them, and anyone else who has the pleasure of knowing them, too. Today is my Uncle Jim’s birthday. Happy birthday Uncle Jim!! Have a wonderful day!! We love you!!