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ResQgeek

May 2017

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We'd been flying through the darkness as we crossed the North Atlantic, and I'd struggled to get at least a couple hours of sleep along the way. Shortly after I'd given up the effort as a lost cause, the cabin lights came on, and the flight attendants began to serve breakfast. I pulled up the map display on the seatback entertainment module in front of me, and saw that we were flying over southern England.

I reflected on how different my experience of this flight over England and on to Germany was from those my great-uncle endured more than 70 years ago. Really, about the only thing in common was the company that designed our planes...He flew in the Boeing designed B-17 and I was riding in a Boeing 777. My discomfort paled in comparison to what he experienced in his aircraft, which was not pressurized or climate controlled, let alone a entertainment system built into every seat back, and a flight crew to serve meals. Not to mention the enemies shooting at him and the fact that his mission was to deliver a cargo of bombs to some enemy target.

The sun came up as we crossed the coast over the European continent. Below us the clouds stretched, unbroken, as far as I could see. I watched as we overtook a slower plane flying in the same general direction, far below us. I checked our altitude on the display in front of me. We were significantly higher than the B-17 flew, and we were traveling far faster as well. He would likely have been flying in those clouds below us.

Eventually, we descended through the clouds, and the German landscape came into view. As we circled over Frankfurt, I pressed my face to the window, trying to imagine what it might have been like to fly over this city, looking for the designated target to drop our bombs on. Unfortunately, I really could quite conjure up the experience, but as I watched, the sun began to break through the clouds, providing some really dramatic lighting effects on the ground. I pulled out my camera and took some photos.

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I wish I had come to some deeply profound new insight this morning, but all I really came away with was an appreciation for the morning light on the city. Perhaps it is just enough that I was able to spend a little time thinking about the tremendous sacrifices that young men made in those skies in the middle of the last century. The legacy of their efforts lives on in the peace that continues between our nations, the peace that allows me to travel in relative comfort and safety in those same skies.
We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this doy forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.


-Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump


I must confess that I did not watch the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America. I did not watch, in part, because I did not expect any surprises from the man who will now lead our country. But, really, I didn't watch for the same reasons I have never watched a Presidential inauguration. I find the pomp and ceremony of these political occasions boring. While I do appreciate the significance of the way we hand over the reigns of power in a peaceful fashion and acknowledge how truly rare that peaceful transition has been in history, I simply do not find ceremony of it compelling.

But normally I have enough interest in the proceedings to follow them through the news and social media. Not this time. I have grave reservations about the qualifications, character, and abilities of the newly inaugurated President. I find his personality, attitude, and manner abrasive, and I was more than a little afraid of what he might say, or what might be done by his supporters, or his opponents.

Thus it was Sunday morning before I actually read the text of his inaugural address. There are many things that can be said about the speech, and many points that I find troubling. But the one that sends shivers down my spine is the language about "America first." I don't know if the President was intentionally invoking the isolationist movement of the late 1930s, but my immediate reaction when reading these words was to link them to the pro-appeasement isolationist who were sympathetic to the fascist regimes of Europe. I thought about the strong images drawn by a young Dr. Seuss early in his career, including this one:



I think that history has, properly, judged this isolationist movement harshly for ignoring the brutality and inhumanity of the axis alliance and the evil that was being committed in the territories they controlled. And I think that if we do, in fact, undertake a true policy that always and only puts American interests first, regardless of what that means to the rest of the world, then history will judge us just as harshly.

And while I wonder if the new President is sufficiently well-versed in history to appreciate the full historical context of his words, I see evidence that they may be rooted in a similar worldview. There is already a bill pending in the House of Representatives to withdraw the US from the United Nations. A year ago, I would have thought that such a bill would have had exactly zero chance of actually passing, a product of the extreme political fringes. But in light of the words of the President, I can't help but wonder if we aren't about to try and follow a path we have already walked.
One of my wife's cousins posted a comment on Facebook yesterday that piqued by curiosity and sent me off on an research mission on the Internet.  I had shared the Facebook page I created for my great-uncle's book about his experiences as part of a B-17 bomber crew during World War II.  As I was reminded yesterday, one of my wife's uncles also served on a B-17 during the war and was also shot down and captured.  My wife's cousin wondered if our uncles may have met, decades before my wife and I were even born.

As I did the research, I was surprised by the similarities.  My Uncle Connie was born 31 August 1921 while my wife's Uncle Homer was born 14 November 1921, so they were the same age during the war.  They both entered the service in the fall of 1942, serving as non-commissioned officers on B-17 crews in England, my uncle with the 447th Bomb Group at Rattlesden and my wife's uncle with the 379th Bomb Group at Kimbolton.  They were shot down just 12 days apart in February 1944 (my uncle on 10 Feb. and my wife's uncle on 22 Feb.).

I have not been able to find any information about the details of my wife's uncle's experiences as a POW, so I can only speculate about any similarities in their treatment as POWs.  However, because they were shot down on missions only 12 days apart, and because the targets of those missions (Braunschweig and Halberstadt in Germany) were so close to each other, it seems entirely likely that they would end up transported to the same POW camp.  There were a lot of POWs in these camps, so it is impossible to say whether they would have met, even if they were interred in the same camp, but it is interesting to think that they may have known each other during those months of captivity.

I'm going to have my wife check with her family to see if her Uncle Homer ever recorded any of his experiences or left any mementos from the war, but it does not appear likely that I will ever learn much detail about his experiences.
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Washington Post 11 March 2008

I opened today's paper to find a picture on the front page of the Metro section that instantly caught my attention. Even before reading the caption, I recognized the B-17 flying over the new Air Force Memorial near the Pentagon. A B-17 did a fly over only a couple of miles from here, and I missed it! Somehow, I need to figure out how to learn about these things before they happen!

Here's the accompanying article from the paper.
On Wednesday, just as we finished packing for our trip to visit my parents in New York, we received word that my great-uncle Ray had died after a long fight with cancer. This forced a change in plans for the weekend, to accommodate the funeral. Ray was the last of his generation, which included by paternal grandmother, as well as the great-uncle who wrote the book about his experiences during World War II, and the funeral brought together those members of my father's generation that still live in that area.

My great-uncle Ray was also a World War II veteran, having served in the 168 Chemical SG (smoke generating) Company in Africa and Italy. He survived the war unwounded, and I know very little about his service during the war. However, he became very active in the local chapter of the American Legion and was apparently proud of his service to our country. He was buried with full military honors next to one of his brothers and his parents, and not far from my grandmother and another brother. I wasn't particularly close to Uncle Ray, but the dignity of the military honors, with the flag draped coffin, the volleys of rifle shots and the lone bugle playing taps struck home. I was far from the only one who became teary eyed as the flag was folded and presented to his son.

It was yet another reminder of how many young men went off to far away places to fight in that massive war, and their contributions to our country and the world. It won't be all that many more years before it will be very difficult to find anyone with first hand memories of those battles. I was proud to be able to stand and pay my respects to this relative who had answered the call of duty.
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Aug. 22nd, 2006 12:37 pm
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Joe Rosenthal, 94, a World War II news photographer, famous for his photo of the marines raising the U.S. flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, died August 20 in Novato, California. His famous photograph won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize, and later served as the inspiration for the Marine Corps Memorial located in Arlington, Virginia.

Read the entire obituary from Reuters.
I've been curious about the B-17 I saw on Sunday. There are only a handful of these planes still flying, so I figured I should be able to find out which one I saw. A little digging through the internet uncovered a press release with the answer. The plane is named "Sentimental Journey" and was probably providing a flight for a group of paying enthusiasts. I would gladly pay the $450 for a ride on one of these classic aircraft! I wonder if my wife would let me...

pics of Sentimental Journey )
Maybe its just because I've been working on my new edition of my uncle's book, and currently have had B-17s on my mind a lot lately, but somehow I think I would have noticed it anyway. As we passed through Williamsport, PA on the way home from my parents' house on Sunday, I saw an unusual aircraft profile in the distance. It was clearly a four engine plane, and I was pretty sure it wasn't a jet. It was slightly to the left of dead ahead of us, heading the opposite direction to us, on a parallel path. As we drew closer, I began to recognize the profile. As it flew past us on my left, I confirmed that it was, in fact, a B-17, flying low over the countryside just east of Williamsport. Unfortunately, I was driving on an interstate, where non-emergency stopping is illegal, or I might have pulled over and tried to get some pictures. This was the first time I've ever seen one of these gorgeous aircraft in the air, and it was a fabulous sight!
In addition to my grandfather and the great-uncles I've previously mentioned, another of my father's uncles also served in World War II. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about his service. I think he served in Africa and Italy, and I also think he served in a support role (such as motor pool maintenance or some other position behind the lines). But I don't know for sure. Like so many veterans of that war, he doesn't talk about the war and his part in it. I don't know him well enough to feel comfortable asking him about it, and I'm not sure who would be the best person to approach about this. I'll have to think about it.

My project to produce a new edition of the book by my ex-POW great-uncle about his wartime experiences has taken a big step forward. I met with his daughter over the weekend, and she gave me another copy of the book (since I can't find mine), so I've started re-typing the text. My uncle's widow contacted her and she's excited about the idea, so I have permission from both his widow and daughter. They are going to gather up the original pictures and documents used to produce the original edition and send them to me so I can do high-quality scans for this new edition. If they can get that done soon, I should be able to pull all the material together and get it formatted for publication by the end of the summer.
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Last week I wrote about my mother's uncle who died when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. He wasn't the only relative of mine that served in the second World War. One of my father's uncles served in the US Army Air Forces, assigned to the 8th Air Force in England. He was a technical sergeant on a B-17, participating in the massive daytime bombing missions against the Germans. He only completed a handful of missions before his plane was shot down over Germany. He was wounded, but before bailing out of the crippled aircraft, he assisted the badly injured tail gunner out of the plane. On the ground, he was captured and shipped to a POW camp in Poland, where he stayed until the advancing Soviet army forced the Germans to relocate the prisoners westward. The POWs were forced to march through the winter countryside to new camps.

My great-uncle survived this ordeal and returned to the US. He never talked much about his wartime experiences, so I grew up knowing very little of his story. His first wife died before I was born, and when I was in high school, he remarried. His second wife convinced him to write about his experiences in WWII, and they self-published a small book telling his story. Given the technology of the time and the expense of publication, it was a very limited run, and probably only a few dozen copies of the book ever existed.

For more than a year now, I've been considering the possibility of trying to borrow the original pictures and documents used to illustrate that original book. I'd like to make high resolution scans of them, to be used in producing a new edition of the book. The print-on-demand business provides a way to make this book available as a high quality product for a very low cost. I've contacted my father's cousin (daughter of my great-uncle), and she's enthusiastic in her support for the idea. I just wrote a letter to my great-uncle's widow, who still has the original materials, asking permission to borrow them and reproduce the book. I hope she approves. My great-uncle's story is not an important one in the big picture of the war, but personal memoirs like his help to put a human face on the ordeal that was the reality of the war for the men who served.
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Last week I found myself talking about the Second World War with a co-worker, and somehow the conversation made its way around to a discussion of relatives who served during the war. While I'm two generations removed from World War II, so many members of my grandparents' generation served that I can help feel connected to that conflict.

Only one member of my family died as a result of hostile action during the war. His story is ironic on a couple of levels. He was actually killed prior to the US entry into the war, and today very few people remember his ship or its unfortunate fate.

My mother's brother (my grandmother's brother) was a seaman first-class on the destroyer USS Reuben James (DD-245). In 1941, this ship was assigned convoy escort duty, protecting the supply ships crossing the North Atlantic to the U.K. In the early morning of 31 October 1941, near Iceland, the ship took up a protective position between a ship carrying a cargo of ammunition and a wolfpack of German U-boats. Torpedoed by U-552, the ship's magazine exploded. The ship sank in minutes, taking the majority of its crew (and all of its officers) with it. My grandmother's brother was one of over 100 men killed that morning.

The Reuben James was the first U.S. Naval ship lost to hostile action during the Second World War (though this was not the first attack by U-boats on the U.S. Navy in the North Atlantic). At the time, very few Americans took note of its loss, and even today, few people realize that U.S. ships had been attacked prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 07 December 1941.

My great-uncle is memorialized in England at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, where his name is one of the more than 5,000 names carved on the "Wall of the Missing." Someday, I hope to visit the cemetery to pay my respects.
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