El Debarge not much of a forger either
Thank You Fort Benning Drill Sergeants...

Memorial Day, Part 2


My father never flew with me. It had nothing to do with my skills, well maybe a little to do with a sideways (crab) approach witnessed by Mom, but a lot more to do with an older brother, a friend, and Admiral Spruance.

My Uncle Sam (real name) was one of Dad's older brothers, and I suspect the one he most admired and somewhat modeled himself upon. This is an uncle who has a bit part in the original "Ten Commandments" and apparently had some involvement with the chariot wreck at the start of the pursuit scene. At what would now be considered a far too young age, Uncle Sam went off to WWI, and ended up flying those newfangled aeroplanes. That was in a day when the plane itself could be much more dangerous than the enemy, being but bits of wood and fabric that might or might not hold together. While he enjoyed flying from various accounts, I have a suspicion that his matter-of-fact descriptions of such may have cooled Dad's thoughts of following in those particular footsteps.

The next nail in the coffin was a boyhood friend of Dad's, who became a pilot and flew some of the early dive bombers. I think it may have been during Dad's first hitch in the Corps that they met up near DC, and he invited Dad to go up with him. I think Dad thought it would be fun, let them spend some time together, and see DC and surroundings from a new perspective. The latter was quite true, as it turned out.

In those days, before truly good bombsights came out, the most accurate way to put ordnance on target was considered to be dive bombing. This entailed putting the plane in a very steep dive, as steep as the structure could stand, and then releasing the bomb at the lowest possible point that would allow the plane to pull up and not hit said target itself. Keep in mind that this must be done in a bouncing bucket of bolts that is buffeted by winds and is being shot at by anyone and everyone in the vicinity of the target... Easy it was not, but it did provide accuracy not possible with carpet bombing from higher altitudes.

Budgets being very tight back then, the practice bombs were bags of flour. To this day, I have no good idea what Dad was expecting, other than a nice ride, maybe a reasonable descent and release of bombs, and the beauty of watching that flour spread out over the target. What he got, from his description, was a full-up pushing-the-edge demonstration of precision bombing of a snag in the Potomac river not very far from DC (no airspace restrictions then). Dad remarked that he had a very good view of the floor of the plane, as that was where he got when the plane went straight down -- at least according to him. He was honest enough to admit that his friend found Dad's reaction rather amusing (and no doubt as planned).

I suspect another nail, though never discussed, was my Uncle John. John was a B-29 pilot on Tinian, and he paid a different price after the war. Dad and John were able to see each other a fair bit towards the end of the war, as Admiral Spruance spent a lot of time at Tinian. Dad never talked much about John, or the demons he faced later, but I do know that they discussed the flights and what all happened.

The final nail, however, was an incident with Admiral Spruance. While I can't find much on it, the Admiral apparently had learned to fly and did what was necessary to keep up his certifications and such. One such flight found Dad invited to go with him. Now, as bodyguard and orderly, Dad (or those under him) were supposed to be with the Admiral pretty much 24/7, but there is not much they can do to protect from gravity and cranky mechanical constructs, so flying was not usually an area where they went. For some reason, however, Dad was invited along with the Admiral went up in a P-38, and from some phrasing used one time, I suspect the Admiral did it as a bit of informal challenge, perhaps wanting -- as pilots often do -- to have some fun.

If you have ever seen that twin-tail devil, aside from some training aircraft they did not have two seats. What they did have was a sort of shelf that went back behind the pilot. While OSHA and the safety nannies would have fits today, that is where Dad found himself, looking out over the Admiral's shoulder. Looking out over that shoulder and up, according to him, at people on the deck of the New Jersey, against which the Admiral decided to make a mock attack. Dad swore he did not know how they managed to avoid going into the side of the ship, but they did. Nor would I ever accuse my father of embellishing a story a bit, but he maintained that he could clearly make out faces of those along the rails watching. From his mutterings, the Admiral may have just been getting warmed up too. Not sure, but what I do know is that from that day forward, Dad apparently declined any offers to go up. Come to think of it, he avoided commercial aviation as much as possible too... Dad was remarkably unamused when later, without knowing the story, I chose that plane as my favorite fighter from WWII and wanted to fly in one.

Dad did not talk a great deal about certain things, but we did share a few moments and I came to know of his respect for those that did fly. The suicidal bravery of the pilots at Midway, whom he respected and came to yet another level of respect courtesy of the Admiral. The bravery of those who pressed home other attacks he watched later in the war. The dedication of the ground-support craft who went in on bombing and strafing runs in support of his fellow Marines as they went island-to-island, often going in low, and even slow, against the enemy so as to protect the troops no matter the danger to themselves. He respected the fighters who tried to keep the enemy at bay, and would come in after them even within the defense zone of the ships, and risked being hit by the fire put up by Dad and others at the enemy they pursued. And what fire it was, for everything could and would open up at need. When the Admiral was on the New Jersey, Dad's battle station was the quad-50 on top of the 16-inch turret up forward, a fact I discovered when I built a model of the New Jersey as a child, and seeing it opened up something within him long closed.

I think he saw that same spirit in the chopper pilots in Nam, who would risk all to make a pickup or give fire support, and I know reports from Desert Storm reached that same place within. He may not have flown, but he knew the price paid by those who did, and he saluted them in his own way.

He accepted my explanation of the crab, as it had been caused by the instructor killing the engine a mile or so out from the airport and telling me to make it. I did, with plenty to spare including a certain amount of pilot ego and panache, which resulted in my coming in sideways for the last part so that I could kick it out and touch down just past the overrun. I was left to surmise a bit, but he apparently recognized something in me, and had had enough of pilots gleefully showing him what plane and pilot could do. A pity, as I would have loved to give him a nice boring ride just to make a point; then again, that may have been why as well.

Remembering this, and all the pilots who have served so well, from the skies above the trenches to the support for Iraqi Freedom where still today they give all going in close to support those on the ground, is a part of Memorial Day.