Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Through the Eyes of the Living

How many times have we all missed the true purpose of Memorial Day or Veteran's Day? For many of us, it seems like a good chance to enjoy a super sale or have a cook out. But have you ever really stopped to think that those seemingly small freedoms were paid for by somebody else?

It is said that freedom is not free and that is true. The lives of our armed service men and women are risked, spent and lost to help maintain our way of life and protect our strategic interests abroad. You cannot fight a war with just robots and drones... yet anyway.

For someone like me who has never served in the military, I may truly never understand what is sacrificed by our soldiers. How could I? I have not seen what they have or lost friends that are like brothers. Talking to some veterans makes it clear to me that the memories of those passed friends are still fresh many years later... like ghosts that visit the edge of their mind.

The 80+ year old airmen that I met when shooting photos for the Liberty Foundation (who flew a WWII era Boeing B-17 bomber) are ones that I frankly cannot forget. The stories they told me were epic, sad, funny or terrifying. The one thing that was repeated by every single one of them... "I am not a hero. The true heroes were my friends that died."

In honor of those soldiers on this Memorial Day, I would like to share some of the photos that I took of these humble Americans who did their duty and should be honored. Hopefully, I have all the facts correct.

Joe, the Ball Turret Gunner
Meet Joe Walters, a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress named the Chug a Lug Choo Choo. On a bombing run over occupied France, the plane was shot down. Joe was able to get out of claustrophobic ball turrest and parachute to the ground...only he did not make it all the way down. He got hung up in a tree. A farmer and his son found him.

Joe was rushed away to the French Resistance who eventually got him back to the the Allied forces. Many years later, the families of Joe and the farmer reunited to celebrate. 

When I took the photos of Joe, his facial features were amazingly the same. Below is a rare photo showing Joe being led off by the farmer. My guess is that being photographed stealing a prisoner away from the Nazis was a pretty dangerous game, and he was taking a great risk.

Photographer: unknown

Bob, the Pilot

Even at his age, Bob still looks like a strapping flyboy full of confidence and swagger.

Below he is signing the Liberty Belle's door that was reserved for World War Two veterans only. There was even some signatures from the German Luftwaffe present.

Charlie, the 3 Star General

Charlie was a pretty high ranking officer later in his career. I think he also few a Northrop P-61 Black Widow, one of the first night interceptors of the war.

Roy Reid, Shot Down at Pearl Harbor

I met Roy shortly before his 90th birthday and was there to witness him getting to fly again in a World War Two era warbird. Read my previous blog about him here.

To make a amazing story short, Roy was supposed to land his B-17 at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and got shot down by Japanese fighters. The B-17 crews were not fully aware that the base was under attack due to radio silence. Some of his friends did not survive the crash landing and the ensuing strafing. Roy said that armor plating welded to the back of his chair a few days prior saved his bacon. The photo below may be of his actual plane, but I cannot confirm it.

Photographer: unknown
Roy's log book is filled with entries of flying exotic military machines from the 1940s. 

Sam, the tailgunner from the Shiftless Skunk

The first thing I noticed about Sam was that he wore his pants very high, and that he was a character!

The next thing I noticed was his original bomber jacket with 28 missions recorded on it. The third mission had a parachute indicated instead of a bomb, which means he had to bail out. He said a fire on plane full of bombs during take off was "exciting, but not in a good way."

Though there are usually many people walking around a plane like this on display, I asked Sam to hang back when everyone walked off so I can get a simple photo of man and machine. Ten men crewed each B-17, and you can see how large these flying pans were. I call them this because many were scrapped after the war to become pots and pans.

Michael Gold, the Jewish P.O.W.

Think about it... a Jewish prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. I am a little amazed that Dr. Gold survived that ordeal. I photographed him in the nose of the B-17 and I swear for a moment, he was really back in the 1940s. I could see it in his eyes.

He was a handsome devil back in the day... ladies beware.

Victory on so many levels... enough said.

Richard, back on the B-17 sixty three years later

This man held up a slip of paper showing the last time he was in a B-17 bomber, which was March 26, 1944 exactly 63 years to the day earlier. The only mission data that I found for that date that looks like the writing was a V-Weapon site in La Sorellerie France. The V-Weapons were the first long range missiles used in war.

The rest of the photos have fewer details to share. I did not catch their names, but it was an honor to meet them nonetheless.

"It's all coming back... "

I always felt honored to have these men in my presence. They are MY heroes.

The next time you meet a veteran, thank him or her for what they have given you, whether you know it or not.