I was eleven months and five days old on December 7, 1941. I remember only bits and pieces of my early years on Army bases around the world and about all I remember from the war they called #2 were a couple of times at Fort Knox. Once was when a fighter plane of some kind crashed on takeoff from Godman Army Airfield into a grassy opening just across the street from our home in Goldville. I remember seeing it catch fire, seeing the pilot struggling to get out, and watching as some men in green uniforms with a big capitol P painted in white on their backs ran and tried to rescue him.
Later I remember some of those men, guarded by soldiers in American uniforms, as they mowed the lawn around our home. My mother sent me out with some cups and a pitcher of lemonade for them. One of them suddenly grabbed me and hugged me close as a startled guard unslung his rifle and began running toward us. I clearly remember the words, “I have a leetle boy like you,” and his tears. The guard stopped running and stood to watch in silence. My mother told me years later they had been Italian prisoners of war.
Then, two years in Japan, right after the war ended. First and second grades. The first city we lived in was Nagoya. It was still leveled by American bombs. People were living in whatever shelters they had been able to build with whatever scraps they could find.
A few years later, Linz, Austria. Sixth and seventh grades. My father was with the American occupation forces. Parts of the city were still broken but rebuilding after American B-17s had pounded steel mills and rail yards not many years earlier. One day, in a field across from our house in Froschberg, one of my friends found a large corroded shell of some kind. We had been taught in school about things like that, so he ran home and his mother called the Volkspolizei. A bomb squad came to disarm an old antiaircraft round.
Frieda, our Austrian maid, told of having been arrested and sent to a work camp when she and a friend dared to help a badly burned pilot from the Free French Air Force whose parachute landed him in a field near her girlhood home in Leonding. The Austrian kids we played with took us to old bomb shelter tunnels and told us, in the mixture of German and English we used to communicate, of terrified times in those holes not too many years earlier as the earth shook around them.
I read all the comic books about the war, any comic that had an airplane on the cover. I went to all the war movies. My imagination turned our family car into a swooping fighter or lumbering bomber. I dreamed of becoming a Navy pilot and flying off carriers.
I learned to fly in high school, soloed a J-3 right after my sixteenth birthday, and passed my private pilot checkride a year later in an Aeronca Champ on skis from a snowy Ohio grass strip. I took the Navy’s aviation cadet entrance test but failed the math portion by six points. They told me to come back if we had a war because they’d lower their standards, but by the time Vietnam heated up, life had taken me in other directions. I never flew anything bigger than a 182.
And so, some years later, I grabbed a chance to take a ride on the Experimental Aircraft Association’s restored B-17, Aluminum Overcast. I had grown up with stories of those airplanes and the men who flew in them. I had to take the chance to ride in one. And so it was that one beautiful spring day, I clambered aboard and took a seat in the back of that big machine.
It’s hard to describe the feeling in this old flier of small airplanes as I looked forward into the front office and watched two pilots working to start those four big radials. It’s hard to describe the sound. I can’t really explain the feeling in my chest as we taxied out and rolled northeast on runway 3. A circling climb over Ogden, Utah, was followed by climbing up Weber Canyon, then a flight north over Ogden Valley, Huntsville, and Pineview Reservoir.
I did it all. Crawling under the pilots’ seats into the bombardier’s seat. Watching some other passengers playing gunner with inert .50 calibers hanging in two waist gunner positions. Looking down into that tiny pod where ball turret gunners once curled into aching, cramping hours of pain. I enjoyed the ride, but I knew there was no way I could understand what it really had been like. None of the numbing cold of 20,000 feet. No oxygen masks crimping our faces. No frostbitten fingers or toes. No mind blasting fear. Just thirty minutes and not twelve hours.
Finally it was down though Ogden Canyon, with rock walls sliding by 100 feet off our left wingtip. We touched down on runway 21, taxied in, and shut down the engines.
I had taken the ride. But I knew I could never really understand what it had been like when those Austrian kids I played with had spent terrified days or nights in tunnels under Linz or Bremerhaven or Berlin or countless other places. And I knew I could never know what it had been like for those American kids who were just a little older than my Austrian playmates when they had dropped their bombs on them.
The other passengers and I climbed off the Overcast and walked to a trailer to collect our souvenir caps or T-shirts. As we did, we all suddenly stopped and watched in silence as a family pushed an old man in a wheelchair toward the big plane. He wore a cap with “WW II Veteran” embroidered on it in gold letters. One of the men who pushed him quietly explained that he was their grandfather and the grandfather, who had once been a young man, had flown as a waist gunner in a B-17.
Someone asked, “Is he going for a ride?”
“No,” came the reply. “We can’t afford it.”
They pushed him out to the big plane and helped him look inside the door. He touched the bomber’s fuselage, looked up at the weapon hanging out the waist gunner opening and then settled back into his wheelchair. I felt something in my throat and something clouded my eyes as I watched.
Another man must have felt those same things and stepped forward. He offered to give his ticket to the old man. “You take it. You deserve it.” But the old man shook his head.
The man offered again. Again, the old veteran refused it. His voice was soft and seemed to come from far away as he said, “No. Once was enough.” Then came tears. Finally he was able to speak again. He explained that he had flown only one mission. Somewhere over Germany the big machine in which he flew was hit. He was the only one who made it out. The only one who came home.
“No,” he said again. “Once was enough.”