Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day: My Grandfather's story

My Grandfather fought in the Korean War, serving as a navigator on a bomber. He received a number of medals for heroic deeds which I hope to write about in future posts. But to this day he suffers from survivors guilt. I recently visited him, and for the first time he told me the story about the day his plane went down.

First, a bit of history. During WWII the Britain's Royal Air Force flew missions of opportunity into France. During these missions the bombers had 15 minutes to search, find and destroy whatever targets they found - trains or convoys that happened to be passing beneath them, etc. One hot shot pilot would always begin his foray into France by flying in over the same port and same pier in that port each time. He would then use those landmarks to get his bearings before beginning his run. It doesn't take a military historian to figure out that as soon as they realized this bomber had a pattern, an anti-aircraft gun was conveniently placed at his favorite spot, and he was shot down. The lesson learned from this tale is to never approach your enemy the same way multiple times, and also never to underestimate their powers of observation.

My Grandfather's pilot was a Major who was a drunk. He was put in charge of flying my Grandfather's crew for awhile until the Air Force could quietly retire him. This pilot had a buddy, who in civilian life was a pilot for one of the major airlines. The two of them came up with a very affective bombing method. One pilot would fly his plane high overhead to attract the anti-aircraft missiles, while the other would sneak in at 300 feet, trace the missiles and bomb the you-know-what out of them. Shortly after this, my Grandfather came down with an inner ear infection. Because they would dive bomb from thousands of feet, pulling up only hundreds of feet before the ground, he was grounded until the infection healed and his ears could pop again. While he was in the hospital, his crew went on another mission. The two pilots tried their bombing technique again. In the exact same location as before. But this time the enemy was ready for them, and no one survived.

My Grandfather blames himself for his buddies dying that day. He feels that given his knowledge of military tactics and historic examples like the one he told me from WWII, he would have insisted they approach the enemy differently. As the navigator, he feels that if he put up enough of a fight they would have been forced to alter their plans - even if that meant he was grounded for disobeying a superior officer.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose your closest friends due to the ineptitude of your commanding officer. I also cannot imagine the hurt and guilt he has felt for all these years. To lose all your friends in one fell swoop, and to have been helpless to protect them due to circumstances beyond your control, would be a horrible trial to go through.

My Grandfather was and is a brave man. And as we celebrate Memorial Day, I hope we all say a special thank you to the veterans who gave and lost more than we may ever know.

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