At eighteen, you’re immortal.
On the radio last week, I heard a World War II veteran reminiscing about the briefing before D-Day. When they were warned that only one out of three soldiers would make it back, he recalled, every man in the room looked at the men on either side of him and said to himself, “You poor bastards.”
And sometimes, at eighteen you’re a hero.
Of course, we all know who heroes are. Heroes get up in the morning, buckle on their swash, and go out to save the girl, the regiment, and the free world as we know it. Then heroes take their medals and fade happily-ever-after into the sunset. Don’t they?
Or do heroes go back to school, get up at night with the babies, and worry about the mortgage? Do warriors walk through the house saying, “Who left those lights on?” Do those who once dropped bombs now change diapers with lethal payloads or spend hours keeping that “perfectly good” old clunker running, while their teenagers use the new car? Do the saviors of the free world take out the garbage, mow the lawn, and have trouble getting the microwave to stop flashing 12:00?
Turns out, that’s exactly who heroes are.
I know a hero, but until he turned 70, we never talked about his war five decades earlier. He was an Army Tech Sergeant, a radio-operator on a B-17 bomber back when the Air Force was still part of the Army. His squadron, “Allyn’s Irish Orphans”** flew out of Foggia, Italy, on missions aimed at pinning down the German military machine.
**[“…with usual Army logic, the title was adopted because of the scarcity of Irishmen in the Squadron.”—463rd Bombardment Group History]
When he was drafted, my father was a 17-year-old on Chicago’s South Side, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Holding that draft notice against FDR, he was a Republican evermore. “You can’t draft me, I’m too young,” he told the draft board.
“We’ll bring it up on Friday night,” they replied. His papers came back stamped “Marine.”
“But I don’t like sea travel,” he told them. So he agreed to go if they would let him into the Air Force. “It was the first and last concession the Army ever made me,” he told me.
He was supposed to get five months of pre-flight training, but they were bumped from their training space after only one month, and he was assigned as a radio-operator on the bomber nicknamed Nobody’s Baby, although not told where they’d be going. “The Army never told us anything. They never bothered,” he told me. “I’ve since read some books to get the feel for what I was doing over there.”
One of the things they were doing was trying to take out German airfield and oil refineries in Romania. They had already made two unsuccessful attempts. But third time’s the charm: Allyn’s Irish Orphans were able to get their bombs on target.
“The Group’s first Unit Citation was awarded after the May 18, 1944 mission to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. Exceedingly bad weather and poor visibility caused the Air Force to send out a recall signal which was received by all bombs groups participating in the raid except the 463rd. As a result, the formation of 35 planes from the 463rd made the run on Ploesti alone. Taking advantage of the situation approximately 150 of Goering’s Yellow Nose fighters attacked. In the ensuing battle, six of the Group’s planes were lost to flak and fighters. The gunners of the 463rd claimed seventeen definites and thirty-two probables. In the nick of time, a large force of P-38s appeared and drove off the Luftwaffe saving the formation from even more losses.”—463rd Bombardment Group History
That day everything went well for my father’s crew and their plane, except for the part where his plane was shot down. “We were the last ones,” he said. “Everyone else had left, but we’d lost an engine and we still had twelve bombs to deliver. We didn’t worry so much about accuracy as about getting rid of those bombs and getting the heck out of there.”
Realizing they’d never make it to Switzerland, they headed for the Russian front lines in Poland. But they were losing air speed. So they threw out “anything droppable” to lighten the plane—the ball-turrets where the gunner had sat under the plane’s belly, their weapons, everything they could pick up, unbolt, or rip out.
They made it to Poland, but the Russians were taking Berlin at the time, and couldn’t organize transport back to Italy. So they were sent to the Ukraine, and had to make their way back through Greece to Cairo and up to Italy.
“Any regrets?” I asked.
“Well, B-17’s had no heated cabins, so we flew with oxygen masks and silk coveralls with electric wires plugged into the plane for warmth, ” he said. “I sure wanted to keep that silk suit, but when we were shot down, they took us for dead and grabbed everything.”
On the way back, they ran into a colonel who was indignant when they didn’t salute fast enough. “You’re out of uniform,” he told them. “Where is your commanding officer?”
By this time, the war in Europe was almost over and Allyn’s Irish Orphans were being moved around, flying transport to ferry homebound troops. “He’s in Foggia, but you better hurry because they’re moving to Naples,” they told the colonel.
“Then I’ll reach him there,” was the reply.
“Well, you better hurry even more, because then they’re moving to Tunis,” they said. They had a few more spots on their itinerary to suggest, but that colonel could tell when the Army had beaten him.
My father kept the clock he managed to get out of Nobody’s Baby, and he had it fixed a few times. It didn’t run by the time we talked about his war, but then, it wasn’t today’s time that it needed to tell.
I’ve always known that anyone who could raise, shoe, and educate ten children was heroic. But I’m proud of this story, and even more proud on Memorial Day to remember a real hero, my father, Bob Figel.
Please join me on this Memorial Day in honoring those who offered and those who gave their lives in service to their country.