World War II Memories, Three Young 18-Year-Old Men

Writer’s note:  I have never been able to edit my writing successfully or that of any one else.  I have read and reread this blog and have done my best to correct errors.

Jim Valentine, My high school classmate, Class of 1944

I have a friend, Jim Valentine, from my middle and high school years.  We face time often via phone line and computer. This has replaced our phone calls.   Jim served in WW II  as a turret gunner on what I thought was one of the big bombers.  Most of the men who were in the air force and flew many hours suffered severe hearing loss in their elderly years.  Jim can no longer hear well enough to talk on the phone.  To any one who is having a similar problem, I recommend face time calls.  Looking at someone, seeing the expressions, and, without realizing it, doing a great deal of lip reading, has once again made my  communication with my dear old friend viable again.

We began talking a few days ago during our face time conversation about his air force experiences.  In those days, young men finishing high school were immediately called into service.  Jim, age 18, was given 15 days after his graduation before leaving for service in the US Air Force.  There was basic training and then gunnery school, all of which took 3 months.  Then he was off to an Air Force base in Scotland along the North Sea.  When I asked him about his missions, I found out, for the first time,  that his squadron was part of operations under the OSS – today know as the CIA.  He said he first had to undergo Commando Training, indicating he found it  very difficult,  saying  “I never wanted to undergo anything like that again!”  He attributed his playing high school football as helping him get through it.  He did fly in big planes, but carrying men, not bombs, to be dropped wherever they were needed.  Jim call them “partisans”    He still does not care to discuss the details of the commando training  or the missions. He just shakes his head.

Wesley Smith (Ike), High school friend, Class 1943

Jim’s best friend as well as a good friend of mine was Wes (Ike) Smith who also left very soon after his high school graduation.   Wes also went into the US Air Force as a waist gunner, and was stationed somewhere in England.  He flew many bombing missions over Europe.  About eight years ago we three planned to attend together a high school reunion.  We had a marvelous time, laughing and going over many funny memories of our teenage years!!  Then Wes told the  story of his WWII air force experience, which ended his years in England.  During a bombing mission Wes’s plane was hit.  Damaged the plane limped back to England,.  Once over friendly territory, the gunners took off their jump suits and settled down for the short trip home, when one of them noticed a fire.  Wes rushed up to tell the officers in the front of the plane, only to find that they had all jumped, giving no notice to the crew in the back.  No time to put on jump suits.  They simply strapped on parachutes and bailed out, fortunately landing with no injuries.

The next day in another plane this same crew, officers and noncoms left for another mission.   Two of the original crew were not along for this mission:   Wes who due to rotation was off duty, and the Captain who  was in the hospital with a broken leg suffered when he parachuted the day before, deserting his men.  This plane was shot down with no survivors.  I cannot imagine the emotional stress finding out all your friends and fellow crew members are dead and you are one of two crew members still alive.  The Captain from his hospital bed sent word that he would like  Wes to come talk to him.  I ask Wes, “Did you go?”    “Hell no!,” was his emphatic reply.  Wes did not like to discuss his missions in general and he gave no details  about the fact that he flew no more missions.  He was returned to the States to serve in some capacity until the end of the war.

These are just two men among thousands and thousands who went, not gladly, but willingly.  They gave up their youth to fight to preserve our freedom. Men who carried scars all their lives.  But they came home and resumed  their lives as responsible, contributing citizens.

Bobby Smith (no relation to Wes Smith)

But not all did.  Not all could.   At a Christmas party a few months after the war’s end,  I remember vividly coming into a room and finding a friend, Bobby Smith,  sobbing and sobbing.  He had been a prisoner of war for several years and had been very badly treated.  I wish I had been more mature to have said something.    I just went to find his brother or parents, who were giving the party.  Bobby was only one of  oh so many who fought and returned and then tragically lost the battle to reintegrate into society.  He killed himself a few months later.

I wonder, often,  if  the baby boomers or the millennial ever give thought to the fact that  freedom is not, and has never been, free.  It has been paid for over and over by the blood of many courageous men and women throughout the history of this country.

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