Thursday, June 16, 2011

To Whom it May Concern

My father was trained as a gunner on a B-24 Liberator Heavy Bomber. Originally, he’d been assigned to be the ball turret gunner, but by the time his unit arrived in Great Britain in late December 1944, the Luftwaffe had taken such heavy losses that the 8th Army Air Force had moved the ball turret position from almost all B-24s, so Dad flew his missions as a waist gunner.

That was fine with my father. The ball turret position was by far the most difficult position to get out of in case a bomber crew had to get out of a damaged aircraft. There’s a poem, “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarell, that shows the danger well:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Because of that change, there was one less crewmember, and each bomber had an extra flak jacket. My father immediately claimed his plane’s surplus flak jacket and made a point of standing on top of it when they hit it into their targets. My father was 25, the oldest man on the plane. The youngest was a 19-year-old form Georgia named Blaylock who felt the need to adopt a tough-guy persona while on the ground. Maybe he was just trying to cover up the fact he was as scared as anyone else.

Anyhow, from the very first mission they flew, Blaylock said to my father, “Mitchell, if a bullet’s got your name on it a flak jacket won’t do you any good,” and felt the need to repeat the comment several times on subsequent missions. Finally my father said, “All right Blaylock, I don’t care about the bullet with my name on it. What bothers me are the ones that say ‘To Whom it May Concern.’” That was the last time Blaylock ever mentioned that particular subject.

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