Monday, June 15, 2009

A Visit to an Airman, June 15, 2009

"Louey", in his fighter pilot uniform, in a photo from the album shown beneath it.

The thin man, covered in a blanket, sat in an armchair in his half of the room in the nursing home, separated from his room-mate's bed by a nylon curtain. His half of the room was away from the window, and the light was off, making the area small and gloomy.

Many years ago, I had volunteered in this same nursing home, visiting male residents until the three old guys I came to see each week all passed away. For some reason, I had stopped coming. But a chance visit to an estate sale several days ago had inspired me to come back, and give a little bit of myself to others.

The gentleman sitting before me, whom I will call Louey, (I will not use his real name as he is a patient) had no idea that everything in his house had been sold at the estate sale several days before. It was at this sale that I ran across his old photo album, some of his old pilot manuals, and Eighth Air Force flag, and a lone silver and gold pilot's lapel pin.

I'd also found a program to a reunion banquet of the 339th Fighter Group, and taking the man's name and the group number, had run a search and found him listed as a fighter pilot in the group with two kills. The 339th was stationed at Fowlmere, England, in the months leading up to D-Day, part of the United States Eighth Air Force. Louis had been in the 504th Fighter Squadron, a unit with 52 victories to its credit. A fairly comprehensive website states:

"The 339th destroyed almost twice as many German aircraft on the ground as in aerial combat. This made for more impressive individual pilot totals than those scored in the air. L/Col Joseph L. Thury, 505th Squadron CO, was second highest in the 8th Air Force with 25½ destroyed on the ground; the highest scorer being L/Col Elwyn Righetti of the 55th Fighter Group with 27 destroyed.
The 339th Fighter Group started combat operations with 87 pilots. Casualties and combat tour completion required replacement pilots and 261 of these made a total of 348 pilots who flew on combat operations with the 339th during the War."

After I sat down on his bed (there were no other chairs) and we got to talking, I found Louey to be a soft-spoken, polite man who seemed genuinely glad for the company. As would be expected, he was a little curious as to why I was visiting him out of the blue, but he seemed appreciative. His family lives out of state and he rarely gets visitors.

I told him I'd written a book on the air war and was at work on another two. He was singularly unimpressed, but fortunately in a polite way.

I asked if he still enjoyed watching shows about World War Two fighters. "No, not really," he said, furrowing his brow. "If it's on, I'll watch it, but otherwise, I'm just not that interested. It was a time in my life, a long time ago, and it's long gone. After the war, I went back to work and that was it. Never flew again."

I thought of all the books and models of airplanes I'd seen in his house at the sale, of all the items he'd so carefully saved all these years.
How did he like flying the P-51 Mustang, perhaps the greatest fighter aircraft ever built?
"Well, it was a very, very good aircraft at the time," he admitted, "but it's not so great compared to the newer fighters. It did get me out of trouble a few times, when German fighters were on my tail. I remember one time I got back from a mission and dug all these pieces of bullets out of my plane. I kept them as a souvenir. When I got back to the States, I was visiting a friend at his place in New York City and I forgot them. I wish I still had them but that's the way it goes."

He wondered aloud what had happened to his house, his car. What's more, who was paying for his room and board?

The only ornamentation in 'Louey's' room was a needlepoint hanging of a cat and some framed pictures of flowers. I asked if they were his, and he said they'd been there when he arrived. He had a small color television, that he hesitated to listen to out of respect for his room-mate, who went to bed earlier than he did. I told him I'd bring him some earphones next time I visited so he could watch at night.

Two eight by ten framed photos were on the night stand next to his bed. One showed a lovely dark-haired woman, his wife. The other showed a handsome young man in a 50-mission crusher and pilot's wings. In front of these large photos was a smaller photo of his son and daughter-in-law.
I bade my new acquaintance goodbye and went to watch a volunteer training film that is required by the home. Then I ran into the director of the home, whom I know. He mentioned to the volunteer coordinator that I had written some books, and then mentioned that there was a fighter pilot in the home who had flown for the Eighth. Yes, it was the same gentleman. Except according to the director, the gentleman loved to talk about his experiences. So I was left to assume that perhaps I would learn more after we knew each other better.

I'm going back in a few days, and am going to take a set of earphones for the TV, and a picture of a P-51 for the wall, which I can bring home if Louey doesn't want it. In any case, it was a good visit, probably much more fun for me than for Louey, but I am committed to visiting this gentleman as long as he'll have me. As he said, "I'll probably never leave this place."

God bless this man and all our aging WWII vets. They are heroes and we must never forget them.

The 339th fly over Hitler's Eagles Lair in 1945.


Bomber Gal said...

It is wonderful that you feel the way you do about our wonderful vets from the past.

My husband myself and our children are helping to rebuild a B-17 G and are so pleased to be able to spend with our vets who come in to the hangar to check on the progress of this old war bird.

I do love reading your blogs and plan on buying your books. My husband and I would like to contribute to the headstone that you are planning for your friend if you could let me know where to send it.

r morris said...

Hi Bomber Gal.
Thanks for your kind words.
What B-17G are you rebuilding? Where did you get it? Sounds like a great project. I'd like to come see it sometime. Where are you located?

Thank you for your kind offer about Leonard's stone. I already did the run and sent the money to the family. May I suggest that you donate to the 95th BG Museum at Horham (link at bottom of my page) in Len's memory. They are doing great things over there in England. Look at my most recent blog entries.

I was thinking, if you are restoring the B-17 to look like it did in WWII, I have some small items of Len's you could put up in the bombardier area. He would love that.

Take care, Bomber Gal, and God bless you and your efforts to restore the B-17!