Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot Magazine
Those of us who weren’t there will never understand
We hear stories like this a lot these days, but this time it came in an e-mail from a friend. He’d been helping with the EAA’s B-17, Aluminum Overcast, when an ambulance rolled across the ramp and up to the crew hatch in the rear of the fuselage. He assumed a visitor had dinged their head on something inside the airplane or there had been a heart attack. Then the ambulance attendants unloaded a stretcher, a backboard actually, with a graying old warrior securely strapped to it.
My friend watched as they carefully loaded the old man through the rear hatch and slid him as far inside as he could go. As they did, a familiar flame began to flicker in old eyes. They then stepped back and let the graying gentleman lay in the ancient bomber in silence. It was a private ceremony between two old warriors. Five minutes later he was in the ambulance on the way back to his reality.
No name was given and no explanation was necessary. The attendants explained the entire event by simply saying, “He had been a tailgunner.” That says it all, doesn’t it?
He had been a tailgunner. There, in a few short words we know his age, his past, and his fairly immediate future. In reverse order, we know that he’s getting ready for the inevitable and we clearly understand that his memories include some which scarred him forever. And as a tailgunner, we know that he was most likely a kid, eighteen or nineteen at the most, when his soul was permanently marked by the experience that defined his generation.
Those of us who have never been in combat don’t have the vocabulary to describe the fear and gut-wrenching emotions hundreds of thousands of young men have experienced. However, beyond the bombs and bullets there are other factors that, try as me may, we’ll never truly comprehend.
The phrase “band of brothers” has become a cliché, but, as with all clichés, it has been elevated to that stature because it is so true and says so much. Combat vets come home as part of another family, one that shares a bond that will never be open to the rest of us. And it doesn’t matter which war forges this relationship. It’s happening today in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it did in the skies over Germany or in the swamps of Vietnam.
The old tail gunner was closing the final chapter of a life that undoubtedly included enduring relationships with those who had been there during the best, and the worse, times of his life. At the root of this relationship is the simple fact that they understand more about each other than their families do because they once stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they were crudely catapulted into manhood in a few cataclysmic hours.
In a clumsy attempt at honoring the ancient warrior’s clan, we label it “the greatest generation,” because we don’t know how else to single it out. However, even those who waded through the flames will acknowledge a simple truth: they did what they had to do, when they had to do it, because they just happened to be the generation on stage at the time and their choices were limited. The world had gone horribly wrong and they could either set it right or huddle within our protected borders and let future generations live with the consequences. They made the tough decision and set it right.
Those in combat don’t see their actions or their contributions on a global scale. When bullets tore through the fragile aluminum skin surrounding our old tail gunner, he wasn’t thinking of mom’s apple pie or the stars and stripes. Every warrior sees combat in the framework of their personal survival and a desperate need to support their buddies. The fact that an entire generation of vets preserved freedom for following generations was the happy by-product of individual soldiers struggling to protect their extended families in the worse conditions imaginable.
In reality, no war, on either side of the lines, is the legacy of a single generation. Wars are started and controlled by an older generation, but fought by an overlapping younger one. When a conflict is over, the generals and politicians die off, leaving the aging younger generation to take their place in the next conflict. Those who were in the trenches in WWI, manned the conference tables of WWII and the dogfaces from Normandy and the aces over the Mariannas presided over Vietnam. It’s a cycle that never ends.
What does end, however, is a generation. This is a subject about which I think and write often. And when I think of a failing warrior who asks to share a few minutes with a mechanical loved one with whom he had often faced death, it brings tears to my eyes. He was reconnecting with an emotion-filled place that had lived in his heart for more than half a century. As he lay in that airplane, if he never opened his eyes, he would know for a fact where he was. There’s a feeling, sponsored by the strictly-military aroma of hydraulic fluid and zinc-chromate primer floating on the slightest essence of avgas, that exists in no other place on the planet. And that’s what the old gunner wanted to feel one more time. He asked nothing more than to be in the presence of the friend who had brought him home time and time again.
As he lay there, we can only imagine what went through his mind. The chaos, the machineguns hammering away between his feet, the young faces he once knew so well all came flooding back. And in those few minutes he gained closure. He felt whole again. Most of us will never know this kind of closure because we don’t know how or where to seek it. But, the old tail gunner knew. And for that, I envy him.