Tuesday, November 10, 2009
On January 24, 1944, my father was on a B-17, named Roarin' Bill, which was brought down near Glabais, Belgium, while on a mission to Eschweiler. Of the ten crew members, six were taken as prisoners of war by the Germans, my father among them. Three others of the crew managed to escape and worked for a while with the Belgian underground. The pilot was killed and went down with the plane.
My father's parachute took him to a Belgian farmer's field where he hit the only boulder around. This was unfortunate in more ways than one. It left him with injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life. It also meant that the farmer and his family did not have the resources to take care of him and nurse him back to health, so they were forced to turn him over to the Germans. The Germans took him to a POW hospital (I don't know where) where he was cared for with compassion. Daddy drew a distinction between Germans and Nazis. He said the Germans at the hospital were very nice to him. (He was fortunate; some of the other five POWs wound up in concentration camps.) He felt that if he had been turned over to the Nazis, his POW experience would not have been so pleasant -- if you can call being a POW pleasant.
Before Daddy went off to England, he met my mother in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was this cocky Air Corps radio man, barely out of his teens, and Mama worked at a war plant. I don't know where they met, but he showed up for their first date drunk and unshaven. If I'd been my mother, I would have told him to take a hike and slammed the door in his face, but she was apparently more tolerant.
During the late summer of 1944, the American Red Cross managed to get Daddy released from the POW hospital and sent home. He went into a Veterans' Administration hospital in Atlanta. Mama took a bus from South Dakota to Georgia when Daddy got home. She, naturally, stayed with Daddy's family on the farm. My mother, who was used to crawling out of bed in the morning and choking down a cup of black coffee and a piece of dry toast, was treated to a Southern farm breakfast of epic proportions on her first day in the South. It consisted of, among other things, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and there were probably some eggs, ham, and/or bacon thrown in there for good measure. When asked if she wanted some milk, she readily accepted. When she took a big swallow, she discovered it was buttermilk, which she had never tasted. Nobody told her that on the farm there is milk and then there is sweet milk. This was my mother's introduction to the South. She survived and became as Southern as the rest of the family.
In October of that year Daddy got a weekend furlough from the hospital so that he and Mama could get married. Mama and Daddy got married and had my older sister and me. They were married until April 1993, when my mother died just about 18 months shy of their 50th wedding anniversary.
They lived in South Carolina (how and why the family moved from Georgia is unknown to me, but most of the clan moved) all the rest of their lives. When I graduated from library school at the University of Washington in Seattle, my parents and my sister came out to Washington, met some of my friends, attended graduation, and then we all drove back across the country.
Within a year after that, my father got an envelope postmarked "Seattle" but with no name or return address, nothing to identify the sender. Inside, it had a little clipping from a newsletter for former WWII POWs. The clipping was an ad, looking for members of the crew of the Roarin' Bill for a reunion. Daddy contacted the person who placed the ad, one of his old crew members. They met in Wilmore, Pennsylvania, at the home of one of the former POWs who had been in a concentration camp. Mama and Daddy both went and had a very good and meaningful time. His crew buddies were able to fill in some of the gaps for Daddy because he did not remember anything that happened until he woke up in the POW hospital.
When Daddy died in 2000, he was buried with military honors, folded flag, "Taps" and all.