My Dad was turned down as slightly too old when he tried to enlist right after Pearl. He quit his job and went to work on the night shift in a defense plant making planes for the Navy. He also served in the Coast Guard Auxiliary patrolling for German subs off Long Island on a converted cabin cruiser with nothing but a 50 cal. machine gun mounted on deck.
But three uncles served in combat. One rose to captain and waded ashore side-by-side with at Morotai in the Moluccas Islands. “All eyes were upon me, or so I thought, until I turned around,” quoted the hometown newspaper.
A second uncle flew 50 missions from North Africa over Italy and then from Italy into Austria, Romania and Germany. On a raid over Vienna his B-24 “Liberator,” named “Alice from Dallas,” was shattered in a sea of flak. My uncle had pulled the top gunner—unconscious and with an arm torn off—from his turret and kept him alive with tourniquet, bandaging and sulfa drugs. The pilot was about to order the crew to bail out but saw that the gunner could not. With the plane “shot to pieces” and two engines gone, they made for Italy and “landed at 150 miles an hour…without flaps or brakes” and “shot right off the end into a field with an ambulance racing after,” as reported in the press when my uncle was awarded the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster.
The third uncle was a fast-rising West Pointer who had made full Colonel at 32. Commanding the 311 Fighter-Bomber Group of the Tenth Air Force and flying escort on a raid over Burma in November 1943 in one of the first P-51 “Mustangs” to see service in that theater, he was shot down and captured by the Japanese. There were fragmentary reports of other prisoners encountering him in the camps. He smuggled out a letter to my aunt in tiny print on the inside of a Lucky Strike package. And then nothing. He is believed to have died on a ship sunk by friendly fire; the Japs, as we called them, did not mark P.O.W. transport ships.
A few years ago I searched for traces of him in the unit action websites on the Internet and instead was stunned to come across the first-person account of the Japanese fighter pilot who shot him down, a celebrated ace with twelve kills. It is rated as the first downing by the Japanese of a P-51. He faulted my uncle for a diving maneuver (“Split-S”) rather than using the power of the P-51 to climb. It is best my aunt did not live to see a 1981 interview with the pilot on YouTube.
We were ages 5 to 9 during WWII. We treasured the V-mail, the K-rations, the shoulder patches, the Japanese souvenirs they sent us. These were our heroes growing up.