My dad was never healthy as long as I can remember.
He had been a prisoner of war for twenty-three months when the European part of World War II ended.
I grew up with a few stories of his experience but never understood the grim reality of his experience. The stories he did tell sounded more like jokes to us his children.
The most often told story was of cabbage soup. That was his daily diet.
He said that eventually the cabbage soup had worms in it. He told us of how at first he fished the worms out. Then with a bit of wry humor he said that he would stir them back in to “give them another chance.” Eventually, he said, he welcomed the extra protein.
I am guessing that his purpose was to reprove one of the finicky eaters at the table.
What the stories did for me was to minimize my understanding of what my dad suffered.
In 1990 Dad was dying and I was able to come back home and spend time with him during his last two months.
At that time a movie called Memphis Belle was released. Dad wasn’t able to go to a theater but PBS ran a documentary that Billy Wilder made about the actual last mission of the crew of the Memphis Belle. [The movie was based on the documentary. I have since seen the movie and the documentary is better by far.]
At the time, there was a policy that any B-17 crew than completed 25 missions would return home.
The catch was the Army Air Corp didn’t count your flight as a mission until you safely returned. And no crew had been able to complete 25 missions until the Memphis Belle.
Dad was a crew member of a B-17 called the Tar Fly. They only completed half a dozen missions. But they attempted fourteen. There were missions that ended when they had to turn around before reaching their target. There were a couple missions that ended in the English Channel.
And then there was the Last Flight of the Tar Fly.
They were shot down over France,on September 9, 1943, and the survivors spent twenty three months in a German prison .
Because Dad never made a big deal of it, I didn’t realize how serious it all was.
That all changed when I saw the Billy Wilder documentary. It’s strange to me but Dad watched every World War II movie; and there were plenty of movies about the air war. But until I saw the documentary I never realized that the crews of those planes were flying in bitterly cold conditions and that there was danger in taking off with a plane full of airplane fuel and bombs. They encountered fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns. The airplane could develop system failures as well.
It was a big deal when the Memphis Belle completed its twenty-fifth mission because of the many dangers the B-17 crews faced.
I am so grateful that I had time to realize all that and tell my father that he was a hero; to thank him for what he did.
I am grateful to all the men and women who serve our country in the military and law enforcement. Not all of them will have to eat wormy cabbage soup but they all live with the realization that they are putting their lives on the line. Not just if they are in combat or under fire on the job. Today they never know when someone will make them a target of their anger.
Thank you for your service. Because of your sacrifice and bravery I am free.
God bless our veterans.