Snapshots by Gloria Freeland -- Nov. 9, 2007
After spending nine hours in two cars, two planes and three airports, we were glad to arrive at our hotel in Pensacola, Florida. We were tired, but the banner stretched across the hotel signboard made us smile. It read, "Welcome 457th Bomb Group.18th Biennial Reunion." While we weren't truly members of the group, the reunion was why we were there.
The United States was not prepared when World War II began, and the first offensive military help it was able to muster to Britain was a few B-17 bombers and crews in early 1942. But that number quickly grew and two years later, the 457th's four squads began flying missions. By the war's end, they had flown 236, losing 83 aircraft in the process. Husband Art's uncle had been one of its pilots.
And now, these many years later, some of the fellows who flew those missions as young men in their late teens or early 20s were again gathering - this time with their wives, children, other relatives and friends.
In the days that followed, nowhere did the stories flow more freely than in the memorabilia room. It had tables along all of the walls and a double row of tables down the center. Most were covered with notebooks jammed full of documents, photos, newspaper clippings and letters - about events that took place more than 60 years ago. Each group and squad had unique patches and at one table, new ones could be purchased as souvenirs.
I saw Larry McMahon paging through one of the notebooks. I had met him at the reunion in England last year. He had just discovered a picture of his crew in one of the albums. I asked what his role had been, but could have guessed by his small stature. Only small men could get into the cramped quarters the ball turret gunner had to work in.
I had seen many of the materials in England, but there were some that were new to me. One book, Nose Art, contained pictures of various items painted on the fuselage at the front of the plane. Many were just words such as "Kraut Krusher" or "Home James," but scantily-clad women were also popular with names such as "Tis Me" or "Oh, Kay!" It made me think of similar ones I had seen in my Uncle Stan's photo albums of his time in the Pacific as an aircraft mechanic.
Two other notebooks contained planning maps, indicating the location, altitude and headings during each portion of the corresponding mission. Art was going through one when one of the fellows asked, "Look up September 9, 1944. That was my first mission."
Art did and reported, "It says Ludwigshafen."
"I remember it as Mannheim," replied the soldier.
"You're right," Art answered. "The detailed report says Ludwigshafen was covered by clouds, so Mannheim was bombed instead."
Similar interactions between younger attendees and the old soldiers of the Fireball group, as the 457th was called, continued throughout the reunion. The events were capped by a closing banquet during which the gavel was passed to the new association president -- a gavel containing part of the Miss Ida, one of the planes that crashed and burned, killing all but one of its crew.
Last year Art discovered his former boss at K-State was also a pilot in the 457th. So we sat with John and his wife Mildred during the banquet, along with Clara and Mavis, the widows of John's bombardier and radio operator.
Mavis was petite with hair swept up and sparkling eyes. When the 1940s-era music began, she told me she and her husband would have been the first on the dance floor. Clara said Mavis had told her she had a notion to grab one of the guys and say, "You're not dead yet. Let's dance!" Eventually she got a dance with John.
The first 457th Bomb Group reunion was in Topeka in 1973, when most of the men were near 50. Now that most are in their 80s and older, it's not likely there will be too many more reunions. More than 40 association members have died in just the past two years, including a friend of John's whom we had spent an evening with in England.
"Old soldiers never die, they just fade away," the association president said to the assembled group, quoting from General Douglas MacArthur's farewell speech to Congress. MacArthur's phrase came from a World War I British barracks ballad, which was a parody of a 19th century gospel book.
But the men and their stories haven't faded away yet. At least for this weekend, we were privileged to be with the old soldiers and to take a sentimental journey with a few of them.