I’ve bragged my entire life about my dad being an Air Force fighter pilot. He has never, ever bragged about it. We weren’t even allowed to call him sir.
Apparently, part of the “right stuff” is that you only talk freely about your airborne adventures with your fellow fliers. My mother used to sigh as he and his Air Force chums invariably wandered off “into the hanger” at cocktail parties and the talk turned to airplanes. Still, his part in “The Greatest Generation” rarely entered into the day-to-day family conversation. We’d get glimpses after he retired and we’d get visits from one Air Force friend or another. Sometimes, if we were very lucky, we’d hear about a time when my father’s skill and calm saved their necks, or what an excellent flight instructor he was.
It is only within the last couple of years that I have begun to ask him pointed questions about his time in a cockpit, and the results are wonderful. My favorite is his first tour in Alaska, at the end of World War II. I learned that the Aleutian Islands didn’t have critical strategic value for either side, but the U.S. felt that control of the islands would prevent possible Japanese assaults against the West Coast. After a yearlong battle, the Japanese finally left Atu and Kiska in 1943. By 1945, the Americans were, in fact, gearing up to attack Japan from the Northern Pacific, but the war ended before the plan went into action.
My dad was on Atu. It was barren, cold and deadly boring when you weren’t flying. The food arrived by slow boat and was pretty bad. But most of all, like every man who joined up, my dad was utterly frustrated not to be somewhere where there was real combat.
They spent a lot of time on alert and regularly scrambled whenever an unrecognized blip came across the radar screen. They rarely encountered anything but occasional departing Japanese airplanes in the distance. He casually mentioned that the Japanese did actually bomb the base once, but failed to hit anything important. Beyond that, he did a lot of practice runs, four hours out and four back, landing on fumes. And of course, he got a lot of really, really foul-weather flying experience.
After awhile, he talked about exploring the island and finding deep caves. Many had been stocked by Japanese soldiers who had dug in on high ground away from the shore when the Americans were fighting to gain control of the island. My dad found a host of delicacies from canned lobster to sake stashed in those caves, nicely preserved by the cold.
This week I asked, “What was the most frightening thing you ever experienced?” He related, with a wry grin, a time over the frigid Alaskan waters when his engine froze up and stalled. He tried several times to get it to turn over, but no luck, so he took off all his harnesses and prepared to make a ditch landing in the very, very cold water.
“Then I decided to give it just one more try,” he said. “And, by George, it started. It was the sweetest sound I have ever heard.”
I even felt myself heave a sigh of relief, 62 years later.
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