Veterans Remember Pearl Harbor Day

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Not unlike, September 11, 2001, most people remember where they were and what they were doing on Pearl Harbor Day. Some remember returning from Sunday visits with relatives, others remember relaxing at home listening to the radio or, some, like my Dad, remember leaving the movies, having seen Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon ─ popular movies of the day. It is said that the average American went to the movies two times a week in those days, perhaps they were seeking escape. The country was on edge from the war raging in Europe. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan were rapidly deteriorating. No one expected an attack on American soil however, not even President Roosevelt who on the following day would proclaim: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 ─ a date which will live in infamy ─ the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

 

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USS Arizona under attack – Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

That day changed everything.

 “Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, lives were forever changed; plans were postponed, dreams were put on hold. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans enlisted to serve their country in the war effort.”Journey Home – How a Simple Act of Kindness Led to the Creation of a Living Legacy by Bonnie Paton Moon

A few weeks ago the Westport Public Library in partnership with the Westport Historical Society held a screening of a documentary by local filmmaker and former New York Times correspondent, Jarret Liotta. Called Community and Country: A Spirit of Service, twenty local veterans are interviewed for the film. They share their war experiences and the impact that serving their country had on their lives. Among those interviewed is 94 year old Leonard Everett Fisher, a WWII veteran, who has lived in town for some 60 years. I suspect few would know of Mr. Fisher as a veteran. More likely they would know him for the 250 plus children’s books he has illustrated, or the 80 plus books he wrote. Or they would know him for the ten postage stamps he designed or  as a gifted artist or for his service over the years to our Westport community.

I got to know Leonard Fisher from working with him at the Westport Library when he served as Board President in the late 1980’s. I knew about the books and the artwork years before I learned about his service to his country in WWII. I found out about this part of his life by accident, having overheard a conversation he was having with another Library staff member. That day, Mr. Fisher was talking about his experience during the War making topographical maps for the many battles that were fought ─ a fascinating story, especially to someone who hadn’t heard much talk about WWII experiences. Even though my Dad was a WWII pilot, he hadn’t shared his story with us or the world ─ yet. That wouldn’t happen for over a decade.

Following the screening, three Veterans appeared on stage to talk about the movie and their insights. Mr. Fisher talked about landing in Casablanca in December 1943. His unit was suppose to move on to Bari, Italy but a German air raid on Bari sank the ship that contained all their equipment. Seventeen Allied ships were sunk there and one of those hit contained mustard gas which contaminated the entire town of Bari. He was then sent to Algiers, Africa where he created maps for the American 5th Army, the invasion of south France, for the D-Day invasion in Normandy and maps for General George Patton’s 3rd Army.

“The military topographic ground maps ─ maps that described land elevations and depression above and below sea level (and various other information) made during WWII ─ both 2 and 3 dimensional ─ originated with aerial photographs and a variety of intelligence matters. It was a complicated process called “photogrammetry.”  The accuracy of these maps in a science that was still in its infancy was beyond belief. All of the maps that I worked on flattened the curvature of the earth with a projection called “polyconic” based on the mathematics of a series of cones. All of these maps were 1:25,000 projections (i.e. 1″ on the printed map = 25,000″ on the ground). Also, each of these ground maps had 3 Norths: True North, Magnetic North, and Grid North. The difference of degrees between True and Magnetic North was called the “magnetic  declination.” The Grid North belonged to an arbitrary imposed system of squared lines that informed the soldiers in the field their exact position and also assisted the mathematics of artillery trajectory. Obviously naval approach and bombardment charts that  I worked on were of different projections, different scales and were not necessarily made from aerial photos.” – Leonard Everett Fisher

One of the younger veterans on the stage remembered not having a bath for over a month to which Mr. Fisher responded that when he first arrived in Casablanca “there was no water.” For several months they were issued just a small cup of water each day to take care of their daily hygiene. From Africa, Mr. Fisher’s unit was transferred to Hawaii where they worked underground in a secret installation creating maps for the invasion of Iwo Jima and of Okinawa. Conditions in that underground location were so humid, Mr. Fisher said, that the moisture would collect on the ceiling and it would start raining.

Veterans in the audience then got up to speak. Ted Diamond, also in his nineties and a WWII veteran visits our middle school each Veteran’s Day to share his story so students can learn about the War and these experiences firsthand. He worries that this year students seemed disinterested in his speech ─ he worries that the students are not learning about this important piece of our history. According to Mr. Liotta that was his purpose in making the movie ─ to keep the stories alive for future generations. Mr. Fisher says that is why he wanted to participate in the film.

I want my grandkids to know what their grandfather did. I thought there was a job to be done, I did what was asked of me, and I did it willingly because I enlisted.”

I recently viewed a short film of the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. The initial fire balls followed by billowing black smoke and smoldering remains for days following were eerily reminiscent of the attack on the World Trade Center. The days following 9-11 were filled with stories of heroes and it seemed we banded together in unity much like the country did following December 7, 1941. The younger veterans on the stage cited 9-11 as their reason for enlisting, much like Pearl Harbor had inspired thousands of young men and woman to sign up, like Leonard Fisher and my Dad. I hope that Mr. Diamond’s observations are not an indication of the general attitude of our country. I hope veterans will continue to share their stories. My Dad finally did. When he was in his mid-seventies he was interviewed by Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a retired research entomologist who enjoyed interviewing WWII veterans for articles that later appeared in various publications. My Dad was just 18 years old when he enlisted. He joined the Air Force immediately after graduating high school in 1942.

 “I will never forget Pearl Harbor Day. I was at the movies in Sanford (Maine). It was a Sunday. We got out of the movies about 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and there were newspaper vendors in the street in front of the theater yelling about Pearl Harbor. That was December 7 and I was going to graduate in June from high school. Sometime before graduation, this recruiter came to the high school and gave a lecture, saying if any of the seniors could pass the entrance test, they could go in the Air Force. I knew I was going to be drafted as soon as I got out of high school, and I didn’t like the idea of going in the Infantry or anything like that. One reason that I picked the Air Force—because I hate sleeping on the ground. And I couldn’t imagine myself sleeping in some trench someplace. And I said ‘That’s not for me.’ If I go in the Air Force, and I make it back at least I got a bed to sleep in. So I took the entrance exam. And the guy told us ‘This exam is actually given to second year college students, you’re going to find it rough.’ So I think it was about 4 in the afternoon before we got done with that exam. And, lucky as hell, I passed it.”  – Wally Paton, excerpt from Journey Home

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Wally Paton, Bennettsville, South Carolina – 1943

He would spend another year in pilot training school before reporting to Molesworth, England where he flew his 1st mission, as co-pilot in April of 1944.

We went to B-17 school and then we went out to Salt Lake City, where we joined up with a bunch of other guys who were to make up our crew, pilot and co-pilot. The pilot school I went to was in Tennessee. That was all book work and tests. They’d give you a pin and a piece of metal with a hole in it and you had to put the pin through the hole, and you couldn’t touch the side. That would mean you were shaky or something. We finally got through that and I got sent to Bennettsville, South Carolina, for my primary training, where I learned to fly an old PT-17, which was a bi-wing, double cockpit, open deal. I learned to fly on that. I survived and then got sent to Albany, Georgia, for advanced training where I was flying AT9’s and AT10’s. Now those were twin-engine planes. I made it through that all right, too. Then we went back to Salt Lake City, where we got assigned to a crew of ten men—the crew of the B-17. Without any B-17 training I got assigned as a copilot, where I started out.  In 1944, we were assigned to go to England. I was assigned to the 359th Bomb Squadron in Molesworth, which was in the midlands. We were stationed there during the war—flew all of our missions out of there. I did 31.” – Wally Paton, excerpt from Journey Home

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Wally Paton (second from left) at Pilot Training School – 1943

“I’m glad I participated in the war, Paton said. I don’t feel I did anything extraordinary. I did my job like every other American.”

This seems to be a common sentiment among veterans. None of those interviewed for Mr. Liotta’s documentary consider themselves heroes. Each was proud to have participated ─ they had learned invaluable lessons from serving their country and despite the sacrifice and hardship, they would not hesitate to do it again.

Pilot Wally Paton & the B-17

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Pilot Wally Paton (second row, second from left) with his crew in front of the B-17

“Pilot Wally Paton never gave the order to bail out, despite the condition of his B-17 on May 11, 1944. The day began with orders to bomb a ball bearing plant in Saarbrucken, Germany. The day ended with a kiss on the airfield at Molesworth, England, and a shot of scotch. In between the ten airmen who did their job on a plane called ‘Knock-out Dropper’ straddled the thin line between life and death for some ten hours. ‘That was the toughest mission we ever flew,’ said Paton, a first lieutenant in the 359th Bomber Squadron, 303rd Bomber Group….’There was a whole squadron of crippled airplanes flying back to the base that day. The subject of bailing never came up. No one was injured and no one wanted to be caught in enemy territory. All we wanted was to get home after a successful mission…’” excerpt from Journey Home – Nogales International Times interview with Wally Paton

Last May, some 73 years after my dad flew that harrowing mission over Germany, the B-17 flew into Sikorsky Airport, about 20 minutes from my home. The plane was traveling around the country providing tours and rides. When I heard on my local news that May 31st would be her last day here, I dropped everything and headed for Sikorsky. Pulling into the parking lot, I was awestruck.  I hadn’t imagined her that big.

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B-17 at Sikorsky Airport, May 31, 2017

 

With a shiny steel exterior, a massive wing span sporting four monster engines, and gun turrets back, front and under, she is well nicknamed – “the flying fortress.”  Clouds moved in while we were there, so pilots were delaying passenger rides until the sky cleared. I never got to ride in her, but I did get an extensive tour of the inside and outside of the plane and by chance got to talk to a Veteran who had flown the B-17’s.

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Gun inside the B-17

I had been there perhaps an hour when the WWII veteran made an unexpected appearance. People gathered around him like he was a celebrity, wanting to hear a story or just catch a word with one of the “greatest generation.” I waited my turn as I wanted to spend a little time with this hero having just written about my Dad’s experiences as a pilot in WWII for my book, Journey Home. Finally, it was my turn to have his full attention. He pointed out where the bombs were housed – he related a story about the time the bombs got stuck and they had to go in there and manually push them. He talked about enemy fire and bullet holes in the plane and friends he had lost in battle.

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I had an opportunity to talk to a WWII veteran who flew the B-17’s, just like Dad

When I got home, I wrote my brother, George, about the experience. It had been an exciting and deeply emotional day and I wanted to share it with him. He wrote back his own story about his fondest memory of the B-17.

“In the 1990’s the Owl’s Head (Maine) airport was putting on a air show and was going to have three WWII planes on hand, one being the B-17. I couldn’t pass that up. I went up there with my rather large video camera of the era. It was Friday afternoon and a small crowd was waiting for the three planes to fly in. The first was a small fighter (P-38, I think) – I filmed it landing. Then a CD-3 (small cargo plane) did the same. Then it came, hearing it first, then looking up – a B-17 – overhead. It flew down past the end of the runway, banked hard making a 180 turn and approached the runway. During the hard turn I could see the distinctive profile of the wings with all four engines. It landed and taxied right up to me with all four engines firing away and then shut down, the propellers slowly stopped. I filmed it all. I got to go on board and was surprised at how cramped the interior is. I squeezed past into the pilot’s seat and tried to imagine Dad sitting there with his co-pilot inches away. The gun turret was directly overhead and the navigation compartment right below. I squeezed through the bomb bay area and out to the tail – each area having defensive gun turrets along the way.

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Pilot and co-pilot seats – B-17

During my next visit to Patagonia, I told Dad I had a surprise for him. I sat him and Mom down and played the video on the TV. I said there were a few vintage planes on the film and I wanted to see if he could identify them. First the fighter appears and he remembered flying alongside many of them during the first part of his missions. The CD-3 was next and he remembered seeing a lot of those back then delivering parts and soldiers. He talked about it for a few minutes as I paused the film. I proceeded and then the B-17 came into view and he said ‘Oh my God, it’s a 17’ and he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. ‘It’s been a long time since I have seen one of those in the air,’ he said.  You could tell he was really moved seeing one of those iron birds still flying. It landed and taxied right up to him, shut down the engines and then the plane sat there in silence, as did Dad. I told him how I had filmed it. He didn’t say much at first – just looked and remembered what those days during the war were like seeing scores of the 17’s coming and going. He was surprised and pleased to see what once was the aircraft he flew 31 bombing missions in and had somehow survived it all, which many didn’t.” – George Paton

A young man named Rishi Sharma, just 19 years old, is currently traveling around the country interviewing surviving WWII veterans. His mission – to interview all those vets who are still with us before their story is lost forever. My Dad will not be among those this young man interviews – he passed away in 2001.  Fortunately for our family, my dad was interviewed in 2000 by Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a research entomologist who had retired to the Patagonia, Arizona area and enjoyed interviewing and writing about WWII veterans. We have the taped interviews and manuscript. Both Dr. Whitcomb and my Dad passed away before the manuscript reached final form, but his wife Judith offered to share the tapes with the family. What an incredible gift to hear my dad’s voice talking about his war experiences.

As we honor today, Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2017,  the men and women who sacrificed so much for our freedom, I am reminded of these special memories of my dad as well as the “simple act of kindness” of Judith Whitcomb in sharing his story with us. Many of those who served were just 19 and 20 years old at the time – one day graduating from high school and just a few months later sitting in a bomber risking everything to  protect our country.

“I’m glad I participated in the War,” Paton said. “I don’t feel like I did anything extraordinary. I did my job like every other American.” – Wally Paton, Nogales International Times

Dad earned four Oak Leaf Clusters, a Distinguished Flying Cross and two combat ribbons.

Pretty extraordinary, I’d say.

She was a great plane, Paton said with a smile. Everyone depended on her to get us through every battle and she did.” Wally Paton,  Nogales International Times

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Ball Gunner Turret – gunner was protected only by glass in a very cramped space

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Back of B-17 with Gunner Turret

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Pilot’s check List – B-17