The wing cast a shadow on the ground as we taxied, and as I sat and peered out the window beside me, I thought, how fitting, for the nose art on this airplane — this airplane that was built six years before I was born — said “Aluminum Overcast.”
The Curtis-Wright engines, apparently finely-tuned and ready to perform, reached an ear-throbbing crescendo as we accelerated and lifted from the runway, and we were airborne.
I have flown, perhaps, hundreds of flights, commercial all — except for maybe a single-engine plane or two at a fly-in breakfast and my glider ride at Harris Hill some years ago. I love to be airborne, free from the need to look up, for looking down is so much more exciting to me. But today’s flight was not so much about the altitude, or the breathtaking view of Cayuga Lake, as it was about my innate need to visit history.
This B-17, a strategic weapon in its day, dubbed the “Flying Fortress” for the sum of its guns, took off on the late summer day after a weather delay …
• • •
“Weather over the target,” the meteorologist finally said, “will be clearing …” and the mission was on.
As Aluminum Overcast left its shadow behind and climbed toward the sun, ten young men prepared to do their job, once again, of trying to turn the tide of a war that had been going badly for the forces of democracy. Each of them — in his own thoughts, and in his own way — shouldered that responsibility.
Hundreds of planes littered the sky, casting shadows on the ground below — an aluminum overcast of tremendous magnitude — as they joined in formation and headed for a target deemed necessary to eliminate. Ten young men in each plane, thousands aloft at a time, heading off to an unknown fate …
• • •
Sitting now where they once stood, I was comfortable in knowing that no enemy fire would shatter the afternoon calm, that no flak — those shards of steel blasted from below — would do their best to penetrate this delicate aluminum skin. In a precious few minutes I would safely return to my home and family, and thoughts of the courage of those young souls — and their sacrifices — left me in awe.
I barely spoke to my fellow passengers, the noise made it difficult anyway, but I felt the need to preserve my feelings for those of the past. So as I moved about the aircraft, spending time at each position where a crew member once went to war, I ran my hands over the polished metal — polished by years of hands such as mine — and wondered if I would have had the courage to do such a job for my country …
• • •
“How old are you?” our pilot asked a boy standing in line for the next flight.
“13,” the just-barely teenager answered.
“Not quite old enough,” the pilot went on, “but the young men that flew off to war in these planes were 17, 18, 19 … and many never came home.”
Kids, I thought, and a familiar thought came back to me, the mindfulness that we send our boys — and our girls, too — off to fight our battles.
“In times of peace,” someone once said, “sons bury their fathers; and in times of war, fathers bury their sons…”
• • •
I was born in peacetime — the peacetime between the Second World War and the Korean War — and grew up during the cold war, that no-firing war between democracy and communism. But I was steeped in history, fostered by movies and television shows that showed, usually, more glory and less anguish, less suffering, than real war actually had.
Each war had its casualties, men and women, young and old, who served and sacrificed and came back changed, or didn’t come back at all.
Our cemeteries are full, both here and on foreign soil, of the bodies of our fallen. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines — patriots all — fighting for a way of life we have come to expect as our right, our right to be free.
The returning troops from the world wars were welcomed home with parades and honors, and though they bore both physical and mental scars — the scars of what they had seen and what they had done — they went back to their homes and disrupted lives as best they could …
And we thank them for that, at least now we seem to, though we somehow forgot in more recent decades that even if a war is not a “popular” one, our young men and women are stilled called to duty. And they go …
• • •
The engines droned on, and I stood for a time behind the pilots of this magnificent machine — seeing what they could see — and then I crawled my way to the bombardier’s seat, and sat looking at the lush green landscape below, the crystal-clear waters of Cayuga Lake, and the blue sky interspersed with a cloud or two.
And I thought of those that had sat in a similar seat — for this Aluminum Overcast, delivered just as World War II was ending, never saw combat — and wondered what they were thinking as they bent over the bombsight and pushed the button to release a torrent of destruction on the countryside below ...
• • •
“This aircraft has a Norden bombsight,” the pilot explained, as we stood, transfixed, while he described the plane in which we had just flown.
“It was ‘state-of-the-art,’” he continued, “and was said to be able to drop a bomb in a pickle barrel … that is, if the pickle barrel was the size of Rhode Island …”
• • •
And I thought, once again, about the young men that flew these planes. I tried my best to feel their frustration of missed targets, bad weather, and repeating missions over and over again to try to force a reluctant enemy into submission.
And I thought of the scenes I had watched, replayed in countless old movies and television shows, and now, replayed in my head, actual Army Air Forces footage of these planes in action. Scenes of hundreds of aircraft dropping thousands of bombs, and scenes of airplanes — damaged by enemy fire — dropping from the sky in pieces as well.
How much we owe them, I thought, as I stood where a waist-gunner stood, watching his portion of the sky, his side of the airplane, for dangers appearing in an instant. I thought of the noise of guns firing incessantly, and excited voices rattling in their ears as their comrades cried out in warning of enemy aircraft.
How much we owe them — a debt we can never repay — for many never came home to collect their honors …
• • •
And I think of my friend Ross, lost in another aircraft, another war, another time. Felled by enemy fire as his helicopter hovered over a patch of now-forgotten ground in a faraway land called Vietnam.
Ross Bedient never got a parade, nor a warm homecoming welcome. He got a funeral with a flag-draped coffin and a grave on a quiet Dundee hillside from where one could see, if their vision was strong enough, his family home in Valois across the beautiful waters of Seneca Lake. And he got his name on a wall …
We mustn’t forget their sacrifices, veterans all, for we live under the umbrella of freedom they work so hard to provide.