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Among the things I received when my grandfather died in 2007 was a photocopy of an article published in Air Classics Magazine from April 1966. Grandpa had been a co-pilot on a B-24 in World War II, assigned to the 456th Bomb Group, stationed in Cerignola, Italy. When I examined the article, it turns out it was written by a pilot named Robert Carlin, who was in my Grandfather’s squadron, and it describes a particularly difficult mission, flown on March 23, 1945. Carlin’s article is beautifully written, grim, and dark. The article has stayed with me and often on Memorial Day, I think of this passage:
“Nine full minutes to ‘bombs away.’ Our box of seven planes was getting a real pasting. We heard the ting-tong of metal fragments resonating in the metallic hollow of the fuselage. Intercom reported minor damage.
Seven minutes to go.
A minor course correction put the seven ships of Charlie Box in the heaviest flak belt. We could see their formation bounce unevenly from the pounding. Then Charlie 3 got it. It was a vital hit. Chutes immediately appeared behind the wobbling craft, banking left to clear the formation. The sixth man came out in a ball, the seventh spreadeagled. Number eight was on fire. He pulled his D-ring and we watched the chute flare. But the canopy had rings of fire eating at it like cigarette paper. The chute slipped, caught, slipped again, and suddenly collapsed into trailing ribbon. The doomed gunner pulled his knees up under his chin in reflex against the plunge. No more chutes. The plane fell off into a vertical dive and slammed into the ground in horrifying violence. Pilot and copilot were still aboard.” Robert Carlin, “Twin Tailed Time Bomb,” Air Classics Magazine, April, 1966.
It’s just a few lines in the article, but the image of that poor gunner, his parachute burning, haunts me like few others I have read. It has gotten worse since I have had children of my own and gained some idea of what his poor mother and father felt, who had dedicated themselves to raising him, who rocked him and sang to him as a baby, who taught what they needed him to know, who worried over him every time he was sick, every time he was hurt, and were relieved every time he recovered, who tried so hard to make sure he had what he needed to make a good life, and who felt proud of him in so many moments along the way. And it all ended like that, set afire and falling, having barely lived. How their broken hearts must have wondered, even long after the sharp grief faded away, what the point of him was, what his purpose was, what all that had been for. I hope, in God’s Good Time, they received their answer. I hope his poor mother never read that article, never knew that, when his last chance to survive burned away, and as he fell to his death, he pulled himself into the same position he was in when she carried him in her womb, when he was safe with her.
What the lesson of all this is, I don’t know. The best I can come up with is to say we ought to try to make ourselves worthy of this family’s sacrifice, cherish our lives, be good to one another, be a good people, be a good nation, a nation slow to war. And hold out for the day when, in His infinite Mercy, God redeems this world, and makes it so this did not happen to this young man.Published in