|My dad's painting of one of the P-47s he flew during World War II.|
Today, June 5, 2013, marks the 69th anniversary of the day before D-Day. For most people, from those who lived it to those who experienced through movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, tomorrow is the day to remember. And they wouldn't be wrong. But for my family, this is day that matters.
I was born into an Air Force family. My dad was a fighter pilot, whose career spanned from WWII to Vietnam and beyond. My mother also served as an officer in the USAF. In fact, that's how they met and married. So I grew up surrounded by stories of war and honor and sacrifice. But the one story my dad told about his experience as a pilot in WWII, that was The Story.
The day before the invasion, my father's squadron was tasked with taking out a bridge over the river Seine, to prevent German reinforcements from getting to the beachheads. Though fighter pilots, this was not an unusual assignment because they flew P-47s. The heaviest fighters in the war, they were big, burly and virtually indestructible, which made them ideal for tactical bombing. Besides, intelligence told them they could fly in under the German anti-aircraft fire, hit the target, and get home with little problem.
As my dad told the story to us as children, he would chuckle and say "Of course, intelligence was wrong." The Germans could depress their guns, and my dad's squadron was shot up mercilessly. They managed to knock out the bridge, but my dad's plane was severely damaged. He nursed it back over the Channel to England before having to bail out, losing a new shoe in the process. Parachuting in a field, still fuming over his lost shoe, he was picked up by a British farmer in a truck converted to coal power. My dad returned to base later that evening, where he was given an aspirin, debriefed, and prepared to fly air cover for D-Day the next day. And that was the story I grew up with, full of drama and adventure and, yes, even laughter at the vagaries of war.
Several years after my father died, I was talking with my mother and the D-Day story came up. She stopped me and asked if my dad had ever told me the whole story. I said, "There's more?" So she told me the rest.
As mentioned above, my dad's squadron was getting cut up by flak. But they had to knock out that bridge at all costs. Then my dad saw one of his friends take an anti-aircraft round directly in the cockpit. Blood spattered the remnants of the canopy. My dad's headset crackled to life, and he heard the dying words of his fellow pilot: "I'll get it." My dad watched as his friend heeled that massive fighter over, with bomb still attached, and dove straight into the bridge, destroying it with the blast. Objective achieved, and shells still exploding around them, the remaining pilots turned back toward base, my dad included.
Now that I know the whole story, I always set aside time on June 5 to give thanks for the bravery and sacrifice of that young pilot, who likely saved my dad's life and helped make my life possible.