I Can’t Imagine

On a perfect October afternoon, I finally had an upclose view of the office, my mother’s brother, James Samuel Harrod, occupied during World War II. Sam’s office space was the tail gunner position on an US Army Air Corp bomber, the B-24.

Courtesy of the Collings Foundation, a P-51 fighter, and three bombers, a B-17, a B-24, and a B-25, had been flown into the Chesterfield County Airport. This was a part of the 2017 Wings of Freedom Tour.

Started in 1979, the Collings Foundation is a nonprofit. Their goal “is to organize and support “living history” events and the presentation of historical artifacts and content that enable Americans to learn more about their heritage through direct participation.”

As soon as my 86-year-old neighbor, Tiff Graham, a Korean War Navy veteran, and I arrived at the airport, and I saw those planes parked on the tarmac— I knew we were going to learn a lot.

At the gate, we were greeted by members of the Wings of Freedom Tour, where we paid our admission. Also, sitting at the gate was my church friend, Bill Owen, who had served his country in World War II learning to fly the P-51 and the B-25.

The P-51 was our first stop. Gleaming in the warm October sun, this single engine fighter looked sleek and powerful. Decorated test pilot, Chuck Yeager, flew the P-51 in World War II. The cockpit area had been retrofitted with a narrow passenger seat behind the pilot. This allows Collings’ pilots for a fee to take a person up into the wild blue yonder.

Next was the B-17, a massive plane called the Flying Fortress. There was a line waiting to tour the interior of the B-17, so we admired its exterior features and strength. Four barrel sized engines with large, perfectly milled propellers made up its wing span. One of the B-17s from World War II was nicknamed the “Memphis Belle,” and its crew’s journey into the war was twice made into movies.

A shorter line was assembled outside the B-24 so we walked over.

Built by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, the B-24 Liberator, was also a workhorse. Designed with a wingspan of 110 feet and powered by four Pratt and Whitney 1200 horsepower engines, the B-24 was no pushover. It carried a crew of ten with eleven .50 machine guns.

The contrast in design between the B-17 and B-24 were clear, but both were built to deliver a punch, and they did.

Tiff and I surveyed the exterior of the B-24, and although still nimble at 86, he opted not to enter the narrow confines of the plane.

Prior to my walk through, I had looked carefully at the tail gunner’s position. At the back of the fuselage tucked between two tall stabilizers was the space for the tail gunner. For sure it was a strategic point of protection for the B-24.

From this perch, I imagine the tail gunner had a spectacular panoramic view. But that view was quickly forgotten during those intense encounters with enemy fighter planes and heavy artillery firing from the ground.

I entered the plane and took a few steps toward the back where the tail gunner was positioned. That section of the plane had limited access. I was not able to walk further into the plane for a closer look of where Sam was stationed. But I can report this, getting to the glass enclosed area was extremely narrow, and it was amazing that he could squeeze his body into the turret.

Like his mother and two sisters, Sam was short in stature, but big in heart. I remember he had a wonderful sense of humor, an incredible work ethic, and a silent fortitude. I think his resilience came from how his mother reacted to her children being deserted by their father in Mississippi. Like the heartwood from a persimmon tree, that desertion created in Sam an unspoken toughness.

My mother and grandmother never allowed me to talk with Sam about his experiences with the B-24. In fact, I checked that with my cousin, Sam, who was named after his father. My cousin confirmed there was no conversation about World War II, and upon reflection, Sam thinks of his father as “the greatest man I never knew.”

Following my experience seeing the B-24, I alerted Sam and his sister, Pam, that the Wings of Freedom tour was headed to Burlington, North Carolina where we all grew up. They were able to make it to the airport for a tour.

For my cousin, Sam, the viewing and walk through was very emotional. This too was his first visit with a B-24.

As he studied his father’s position, his first thought was “the tail gunner was a sitting duck.” This visit answered a question about whether the tailgunner stood or sat, and in this case he sat. The longer he inspected the interior of the plane, the more my cousin marveled that the plane and personnel survived their missions.

Sam revealed that his father had kept a diary for each of the 35 missions that his plane flew in the Pacific. We know he was in the 868th Bomber Squadron H. This squadron had the nickname of “the snoopers”, and the plane depending upon handwriting interpretation was named either Lady June or Lady Jane.

The diary captured much detail including flight times, how many rounds Sam spent firing at the enemy, bombs dropped, and a bomb dropping mistake. While flying over the Makassar Strait, a submarine was sighted, a bomb was dropped, and sadly it was an American sub.

The US Army Air Corp set a requirement for heavy bomber crews to complete 25 missions. After reaching that goal, crews were eligible to return home.

My uncle’s diary clearly states he completed 35 missions aboard a B-24. According to my cousin, his father attributed this extension to backed up paperwork. Backed up paperwork or not, extending the risks associated with 10 more missions only serves to remind me this was truly the “greatest generation.”

As I was leaving the tail section of the B-24, a grandfather and his grandson were ahead of me. There was a narrow gangway to walk on through the bomb bay section of the plane.

As the grandfather was helping his grandson to carefully navigate the gangway, one of the engines on the B-25 bomber was fired up. The B-25 was further down the tarmac. A mechanic was trying to make adjustments to the left engine.

This sound startled the youngster with fear. He thought one of the B-24 engines had been started. The grandson was in panic, he cried assuming the plane he was touring was about to take off. His grandfather attempted to reassure him, but he had been unnerved.

And speaking of nerves, I don’t know how the crews of these warplanes did it. They knew what a mission entailed. Yet, day after day, they climbed in, took off, fulfilled the mission, and if they were lucky returned to their bases.

I can’t imagine what was going through the crew’s minds, nor can I imagine being a parent back in the states.

My uncle Sam survived the war.

And it is probably good that I never had a conversation with him about his office space in the B-24. He kept those stories humbly tucked away, and that was the right thing to do. Even now as an adult, I’m challenged to fully comprehend what Sam experienced.

On May 14, 1989, my uncle left this world bound for another flight in the wild blue yonder. That day, the ride was a lot calmer, and the good Lord knows he earned.

This Veterans Day make sure you take the time to thank a Veteran.

And hold close to your heart these words from Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”



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