Today I am remembering my father who served in the U.S. Air Force as a bomber pilot. His B-29, The Three Feathers, has been restored and can be seen on the March Air Field Museum’s website. Watch the running banner for the B-29, Z-49–that is the plane dad and his crew of young men flew in WWII, Pacific Theater.
Yet, there are other legends that we do not hear as much, legends that arise years after our heroes return from the battlefield.
Dad passed away on December 7, 2012 a fitting day for him because it was a day that would define the rest of his life. It took him from the small town of Watauga where he’d grown up into a vast system of power and excitement, taught him to fly complex machines, led him to bomb cities where no doubt many people suffered as we defended our own shores.
Dad, like the men and women of today, was swept into events larger than any he could imagine or had the experience to understand at the time. He eagerly joined the Army Air Corps for the personal reasons people do today: to learn to fly, to leave the poverty of his early life, and to gain the benefits provided by the best military in the world.
His service in the WWII was dangerous and like so many others, he and his crew came within inches of losing their lives. Crew members were injured but Dad brought them all home. He was older than all of them: 24. The others were 18 to 21 years old. At one point when they were flying only a few hundred feet above the waves of the Pacific, on only one engine, their lives passed before them–such brief lives. Dad recalled being filled with anger. “I thought, ‘What a terrible waste, to lose these good young men. And, for what?'” It was just like him to not even consider his own life as similarly worthy.
Much later, in his 90s, recurring dreams in which he smelled burning flesh, often woke him at night. These were recollections of the low level bombing runs made over Tokyo. They were effective in shocking the Japanese but they took untold civilian lives. Dad would query, “Will I go to hell for killing them?”
These are the moral conflicts that war imposes on the best young men and women while the rest of us read our newspapers, raise kids, and dance the night away. While we plan our day, stealth bombers kill innocent bystanders as we zero in on suspected terrorists. Are we truly engaged? No. Our volunteer military has unwittingly released the American public from the great toll we place on our young men and women. And when they return, do we truly care for them? We have the highest suicide rate among returning veterans than at anytime in our history. (See link below.)
I do not want to rain on the many parades that will happen today, but I do want to reflect on these issues because they disturb me. We fought WWI to end all wars, and WWII to defeat evil in the world. And so on…but war creates war…it never settles anything for long.
As a measure of our conscience, shouldn’t we rethink how we respond to violence? As a country that was originally founded among many spiritual communities, we have somehow walled off the military actions of our nation as exempt from moral scrutiny. That is convenient, isn’t it? I would savor a discussion about this incongruity even while I pay homage to the veterans who served and are serving our country today.
I’ll stand with all my fellow Americans today to honor our men and women in uniform even while I put out this call to reexamine what we have created and where it may lead us.
For a morally responsible perspective: Joanna Macy: Our greatest danger, on Strongheart’s blog.
Below is a portrait of my father’s crew. He is on the far right, back row.