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A Rainy Afternoon

I've been thinking a lot lately about a lot of things. Chief among them is the direction of the Fedora Chronicles (and no, you have no need to run – this isn't turning into one of those discussions) and how it's been kind of dry lately as far as retro content is concerned, so for the past couple of weeks I've been hunting new article material. As has been my practice so far, most of my new articles spring from the remains of older ones I wrote during my short time in Civil Air Patrol. The originals were (and are) suitably cringe-worthy, but more often than not there's at least a few pieces that can be salvaged and hammered into new and better material.

A week or two ago, I found myself sorting through the old files. One that's persistently been calling me was one of the first – rather, THE first – that I'd written as Flight Historian back in 2002. Just like all the others, it hasn't aged well. It's frequently choppy, jumps from one tense to another, and as a general thing, reminds me that at least I'm not as bad as I used to be. I guess that's something. But I digress.

The article covers the U.S. Army Air Force's consistent efforts throughout the course of the Second World War to destroy or disable the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. I can't remember how I originally learned of the raids (there were three major missions) but there was something in there, some aspect of the story, that grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go. Maybe it was the setting; all missions to Ploesti fell under the geographic area that comprised the Mediterranean Theater of Operations, which is frequently neglected in and of itself.

Maybe it was the planes; the largest two raids of the three were flown by B-24 Liberators, a kind of red-headed stepchild to the bomber aficionados of the warbird crowd. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because it had all the elements that make a great story. Just imagine – an almost unknown mission carried out by lesser-favored airplanes in a forgotten corner of the war zone. I mean, what more can you ask? In weirdo history nut terms, this was a goldmine. So I wrote an article. It was accurate to the facts I had on hand. I showed to it friends and unit members. They liked it. I showed it to retired air force officers. They liked it. Whoever I vetted it past, the reaction was universally positive. Most of them didn't know the name, so it was all new to them. Finally, I decided it was good enough for my purposes. I printed a final copy, filed it with the others, and let it go.

I say I let it go, but Ploesti wouldn't quite let go of me. It's stayed back there, sitting there in the back of my mind, dug in and solidified. As time passed, it was something I would think of infrequently, though in short bursts of intense interest. It began to work itself into conversations. It worked itself in my on-going fictional project. I grabbed whatever material I could find and read it over and over. I hunted long-gone airfields in North Africa on Google Earth. I went after pictures, video, and paintings. The Ploesti missions – the second in particular – became an obsession.

I was not immediately aware of the change. As time went on the novelty wore thin. In its place came something better. No longer was the Liberator a novel solution in a war full of Flying Fortresses, it was a well-built machine that could hold its own against its more famous semi-rival. No longer was general ignorance of the missions merely unfortunate; it was a shame that bordered on the criminal. Still, there was a certain detachment, as is the great problem with secondhand history. No matter how much I read or how much gun camera footage I watched or how much material I laid hands on, fifty years gone kept the events behind a kind of haze. For all my facts, it might well have happened on another world.

Being a military history nut comes in handy at times. Not long ago I was fortunate to land a job at one of my favorite pawn and gun places in Waco. I already knew the employees there, and I could carry on a decent conversation with all of them. Especially Bob. Bob too is a military history nut, though his preference runs towards the U.S. Marine Corps – unsurprising, perhaps, as he wore the globe and anchor to Korea in 1952. Some of what followed is discussion fodder. Some isn't. He also has more than a passing interest in aviation, military or otherwise. To be fair, mere words cannot capture Bob. Bob must be experienced. We've gone over Ploesti on several occasions. He knows a few things I don't, and I'm always adding, but – for all his fascinating experiences, he wasn't there either. But again, I digress.

I had been working for a few weeks when the first bad winter weather came. Temperatures dropped, the sky clouded over, and the wind started blowing cold. The good news is that that kind of weather makes a nice change from the regular oven they call Texas. The bad news is that bad weather days are generally lousy sales days, especially during the working week. The store was pretty dead for a Friday. A handful of customers had been through, but by late afternoon it was fairly clear that sales-wise, the day was going to be a bust.

I think it was a little past four when things were at the slowest. Being easily amused, I took my counter gun – a 1911 – out from beneath the cash register, dropped the magazine, cleared the chamber, and began the disassembly process. Like I said – I work in a gun shop, and that's considered quality entertainment. I had the pistol down to the basic component parts I heard the door open. An older man came in, and I set aside the pieces and slid off my stool.

He was looking for a holster for his a .22 pistol, he explained, because he lived on a farm outside town and the vermin and pests were getting to be trouble and he wanted to be able to carry his gun with him. A .22 was about all he could handle since his hands had gotten to shaking so much. I showed him to the appropriate rack and he selected one that fit. I noticed on the way back to the register that he was wearing a ballcap with Liberator stitched across the bill and a small rendition of a B-24 on the peak. When we got the counter, he looked over the pieces of the .45 spread across the glass and smiled. He remembered that one, he said, though he hadn't shot one in fifty-odd years.

Out of curiosity, I asked if he had flown the B-24 by chance, adding that I was a student pilot and the Liberator was a favorite old bird of mine. The old man smiled and nodded. He had flown both, in fact, and given the choice he'd take a Liberator any day – he also said how good it was to see somebody my age who knew about 'his' bomber. Somewhere in the conversation, I brought up Ploesti; how nobody seemed to know about it, how terribly wrong it had gone, and how so many crucial details had been overlooked in the haste to knock out Hitler's refineries. The old man smiled and nodded, not without a touch of sadness. He told me that, in total, 163 Liberators had taken off that morning. When they returned that afternoon, 89 planes and almost five hundred aircrew were missing from the remains of their formations. He knew because his brother, also a Liberator pilot – was among them.

I spent the better part of the next half-hour listening to him talk about his own experiences with the Liberator; by war's end, he had thirty seven missions to his credit, all with the 8th Air Force. He talked about the German flak and fighters, and about the airfields in England. He talked about flying blind into Iceland in an airplane the size of a small apartment building while ferrying the B-24s to Europe. He talked about the freezing cold at altitude and the hospitality of the English, and later of his return visit years after the war. And then it was time for him to go, he said. His wife, the girl he had married when he came home in 1945, would be waiting. She would worry if he was too late. I rang up the sale and shook his hand, and we exchanged parting courtesies.

After he was gone, I kept thinking about the conversation. Somehow, in twenty or thirty minutes, the war had become that much more real, that much more vivid. I hadn't been there, but out of the blue I'd encountered a small part of it firsthand. Not only that, the experience had touched on a deep personal interest. The feeling was electric in a way I can't altogether explain.

I suppose I bring this up partly because it seems like we're losing a lot of old vets lately. First Tex Hill, whom I'd met on two or three occasions. Then today Paul Tibbets. Those are the high profile men, the visible old soldiers. Then there are the others – the aging men with canes and walkers and unsteady hands, whose names are unlikely ever to grace the cover of a book of memoirs or the plate at the base of a monument, and whose stories will spread only as far as the ears of the willing. Recent figures indicate that we're losing World War II and Korean vets at a rate upwards of a thousand every day. Sooner or later, it is a tragic and inevitable fact that the last of them will pass on.

I can say for certain that our world will be lesser without them.

About The Author. Randall "AeroDillo" Whiddon:

AeroDillo AvatarAeroDillo (more formally known as Randall Whiddon) has been writing and following aviation since the age of fourteen, a product of entirely too many air shows, history books, and John Wayne movies. He is currently a student pilot currently working through his Instrument rating at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas, with the intent of moving on to bush flying after graduation.


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