Saturday, August 30, 2008

Met a WWII vet today

Shuttling between terminals at the Houston airport today, I sat down across from an old man wearing a USS Lexington cap. I asked him if that was his ship, and he said yes. We talked a little, and it turns out that he was a rear gunner flying the SB2C Helldiver, a World War II dive-bomber with a sub-optimal reputation:
The Helldiver was not generally loved by crews, who called it the "Beast" and said that "SB2C" stood for "Son of a Bitch Second Class". It was so badly underpowered that it tended to fly off the carrier deck and simply drop into the sea.
Later versions of the Helldiver, like the SB2C-4 that his squadron flew, had more power and handled better, but when I asked him how it was to fly from an aircraft carrier, he said that when they rolled off the end of the flight deck, the airplane would drop toward the water, and it was always a relief when it came back up. And, he said, at the end of a mission, "it was always a good feeling when you caught that hook."

He said he reached the Pacific at the end of the war, flying a handful of combat missions with Air Group 94. His squadron would have been VB-94. I haven't been able to find much on this squadron, but the ship's official history has this to say about the ship's final combat cruise in 1945, during which Air Group 94 was embarked:
Lexington was combat bound again 22 May, sailing via Alameda and Pearl Harbor for San Pedro Bay, Leyte, where she joined Rear Adm. T. L. Sprague's task force for the final round of airstrikes which battered the Japanese home islands through July until 15 August, when the last strike was ordered to jettison its bombs and return to Lexington on receiving word of Japanese surrender. During this period she had launched attacks on Honshu and Hokkaido airfields, and Yokosuka and Kure naval bases to destroy the remnants of the Japanese fleet. She had also flown bombing attacks on industrial targets in the Tokyo area. After hostilities ended, she continued to fly precautionary patrols over Japan, and dropped supplies to prisoner of war camps on Honshu. She supported the occupation of Japan until leaving Tokyo Bay 3 December 1945 with homeward bound veterans for transportation to San Francisco, where she arrived 16 December.
He talked a little about these missions, in particular mentioning the raids on Hokkaido. He was on that final mission of the war mentioned in the official history - in the air when Japan surrendered, he said they dropped their bombs in the sea and went home. He also mentioned the kamikazes in passing. He was discharged in 1946; his wife said they've been to a few reunions of his air group in Norfolk.

He's an old man now, mostly deaf and blind in one eye, and both his ship and his aircraft are museum pieces, but his mind is still sharp and his handshake is still strong, and he's got his wife and a history he can be proud of. It was millions of men and women such as these, just boys and girls really, who went to war, won the victory, and came home to build a new world. When I got off the bus I thanked him and wished him well. Not just for the chance to speak with such a man - but for the chance to live in the world they made. They are our parents and grandparents: they did it for us.