It was my second visit to the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s World War II Air Show this past weekend (6/7-8-9/13) the first as a vendor. Armed with a few of the WW II portraits I set up an exhibit in the main hanger along with about sixty other vendors and watched the weekend unfold in a kaleidoscope of everything WW II.
Friday was washout as the rains fell almost non-stop from morning to night. People traffic was light but steady. At one point, I stepped outside to make a phone call, returning to see an elderly gentleman in a motorized scooter, staring intently at my paintings. I was surprised to see no one with him so I walked over and started talking to him. Vernon was down from Indiana with his son, grandson and a couple of middle-aged men.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen this,” a crisp voice responded when I asked the leading question. “I wanted to come here so we drove the twelve or so hours.” Assuming he was a veteran, “Vern” told me that he was a B-26 bomber pilot who flew out of North Africa and later Italy. Like many veterans who don’t talk about the bad stuff in detail if they mention it at all, Vern was the same. He talked glowingly about how the Tuskegee Airmen, the black pilots of the P-51s that provided them escort. Later, when he finished his tour of duty, he returned to the states and transitioned to the P-51 fighter plane as well.
And then he started talking about flying combat missions. He mentioned how the bombers always flew close together. “It was harder for the enemy to shoot us down,” he said. “But it was when we were flying through flak that cost us dearly. I’d see puffs of black smoke around us, wondering when one would hit our plane. I remember looking over at the plane on my (left) side and seeing an explosion of black and the ball turret turning red. “It was his blood and guts. I knew that guy was gone and I wondered if the next one would hit us.”
“Blood and guts” he said many times over. “It’s the governments that make the wars that we have to fight. But it’s OUR blood and guts. My blood and guts.” Vern wasn’t angry. He was simply telling me the reality of war he experienced had little to do with politics. It was all about survival, hoping to make the quota. “When I signed up, the quota was thirty-five. By the time I left, I had completed forty missions. My blood and guts were on the line for those forty missions.
We talked about life after the war. “I tried my hand at a lot of different things,” he said.”Bbut I realized I wasn’t good at being my own boss. I lost my shirt. But eventually I bought some land because I wanted one thing on it: a runway. He laughed.
Vern turned ninety this year. “I’m only in this… thing, nodding at the scooter, because I hurt my foot,” he said. I crashed my plane.” Startled, I waited for more. “My son’s an ex-Navy pilot and we have an experimental plane. I took it up last week and the damn engine quit.” I later got the details from his grandson. “Yeah, he still flies. He wasn’t supposed to fly it. We weren’t finished working on it. No one was around when he took it up. The thing is he landed the plane perfectly. If it hadn’t been for a gopher hole he’d would’ve been fine.” “Blood and guts” Vernon, I expect, will be soaring shortly after Father’s Day.