Life is sometimes about inches. Inches that separate life and death. Nothing is more clear than hearing stories from those who’ve survived war, in my case, mostly stories about World War II.
Since arriving at the Palm Springs Air Museum in early January, I’ve enjoyed multiple conversations with veterans and families of those who fought in the second world war. One of the best aspects of the museum are the number of docents who volunteer time, many of them veterans of WW II. In the hanger next to me sits a B-17 glistening aluminum skin as if fresh from the factory. Underneath the nose is a table where several docents sit, ready to talk to the public and take them through the almost seventy year old bomber.
Some of these docents actually flew that plane. 92 year old Bill Oliver, a shock of white hair and still very much the cocky ladies man was a pilot. He never saw combat. The war in Europe ended just as he and his crew were about to head to Europe. Then the bomb on Hiroshima ended the war. But two other men did fly missions in Europe, one a bombardier, the other flew in the small bubble beneath the plane’s belly as a ball turret gunner.
Ralph Peterson, a man with a quick smile and laugh, shows no scars of what he endured. At the beginning of the war, The Eighth Air Force (England) started day time bombing runs into Germany. There were, at the time, no fighters capable of giving them coverage deep into Germany. They would escort them part way before turning back, leaving numerous squadrons of bombers alone and vulnerable to German fighters. The average lifespan of a crew was five missions. Each B-17 carried a crew of ten which meant in too many cases, all were lost when shot down.
“My first mission,” Ralph told me. “I was awakened at 3AM and ordered to fill in for another ball turret gunner who’d gotten sick. It was not how I wanted to start the war. I wanted to fly with my crew.” On that mission, his bomber was part of the lead group. “After we were left the coast of England I would climb down into the turret and start scanning skies for enemy planes. On that first mission, now deep into German territory, we started a slow turn toward the target. Flak (the anti-aircraft projectiles) filled the sky. Suddenly there was an explosion off to one side. That plane disappeared in a flash. It was followed by the plane on the other side exploding by another direct hit. I sat there thinking When is our turn?” Ralph survived the war flying thirty-three missions. Survival is sometimes only a matter of inches. What if the planes had waited on their turn?
A week later I was talking to an older couple. They had just come from the B-17 hanger. As we talked about the war, the woman told me that her oldest brother was a tail gunner on a B-17. “He was on his first mission over France,” she said to me and then paused. “Shot down and killed.” Silence. My first thought was about Ralph Peterson. Who and what dictates who lives and who doesn’t? War is not about what’s fair. Men survived when a bullet struck a rifle cartridge on their carbine held at that moment in just the right place. A piece of flak or bullet penetrates a plane inches from the body of the pilot or crew member.
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these things. There are no answers -only stories. Memories. A friend whose father’s portrait I’d done (B-24 bombardier) emailed me with shock after I’d sent her a link to his squadron. Her father was long gone. “I had no idea how many times he came so close to dying.” That is a comment I often hear -how little their fathers talked about the war. Many of them, like my father, were quietly grateful to make it home. How often can one step into the jaws of death and survive? They knew, it was at some point, only a matter of inches that allowed their survival and a future.