Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"I flew top-cover during "The Battle of the Bulge.”

Thursday morning, while waiting for my son to get out of surgery, I met an amazing 92 year old southern gentleman named Lloyd Easterling. As I struggled to chase away the cobwebs due to the early morning appointment time he gently plopped his wiry little body into the chair next to me. For several minutes without a word we watched the British Open on the waiting room TV. From the corner of my left eye I saw him turn his head towards me for a moment as Tiger Woods struggled on the links at St. Andrews.  When he turned his head again I realized he was looking for some interaction--fine by me. Seconds later he finally broke the ice when he asked if I was an air force retiree. I told him yes, but it soon became apparent that golf was the actual thing on his mind as we conversed on Tiger’s continued downward spiral. Lloyd’s lifetime passion for the game was on full display. He opined that he hoped Tiger would eventually get his life AND his game together. “…it would be great for golf,” he said. 

I agreed, “It’s too bad he let fame and money go to his head, the one on his shoulders, and, the “other one,” nodding my head towards my lap.

He had no comment for my attempt at some bawdy humor at Tiger Wood’s expense so I asked Lloyd if he had anyone in surgery. He said nonchalantly that his wife was having a pacemaker installed. I told him my boy was having a simple procedure that most boys have as a baby. He nodded and asked how long since I retired.

"Since 2002, how about you?"

"1968, after 28 years in the air force."

I did the math, immediately sat up from my slouched position to take a closer look at him. My historical juices now aroused, I asked, “Wow! So, you served in World War II! How about Korea and Vietnam?”

At that he showed me the ball cap nestled in the seat next to him and sure enough the front of it was embroidered with “WWII-Korea-Vietnam.”

“Outstanding! “ I remarked enthusiastically, “May I shake your hand” and with a smile, shake my hand he did.

“Which theater did you serve in during “”The Big One,” Europe, North Africa, the Pacific?”

“Europe,” he said crisply, “in fact, I flew top-cover during The Battle of the Bulge.”

That’s when I learned his age. Misled by his spry alertness, cocking my head I quizzed, “Sooo, you must be in your 80s?

At that he proudly told me that he is 92 and his wife 90. I was surprised that anyone could be that age and still be so sharp minded.

I was anxious to discuss his flight experiences during The Battle of the Bulge and I began by telling him about my Uncle Bud, who was also a pilot of sorts, a glider pilot with the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. I explained how he learned to fly over in Louisiana, or more appropriately, to “crash land” his glider full of his men. These troops, if they survived the landing, he would then lead on the ground in combat.

(As it turns out, Uncle Bud actually got his glider training in North Carolina and as far as Louisiana was involved THAT is where he and fellow trainees were informed during the final days of their initial boot camp and infantry training that they were selected to be in gliders. That was at Camp Claiborne Louisiana. All this time I had thought he was a volunteer for gliders, but not so. It’s funny sometimes what you THINK you know—thank you internet, for the correction.)

Lloyd shook his head with respect, “Those boys had it rough, a tough scary way to get into the fight.”

I tested my knowledge of The Battle of Bulge, “Lloyd, from what I’ve read, you couldn’t have done much air support flying until the end stages of the battle because the weather was so low during most of the battle. True?”

“Yes, the weather didn’t break for about a week, but once it did we plastered them with everything we had. It was really something to see.” His eyes lit up as he described shooting up trains, bridges, tanks, and any other targets of opportunity he and his fellow pilots could find and attack.

“Well, the weather didn’t break soon enough to save Uncle Bud. He died in his fighting hole just outside of Bastogne when a shrapnel fragment severed his spine through the back of his neck.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

After a moment I asked, “So Lloyd, what did you fly during all that?


“Ah! The Thunderbolt! The “Thud!” I love that name, “Thud.”

He grinned.

He mentioned that some 20 years later during the “jet age,” he flew another powerful fighter, this time a jet, also nicknamed “the thud” – the  F105 Thunderchief. 

“Wow! To think you flew both “Thuds,” the P47 AND the F105, all in the same career! That is really cool to contemplate. The F105, I mean shoot man, that bird was HUGE! One of the biggest fighters we’ve ever operated, and FAST and LOUD! It was a well-named aircraft. You are THE man Lloyd.”

Turning fully to this mild-mannered looking air warrior, with newfound respect and admiration, I asked, “What other aircraft did you fly?”

“Over the course of my career many different aircraft, from the P51 Mustang to the F86 the F100 and many others.”

The Mustang—the thought of that vaunted aircraft brought to mind the equally praised Tuskegee fliers who flew P51 Mustangs with distinctive unit markings on the tails of their “birds;” as such they were called “the red tails.”

At the mention of The Red Tails his reaction surprised me a little. He shook his head looking a little peeved. Pressing him some he didn’t have anything bad to say about them personally but what seemed to disturb him is the massive notoriety they’ve received which he apparently thinks is exaggerated. He said quietly, “…A LOT of other flying units flew a lot tougher missions and didn’t get near the attention. The areas they covered during the war in many ways was not nearly as difficult as what other American pilots faced.”

I wanted to bring up the obvious factor in why the Tuskegee airmen received much of their fame, that being the social hurdles they faced just to get in the cockpit, but I decided not to. As a combat pilot during those dangerous times Lloyd is entitled to his opinion and actually I think he has a point if in fact the Red Tails’ exploits were given greater credit based on the race of its members, especially if it’s true that other, mostly unnoticed, units flew and fought just as hard.  I’m just glad that we no longer have “all Black units,” or all ANY kind of “all anything” units based on skin color, that we no longer NEED to have them as they did back when the military still reflected the rampant institutionalized racism of the mid 1940s and before.

Lloyd did have one more ancillary comment on the Tuskegee fliers when he mentioned with some apparent pride that he knew Ben Davis from his days at the Pentagon. He didn’t volunteer any other commentary, either good or bad, on General Davis, who was the commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen. Remarkably, as a black man facing enormous adversity, Davis rose to the rank of lieutenant general (3 stars) while on active duty during the decades after WWII and was awarded a 4th star after his retirement.

On the subject of “famous people he met” during his decades of service I was thrilled to learn that he has met such notables as Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, not to mention most all of the famed generals and admirals of the 40s, 50s and 60s during his many years running programs in and out of the Pentagon.

When he brought up the times he had with Dwight Eisenhower (even when Ike was president!) I asked Lloyd if he had ever been to his retirement home that is now part of the Gettysburg Battlefield Park. I told him, “Lloyd, what struck me about his home is the ordinariness of it. It’s just an old refurbished farmhouse; nothing spectacular.” I went on about Eisenhower, “… and something that the general and I have in common is our love for Civil War History and most especially for the Gettysburg Battlefield. Did you know that “Ike” first went there and fell in love with it as a young officer when he was tasked to learn how the American army should use tanks in battle? He and his men would tear up and down Pickett’s Charge field in those old style tanks ripping it up with their tank treads! It must have been something to see!”

“Hey speaking of the Civil War Lloyd, did you ever get the chance to actually meet any Civil War veterans?”

“Yes, yes I did. I met one,” he declared.

“Did you shake his hand?”

“Yes I did.”

Thrusting my hand at him I requested earnestly, “Well then, let me shake the hand of a man who shook the hand of a Civil War veteran!”

Grinning at my enthusiasm, once again Lloyd shook my hand.

After a short lull as we watched a golf shot on the TV he quietly joked that after the war perhaps he made a mistake when he used his veteran’s benefits to get an engineering degree before rejoining the air force. For the rest of his career he said that that degree caused him to have to fight to stay in the cockpit because the air force continually wanted to put him on the ground running programs. “In that case,” I joked, “maybe you SHOULD have got your degree in phys-Ed or basket weaving!”  He agreed chuckling. Even so, he said he was able to continue to fly a host of different aircraft right up until the end of his career in the late 60s. One of his biggest regrets with having that degree is that it kept him out of combat flying during Korea and Vietnam, although he did spend plenty of time in-country during both wars.

One of the most important programs he worked on was the years it took our country and Canada to establish “The DEW Line” across the top of Alaska and Canada during the early part of the Cold War with the Soviets. I was amused to hear that he always took his golf clubs with him when he made his many trips up to the far north bases all situated very close to the Arctic Circle. Mildly shocked, but not completely so based on my own experience with the amenities available on most American military bases, I wondered that the air force actually built and maintained golf courses way up there so far north and out of the way.

“Oh yes!” he said enthusiastically, “pretty nice ones. In fact, I met Lowell Thomas up there and played golf with him. He would make USO trips to many of the bases and I ran into him several times.”

I marveled that he got the chance to meet the famous radio broadcaster and intrepid reporter. “You know what Lloyd? I’ll bet I’m the only guy you’ve told that to under the age of 60 who has any idea who the heck Lowell Thomas was, am I right?”

Lloyd agreed smiling.

“So, you must have retired as what, a lieutenant colonel or colonel?”

“Lieutenant colonel.”

“Did you have any commands that you are proud of?”

“Yes, I commanded two flying squadrons before retiring.”

I nodded, “Knowing a lot of fliers over my career, I completely understand your pride in getting the chance to lead other airmen where the proverbial rubber meets the flight line. Satisfying times, right? And after those three decades in uniform, you must have had quite a long post military working life I take it?”

Lloyd said that he successfully worked for several companies and even ran his own. His engineering degree and experience running air force programs definitely came in handy at that point. He’s also very proud of the successes of his children, all of whom must be older than me, and me almost 60.

On the subject of age, “92! Man! I can count the number of 90 year olds I’ve met on one hand and you don’t look like you’ve slowed down much. I’ll be lucky to reach 80. No one in my family gets to be 90, although the way my mom is going she probably will.”

“Oh, you’ll get there!” he said encouragingly.

I chuckled, “Nawww. I don’t think so. My kidneys will be shot long before then, but if I could be in your shape physically and mentally I wouldn’t mind making it close to that age! And to think you AND your wife are in your 90s. That is great! Oh, and how DID you meet your wife?”

Lloyd said he met the love of his life in Belgium after the war. 70 years later and here they are. I got the chance to see her in passing as they wheel chaired her out of the hospital while Lloyd scampered down a long flight of steps to retrieve their car. (Yes, he STILL drives!) Still waiting for my son to be wheeled out through the big bank of emergency room doors I jumped out of my car to say so long to Lloyd one last time, shook his hand and waved to her as well. (What a lovely woman!) Lloyd must have told her about me because she waved and called out a gracious friendly greeting, sounding way more Southern than European.

I feel most fortunate to have met Colonel Easterling. I hope he and his beautiful wife continue to grace the earth for many years to come. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mom's Haley Family Memories, part 13: Baby Kevin arrives in 1961

1961, Baby Kevin arrives to make the family "odd!"
vs "even" that is!
Okay, sorry this is taking me so long. There is so much going on here this summer, keeps me really busy, but it is good for me to be active. Now I've made myself sit down and make some notes about Kevin's birth and early life.   

Kevin was born on May 5, 1961 the same day that the astronaut Alan Shepard went into space. It was quite exciting as he was a boyhood friend of our friend Bob Dion. 

(Until this moment I never knew that! Dang! If I HAD known that Mr. Dion KNEW Alan Shepard I would have certainly asked a slew of questions about that back when I had the chance. Too late now; Mr. Dion died not long after I last saw him in 1998.)
Chunky baby Kevin. He was smarter than he looked!
Anyway, I started into labor that morning but I wanted to see Alan Shepard safely land in the ocean. So as soon as he splashed down I told your father it was okay to take off for the base (about 15 miles away). We did get there in plenty of time and Kev arrived about 5 hours later.  

At the time we were living in the trailer park near the town of East Holden Maine as every person in our entire unit came to Dow Air Force Base all at once to set up a new Air Defense Unit there.  (The Cold War between the US and the USSR was in full bloom back in the early 1960s). Because so many of us at one time descended onto Dow Air Force Base there wasn't enough housing in town or at the base so we lived in a trailer out at the park about 15 miles south of the base. 
After Kevin was born we spent another year and a half in the trailer park. During that time I became PG again with Gail. During that summer when he must have been 20 months or so we would all go to the beach at the small lake at the back of the park (It was called “Mud Lake,” one of many by that name in Maine). I was talking to the other moms and keeping an eye on the little ones and Gene was on the other side of the dock talking with the guys.  Kevin must have decided he would join his brother and sister, who of course were taller than he, and he took off into the deeper water. Someone yelled that he was in trouble and Dad jumped over the dock and got to him just in the nick of time. Gene got him out of the water gasping and coughing and saved him from drowning. Oh my gosh, what a scare! Realizing that we had almost lost him I had tried to reach him but wasn't quick enough—SO thankful that Gene was much faster than me.  
Mom, Aunt Helen, Uncle Jim
Phil, Grandma Haley, Uncle Joe
Little Kevin and Mary Kay
As a baby Kevin was a very happy easy going guy. Because he wasn't a fussy eater I guess I fed him a little more because he was so happy to eat.  He had a great sucking need and would finish the bottle really fast and then keep on sucking, until the nipple popped right back into the bottle inside out.   At that time I wasn't keen on pacifiers but I gave in when I saw his need and gave him one.
MK, Gail, Kevin, Phil
As I said he was very easy going and didn't turn over until he was over 2 months.   He was happy just to watch Phil and Mary Kay.   The two of you did all the talking for him so he didn't feel he needed to get attention that way.    He was over two years old when he started talking and then it was in full sentences—no baby talk at all. I don't recall him doing much crying.   That was actually good for me as I had my hands really full with three of you.
At Grandpa Spear's cottage
Kevin is 6 here

I must tell you about Kevin during the time we went through “The Great Snow Storm” which was after we had already moved into base housing. There were many many pics taken of the "Great Snow Storm" and after the pic reel was filled Dad changed the film load in the camera and put the pic cartridge up on the high desk shelf until he could get out to the Base Exchange (BX) to have them developed. Curious Kevin must have seen him put it up on the shelf and when I was busy with our newest addition, Gail.  He pushed the chair up to the desk and climbed up, curious about what was in the package. He opened it, pulled out the cartridge and proceeded to pull out the film.   Soooo…   we have no pics of the storm of a lifetime in Bangor.   
In San Antonio Texas, about 1968
Kevin was ALWAYS curious and after watching Gene work on our TV changing the power vacuum tubes the next day he thought he would do what Daddy had done and proceeded to break off the tubes because he didn't know how to pull them out. He looked over where the TV was plugged into the wall and tried to pull the plug and only managed to pull it a little loose. Then he saw a penny on the table and set it on the plug inserts. Of course that shorted out the plug and it exploded with a loud ZAP. We all ran in from the kitchen to see our little guy’s black face and fingers. Actually, between the near drowning and electrocution we are very fortunate to still have a live Kevin aren't we?
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His High School photo, graduated in 1979
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1980. Kevin is home on leave not long after he joined the air force
Lita Spear, Kevin, Tom Spear, Uncle Nelson, Roger Spear
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Kevin with his two kids, Lindsey ad Kyle
Phil is home for a visit from the Philippines in 2007
Gail, Kevin, Phil, MK
Mom and Dad

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mom's Haley Family Memories, part 12: She and Dad take their two "Japan born" babies back home

Mom, I have another little "assignment" for you when you get a moment or two. Can you relate as much as you can, the story of our hair raising flight to Hawaii that almost resulted in a fiery crash or at least a mighty splash into the Pacific Ocean?  

We flew back to the states in early 1959. I think it was not a military plane we were on although I’m pretty sure I went INTO Japan on a military plane. It all happened so many years ago.  You are knowledgeable of flight activities; I definitely wasn't at the time.  I have always remembered the flight back across the Pacific as on a Pan Am airplane. 

I did see the engine but not an actual fire. I remember seeing that the propellers were not turning at all. I am pretty sure that when it happened we were sleeping and when it did we must have lost altitude pretty fast.  I was so busy taking care of my two babies that I wasn't aware of all that was going on.  The Navy eventually sent out two amphibious planes that flew on each side of us and escorted us all the way to our destination. We all cheered when we saw them out there. Gotta love the Navy, right?  
Mom wrote: "How do you like Gene's keen motor bike? It is light blue"

Before that, when the plane lost oxygen everyone complained of headaches and you and Mary Kay were crying from both the earaches and headaches too.   I remember the earaches. (When we lost the engines the aircraft lost the ability to pressurize which caused the headaches and earaches until the aircrew could get the plane down to a more “comfortable” altitude).

The crew handled everything very confidently and reassuringly.  It was pretty hectic with the two of you crying so hard and me trying to calm you down. Now you cause me to doubt about whether it was Guam or Midway that we went back to.  I just remembered that it was a tiny base (tiny base means it was Midway) and we walked to the mess hall to eat and then walked out to the beach to see the remains of the fallen planes from the war with Japan which had ended just 14 years before. I do remember that we were almost at the halfway point to Hawaii (THAT is definitely Midway) and the pilot had to decide whether to try to make it to Hawaii or turn back to the closest island with a runway. 
Midway Island indicated in the circle.
Halfway between Asia and North America
Its been a US possession since the 1850s
Oh yes, about the landing, they had sprayed the landing area with foam or something like that. I was sure glad to be back on the ground. We stayed there until the engine was repaired or replaced. I also remember being nervous getting back on the plane. But the trip on to Hawaii went very well.  

This PanAm flight ditched
in the Pacific 3 years before our flight.
If we had lost one more engine
it would have been our fate as well.
However, MOST ditchings were
Wow, we've really come a long way since then, where now jumbos can fly nonstop all the way across. It wasn't much more than ten years after that in 1970 that we flew back across the Atlantic in one of the first 747s after finishing Dad's last assignment to Turkey. Do you remember that?  From props to jumbos in just ten years!

 Hey, can you tell the story of our road trip across the US from the West Coast to our first duty station in 1959? What car was that, the one where we got caught in a sand storm somewhere in the desert, was it?  You guys picked it up when we arrived in California? What was our destination; back to Michigan first, or did we go right to the base? Or am I completely off the mark on the whole story? 

Mary Kay & Philip in late 1958
We landed in California and stayed a day there while Dad picked up our car; it was the Olds that we had shipped to Japan and so now it was waiting for us back in the states after we shipped it back FROM Japan.   Dad also reenlisted there that day and was given a reenlistment bonus check that he didn't cash until we got to Saginaw.  

"Phil blowing out the candles
on his 2nd birthday cake,
June 23, 1959"
I believe the sand storm hit as we were passing through Arizona.  I remember it being very dry when the storm kicked up. We drove until we came to the nearest town, arriving Saturday evening. On Sunday morning we went to Mass at the nearby Catholic Church and these elderly ladies were walking out after Mass commenting that they had never lived through such a terrible sand storm.  Dad said to them, "Wouldn't you know it? The worst sand storm in memory hits us as we are driving home after being stationed in Japan—story of my life!”
Phil on the stairway at Grandma Haley's house
on 12th Street in Saginaw, Michigan
The storm damaged the finish on the car and we had to have it repainted in Saginaw so we could trade it in on the Chevrolet station wagon that we bought right there in Saginaw.  
Phil at Grandma & Grandpa Haley's house
on the 12th Street

We stayed in the house on 12th Street while your dad went on to his next assignment in Wisconsin. After a few weeks he decided that he did not like it there and asked to be reassigned. That resulted in orders to the little air force station in Kirksville, Missouri and that is where little David was stillborn, having died in the birth canal, no bone covering the back of his brain. More than likely it was because of the severe lack of O2 on the way back from Japan. The third month is the bone forming month so they figured that is what happened.

Looks like Mississippi or Florida about 1960
You guys used to tell the story about us not being served at a restaurant in the deep South on a Sunday morning and being asked to leave instead when you asked the waitress where the nearest Catholic church was. What are the details of that?  In my mind it’s all rather murky.

We were never kicked out of a restaurant but I had gone by myself to church while we were stationed at Keesler AFB at Biloxi, Mississippi while Dad went to school there after we left Missouri. It was just too hard to take you all to Church. I would go to the earlier Mass and because there wasn't much time between the two Masses I would sit in the back seats so I could leave just as soon as The Blessing was given. I’d hurry home so Dad could drive back to church for the next Mass. The usher told me to move up to the front of the Church. I explained why I wanted to sit in the back and he said that those rows were for the negroes.  I was so disgusted that I barely moved at all—maybe just two rows up. The next day I was telling my neighbor about it; she was also an air force wife. No sympathy from her, she said that the Catholic Church was very good to the negroes; they weren't even ALLOWED in the Protestant Churches. That was The South in the early 60’s.

"Momma & Phil,
Fort Walton Beach, Florida 1960"
Hey, I was always going to ask you but never got around to it. Why DID they move out of Saginaw? I always assumed it was because the neighborhood was turning into a "hood." I remember how concerned everyone was when the riots began to roll across the cities of the country during the Civil Rights Era and probably even more in the aftermath of the MLK assassination. Do you know how they settled on Birch Run, probably because the Bell's lived out there?

Dad and Phil
You are right they moved out of Saginaw because the neighborhood got a little too dangerous for Grandma to live there, so they sold the house and rented for a few short months back on the street behind Merrill Street. Then they bought the house in Birch Run that Gail now lives in. Uncle Mike had already settled in Birch Run then and he thought it was a much better place for her to live.   

So 12th Street was where they lived before my memories of Saginaw started? The only place I remember is the one where I met Tag (Grandma and Uncle Bill's dog), the place with the big front porch, where the black boy lived nearby, Ronnie I think was his name; it was also the place where we stayed waiting to join Dad in Yalova Turkey, right?
I lived on Merrill Street from 1943 until I got married in 1956.  After I left for Japan, Grandpa Kehoe died and left Mom an inheritance which meant they could finally buy a home.  That’s when they bought the house on 12th Street, the one that you remember.   So they moved from Saint Mary's Cathedral Parish to Holy Rosary Parish.  The Saint Mary's school that YOU attended was in Bangor, Maine where you went to first grade and made your first Communion.  You and I went to two DIFFERENT Saint Mary's Schools.  When we lived with Grandma on 12th Street while waiting to join Dad in Turkey I'm thinking you finished that year at Holy Rosary. It was only a few months, perhaps three.  During that short period I went back to Saint Mary's Hospital to work until we left for Turkey.