Discovering a part of our father’s story that we never knew

‘I never wanted you children to know how many people I killed.”

My brothers and I stared at each other as we watched tears trickle down Dad’s face. We knew he had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. We had even been allowed to tromp around in what he called his flight boots. He had a leather bomber jacket that my brothers secretly lusted after, but we never heard any war stories. Somehow we knew not to ask; some sense of respect held us back. We knew if he wanted us to know he would tell us.

In 1991, as the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor approached, my father-in-law made plans to travel to Hawaii to commemorate his service aboard the USS Tennessee. He was a proud member of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors and willingly spoke to schoolchildren about what happened that day. He was featured in a newspaper article in The News Tribune. I sent the article to my parents, and the next time I was in Spokane, Dad brought the subject up.

Sitting in the living room after dinner, he handed the article about my father-in-law around so my brothers could read it. My brother Tim said, “Pa, we know you have war stories to tell. You are a part of history, and we would like to hear about your war experiences while you are still alive to tell them to us.”

Dad began to open up and talk of his experiences.

“They turned us into killing machines,” he explained. “I flew P-47s, a single-seat fighter plane. Sometimes we escorted bombers, but usually we flew strafing missions over Germany. We were instructed to shoot and kill anything that moved. We shot cows, railroad cars, tanks and convoys. We would fly in and shoot everything that lay in the path of our ground troops as they marched across France and Germany.”

Dad talked to us for a long time, and we reassured him that he was following orders and serving his country.

Later as I bid him goodnight on my way to bed, Dad asked me, “Do you think I will go to heaven?”

He told me one day he flew a strafing mission and spotted a young man on a bicycle. Dad said he flew in close hoping that the young man was a farmer, but he wore the Nazi uniform. Dad said he could see the young man look up as he fired his guns.

Dad and I held each other as we cried for the young man who never survived to live a long life.

“He was probably just like me,” Dad said. “I was a kid who could not find work, so I joined the service and learned to fly and kill.”

Dad recounted that after 66 missions he was eligible to go stateside for an instructor position, but he felt he had nothing to return home for. He stayed in England and flew a total of 93 missions before the war ended.

He told his war stories many times. It was like a dam opened, and he could finally get the stories out. He had a baseball cap that he loved to wear. It said, WORLD WAR II FLYBOY, ARMY AIR CORPS. He and I were walking in a mall one time and an elderly man came up to us and looked at Dad’s hat.

“Were you one of those crazy bastards that flew over our heads strafing the Germans?”

Dad replied in the affirmative, and the man said, “Thank you, buddy. You saved so many U.S. Army boys.”

My husband and I took Dad to Palm Springs, Calif., in 2008 and we visited the Palm Springs Air Museum. They videotaped him for more than two hours as he recounted his flying missions, and that interview is in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress.

Dad died at the age of 90 in 2009. Happy Veteran’s Day, Dad. Thank you for serving our great country.

DeAnne Bennett, a retired state employee, lives in Lakewood.