Hovering Over Send Chapter 4

  • Published
  • By Col. Daryl J. Hartman
  • 911th Airlift Wing Operations Group
My Uncle George is the mellowest man I've ever met. It's not a child of the 60's kind of mellow, or an "I don't care" mellow, it's just, well, Uncle George. I call him Uncle George, but he's really my great uncle. My paternal grandfather was significantly older than his youngest brother George and in an earlier time when extended families tended to live together, George was only 9 years old and living in the same house when my dad was born. So, since dad had two older sisters, by default George became his big brother.

When WWII started George was almost 20 years old and like most young men of his generation he stepped up to the task of defending his country. He joined the Army Air Corps and boarded the train heading west to pilot training. I have his pilot training yearbooks on the coffee table in my office. He's easy to pick out in the photos of eager faces with flight caps cocked way too far to the right. I've often wondered how many survived the war and how many are still alive.

He never talked about his experiences. He flew B-25s and A-26s in India, Burma, and China bombing and strafing Japanese positions until the end of the war. It wasn't that he had PTSD or was traumatized by what he'd seen, it's that it was just what he had to do. No fanfare, just a part of his life that was over a long time ago. Millions of others had sacrificed a lot more and his part was no big deal. His generation had been through the great depression and now was looking forward not back. Eventually we started asking him about his experiences and I think as he grew older he started to enjoy telling stories that he had never told. He told me about bombing missions in India and how they knew in advance where the Japanese AAA sites were because the natives told them. So they would fly their low levels and watch the airbursts pop up from the jungle well out of range. He told me how the Japanese RPM gage that sits on a shelf in my living room came from a downed Zero he came across on an abandoned airfield. He showed me a piece of the wing of his aircraft that was damaged by enemy fire. His crew chief repaired it and then gave him the piece as a souvenir. He told me the closest he ever came to death was when, on a night combat mission, both he and his copilot fell asleep and woke up at tree top level, just in time to pull up.

I think he became "mellow" after he got back from the war. He went off to college, got married, had kids, but after combat the daily stressors are, well, not so stressful. After his divorce, I suspect his wife thought he was too mellow, he moved in with my grandparents. When they passed, he stayed. He became our de facto grandfather and he lived either with us or, for 28 years, next door to us. He was, to us, our friends, and our church, Uncle George. Three years ago he moved into an assisted living home called Shady Rest. He was to the point where he couldn't quite take care of himself anymore and, even though every time you visited him he asked when he could go home, his health improved and he had constant contact with other people his age. He turned 90 on January 2nd. We a took a cake and sang happy birthday. We talked and laughed and tried to convince him that he was really 90 years old when he thought he was 68.

Two weeks later he had a small stroke. We thought he was doing fine, but then pneumonia set in, a week in the hospital, a week in a nursing home, now back to the hospital. More pneumonia, renal failure, DNR, machines turned off, and waiting. Like my dad, I'll slip a pair of wings into his breast pocket and send him on his final sortie. Not with the roar and oil spray of twin Wright R-2600s but on the silent wings of angels.