This is a day we pause to remember the sacrifices that have been laid down for us in order that we can be free. It is because of the incredible sacrifices of those who have come before that the United States of America is a place where we are free to live up to our full God-given potential. Most of us try every day to reach that potential and make the most of what God has bestowed upon us–and every day we fail. Sometimes we fail in small ways, other times in some pretty big ways. When we fail, we get back up, dust ourselves off, and try again. We can only hope to get just a little closer every day to realizing the potential in the incredible gifts we have been given by our Father in Heaven.
Speaking personally, I’m not given to “hero worship,” because I know how quickly a human hero can let you down. That said, Memorial Day is a day I always remember my grandfather, Claude Smith, Jr., who we always knew as “Grandpa Junior.” As a boy, I never realized that the nice, quiet man I spent so many summer days with was a genuine, honest-to-God, war hero.
I knew, more or less, that my Grandpa Junior had been in the “Air Force” (Army Air Corps) in Europe during World War II, but I never really knew the details. It was only years later that I learned that my Grandpa Junior hadn’t just been in the Air Corps. He signed up to serve in one of the most brutal and deadly roles of the Allied Forces–flying insane, death-defying missions over Nazi Germany as a turret gunner on a B-17.
Just so you understand, flying a bombing mission over Germany in a B-17 was very close to a suicide mission. Once the Nazis were alerted to their approach, anti-aircraft artillery would launch a withering barrage. In many cases, squadrons of Messerschmidt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s would come out of the woodwork, swarming the formations and ripping the thin aluminum skins of the B-17s apart with their rockets and 20-mm cannons. Despite all this chaos, the bombers had to stay on target and complete the mission:
They could expect attacks by fighters armed with machineguns, canon and rockets as well as heavy antiaircraft fire from the ground and even bombs dropped from above. The bombers were expected to maintain their positions at all costs – in order to provide the most effective defensive fire and to assure the most devastating results once their bombs were dropped.
The turret gunners were prime targets. The turret guns were the bombers’ only line of defense. Once the turret gunners were taken out, a bomber was easy picking. Serving in the ball turret under the plane was especially miserable and dangerous, but none of the roles was much fun:
Missions that penetrated deep into enemy territory could last up to eight hours and be filled with anxious anticipation as all eyes searched the skies for enemy defenders….The planes were unheated and open to the outside air. The crew wore electrically heated suits and heavy gloves that provided some protection against temperatures that could dip to 60 degrees below zero. Once above 10,000 feet they donned oxygen masks as the planes continued to climb to their operational level that could be as high as 29,000 feet.
According to records, 12371 B-17s were built during WWII. Of these, 4750 went down over Europe. The chance of survival as a crew member was among the lowest in the services–possibly the very lowest:
Prior to 1944, a crewman’s tour of duty was set at 25 missions. As a measure of the hazards they would encounter, it is estimated that the average crewman had only a one in four chance of actually completing his tour of duty.
Just to make the point, according to these numbers, a B-17 crewman did not have a 25% chance of being killed in action. He had a 25% chance of surviving. He had a 75% chance of being killed in action. According to the book “Men of Air – The Doomed Youth of Bomber Command” by Kevin Wilson, incoming bomber crews were told not to make any long-term plans:
“You’re now on an operational squadron, your expectation of life is six weeks.
Go back to your huts and make out your wills.”
So, my Grandpa Junior signed up to serve in one of the most brutal and deadly roles in World War II. Even after watching other planes go down in flames and watching friends die horrifying deaths, he kept on getting up, strapping himself in, and getting the job done, day after day and mission after mission. Thankfully, he somehow survived his 25-mission tour of duty. He had beaten the odds, and was free to return home–but he didn’t. Even after seeing and living through ordeals that would reduce most of us to emotional mush, Grandpa Junior signed up for additional missions. Thankfully, he somehow survived those, as well–which is why I’m here today to write this.
My Grandpa Junior came back to the states, raised a family and built a successful business. He passed away a few years ago, and I regret every day that I didn’t have the good sense to learn more about this amazing hero and his life while he was with us. If you have someone close to you living in their later years, please don’t make the same mistake I did. Please take the time to learn all you can about who they have been and the lives they’ve lived. You won’t regret it. You will regret failing to do it. Trust me on this one.
I’m not telling this story to say anything good about myself. While I might like to think I inherited at least a small measure of my grandfather’s courage and intestinal fortitude, I seriously doubt I’d be able to endure anything close to what he went through.
I tell this story to pay tribute to Grandpa Junior and the countless heroes who have traveled far from home to fight for the freedom of others. We can’t even come close to repaying the sacrifices they’ve made for the cause of freedom. We can only do our very best to pay it forward to future generations and make their sacrifices worth it.
Happy Memorial Day, Grandpa. We miss you.
– Ken Emanuelson
Editor, The Grassroots Texans Network