Saturday, May 26, 2007

Heroes Among Us

Since it's Memorial Day weekend I've decided to once again post an essay about my father that I wrote about ten years ago. I wrote it for a website devoted to the 446th Bomb Group, of which my father was a member, and it details a couple of the missions that earned him several Distinguished Flying Crosses.


Editor's note: The author is the daughter of 1st Lt Frank Baker, the pilot of "Rubber Check". Lt Baker was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and 3 Oak Leaf Clusters for his service with the 446th, including one for the mission detailed here. Click here to see the extract.

Shortly after my father folded his wings in November 1996, I began a quest to find out as much information about his war record as I could. I had before me several military extracts detailing the courage that won him three oak leaf clusters and a Distinguished Flying Cross. So I knew there were wonderful stories out there. If only I could find them.

Like many who served in WWII, my father didn’t like to talk about it much. While I was growing up, he watched war movies, read war books, and commented on the technical errors he found in them. But he never discussed his own experience. One day, I asked him.

He expressed surprise that I wanted to know, could not recall anyone ever asking him before. And he proceeded to tell me about a landing outlined in one of the extracts. He was very matter-of-fact about this mission to Germany, April 22nd, 1944**:

Shortly after leaving the target area, the Rubber Check (named for its propensity to come back) is attacked by enemy aircraft. Rudder control cables are frayed; radio compass is shot out; mixture control cables severed, and a propeller is frozen at minimum power.

Maintaining control on the return trip, my father is unable to land because of enemy activity around the airfield. Proceeding to a second field, my father avoids collision with a plane that cartwheels in front of him and crashes as he prepares to land. Pulling out all stops and using every trick he can think of, he regains altitude and lands on a third field. No one is hurt.

“Were you scared?” I asked.

“No time to be scared,” he answered. “I had no intention of losing that plane.”

The only time he faltered in the various tales he told me that day was when he mentioned the presumed death of his co-pilot, Foster Hinton. As a member of the 707th squadron, my dad never lost a crewmember on one of his missions, and he was distressed by the loss of Hinton, even though he wasn’t responsible for it.

Lieutenant Hinton got sick and missed a raid with my father. As a result, he had to make it up on the Black Widow – an ill-fated voyage. My father remarked on the tragedy with a pilot’s bravado, “Hinton shouldn’t have gotten the flu.” But I had already detected the sorrow in his voice.

As it turned out, Foster Hinton was not killed when the Black Widow went down. But my father didn’t live to know that. Following his death, I called Hinton’s widow and she told me he had been captured and imprisoned. I wish my father knew that, but I guess he does now.

After speaking with Mrs. Hinton, I called Franklin Calhoun, a gunner on the Rubber Check. It was a sunny afternoon, about 2:00. Mr. Calhoun lived in Florida, and I heard the TV in the background when he picked up the phone.

“Is this the Franklin Calhoun who was a member of the 707th squadron in WWII?” I asked.

His voice trembled in reply. “Yes,” he said. “I am”.

I told him I was Frank Baker’s daughter. Did he remember my father?

“Oh,” came his shocked reply. “Oh I can’t believe it. I never pick up the phone at this hour because it’s usually a sales person. Of course I remember your Daddy.”

We talked for a few minutes about the nature of war. He said that he didn’t know my dad very well because my dad was an officer and Franklin was not. There was little fraternization between the groups – a fact that I did not realize. Mr. Calhoun told me that the bomb crews were not buddy-buddy like in the movies. They were just a group of men out to do a job. But he had always admired my dad.

“Do you have any stories you can tell me?” I asked. “My dad told me a few, but I want more.”

“Well,” Mr. Calhoun drawled. “Did your Daddy ever tell you about the time we busted up the plane?”

“No!” I shouted. Mr. Calhoun laughed and told me the following story:

On a day in 1944, with roughly half it’s missions completed, the Rubber Check heads home. The daylight is fading, and so is her fuel level. As the crew prepares her for landing, a terrible discovery is made. The ball turret won’t retract, trapping the artillery gunner in a bubble beneath the airplane and dooming him to hit the runway before the wheels.

Frantic efforts are made to retract the turret, without success. Because of the approaching night and empty fuel tanks, a life or death decision must be rendered.

Through the headphones comes a confident declaration from the pilot. “Don’t worry Fielder, I’ll take care of you. We are going to bring this baby in.”(I suspect a more colorful term was used for “baby” but I have no proof).

As promised, my father landed that plane – and broke it in half. In the back, Sergeant Calhoun “hung on for dear life.” He said that when they carried him out, everyone was alive. Everyone stayed alive, and miraculously unhurt. Even the ball turret gunner, Roy Fielder.

Since then I have learned that Roy Fielder kept in touch with my brother in Texas all these years. He met with my dad on at least one occasion, and exchanged Christmas cards with my sister-in-law. When I called her for Mr. Fielder’s address –I wanted this story in his own words but sadly never got it – my sister-in-law said, “Oh, he thinks your dad hung the moon!”

And you know what? I do too.

Footnote: My father left behind many mementos from the Good War. Among them was a clock from the control panel of a Liberator. He swiped it from another plane and I often wonder if it was from the plane that broke in half. He never said.

My brother traced the tail number of the “new” Rubber Check to a B-24 bone yard. In the words of a fellow aviator, “It’s probably a beer can now.”

The crew of "Rubber Check". Standing L to R: Sgt John Thomas, Sgt Albert Cochran, Sgt George Blank, Sgt Franklin Calhoun, Sgt John Roberts, Sgt Roy Lee Fielder. Knealing L to R: 2Lt Adrian Perrault, 2Lt Frank Baker, 2Lt Arthur Bailey, 2Lt Foster Hinton.

**The mission to the Hamm marshalling yards on 22nd April 1944, was postponed until late in the day and caused the 2nd Division groups to return at dusk with navigation lights on. A surprise follow-up by Ju. 88s and Me. 410s of KG 51, which hit the Waveney Valley groups during their let-down for landing, caused chaos in the area. 13 Liberators of the division crashed or crash landed as a result of these intruder's actions and our own anti- aircraft guns which were shooting wildly in the panic. Although Flixton airfield was attacked, no known losses were sustained - the worst hit being Seething where 3 B-24s piled into each other on the runway and two were shot down just before reaching their base.

And yet another hero...

At the same time my father was bombing Germany in a notoriously difficult aircraft, without fighter escort to protect him from enemy fire, my former father-in-law was learning to arm the P-51 Mustang--a new, scrappy fighter with long-range capability that would single-handedly save countless lives and change the course of WWII.

My father-in-law was also stationed in England with the Mighty Eighth. During his tour he witnessed horrifying B-24 crashes. Heavily laden with bombs, the planes often floundered and exploded on takeoff. But he also witnessed the mass ascension of the Normandy Invasion fleet and said he'd never seen anything so magnificent.

A few years ago we took him to the WWII weekend in Reading. A beautifully restored P-51 Mustang was in attendance and he hadn't seen one in over 50 years. Although we'd been warned against touching the precious aircraft, we wanted a picture of him near it.

As we approached the Mustang, I told the owners who he was and what he had done during the war. They dropped everything they were doing, shook his hand and with a reverence that makes me weepy just thinking about, honored him by asking if he'd like to stand on the wing.

They helped him onto the wing, and we took this picture. Later, my mother-in-law told us she'd never seen him so happy in his life. If his ear-to-ear grin the whole day was any indication, she was right.


Anonymous Unk said...

Thanks for the post...

We certainly do NOT have enough of these stories floating around.

These are MY HEROS.


May 27, 2007 8:49 PM  
Blogger Script Demon said...

Your account of your father's experiences flying his bomber was inspiring.

I'm actually from Italian immigrant stock and my parents and grandparents experienced the war from another perspective. You can imagine what that was. Although they were never subjected to carpet bombing, they did see their share of horrors.

The one thing they always told me though was that the relief and happiness they felt when the American troops passed through their town for the first time was incredible. It brought hope to a people who had been suffering under the Nazis and Fascists for a very long time.

The war had many faces and stories. What we can all be thankful for is the life we are now enjoying thanks to the sacrifice of these brave, young men.

You are very lucky to have a father like that. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

May 28, 2007 12:11 AM  
Anonymous Joe Valdez said...

Terrific blog! I hope you've learned much more about screenwriting this month than I've learned about publishing in the same time period, Ann.

You listed While You Were Sleeping and The Road Warrior among your favorite movies, so "eclectic taste" is at least one thing I cannot accuse you of lacking at this time.

I'll continue reading and let you know if anything embarrassing turns up.

May 28, 2007 8:49 PM  
Blogger Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Unk, they'll always be my heroes too.

Vince, I can't even imagine the relief your parents must've felt when the allied forces arrived. It makes me weepy to think about. Everything about that whole time period fills me with awe.

The world joined forces for a great cause, committed unthinkable acts, witnessed unconscionable acts, and then went on to build what we have today.

Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants.

They truly are the greatest generation. The flaws we love to complain about were caused by the time in which they lived. We could all learn alot about forgiveness from them, and also what the cost of true heroism really is.

Both heroism and freedom have a steep price, and they paid it for us. It's almost Biblical in it's proportion.

Joe, if you're sifting my blog for embarrassing, I am so in trouble. And yeah, I'm nothing if not ecclectic. Thanks for stopping in!

May 28, 2007 9:18 PM  
Anonymous Jane/FabDame said...

Looking at Dad's picture, I was thinking how young he looked - so I did the math. This all occurred when he was between 23 and 25 years of age!

May 28, 2007 10:13 PM  
Blogger Ann Wesley Hardin said...

I know! And he was OLD, if you can imagine that. Although someone told me that most pilots were older than the teenaged crews.

It struck me recently that because of WWII, he discovered he was a perfect, instinctive aviator. He made that aircraft perform under impossible conditions and went on to earn his living that way. But probably wouldn't have were it not for the war.

It reminded me of one of my college professor's comments: what are the odds of the physiologically perfect tennis player ever picking up a racket? Pretty slim.

So, a miracle all around. Most cool if you ask me.

May 28, 2007 10:23 PM  
Blogger Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Oh, one more thing, because once you get me started I can't shut up, *gg*

The term *infantry* is no accident. Most soldiers throughout history were, in fact, infants.

Makes you stop and think, eh?

May 28, 2007 10:44 PM  

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