Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day Tradition

Since it's Memorial Day weekend I've decided to annually 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 his DFCs.

HANGING THE MOON
By Ann Wesley Hardin

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.


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 ex-late-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 cry 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.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Bev Stephans said...

Great tribute to your Dad, Ann!

May 25, 2008 7:17 PM  
Anonymous Unk said...

Just finished reading this... Great stuff.

Isn't funny how nobody seems to want to know or care much about how these heroes kept us in clover with absolutely no thought of themselves.

Thanks for sharing.

Unk

June 14, 2008 5:03 PM  

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