Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans' Day

Today is the day we Americans try to take some time to remember and reflect upon those who have gone to war for the nation, and the sacrifices they have made. I can't possibly do justice to, or pay adequate tribute to the millions of men and women who have put their lives on the line for those of us who have never had to.

What I can do though is to write a little about one particular WWII veteran... Staff Sergeant Vincent B. Fricker... my dad. He passed away almost 14 years ago, so I'm going pretty much totally on my own memory of stories he told, and stories I've since heard from my family, along with the few sketchy bits of official info we have from the government. An incomplete and imperfect portrait, but I just felt I wanted to sketch it out here.

My dad served in the US Army Air Forces in the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). After being sent all over the US for training, he was shipped over to England on the Queen Mary (converted to a troopship for the duration) in June of 1943, where his unit was attached to an 8th Air Force bomb group... as near as I can figure out, the 92nd Bombardment Group operating out of Alconbury and later Podington. He was a member of the 861st Chemical Company, which for him entailed the loading and arming of all types of bombs on B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers. This meant he spent a lot of time around really, really large piles of high explosive, which, while not as hazardous as daily combat, certainly had its risks. A few years ago, in trying to sort out where he was stationed when, I read of an incident, just prior to his arrival at one of the bases, where a fully loaded bomber blew up on the field, destroying three planes, killing a number of men, and leaving a very large crater in the ground. It made me really appreciate the risks those guys took every day.

Which pales in comparison to what the crews of the planes he serviced faced. Casualty rates for 8th Air Force bomber crews were astoundingly high, especially early in the campaign. If you've ever watched one of the many movies made about them (Twelve O'Clock High, The War Lover, Memphis Belle), you've seen the scenes where the ground crew and command staff count the returning planes after a mission, and notice how many are missing. Those aren't Hollywood fabrications... my dad used to talk about doing exactly that. In particular, I recall him talking about one of the missions to Schweinfurt (home to the German ball bearing industry), and seeing only a couple of bombers return from the dozen or so the group sent out. For a significant portion of the war, these crews were required to complete 25 missions before being rotated home... and statistically stood little chance of reaching that number alive.

But my dad lived in relative safety on the ground, in England, and I believe he was always a little (okay, a lot) grateful for that. He slept in a Quonset hut (or was that a Nissen hut? he told me, but I can't recall which it was or what the differences were), and had hot meals and could get leave to go into town and drink in a pub from time to time. Then one day, according to my mom, he offered what he saw as constructive criticism to the company captain. Needless to say, a staff sergeant isn't supposed to do that... so he soon found himself back at plain sergeant, and on a journey that took him through the Middle East, ultimately ending up at a base near Piryatin, in what was then the Soviet Union, and is now Ukraine! Few Americans even today are aware that we used three bases in the USSR for "shuttle bombing" missions... taking off from England, bombing deep into Germany or occupied Europe, then landing in the USSR. Well, we did, and my dad was there to service the fighter escorts on their arrival. Some might have read of this recently, in an obituary for Col. Don Blakeslee, who lead the first fighter escort mission this way. Now, according to my dad, when Blakeslee landed, he was the guy sent out to pick him up in a jeep and take him to the base headquarters. Of course, one never knows... there are probably at least a half dozen dads who made that claim to their kids after the war... but I like to believe it's true. A tiny, obscure, "brush with fame", I guess.

The stint in the Soviet Union was considerably less pleasant than England had been. The German Luftwaffe showed up not long after our planes had landed and bombed and shot up all three bases (Poltava, Mirgorod, and Piryatin) pretty badly, destroying or damaging a number of planes, and sending my dad to a slit trench for cover. Accomodations were also more primitive... canvas tents, which at least had wooden floors... and a very active mouse population which provided entertainment for my dad and his tentmates. He used to tell stories about using empty ammo boxes as improvised traps for the mice, and waiting until one crawled in after some crumb of food, then tugging a string to bring the box down on the hapless rodent. Time and again, I've read tales of how soldiers of all types pass idle time, and it always boils down to some really odd, simple passtime like this.

The trip to the USSR wasn't without it's benefits... my dad got a chance to see parts of the world that a kid from the Bronx could never have otherwise have hoped to see. He sailed part of the way on a steamer named the Alcantarra, and spent some part of the trip on a troop train through the desert, where he supposedly took a potshot with his rifle at a bird on telegraph pole, inadvertantly severing the line in the process. Might be another tall tale, but he did enjoy speculating about just what line of communication he might have cut off. His journey also left my family with a few tangible bits as well... several of the US Goverment "how to behave in foreign countries" booklets (including Iraq), and a lovely, small rug he bought in Cairo, which my mom still has to this day.

Eventually he was shipped back to England, and after the Nazi surrender, spent a chunk of time tearing apart many of the thousands of aircraft that had been shipped over there during the war. All the while, he and many others were waiting in dread to hear they were going to the Pacific theatre (as the 8th Air Force, was in fact slated to do), but the war came to an end before that happened. Finally, in late November of 1945, he was shipped back to the states, as part of what was known as "Operation Magic Carpet":


For all I know, he's somewhere in that picture... it was taken on the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (not the nuclear one we know today, but a predecessor), the very ship that brought my dad home from England. He mustered out on December 5th, 1945, as part of the huge de-mobilization that happened right after the war.

So that's a snapshot of my dad's service in the military... and my small attempt to say thank you to all who have ever put on a uniform in service of the country. Regardless of what action they see or don't see, the members of our military all make sacrifices for the greater good. So thank you, all.


m.greenwood said...

Hi Tim, I came to you blog via a google search for info regarding WWII the 92nd Bombardment group- 8th regiment 861st Chemical Company- I have a book "The Route As Briefed" by John S. Sloan, you may have heard of it? It is out of print, but still available if searched for (I found my copy on amazon)There is a group photo of the 861st in it. My Grandfather was in the 861st Chem. Co. and most likely served alongside your father! My grandfather passed away in 1972, at the age of 57, but I lived with him and my grandmother from when I was a year old. Miss him everyday.
His name was Robert T. Morin.
So glad I found your blog! I will look up operation magic carpet. Thanks!

Tim said...

WOW! Your comment was a big surprise to me. I never expected to encounter someone actually connected to the Chem. Co. my dad served with! Thank you so much for the information on the book. I will look for it.