When you get older, what stories will you tell? When you reach the age where walking and talking and hearing are chores, what lessons and values will you pass on to the younger generation? To what lengths will you go to relive the memories of your past?
On a Friday afternoon, surrounded by shared experiences and restored propellers, 94-year-old Dave Andrews was exactly where he wanted to be.
Dave Andrews uses a walker to get from place to place, but at a moment’s notice, he’s always ready to fly.
The former World War II pilot showed up to Falcon Field in full uniform, aching not only to come face to face with a B-25, but to climb into the cockpit and look out onto the runway.
It wasn’t until Andrews lifted his left foot on the first rung of a ladder that extended out from the bottom of the plane that he realized his mind was way ahead of his body. He kept his smile, one that permeated across all World War II veterans as they told stories and looked at pieces of history that brought back a shared sense of familiarity.
The Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing hosted World War II veterans over the weekend to kick off World War II Heritage Days, inviting more than a handful of survivors. The list of veterans included 101-year-old Dick Cole, the lone survivor from the Doolittle Raid, which had its 75th anniversary on April 18.
Although not as old as Cole, many of the World War II veterans are now in their 90s, but you wouldn’t guess it if you saw them attempting to hoist themselves into the same types of planes they were inside back in the 1940s.
Like Andrews, fellow World War II veteran Aaron Brandon was set on sitting in pilot’s seat of the B-25, the same type of plane he had worked on as a crew member during the war.
He slowly paced himself up the ladder, and sat alone in silence once he reached his destination in the cockpit. His eyes weren’t fixated on any one thing, but rather reveling in his thoughts, drifting back in his mind further than many of us have been alive.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” Brandon said.
Betty Bishop has recently found another way to relive memories.
It only took a few weeks of training for Bishop to learn to shim the struts on the P-63 Kingcobra fighter plane nearly three quarters of a century ago. That’s nothing, she said, compared to learning how to use Facebook today.
Now, Betty’s son Rim Bishop can’t get her off Facebook.
“She’s talking to my high school friends,” Rim said. “I don’t even know them.”
Betty is known as one of the Rosie the Riveters, a cultural icon of World War II. While she said she didn’t do any riveting, she helped manufacture fighter planes, including the P-63 Kingcobra.
During World War II, Betty worked alongside men, often using her small hands to her advantage to shim struts through tiny holes in the wing. She said she wasn’t ever discriminated against for being a woman in the workplace — or at least, if she was, she didn’t notice.
Betty was focused on getting the job done, a mindset that hasn’t gone away 70 years later, even if her new objective involves connecting with as many friends as she can through social media.
Rim and his three brothers picked up on the lessons his mother and late father, Buck—a D-Day veteran—taught their sons.
“Do your job. Don’t whine. Don’t complain and you will succeed. That’s what she told us. That’s what we learned from her and my dad,” Rim said.
Betty’s face lit up as she touched the P-63 Kingcobra on display outside at Falcon Field, her name etched in marker underneath from a few years prior. There’s no way of knowing for sure whether this plane was one she worked on, but the man who spent the past 16 years restoring it stood only a few feet away.
Jim Arnold is an Army veteran, a mechanic, and a preserver of history. Arnold takes pride in his recreation, not only for the reason that it is one of only four planes of its kind still in operation.
To him, it’s about keeping the memories of that era alive, the plane a symbol of the men brave enough to fly in it at the time.
“The little bit that I can do to bring it to life, I enjoy,” Arnold said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Like Arnold, Gregg Scott didn’t fight in World War II, but on Friday he brought with him the memory of someone who served many roles throughout the war. His father, Donald Scott, passed away at the age of 91 on Jan. 30, two days before Gregg’s birthday.
To Gregg and others, it’s a reminder that World War II veterans won’t be around forever, so it’s important to take in as much as possible from them before it’s too late.
Their stories often deliver a greater meaning, something Gregg cherishes from his father, although Donald was humble and didn’t want to boast about his experiences during the war. That in itself was a lesson.
“Nothing’s free. Nothing is free,” Gregg said. “There’s no gimmes in life. It was almost an automatic response for people of that era that would drop everything.”
Henry Hughey, a ball turret operator in World War II, felt himself dropping quickly after one of the engines on his plane was shot down. It forced the plane to reroute to Poland, and ended up landing in a mine field.
“There’s only one way you can go with one engine,” Hughey said. “That’s down.”
Hughey saw a ball turret outside Dixie Wing Museum as he rode in a golf cart toward Falcon Field, and he pointed at the ball turret and joked, “That was my old office out there.”
U.S. Army pilot Brent Bracewell said the ball turret operators were one of the only people who had to fight the war lying down, which didn’t serve for the most comfortable office setting.
Those who volunteered to be a part of the war were never in it for comfort. They didn’t take the easy way out and often accomplished way more than they thought possible, even long after the war was over. Brandon and Hughey have been married to their wives for more than 65 years each, a feat some might say is harder than piloting a fighter plane.
Hughey wasn’t the only veteran at Falcon Field this past weekend who had survived in a plane with one engine.
When Andrews had just started training as a B-25 pilot during World War II, he took off with one engine — he hadn’t flown a plane before. He quickly noticed he only had one running engine, and promptly turned the plane around and landed it.
“He said it was one of the best landings he ever made,” Bracewell said.
While the first flight Andrews made was short, he piloted countless other flights in the A-20 and A-26. He could likely go on and on about the time he spent fighting for his country, but it was his demeanor Friday that perhaps painted the most valuable picture of all.
Though not much for words, Andrews’ determination in his steps and refusal to let his mind tell him “no,” is a lesson all its own.
“He’s a 24-year-old in a 94-year-old’s body,” Bracewell said.
When we think of war, we inevitably think of death. To hear these World War II veterans tell their stories and see them relive their history in their minds, all you could think about was how full of life they were.