Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A story about an American Hero

This past weekend, I took Taylor to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. She just loves the old war planes and we decided to make a day of it. Do you believe in fate? I DO!

While we were there, Taylor was able to get into the cockpit of a B 25. It was very cool and as she was sitting there, the man that let her up there asked her a few questions like she was a 'little girl'. By the time we got done talking, his jaw was hanging down! She first started telling him what she knew about the B 25 and he was impressed. Then he got a very small scale story about Taylor and once she said she was a GySgt, he about fell out of the plane as he yelled 'A GUNNY? YOU ARE A GUNNY?!' Of course, this always tickles Taylor when she gets that type of reaction. She talked further with the man and told him her all time favorite WW11 planes were the Mustang and the mighty B 17. The man got a bit quiet and told her he had something for her. When we got out of the plane, he told her to walk a certain way and when she saw a man in a wheelchair to stop by and say hi.

So, we wandered a bit and came up on a little old man sitting in a wheel chair. He had on his WW11 veteran hat and he had on a uniform shirt that was just full of ribbons. She shook his hand and thanked him for his service. He talked to her for a few minutes then asked her if she knew anything about the B 17. She told him 'yes sir, that is my favorite bomber'. His eyes settled on her, took her hand and asked her if she would like to talk to him for a bit.

The man that was holding Taylor's hand, was a B 17 pilot, Larry Jenkins. Taylor and I promptly sat right down in the middle of the floor to listen to him talk.

He was just out of high school and was playing cards with a bunch of his buddies when on the radio came word that Pearl Harbor had been hit. He knew then, he was going to go sign up. He wanted to be a pilot and he went through a lot of schooling to become the B 17 pilot.

He told us that he was so excited, he was young, fearless and that at that time, the guys were actually excited to go to war. That was, until his first mission. Once up in the air and they got shot at with the anti air craft artillery came up and was hitting their plane, taking chunks of it off. They landed safely and all marveled at the damage and that they survived. He was very afraid after that, but he couldn't let it stop him from doing his job.

Being a new crew, they usually got the older planes that had issues. On one mission, the plane they got had TROUBLE written across the nose, he knew it wasn't a good sign. They were over enemy territory in Romania with a full bomb load when they lost an engine. They were losing speed and had to turn away from the formation. He knew he had to drop the bombs, so they flew and found some railroad tracks and destroyed them.

They lost another engine and are now flying with only 2 and they were over 300 miles away from a safe zone and all alone. A mountain range was coming and they had to get over it. But the B 17 is massive and heavy and they only had 2 engines. Larry told the crew to get rid of any and everything in the plane, except their chutes. He made them get rid of their guns, ammo, bomb scope. But they kept losing altitude. He got the idea that if they could get rid of the ball turret, which was pretty heavy, they might be ok. While flying on 2 engines, fighting with every ounce he had, he helped figure out how to get the ball turret off. They were still to heavy. He ordered all the doors be taken off as well. Larry had a hard time maintaining speed so that plane didn't stall, but he somehow managed to skim over the mountain range. Once they got back to safety, they had to face a 45 mph cross wind and he had to put the plane down in the middle of a hay field, most of the plane was missing, but he brought his crew back safe. He got the Distinguished Flying Cross for that mission.

His crew finally got a new plane but they stuck out like a sore thumb because it was shiny, it hadn't been painted the drab green yet and they had a bad feeling. On July 16, 1944 on a mission over Austria (they had been here before and knew it was going to be bad), they dropped their bombs and had turned back around over the city to leave and they were hit 2 times, direct hits. It killed his bombardier instantly and wounded his navigator. The #3 engine burst into flames and Larry realized he had been hit. He was blinded and could only see the bright lights from the flames of the engine, but he knew they were spinning out of control. He was still in his seat and somehow managed to get his chute on, but he had to take off his flack jacket to do so. He stood up to get out of his seat and fell. Both of his legs were broken.

He crawled his way back to the bomb bay doors, hoping someone had opened them. They were closed. He tried to push with his legs, that is when he realized how badly his legs were broken, both were compound fractures. He had lost a lot of blood and oxygen. He prayed, Lord, I will be with you soon.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Everyone had bailed, except one guy, Ray Voss. Ray talked with Larry 33 years later and told him when he got to the bomb bay doors, Larry was unconscious. Ray left and was going to jump and leave Larry because of how severe Larry's wounds were, but at the last minute he couldn't do it, he couldn't leave Larry there.

He opened the bomb bay doors and rolled Larry out, hoping the cold would wake Larry up enough for him to pull his own rip cord. Larry did, but passed out again. He came to as he was being shot at, and hit on his way down. When he landed, he was surrounded by Germans.

That began his journey as a POW under some very horrific conditions. He was a POW until May 10, 1945. If you would more details on this time, you can email and I will tell you. The conditions were horrendous and what he and the others suffered through were and are heartbreaking.

Yet, here he sat, in his wheel chair talking so incredibly proud. Taylor never once took her eyes off of him and many times, he looked directly to her as he talked, as if they were the only 2 left.

When he came back to the states, he spent several years at the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek which is now the Hart-Doyle-Inouye Federal Center.

He told Taylor he had no regrets, none. He asked 2 things of Taylor as he gave her a book that was written about him and he signed his name under one of his pictures. He asked her to take care of his book, his story, forever. The last thing he asked of her, to always remember him, Larry Jenkins, B 17 pilot.

I can't even tell you how profound this meeting was. When we were done, he pulled himself out of his chair and he saluted. GULP, I had tears just flowing. What an amazing man, what an amazing story, what an amazing American Hero!

The best day at the Air Zoo, that is for sure!


Karen I. said...

What an exciting day for Taylor and Mom.Thank you for being there for us, Larry Jenkins.

Ct Soldiers Angel said...

What a very interesting visit with a True Hero.
Can't get better than that.

GunnNutt said...

I am soooo glad that Mr. Jenkins, B 17 pilot, is willing to spend his time in the museum enlightening any and all who will listen. He is a true piece of history -- one that Gunny is now in charge of!