In the Midst of Ghosts

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- (Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the book "We Were Crewdogs V - We Flew Heavies" by  Tommy Towery. The book is scheduled to be published November of this year.)

I thought to myself, "Had Charles Dickens written "A Christmas Carol" as a war story, then this would have been the setting he would have chosen. 

I am sure of that. This is the place where Scrooge would meet the three ghosts, had he ever worn a flight suit and ever manned an aircraft."

It was clear to me that among the crowd that was gathered on that day, we had the past, the present, and the future covered. It was a place where many of us were visited by our own ghosts on that warm day. The occasion was not Christmas and the place was not London, but instead it was the occasion of the dedication of the B-52D (Serial Number 0-60683) at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, on July 24, 2009.

The reason for the sun-drenched crowd sitting on chairs and bleachers in front of the static display aircraft on that morning was the dedication of it to the honor and memory of the crew of Ebony 2 - Capt. Robert Morris, Maj. Nutter Wimbrow, 1Lt. Robert Hudson, 1Lt. Duane Paul Vavroch, Capt. Michael LaBeau, and TSgt. James Cook.

The crew being honored did not fly 683 on their Linebacker II mission on the day after Christmas, December 26, 1972. The aircraft they flew, 674, did not return from the hell into which it carried them. It did not survive the three SAM missiles that hit it that night. Neither did the pilot, Capt. Morris, or the EW, Maj. Wimbrow, my former EW school instructor. The other four members of the crew managed to egress the final death spiral of 674 and were captured and held as Prisoners of War until they were released in March of 1973. Their mission that night, along with the other Linebacker II missions, had helped force the North Vietnamese back to the Paris Peace Talks table and ultimately had helped free all the U.S. POWs.

In the row of folding chairs ahead of me sat an obviously proud World War II veteran. He had to be helped to his seat and his arm was in a sling. But when the National Anthem was sung, he did not hesitate to get up and stand as close to attention as his now frail-looking body would allow. I later learned the name and history of this "Ghost of Christmas Past." He was Edward M. Ireland. As a member of the Army Air Corps, SSgt. Ireland served in several positions aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress, including aerial gunner, bombardier, copilot and flight engineer. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while serving as top turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress on many heavy bombardment missions over enemy occupied continental Europe. In October 1943, he was assigned to the 568th Squadron, Crew 13 in Framingham, England, and flew his first mission on December the 13th of 1943. He had flown two successful bombing missions with his crew, warding off enemy fighter aircraft as an aerial gunner. 

He was sent to the hospital with influenza and was unable to fly his third scheduled mission. "The last I saw the crew was when the truck left the briefing area," he said. "When I arrived at the British hospital, another flight engineer from another squadron was amazed to see me, because he thought the entire crew was shot down. I spent that Christmas in the isolation ward."

Planes such as the B-17 he flew were still being put on static display at museums and gate guards on bases when the crew of Ebony 2, and many of the rest of us in the audience, were just being trained to fly the mighty B-52., The B-52 Stratofortress had not even flown before his war was over. No one could ever have dreamed of the day that it would be sitting at the entrance of an Air Force base as a museum relic. Many of us present that day embodied the "Ghosts of Christmas Present." We were the ones who now sat in the crowd as the symbol of our youth and our glory days was being dedicated to the next generation. None of us could dare look at SSgt. Ireland and think that one day we too would be his age, if we were lucky. During the dedication and the speeches and presentations, most of my crowd could close our sometimes tear-filled eyes and still see ourselves as young B-52 Crewdogs in Guam and Thailand, in flight suits, and still waiting to be home by Christmas. We were all told it would be over by Christmas - they just didn't say which Christmas. As SSgt. Ireland's aircraft had been dedicated in the past, our aircraft was now being dedicated in the present.

And, behind us on that day, watching the ceremony from afar, stood the "Ghosts of Christmas Future." They were the young ones, the active duty military ones. They were the ones that were now the age we had been when we first earned our wings. They wore flight suits, the same as we had worn, and some had already seen their own combat missions. There was as much difference in us and them as there was in SSgt. Ireland and us. The big difference was that on their suits were similar wings but their patches proclaimed them to be B-2 Crewmembers. Whiteman was an active
B-2 base. Yet, in a way, we were all the same. Just as the B-17 crews were retired by the time we started in the B-52, now the B-52 crews that flew during Linebacker II were retired as well. Just as the WWII era B-17s were put out to pasture, our Vietnam era D-model and G-model aircraft had long before stopped flying. Many of them had perished - chopped up in the boneyard in Arizona as victims of the SALT talks and the end of the Cold War. Many of the crewmembers not with us that day were gone as well, existing now only in the memories of those who once knew and flew with them. Of the three generations there, these new young-looking warriors now standing behind us represented the future.
Where will they meet their own ghosts of Christmas in their lives?

I found myself wondering, but knew the answer. Does the thought even cross their minds that someday they will be the ones sitting in our place in front of a B-2 that has been retired and was being dedicated as a relic of the past? Do they know that someday they will take their grandchildren to a museum to see the plane they flew in their war? We never thought that way when we were that age, so why should they. 

Personally, I hope they never even give it a thought. I hope that when they do, I'll have the spirit of SSgt. Ireland and I will be a representative of my generation and sitting on the front row. We need the next generation of warriors to protect us, the way we protected those that came before us, and we were protected by our parents' generation. We don't need them to worry about whether or not they will return from a combat mission.

John Wayne was attributed with saying "Real courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway." I don't know if he said that or not, but I like to think he did. That is the way I feel about those that flew during Linebacker II. The crew of Ebony 2 and all the others in their wave knew what awaited them on their mission, but they went, they saddled up anyway. They are the kind of people that I am proud to have associated with during that period of my life. They were the kind of people with whom I now sat at that dedication to other equally brave men.

We all sat there that day with the four survivors and the family and friends of the two that did not survive. We sat in the sun and as the ceremony ended, we looked up, and saw screaming toward us a familiar silhouette. Like the cavalry coming to rescue us at the last moment, the image grew larger and filled our ears with the scream of a ghost of the past, a ghost of the present, and a ghost of the future all rolled into one - a mighty BUFF. The flyover of the B-52 H-model and the audience over which it passed was the inspired reminder of where we came from, where we have arrived, and where we are going.

It served as a reminder to all of us that even thought it is old there is still life left in the B-52 fleet. They still represent the mighty symbol of freedom which served as a common bond to many of us that were assembled on that day. Their memory is a living one and as so serves as a reminder to all of us that we, like it, are not all museum relics yet. 

I thank God for that every day. I thank God for allowing me to have had a safe landing for each takeoff and to have lived through the days I spent serving my country and fellow Americans as a Crewdog on a B-52.
Lest we forget!