Some serendipity for you. I was searching for something today behind my desk at work and I found an odd envelope. Inside was a funeral program for my father, who died in November 2011, just a few weeks after my grandpa. Those months were kind of a blur, but I remember a woman pushing the envelope into my hands at dad’s funeral. I must’ve taken it out of my briefcase when I got back from Oklahoma and put it aside. Somehow it slipped into the crevasse between my desk and a wall.
There was a handwritten note on the outside.
“Ben, this was written by your grandpa and given to me. He was our Veterans Day speaker at Kellyville High School in 1999 and told me he did not like to talk about his experiences but would speak for me. He received an awesome standing ovation and many tears from guests and students. This is a story that needs to be passed on. In loving memory of your grandpa.”
Seventy years ago tomorrow, on Sept. 2, 1945, Japan surrendered to Douglas MacArthur aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Until today, I never knew my grandpa was in the sky above, flying cover. I’ve heard pieces of this story before, but not like this. I appreciate how unsentimental it is, and how the language is direct and unadorned. He was an engineer. I’m proud to share it.
In my senior year, in 1941, I was seated about where you are seated. But your history books tell you that was the year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7.
I was 17 then. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and began training in the B-29. I was later stationed in the Marianna Islands, in the western Pacific, bombing targets on the mainland of Japan, 1,500 miles away.
It was summer of 1945, July 19, and we were making a bombing run on the Mitsubishi aircraft factory at Osaka, Japan, and my good friend Bob Johnson from Minnesota was on another crew and was flying as our wingman. There were 42 planes in the formation, each carrying three 4,000-pound bombs. As we neared the target, the flack began in earnest. It was so heavy I believed you could get out and walk on it.
About 30 seconds from “bombs away,” our wing man took a direct hit and exploded. From my limited visibility, I could not see the fate of the crewmen or parachutes. I only saw huge pieces of the aircraft fly by. After bombs away, we took a hit in the No. 3 engine, feathered it and headed for home. Home that day was a little coral island called Iwo Jima. We lost the second engine about an hour out and called ahead for a straight-in approach. As we were taxiing in, my heart was heavy, not knowing what happened to Bob. Along the runway, you could see the price we paid for that tiny island. Seven thousand crosses marked the graves of Marines and U.S. infantrymen. I was 21, and I thought I was tough. I could hardly see the taxi way because of the tears in my eyes.
We got a new engine and some gasoline and flew home the next day.
We had a day or two off and our squadron commander gave us permission to paint a logo on our aircraft and we all voted for the right gunner, Milton Gross, from Philadelphia, to paint the picture. He chose the picture of a beautiful young lady, very tastefully dressed, and we called our aircraft The Victory Girl. Milton Gross was indeed an artist.
On Sept. 2, 1945, we flew cover for Gen. Douglas MacArthur as he steamed into Tokyo Bay aboard the Battleship Missouri and signed the Declaration of Peace with the Japanese and the War was over. I got home on Thanksgiving Day, 1945.
In 1995, 50 years after World War II, the crew of The Victory Girl decided to have a reunion. I was retired, living on a ranch near Slick, Oklahoma, and I flew to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, walked into a conference room at the Holiday Inn and saw a crew I had not seen in 50 years. We were all wrinkles, baldness, aches and pains and we were missing four crew members. We sat down and unfolded pictures that told the story of the past 50 years.
An enlargement of the original crew was shown, and I said I would like to know what happened to Bob Johnson. I’d been wondering for all those years. You could hear a pin drop. A tear fell on an old photograph.
“You don’t know, do you?” one of the men asked.
“No,” I said. “I couldn’t see.”
“Well, we saw,” he said. “All the chutes came out ‘streamers.’”
The book was closed on Bob Johnson. At least now I knew.
We went around the room, each man taking time to relate what happened in the 50 years that had passed.
When it was Milton Gross’ turn, he passed around pictures of his family from Philadelphia and said when he got home he wanted to be an artist, so he enrolled in the Philadelphia Institute of Art, a prestigious art school, and graduated. He couldn’t find a job he liked and so he applied to the International School of Art in Paris and was accepted and went overseas to study. He graduated with an advanced degree, and while waiting on his Visa to be processed, a friend asked him to assist in helping his father with a seminar just outside Paris. Milton was to act as a chauffeur.
He said sure, and that evening he dropped off his passengers at a hotel and had about an hour to kill before getting the next load. He walked inside the hotel and there in the lobby he saw a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jewish girl, about 20 years old, acting as a hostess. His real life Victory Girl.
He introduced himself, and to make a long story short, began to date this young lady, and in due time, asked her to marry him.
But the real story is how she came to be standing in that lobby.
Ten years earlier, when she was 10 years old, she was a Jew living in Occupied France. Her father was a member of the French Resistance, sabotaging the German war effort, dynamiting bridges and railroads. He was caught, and soon shot by the Germans. When they went through his pockets, they found his home address and went to his house in a small French village. They kicked in the door and found a young mother making supper for a little 10-year-old girl. The mother was shot point blank, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl was thrown into an Army truck and driven to a German prison compound and tagged for the gas chamber. How you exterminate a little girl, I don’t know.
She was in the compound barracks, on the eve of being placed on a train, when a man came up to her in the darkness and asked her a question.
“Are you Amy Billenstein?”
She said, “Well, yes.”
The man said, “I’m your uncle and I have around my neck a green dog tag. I’m a Jew and a machinist and they are keeping me for work if they should need me. You have a red dog tag and that’s not good. I’m going to trade tags with you.”
So he took her tag and placed his around her neck.
“Let’s go outside,” he said. “I need to show you something.”
Outside, he pointed to the Big Dipper and showed her how the lip of the big dipper points to the North Star.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “I’ve found a hole in the fence just big enough for a little girl to squeeze through, and when the guard passes the hole in the fence, I will put you through, and I want you to put that North Star over your shoulder and keep it there and go. You’ll be headed south. I want you to run straight south for three days until you come to a little village called Monet. My wife lives there and she will take care of you.”
In the darkness, they crept to the boundary fence, and as the guard passed, he handed her three crusts of bread he had saved and pushed her through. She ran across the road and hid in a clump of tall grass and then turned and waved goodbye. She turned and ran and ran and ran, all night long. When morning came, she stopped and licked some dew off the grass and ate one of the crusts of bread. Then off again, straight south. She stopped to drink water from a little creek and kept going. On the third morning, she saw no village but that afternoon she saw an old farmer hoeing in a little field. She ran up to him and cried, “Monet? Monet?”
“Yes,” he said. “I know Monet.”
He took her to the village and found her aunt. The aunt took her, raised her, put her through school, and she was working as a hostess in the lobby of a hotel when Milton Gross, my right gunner, walked in. She is now living in Philadelphia, has three children and enjoys her life.
What’s the price of freedom? All the Bob Johnsons, all those crosses along the taxi way on an island in the pacific, and all the lives lost during the war, all the wars. They paid for us. Paid with their lives. And the uncle, father and mother of Amy Billenstein. They paid the price for a little 10-year-old girl. Oh, what a price.
To you, it’s free. Hold it high.