All The Bob Johnsons

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.

In A Small Town, Pride And Shame Over Atomic Legacy

Leah Sottile: RICHLAND, Wash. — The workers inside Hanford’s nuclear reactors in the early 1940s knew their jobs were important, even if many of them didn’t know why. They worked hard, and for that they were paid well, tucking their children into bed at night inside handsome homes with green lawns on streets named for brilliant engineers: Goethals Drive, Jadwin Avenue.

The secrecy around Hanford, a part of the Manhattan Project, came to light on Aug. 9, 1945, when U.S. forces dropped a thick-bellied, 10,000-pound plutonium-filled bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki, Japan — vaporizing some 60-80,000 people in an instant and thereby ending World War II. All along at Hanford, they’d been contributing to the war effort, producing plutonium that would make up the core of the Nagasaki bomb.

“Peace!” the local newspaper headlines cried on Aug. 14, 1945. “Our bomb clinched it!”

“This town just went totally nuts,” said Burt Pierard, 74, who remembers beating pots and pans in a parade of children around his neighborhood. “It was euphoria, just the whole atmosphere was party-time, patriotic.”

Richland’s pride flooded into the hallways of the local high school. That fall, the students of Columbia High voted to change their mascot from the Beavers to the Bombers, and the yearbook for that school year was dedicated to the atomic bomb. Mushroom clouds found their way onto the school crest, class rings and football helmets. In the 1980s the school became Richland High and adopted a new logo: a bright yellow capital R with a white mushroom cloud billowing out behind it. They called it the R-Cloud.

Joe Gould’s Teeth

Jill Lepore: For a long time, Joe Gould thought he was going blind. This was before he lost his teeth, and years before he lost the history of the world he’d been writing in hundreds of dime-store composition notebooks, their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins.

He wrote with a fountain pen. He filled it with ink he stole from the post office. “I have created a vital new literary form,” he boasted. “Unfortunately, my manuscript is not typed.”

He told everyone who would listen that he was writing down nearly everything anyone said to him. “I am trying to record these complex times with the technique of a Herodotus or Froissart,” he explained to the Harvard historian George Sarton, in 1931, soliciting support. Herodotus wrote his Histories in ancient Greece; Jean Froissart wrote his Chronicles in medieval Europe. Gould was writing his history, a talking history, in modern America. “My book is very voluminous,” Gould told Sarton:

I imagine that the most valuable sections will be those which deal with groups that are inarticulate such as the Negro, the reservation Indian and the immigrant. It seems to me that the average person is just as much history as the ruler or celebrity as he illustrates the social forces of heredity and environment. Therefore I am trying to present lyrical episodes of everyday life. I would like to widen the sphere of history as Walt Whitman did that of poetry.

The Lost Girls

Jason Cherkis: In 1974, when she was only 14, Jackie Fuchs would wake up way before her parents and catch a ride with friends from her house in the San Fernando Valley across the Santa Monica Mountains and into Malibu. She’d hit the beach and paddle out in the quiet, pre-dawn dark.

It was the only time she could be on the water and not have to deal with the catcalls and the teasing, the good-natured gibes that gradually shaded into something harder and meaner. Before sunrise, she was just another surfer, her back to the sand, waiting for the right wave. She liked being the only girl out there.

Tall and slender with bright blue eyes and brown hair down to her shoulders, Jackie could have passed for Mary Tyler Moore’s daughter. The surfer dudes called her “Malibu Barbie.” One editor of a surfing magazine struck up a correspondence and sent her letters addressed to “Maliboobie.” “You had better get hot and send some good photos,” he wrote to her in black marker. “Your competition in photos is getting tough! You should see what some girls are sending in!” She could never tell how seriously to take the attention. In a letter to the editor published in June 1974, Jackie admonished one magazine for its skin-deep coverage of female surfers: “If they’re so hot, why don’t you show them surfing? Some of us chicks have more than just hot bods! Awoo!”

When Jackie heard that only male surfers were being paid to attend the national championships that year in North Carolina, she organized two benefit screenings of surf films to cover the travel expenses for female competitors. She cold-called directors to cajole them into donating reels of their documentaries for her events, and phoned local officials to arrange for fire permits, security and space. She passed out hundreds of homemade flyers up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. At the door, she took tickets until there wasn’t room left to stand. No one seemed to care how young she was.

“As rebellious as we thought we were,” says Steven Diamond, a childhood friend, “we were nothing compared to Jackie.” She was smarter and bolder than the other teenagers, constantly doing things girls were told they shouldn’t. She attended summer school just to take shop. She learned power chords on her Stratocaster and went to bed with the radio on, hoping to hear Fanny, the one all-female rock band in the universe, on KLOS. A middle school friend remembers driving to the grocery store with her mother one afternoon and spotting Jackie at the freeway on-ramp, her 6-foot-10-inch custom fiberglass swallowtail board under one arm and her thumb out.

Bernie Sanders Has A Secret

This is how you profile.

Michael Kruse: One morning last month in Burlington, Vermont, at the law office of John Franco, one of Bernie Sanders’ best friends since the 1970s, Franco talked to me at length about Sanders’ commitment and his consistency and his charisma. Even at the beginning of Sanders’ career, he said, four decades before he started packing arenas in college towns and liberal havens as a renegade 73-year-old self-described socialist taking on Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment, “people didn’t want him to stop talking.” He talked about how Sanders “completely changed the political culture” in Vermont. He talked about how Sanders’ surprising current surge in national polls is “validation.”

“I’m proud of Bernard,” he said.

All of that was interesting. But I wanted to know not just about what Sanders has done. I wanted to know more about who he has been. So I asked what I thought was an innocuous question about Sanders’ son. How did Sanders juggle aspirations as an eager political activist with his role as a divorced young father?

“That’s out of bounds,” Franco said.

Out of bounds?

“It’s none of your f—-ing business,” he said. He smiled, but he wasn’t joking.

The Invisible Man

Jeff Sharlet: Open your eyes. Sunday. Another lucky day. Darkness. A luxury afforded the man who owns two tents, one popped right inside the other. No street light filtering in, no headlights rising along tent walls. Just—dark. You could be anywhere. Your father’s house, before dawn, in Cameroon, or Paris, or Berlin. Or America. Stretch: You want to run, the canyon, your long legs striding, up out of the city until you reach the vista. L.A. You’ll close your eyes and feel the sun on your face, and in your mind a movie will roll, the film of all that is yet to come. You’ve always been gifted like this, granted stories and the power to believe them. Merci, you think. Thank you, God. Blessed with this body. Lean. “Very, very strong,” says your sister, Line, the other half of who you are.

Open your eyes. March 1, 2015. Sunday. You need to call her. Bonne nuit, you texted her last night. Every day you text her. I’ll call tomorrow, my heart, my dear.

Darkness. Silence. Earplugs: You don’t hear the street begin to breathe. The tent people and the blanket people, the single-room-occupancy people coming out for prayer and breakfast at the missions, the stay-awake-all-night dancing-in-place-for-twenty-hours tweaking people, the flat-out face-down sidewalk people. The corner men who piss at the foot of the two-story glass cross on the side of the mission. The cross that brought you to this corner.

Now, They Hug

Robert Samuels: URBANDALE, Iowa — As this state’s most visible culture warriors, Bob Vander Plaats and Donna Red Wing have hurled insults at each other for years.

Vander Plaats’s organization, The Family Leader, has derided same-sex marriages such as Red Wing’s as “unnatural.” Red Wing, leader of the LGBT rights group One Iowa, has called Vander Plaats “bigoted” and “cruel.”

But when they ran into each other on the day the Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples could marry anywhere in the country, crossing paths between dueling interviews at a local TV station studio, they locked eyes.

And then they hugged.