Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Serendipity

My wife has had to have some ongoing dental work done of late and between winter storms and unforeseen events, we have had to postpone today's visit several times. There are times in life when things happen when we don't understand why and there are times when the answers are revealed to us later. Sometimes much later. Today was one of those times in my life when something was revealed to me. I met a hero today.....and had things gone as planned originally, that meeting would never have happened. Had those original dental appointments not been postponed, I would have never had the opportunity to meet and talk to a man who is literally, part of our living history. Today as I was sitting in the waiting room, while my wife was seeing the dentist, an elderly couple came in and sat down across from me. I looked up from my reading to glance in their direction across the waiting room and as I looked, I saw that the gentleman had on a ball cap with embroidered lettering indicating that he was a world war two veteran. I folded my book and began to contemplate my feelings as I waited for the opportunity to approach. The gentleman's wife was seated next to him and was completing some paperwork for the dentist office. As I looked on, another gentleman seated adjacent to them, struck up a conversation with the man and as they talked, I could hear spillovers of the conversation, enough to learn that the man was a former crew member on a B-17. Hearing that piece of information immediately piqued my interest, as I have an elderly friend who flew B-17's during the war and the plane has always been an area of love and interest for me since I was a child. So I waited for the right moment, then I stood and walked over to the gentleman to introduce myself and to shake his hand. He immediately brightened up upon my approach as I was wearing my 3rd Marine Division Vietnam veteran hat. He readily extended his hand and smiled. I shook hands and told him that I appreciated his service and was literally in awe to be in the presence of a man such as himself who had flown on B-17's. He introduced himself as Elmer Browning, "B-17 Ball Turret Gunner." That realization further enamored me, and I sat down immediately right in front of him on the reception room coffee table and began to listen intently to some of his remembrances of his life and experiences. As I did so, his wife Melba looked up from her clipboard and smiled. She then reached inside a small bag at her feet and handed me a copy of a small book and one for the other gentleman present. The book was titled "Elmer's Tune" and it is the story of Elmer Browning and his experiences during WWII as a B-17 ball turret gunner.
Some might call a meeting such as ours today as a 'by chance' meeting, I would call it serendipity. As we sat and talked, Melba (upon seeing my hat) thanked me for my service. I asked her if I could buy one of the books and she said "you sure can." I asked if she would take a check and she said "yes and Elmer will autograph it for you too." As I handed Elmer the book and a Pen, I noted that he was having trouble hearing me when he asked my name when he asked who to address it to. Melba interjected that Elmer had lost the hearing in both ears due to his experiences in the ball turret, but added "he can read lips." She went on to tell me that the book was based upon Elmer's journals and that she had told him one day "you need to write a book about this, as this is part of history." She then said that Elmer had dictated the book and that she had typed and edited it and then they found a publisher. Melba also noted that the book was a bit thin when they finished, but that this to had been providence, as they had taken to giving copies of the books to service men and women deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan....."and the size is perfect for them to travel with. They couldn't have carried a big book with them" she said. Elmer took the pen and slowly addressed the book to me and added this line, "thank you for being interested in our life. God Bless....Elmer Browning" Elmer then handed me the book and pointed to the photograph on the cover of a young man in his sheep's wool lined flight suit, squatting in front of his ball turret. He tapped the photo with his finger and said: "that was me when I was 19 years old." I sat for the next thirty or so minutes literally in awe of this fragile man who I learned from his wife is eighty six years old. As we talked, his Melba would explain things or tell the stories and Elmer would interject with his own comments. He can apparently read her lips well enough from the side to make out most of what she is saying and he obviously he knows the stories. Melba told me of the time when he and his crew were on a mission to bomb Berlin and right before coming over target, it was his time to get down in the ball turret and prepare. She said he told her of hearing this mysterious harp music, but after a while, the music was interrupted by the pilot coming on the intercom to tell them that their target was aborted due to cloud cover and that they were heading to an alternate target. She said that he told her that he never heard the harp music again and that no one else in his crew apparently heard it. Melba spoke of the time when Elmer's turret was shot up and about to fall off the plane and the crew was desperately trying to pull him back up through the escape hatch and they couldn't quite get him out. When he suddenly felt this giant hand on his backside. She said: "he said he felt this giant hand on his buttocks that pushed him up and out." She said: People don't believe that, but there were angels with them." Elmer just nodded in agreement. She also told me of the time when his plane was shot up so bad, that they almost didn't make it back. Of the frantic time they spent jettisoning everything on the badly damaged plane, in an attempt to keep it airborne just long enough to get them back to England. And that on the return from that mission, they threw everything into the English channel as they flew back, including the ball turret and all the machine guns and everything else that wasn't bolted down. Melba sat and told me of how the pilot landed the plane on the expanded steel runway of a fighter base somewhere on the coast of England, as the plane couldn't make it any further on its own. She told me of how Elmer had told her of the indignant young fighter squadron leader who came charging out to chastise the crew of Elmer's B-17 for having landed there and blocking his runway. He ordered them to move the damn thing! Then in the midst of it all, how he stopped and looked at the battered old flying fortress and exclaimed: "Oh my God! How did you ever fly that thing back? The plane so obviously damaged as to make it a wonder that it could remain in the air at all. But fly it they did and the pilot landed it, just in time according to Melba, as the last engine died as they landed. She said the pilot looked up at the indignant officer and told him: "if you want it moved? You move it." As Melba related the stories, Elmer would interject comments. "It's all in the book." As I listened to these stories of living history and was captivated by being in the presence of Elmer and his wife, I handed him one of my Patriot Guard business cards and began to explain what the Patriot Guard does and why. I also asked Melba if Elmer had ever been to Washington and seen the WWII memorial. She said no. I told her of the Honor Flights program that are taking WWII veterans on day trips to Washington and that the Patriot Guard had recently escorted one such flight from Fayetteville Ga. last fall. I told her that we escorted a hundred and seventeen WWII vets to the airport and that later (a couple of months later), we participated in a reunion with them at the Fayette County community center. Elmer said he would like to see the memorial one day and Melba asked: "do they let the wives go along too?" I told her that they did and that they send chaperons and medical staff along with them to cover all eventualities. Elmer and Melba both smiled upon hearing that. A few minutes later they came to take Melba back to her dental appointment and I sat for another fifteen minutes with Elmer just taking about his experiences and the plane. I told him that the day we held the reunion for the Honor Flight veterans, that they had a B-17 do a flyover and how the old fortress had made two low passes for the veterans. Elmer's face changed slightly and he told me: "I'm glad I wasn't there, I still get cold as I can be every time I see one. (B-17) Brings back the memories of the time I spent in the ball turret and how cold it was." He then added: "It must have been the Liberty Belle. I signed the turret on that one and they put something over it to seal it so it wouldn't wear off." Elmer then took off his hat and showed me his ribbons on the side of his cap. Elmer had the miniature ribbons for the medals he was awarded during the war and I could tell he was waiting to see if I recognized any of them. I looked at them closely and I told Elmer: "I know what this one is, that's a Purple Heart. And this one, that's the Silver Star" and as I reached the upper most ribbon on the left and pointed to it, before I could say it, Elmer did. "That's the Distinguished Flying Cross." (The second highest award given by the United States military. Second only to the Medal of Honor). Elmer pointed to the rest of his ribbons and named them all. European theater awards, presidential unit citations and air medals. Many with numerous stars and oak leaf clusters. Elmer Browning is a true American hero. Elmer added that of the original ten man crew of his B-17, he was the last survivor. The other one (their radio man) had passed last year. Now it is just Elmer. He was obviously one of the younger ones. Before long and all too soon, my wife appeared and it was time for us to leave. As she came into the waiting room, she saw me sitting on the coffee table in front of Elmer and I could immediately see the questions in her eyes. I stood up and introduced her to Elmer and told her that I had simply been sitting here talking to a hero and who he was. My wife immediately began to tear up and when Elmer extended his hand, my wife reached and gave him a big hug and thanked him for who he was and for all he had done for this country. Elmer then turned and looked at me as I stood there and then he slowly saluted me. I returned the salute and asked him if I could take a picture with him. I gave my wife my camera phone and we took a picture together. After one last hand shake and a hug of thanks, we departed. And as soon as I got home, I immediately fired off an email to a friend of mine in Patriot Guard. Someone who knows the people at Honor Flights. Someone who I know will know how to make it happen for Elmer. That is now my new mission. I want to insure that Elmer gets to be on the next Honor Flight to Washington and if at all possible, I intend to be there with him. Semper Fi Elmer my friend
Edited August 28th 2011. The week before Gene passed, (Gene passed on July 30th)I had the opportunity to stop in and see him and Melba. I was able to let them know that day, that Gene and I had been accepted by Honor Flight and that the trip was scheduled for September 22nd. I was looking forward to that trip and so was Gene. He is there now. With a bird's eye view and seeing it all from above.

4 comments:

XtnYoda said...

I performed the funeral service for the widow of the tail gunner of the Enola Gay a few years ago. He was the only one that actually saw the explosion.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_R._%22Bob%22_Caron
That was just very interesting to consider.

I didn't know her, she was related to one of our members somehow.

We certainly have a huge group of hero's slipping into oblivion.

God help us... as you commented in the above China visit piece!

pacific_waters said...

Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you. My father was a Navy vet when war was declared and had a necessary war job @ the Canal Zone and was draft exempt. He joined the Army anyway and was on orders for Corregidor the day it fell. We all owe a great deal to a generation of ordinary people who performed in an extraordinary manner.

Linda said...

Thank you for this story. We owe so much to those brave men and women. My dad and step-dad both fought in WW11.

Locutisprime said...

A small world it is Chuck. I never realized that before. They are all leaving us now. Over 1500 a day are passing away.

Thank you Pacific Waters and Linda for your kind words.

I have been involved in doing what I can to remember and honor these men and women for the past several years now,, so it was literally serendipitous for me to have encountered Elmer last week like I did.

He is a special man.