A VETERANS DAY, THEN AND NOW
(Bob) Thorn and (Clarence) Slack met in late May, 1944 when they were alphabetically paired to share pilots quarters at Montalto De Castro, near Naples, Italy. They had shipped out from Oran, Africa aboard the HMS Sumatra, bound for the European theater. Their orders were to join the 324th Fighter Group, for squadron assignment on arrival. They grew to know each other when their foursome, including Lt. Woycik and Lt. Floyd Smith, were directed to the 316th Hells Belles squadron. These four roomed together in tents, barracks, other billets and even a French castle in Luneville. They shared these environs as they flew and fought their way through the countryside and cities of Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. Wartime friends shared a tenuous and sometimes tragic relationship, tied to the random, bitter winds of fate. Woycik and Smitty were in a sphere of this familial environment, but Bob and Cal were very tight, simpatico, brothers. Bob was of Mississippi origin, but California grown, Clarence was from Kansas.
Bob had arrived in San Diego in 1933 at the age of nine, and the nickname of Sippi was bestowed upon him by his contemporaries, a moniker he accepted in spite of its dubious derogatory origins. His good southern nature tolerated such peer frivolity. What was fashionable in Dixie was decried in California, short pants were traded for levis and he integrated successfully. Upon graduation from Grossmont High School, class of 1942, he had enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps to become a cadet. The training was grueling, candidates were eliminated daily, but the camaraderie of this greatest generation banded them together for a desperate purpose that would not be denied. He told me once, that in a state of complete exhaustion, he considered quitting, but couldnt bear the thought of his fathers disappointment. His dad, Robert H. Thorn Sr., was a corporal in the artillery under General BlackJack Pershing and had been mustard gassed at the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918. His mothers brothers, Arlee and Joe Ward, had been U.S. Marines, serving in the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. Civil war ties vaguely suggest our predecessors could have warred from both sides. This familys pride would not be denied. People were dying over there and he was needed. Despite the obstacles, Sip was a natural pilot, as his instructors confirmed by the resolute pinning of his wings.
Sip and Cal had similar values, a wry sense of humor, and a growing awareness of the idiocy and waste of war. Their choice of friends were shared, their disdain for other characters similarly mutual. They all recognized the peril of the Nazis, having grown from childhood with the message that a war was coming and they would be in it. Hitlers goose-steppers and Tojos thugs had pillaged, torn and ripped the roots of civility in Europe and Asia while they were of tender years, yet they intently listened to their fathers speak of The Great War to end all others. Typically military, they called each other by last name only, while appreciating that either man could save the others life at any time. Wing-men knew that. The pain, death and destruction around them would not let them forget. Newly with the 316th, they began flying P-40s, known by the seasoned fliers around them to be under powered, under armored and lacking the awesome firepower of the Jug. These Warhawks were used for a short period, then those beautiful, huge, terrifying P-47s were delivered to their airstrip. Sip and Cal sensed they were now given an awesome means to perform the task of their lives. They would fulfill an unavoidable destiny their entire generation confronted.
He drew a P-47D razorback, number 98, painted June Iris above the squadrons fire maiden emblem on the cowling, and flew 92 total combat missions until rotating home-the war ended while his ship was embarked. The Battle of the Bulge, the Invasion of Southern France, the support of Pattons troops were memories he shared with me. But there is one in particular that merits repeat beyond our closed doors. He has told me the following, its my recall of his terse and to the point narrative over the years, (he cant tell me that much about it now) while trying to be honest to the event and to the memory of the men who served:
It was on the eve of my 65th (or so) mission, mid to late February, 1945 about early afternoon when it may have been the Squadron Commander, Captain JT Johnson that let me know that Slack had been shot down. He was missing and presumed dead. I was used to hearing about dead pilots by then and sullenly filing it away inside, but sometimes try as you will, you cant do that every time. I had kept a log of my time here, but grew sick of listing the names of so and so who died by such and such. It seemed a diary of death. But Slack was my best friend. We had shared the tedium of down time and the terror of action. We had flown together for what seemed like a lifetime, especially for a pilots life expectancy of about ten missions. We had usually reacted the same to all those flights, when we returned we found our cots, pulled the covers over our heads and tried to detach, to sleep away from our exposure to war, if only to escape momentarily until another survival test beckoned. Over these months of military service we had run a gamut of shared feelings under a straina constant reminder of imminent and common mortality
With this news I reacted with an irritation that grew to consternation. What caused this, how did he go in?... Did anyone see a chute? Whos in that sector?...Who was with him?.. God damn it! What I understood was that camouflaged German 88 gun emplacements, set back in a forested area, were strategically placed to protect the railways and depots around the Mannheim area of central western Germany. This is where Slack had flown a bombing mission/targets of opportunity flight. This particular set of batteries was getting a reputation among us. Slack got caught in its field of fire and was seen going down, flame and smoke, no chute. We were being sent today to the same sector, my anger quietly seethed, Id had enough of people I knew and cared about leaving us. If given the chance I would take itFully loaded with armaments our sortie cleared the runway. We were at about 8,000 feet, a flight of four P-47s, I was element leader. We hit the primary target with ordinance to spare. I looked about for something else to crush. I saw the guns, to my left, about 7 oclock. Trees, netting and shrubs couldnt hide the muzzle flashes as they tried to end our airborne existence. Okay, well, I didnt think, I didnt consider, I did not reflect, I ignored my training, my instincts, Christ, even self-preservation was not a concern. My focus was on getting back at them for killing my friend. The guns were there, and it was them or me. They taught us in flight school that when you attack something that can shoot back at you, hit it from the side, dont give it an opportunity to have its guns trained on you. Wise advice!... Didnt follow it, I went straight at this hidden complex, eight 50 calibers and two 500 pound bombs later it and anybody around it was done. The concussions of the hits are strangely satisfying and yet terrible. Rising up from the explosions embroiled in brackish smoke and convulsing hell fire are wood or metallic particles, intermixed with crimson burning objects of peculiar sizes and shapes, twisted, scorched and flying up, out, away and around me. Like dropping into a bloodied kaleidoscope, wracked with fissures, horribly erupting and enveloping all it can reach The plexiglass of my canopy shudders. I dont want to see more of this anytime soon. Transfixed, at least I remembered to pull up at about 300 feet to try to avoid the bomb fragment overspray. Blew through that too... Im still here, not a scratch. Old number 98 saves my behind again. Chalk another one up for Mrs. Thorns boy.
In my mind Im wavering about this, I really dont know why its any big thing, since we all really just did this kind of stuff all the time. The blood is still pumping, heartbeat pounding, sweat and trembling sensations permeate my flight suit but I sense that anger is waning to be replaced by that same dull tedium and resignation. As I flew home the adrenalin drains away. I began to feel like a complete idiot for taking such a dumb risk, yet there was a sense of relief that Slack would know, somewhere, that I was looking out for him, even if it was too late to save him. The powers that be thought it was a brave act on my part and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. The medal is on a display board my son built, along with other evidence of twenty years service in two other damn wars.
When I came in, they told me nice flying Thorn. Hmm, ok, damn near got killed, killed somebody else trying to kill me or my compadres, ehhdamn war. That was probably when the jitters returned, the flak happy feelings that flare when you go up, are stifled by the intensity of a pilots actions in the precious seconds that surround heat of battle, but root deep to never leave. For now Ill go climb into my cot, pull up the covers and try to escape again. My friend was gone, Id do my time, more than I had to, and get out of this hell. I missed Slack, stupid thing to do though.
Nearly sixty years later. Funny, they invented something called the internet. ComputersIts free to use. There is something called a web site set up for our squadron that I heard about. It carries information about the war, whos dead, whos alive, what happened to so and so. My wife Junes on the computer, we are told there is going to be a reunion for the squadron, and were invited to come to Washington DC where they are finally building a proper memorial for the veterans and the people. Then June tells me that theyve heard from Slacks wife, Slack is living in Montana. My God, he made it through the war. He was a POW. Hes alive, living not far from Junes brother Charles in Bozeman. It also turns out he was hit by a rail gun, not the gun complex I took out. Geez... All those memories come floating back, you remember the good, avoid dwelling on the bad. What an incredible rush of emotion. We speak on the phone, yep, same old Slack. We agree to go to the dedication ceremony. We saw each other for the first time since the war, shook hands and felt that old friendship rush back. Were both pretty far along now, I doubt well go to any more reunions. But its nice to know my old buddy is still around. Friendships forged in fear and resolute determination never waiver, they are eternal. We lost so many friends. I know it was necessary, Im proud to have been there, but it should never have come to that. Wars should not be allowed to happen. It was my honor to serve with brave men, bound in a common cause to end an evil that infected the world. ***
In the word of the late Kurt Vonnegut, and so it goes. We lose too many of our veterans of this damn war daily, so if you know a veteran, of any war or station, give him or her a hug, and thank them for their service. We live free lives because of them, and a price is paid for this every day. If you are a veteran, welcome home, and thank you.
(Written by Robert C. Thorn, son of Bob Sip Thorn, after driving his dad nuts over all the questions, this story just wrote itself)
Copyright 2007, 2011, Robert C. Thorn, Attorney at Law