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Making Military History Personal

As a teacher, I always insisted to my students that the study of history was about much more than dates and elections and battles; it is about people. History is best learned, I think, through the study of people, biography. That is even more true when you know--better yet, are related to--those people.

I rediscovered this truth when I got sidetracked while doing genealogical research. I had begun following my uncle's footsteps through World War II. Uncle Dillon was a tank driver for forward observers in the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division, the famous "Spearhead" division in the drive across Europe, breaching the Siegfried Line and entering Germany. My quest was somewhat stymied, however, when I learned that most of his personal military records had been destroyed in the great fire in the St. Louis military repository in the Seventies.

But I soon found another avenue of family history to research when I was trying to find information for my wife's aunt, whose husband had been in the U.S. Army's 8th Air Force during the war. I got some basic information from the aunt and began delving into the online resources. Here's what I learned.

Uncle Paul was a crew member on B-17s in the 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 546th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), operating out of Grafton Underwood Airfield in England. (He is second from the left, front row, in the accompanying photo.) During the course of the war, he rose in rank from sergeant to staff sergeant. He received credit for 31 combat missions, his duty designation being tail gunner, although on nine of those missions he was designated a waist (or flexible) gunner. I was exhilarated when I discovered a website that gave every imaginable detail about every one of the missions he flew, including those on which the plane had to turn back because of mechanical problems, weather disruptions, or inability to locate their formation.

Interestingly, I also discovered that he had been involved in several missions that indirectly involved my Uncle Dillon, who was either on the ground in France at the time or soon would be. On June 6, 1944 (D-day), while my uncle, with the 391st AFA Battalion, was preparing to join U.S. troops after they had established a beachhead in Normandy, my wife's uncle was on a mission to bomb two bridges in Caen, France, helping to ensure that the Normandy invasion was successful. On July 18, the day before my uncle landed in France, my wife's uncle was flying a mission as part of Operation Crossbow, a bombing run against V-weapons in Zinnowitz, Germany. V-rockets had been causing havoc for the troops on the beachhead, and the B-17s were supposed to end that threat.

Then, on July 24-25, Uncle Dillon was poised in his tank to participate in Operation Cobra, the offensive to break out of the deadly bocage region of Normandy and begin the drive toward Germany. But first, the German front lines had to be pummeled from the air. The ground attack would be launched before the ground stopped shaking from the bomb blasts. Uncle Paul was in a B-17 in the air above dropping those bombs. The sad thing is that the wind had picked up and was blowing the colored smoke from bombs that marked the drop zone across American lines. Many of the bombs fell on our own soldiers, killing many. The attack was delayed until the next day. Again a preliminary bombardment was ordered, and again winds blew the marker smoke over American lines. More U.S. soldiers were killed, including the general who had gone to the front to determine what had gone wrong the day before. Nonetheless, the attack went forward, and U.S. troops broke out of the bocage. The race to Berlin was on.

Uncle Dillon won two Bronze Star medals during the war. Paul and his fellow crewmen also won numerous medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. (In the accompanying photo, he is the dark-haired airman standing on the far right, waiting to to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.)

I discovered a similar incident of crossed paths during the war. My father-in-law was on the other side of the world, serving as a seaman aboard the heavy cruiser USS St. Paul in Tokyo Bay during the signing of the surrender documents. Flying overhead in a show of American air power that same day was a waist gunner in a B-29. Years later, I would attend church with that airman. He and my father-in-law met years later when my father-in-law visited us and went to church. They shared an immediate bond when each related where they had been on that historic day.

If you want to study history "up close and personal," do so by tracing the steps and actions of a single person. It's even more rewarding and instructive if that person happens to be a family member! It's exceptionally exciting when individuals' paths cross! And it's especially important that we learn, save, and tell (and retell) these servicemen's stories as more and more of them are passing from this life. We must keep that personal history alive.

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