Sunday, October 31, 2010

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP ! Remembering A Legendary WWII Ace

As one who writes often about military history, I try to steer clear of such superlatives as “legendary” for fear of marginalizing the word’s real meaning through over-use or well-intentioned hyperbole. In the case of a now-deceased RAF veteran of the Battle of Britain by the name of Douglas Bader however, I have no such hesitation.
By any measure, Squadron Leader Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader (1910-1982) stands out even among the relatively small group of warriors denominated by Winston Churchill as “The Few”. Born in a suburb of London to a military father who was wounded in WW I and whose postings took his wife Jessie and their family briefly to India, Doug would end up living in South Yorkshire after his father’s death and Jessie’s remarriage. If there was one trait which defined his growing-up years, it was a distaste for authority and a commensurate disdain for doing what others told him to do. Fortunately he seemed always to be able to benefit from the intervention of teachers and friends who recognized his stubborn “can do” attitude and a gift for leadership. His school and college years were marked by an athleticism which led him to excel in Rugby and other physically-demanding sports. He loved fast cars, and eventually discovered aviation.
Graduating from flying cadet training in 1930, Bader was posted to No. 23 Squadron RAF where he quickly attained a reputation as a “daredevil” in the training biplanes of the day, frequently carrying out aerobatic maneuvers at low altitude. On 14, December,1931, while training for the famous Hendon Air Show, he caught a wingtip while attempting a slow roll too close to the ground – probably on a dare. The accident changed his life dramatically, with the amputation of one leg above the knee and the other just below the knee in addition to other serious injuries.. He awakened from a morphine-induced coma to overhear two nurses just outside the door of his hospital room being reminded to speak quietly because “don’t you know there’s a young boy dying in there !” Those words somehow lodged in his mind and sparked a determination inside the consciousness of the 21-year old to beat the odds against survival.
In an RAF hospital at Uxbridge, Bader waged a long and painful battle, eventually being fitted with two prostheses with which he planned to make a full come-back. He discovered that he could descend a stairway faster by draping the artificial devices over his head and carrying out a rapid descent hopping on his now-powerful arms and shoulders. One day at a local Pub, while carrying out such a maneuver, he met a pretty English girl on her way up. It was love at first sight, and Thelma Edwards would become his devoted wife and side-kick in October, 1933. She would be at his side as he taught himself to play golf, falling down after each stroke at first, but never giving up. He in fact became proficient enough to play competitively in later years.
Back in civilian life, Bader never stopped planning his way back into a cockpit and as war clouds carried England and her European allies closer to conflict with Nazi Germany, he began “pulling strings”. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill finally told the Air Chief Marshall to get this “pest” off his back; “at least give him a flight test”, which no one thought he could pass. To the embarrassment of his bosses Bader performed admirably, and on November 27, 1939, eight years after his horrific crash, Douglas Bader, in RAF “blues” was back in the cockpit, where he promptly flew the circuit upside down at 600 feet.
Flying first the Hawker Hurricane, and then his beloved Spitfire Mk V-A, Bader became one of the first “Aces” of the Battle of Britain, with 20 kills, and another 20 either “probables”, shared kills or “damaged”. Leading first a squadron, then an entire wing, he introduced new combat tactics which would become fighter doctrine in England’s air war. He had his initials “DB” painted large on the fuselage of his “Spit” and became known by his radio call-sign “Dogsbody”. Like his German counterpart, Eric Hartmann, (the subject for a future article), Bader believed in getting in real close to the enemy plane before firing his guns. The danger of collision with debris from the victim is thus very high. On at least one occasion, he intentionally severed the rudder of a Messerschmitt with his propeller when he ran out of ammunition for his guns.
On August 9, 1941 while leading his wing on a fighter sweep over occupied France, Bader lost the entire tail section of his Spitfire. When attempting to drop out of the cockpit to escape the falling fighter, his right prosthesis became trapped beneath the rudder pedal. When his chute deployed, he was pulled the rest of the way out, leaving his artificial leg behind. To state that the German soldiers who captured him were speechless is only the beginning of the real-life “Bader Legend”.
In captivity, Bader convinced his captors to permit his friends to parachute a replacement leg to him, at the same time applauding the bomb load they left on the same trip. His escape attempts were constant and an embarrassment to the Germans. While imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, he was befriended by General Adolph Galland, the commander of the entire German Luftwaffe Fighter Command, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. (I had a chance to interview Galland along with Battle-of-Britain Ace Robert Stanford-Tuck in 1973 and to gain a rare look into the life and character of Doug Bader.)
Eventually, Bader ended up in a cell in Colditz Castle (Oflag-IC), where the Germans sent the most incorrigible of POWs. Even there, his escape attempts and refusal to follow orders from his guards continued. He was an inspiration to other prisoners, including a friend of mine who was sent there later in the war, having been captured during the Battle of The Bulge. He told of how Bader – who was permitted to make short walks in the nearby countryside – would hide potatoes gleaned from the fields, in his artificial legs to bring back to the under-fed POWs.
In 1976, Douglas Bader, DSO, DSC, COB was knighted and became Sir Douglas Bader, not for his wartime service, but for a lifetime devoted to helping others overcome disabilities. He died of a heart attack on September 5, 1982 at the age of 72. His old enemy and good friend General Adolph Galland was among the mourners at the funeral.
Nearly every RAF base in England, and many towns and villages in that island nation honor his name in some way.

The most often-seen photo of Douglas Bader is this one, standing on the wing of his Hurricane fighter in 1939. He spent much of his life motivating disabled people of all ages to strive mightily, and to NEVER GIVE UP !

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The island of Shemya is a tiny piece of volcanic rock at the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Island chain so close to the international dateline that from its rugged shore one can look into tomorrow. The last I heard, fewer than three dozen people are stationed there, but back in 1953 this four-mile- long piece of rock with its two-mile-long runway figured importantly in my life.
Most returning G.I.s from the Korean War could look forward to a long ocean voyage, but the seventeen-hour flight across the vast Pacific’s north polar route in a four-engine DC-6 transport plane was a “gift” from a generous commanding officer. Shemya – the midpoint in that long flight – was little more than a refueling stop, its 10,000-foot long runway originally built in 1943 to facilitate the bombing of Japan. There was little to do for those few hours, the duty station consisting of no more than a half dozen metal Quonset huts, built mostly below ground level because of the foul weather and constant winds. And so I filled the time by walking the rocky fringes of the airfield. I watched the seabirds – gooneys, gannets and gulls working the sea-washed lava shorelines, listened to the sounds the wind made across a tundra-carpeted landscape where nothing taller than a clump of sea oats survived, all the while admiring the almost iridescent blue of the surrounding ocean.
At the time, I thought nothing of this brief interlude; a mere interruption in the 10,000 mile journey home. Only with the passage of time and the coming of an emotional maturity would the real significance of Shemya dawn like a rising sun within me. Life is full of “borders”, but there is no dividing line so profoundly significant as the one separating the life-and-death reality of warfare and that other reality we call HOME.
The returning veteran might think that the PAST can be left behind. It can’t. And that from now on everything will be bright and wonderful. It won’t, entirely. The transition is far more challenging than the hugs and flags of the “home-coming” may seem to portend, no matter how well prepared the welcomee and welcomers may think they are.
Left behind is not only the bad stuff – the sights, sounds, smells and sadness of a grim chapter of life – but the close comradeship anchored in shared experiences which no other associations of a lifetime can quite duplicate; friendships which are as ineffable as they are sad and sweet. I have sometimes tried to explain to school children the conviction that I learned more about love in a few hours spent in a MASH hospital than in any other experience. So intense was the devotion between warriors I saw there that I walked out of the theatre in disgust when the Hollywood movie M*A*S*H first played in all its shallowness.
Different people react in different ways to the surge of adrenaline (epinephrine) released in the human body when in the fight-or-flight mode, but especially in a long deployment where one is subject to trauma repetitively and regularly, the taxing consequences can be long-lasting, even though masked by protective behavior. It has been said that there is no such thing as an “unwounded” combat veteran and I believe this to be true.
I have written before about a friend who survived 35 missions in a WW II B-17 who awoke in the middle of every night screaming, and had to be held by his wife – for nine years afterward. I have several other friends who have lived with an overpowering sense of guilt because they managed to come home while good buddies didn’t. I will never forget the look that came over my wounded father’s face when – 35 years after the particular event took place – he suddenly recalled vividly, and for the first time, the death of a comrade he had witnessed.
Within the past two days I have heard from two east coast veterans, one of whom I never met in person, but shared the Korean experience with, the other an old business friend I haven’t seen in 40 years. In both cases, the connection was immediate, profound and mutual. And unspoken.
As we confront another Veterans’ Day, and at a time when many American men and women in uniform are coming home – sometimes after several combat deployments – I hope all of us who await their return will say “Thank You”, and help where we can to ease their way across that difficult “border”. I know those few hours on a distant piece of rock known as Shemya was an important part of that border crossing for me all those years ago.

A “band of brothers”, tent mates, friends and members of a “special weapons” team, near Chi hyang ri, Korea – 1953. If still living, these old buddies will now be in their late seventies. (Photo by Al Cooper)

Among the unsung heroes of the Korean War, a forward air controller (FAC) flies low and slow while directing artillery fire in the Chorwan Valley campaign. (Al Cooper photo)


“Another letter from your friend!” the smiling postmistress shouts at me while holding aloft an oversize mailing envelope, every square inch of whose outer surface is covered with bold hand writing. This same scenario will repeat itself every three or four weeks, to the smiles and hard-to-hide delight of other patrons of our small-town post office. What they don’t know is that when, at home, I open the colorful envelope, I will find even more bold black felt-pen-scrawled messages inside, both in the form of note papers, and along the margins of random enclosures. Every line and comment will reflect the ebullient love-for-life and well wishes of a senior lady who listens faithfully to my radio program from the family home to which she is largely confined. Not only are her colorful missives a pleasure to receive, but a reminder of a passing generation for whom letter-writing was an everyday way of life.
I most often picture memories of my own mother sitting happily in her favorite corner chair, her reading glasses perched on her nose, and her fountain pen poised over a pad of her best writing paper. Beside her on an end table would be stacks of correspondence from a lifetime of friends just waiting to be re-read, considered again and then thoughtfully responded to. Over an era pockmarked by three wars, the people I loved never allowed time or distance to get in the way of “staying in touch”. What’s more, no letter was “fired off” hurriedly or without seriously answering questions posed in past correspondence. Letter-writing was not a chore to be attended to, but a social responsibility which deserved respect and had its own set of ethical guidelines; every elementary school student was taught and practiced those basic skills.
During World War II, no one had to remind me to make the daily run to the post office, and my heart always skipped a beat when I would catch a glimpse of those red-white-and-blue air mail envelopes waiting behind the glass window. A brother in the South Pacific, another in the Central Pacific, cousins and uncles in Europe and England and in places they weren’t allowed to tell us about; and I would hurry home on flying feet.
Then in my own faraway battleground, I would stand in that circle of anxious buddies waiting for my name to be called from the tailgate of a military 6X6 in that magic moment known as “mail call”, sometimes wondering just which guy would receive a “Dear John” today, or better yet, who might get a box of chocolate chip cookies to share.
One of my favorite writers – Arthur Gordon – tells of an important discovery he made at the time he had to clean out the old Georgia home in which his family had lived for 150 years. He had long marveled at how his ancestors had been able to survive with such grace the bad times which had befallen them following the South’s defeat in the Civil War, when they had lost almost everything and everyone dear to them. In an old chest, he found the letters they had written to each other during those dark days: “have I told you how much you mean to me” he read, or “the way you live has always been an inspiration to others” he quoted. Over and over he would see the words of encouragement and appreciation with which they gifted each other in their letters: “you are an important part of my life, and we all appreciate you so much”. Constantly and sincerely those letters underlined a common theme: “have I mentioned to you how much I love you!”
High on a closet shelf sits a box of business correspondence addressed to my maternal great grandfather in the 1880s and 1890s, the formal pen strokes reflecting an elegant style and a practiced hand. While their content deals with the mundane issues of land transfers, monies owed and paid, and the details of trust agreements, I find something reassuringly honest and comforting in holding them in my hands and revisiting the stories they tell about people I never met, and who lived more than a century ago.
Sitting here in the company of computers, printers, FAX machine, and wondrous technology which is already obsolete, I take refuge in a file cabinet full of hand-written notes and letters whose very touch still have the power to connect me with a world “face book”, “twitter” and “text-messaging” can never quite replace. And I wonder if we have lost something at the heart of human communication.

A faded 1918 letter from the trenches of France, family correspondence date-marked 1880, and an envelope which crossed the country on the first transcontinental airmail flight all join a collection of remembrances written by human hands, and safe from the hazards of “delete” buttons and “e-viruses”.


With the assistance of his son Thomas, Rockwell published an autobiography in 1960, for which he painted his famous “Triple Self-Portrait”.

It is something of a “home-coming” each year, as I turn west out of Arlington on old River Road, and wend my way along the world’s most famous stretch of fly-fishing waters to a place where a red covered bridge crosses the Battenkill. There, from a grassy knoll I can enjoy the murmur of the river, the quiet of the southern Vermont countryside, and a view of the nearby white-painted farmhouse which was once home and studio to the artist who – more than any other figure – painted an image of America which continues to remind his countrymen of who we are and how we got this way. It was here where for fourteen of his most inspired and productive years Norman Percevel Rockwell (1894-1978) lived and worked. He was drawn to this pastoral community not just because of its quiet beauty, but because of its unassuming, everyday people. In the ensuing years, more than 200 of those humble country folks – old and young – would find themselves perched on a stool in his studio, and then featured in a magazine or calendar cover to be circulated far and wide. A narrowing handful of those childhood models - now in their golden years - still live here, and I have visited with probably 20 or 30 of them over an extended period of time. In each case, they have told me how their lives were forever touched by this connection. And I know something of how they feel.
Around 1959, the Vermont-based corporation by which I was employed asked Mr. Rockwell to create a painting to serve as the centerpiece of a national advertising campaign. Then living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the famous artist/illustrator required some persuasion to take on the project, and somehow, I was tapped to play a liaison role in the effort. Part of the challenge was to find the exact likeness he sought to model the story he had decided to portray, and the future of my business career seemed to hang on the success of my mission. That became a longer story than I wish to recite today, but in the end, we found the right subject, the painting was completed, and the full-page result found its way into National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and many other national publications. The large original oil still hangs in the company’s corporate headquarters, and the only-known miniature is in front of me as I write.
At a time when so many seem uncertain about our national identity, I call to mind sitting over a quiet lunch with Mr. Rockwell and seeing the sadness he felt at what he lamented as our failure to pass on to a new generation that simple, undisguised love of country he had tried to capture and share with others. He told me of the feelings that overcame him the day he delivered the last of his 321 magazine-cover paintings to the publishers of Saturday Evening Post and the end of a seventeen-year relationship with a dying breed of editors. I can think of no one who worked harder to shape a positive and uplifting view of ourselves as my erstwhile friend who was often cast aside by critics and fellow-artists as a “mere illustrator”.
Norman Rockwell possessed an ability to “see” things that others would pass by. Walking through an industrial Kansas workplace and puffing on his pipe one day, he clasped my arm and, pointing to a worker I knew well (Charlie Rider), asked excitedly “who is that man?” Then searching Charlie’s time-worn craggy face he said “I would like to know his story”. I had the feeling that you could not long hide secrets from this tall, slim American whose eyes had the ability to read faces and hearts. He loved the “genuineness” of “real” people and disdained the artifice and pretense of those we might think of in today’s society as “cool”. I asked him once if he had any favorites among the 4000 works he had produced over the years. Without much hesitation he named “The Four Freedoms” series he completed in 1943 and “Saying Grace”, a 1951 Post cover which happens to be by own favorite Rockwell work.
Norman Rockwell passed away at Stockbridge November 8, 1978 at the age of 84, and I miss him both as a great American who left us better off because of what he gave us, and as a personal inspiration. He was a true “gentleman”. He was honored with our country’s highest civilian honor “The Presidential Medal of Freedom” in 1977, and in a 2001 Sotheby’s auction, his painting “Breaking Home Ties” sold for $15.4 million. Not bad for a “mere illustrator”.

An Al Cooper “treasure” a dedicated studio photo shows Norman Rockwell working on the large original oil painting mentioned in this article.