I’m not sure where to even begin this post. My husband and I received some very alarming news this past Monday. Our very dear friend, Tom Berry, whom I met nearly four years ago, was admitted to ER after collapsing in his home. Tom is 89-years old. He had come to our home on Christmas day along with some of our other friends. Over the past year, we have been unable to see Tom as frequently – our family schedule has just been so crazy. We visited Tom today in ICU after learning from his son that his condition is much more serious than first believed. Tom lives alone, and when he collapsed, no one knew. He was unable to call for help and may have been alone for up to three days. This has been a very difficult day. Tom was moved to hospice late this evening. I hated to leave him. He recognizes Pat and I, but is unable to talk, although he tried. We stayed by his side until they came to transport him to hospice, where he will be more comfortable. I am just heartbroken. So many things have run through my mind – I wish we had spent more time with Tom, I wish we had checked up on him after Christmas, I wish that I could help ease his suffering. I wrote about our first meeting in April 2010 at a World War II Airplane Show on my first blog, “Happy to be Me.” After our first meeting, we went to other airplane shows together, and our family kind of adopted him since he was so far from his family. I wanted to repost the article here in dedication to my friend, Tom. We are praying for Tom and his family and hoping for the best.
Wings of Freedom 4/26/10
Tom Berry, B-24 Tailgunner
I pulled out of our driveway excited that I was on my way to see a real B-24 Liberator from World War II. My dad flew 32 combat missions in just such a chariot from Halesworth, England during the war. The morning sky was clear, and it was unusually cool out, a cold front had moved across Arizona the day before. It was about a half hour or so drive to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport and, thankfully, there was little traffic on the freeway. I drove around the airport, looking for the main terminal, anxious to begin my tour. At last, the car was parked and I began my sojourn towards the landing field. As I got closer, the low, monotonous purr of not just one, but three restored American fighter aircraft resonated harmoniously, hypnotizing all who stood near. To my surprise and delight, I had arrived just in time to see all three aircraft take to the sky. Passengers began boarding Witchcraft (B-24 Liberator), Nine o’ Nine, (B-17 Flying Fortress), and Betty Jane (P-51 Mustang).
All three of these aircraft have interesting histories. The B-24 and B-17, known as heavy bombers (largest size and longest ranges), were the predominant workhorses of the European Theatre during World War II. The P-51 was a bomber escort used to accompany B-17′s and B-24′s on their bombing missions and helped ensure Allied air superiority. Although B-17′s received most of the recognition, there were more B-24′s produced than any other aircraft during that time. I kept trying to get a better view of the B-24 sitting on the tarmac, but it was hard seeing through the chain-link fence. It looked just like the one my dad flew from what I could see except for the color of her twin tails. I felt a small lump in my throat as I remembered my dad. Eventually the small convoy traveled slowly down the long length of the airstrip until they were tiny specks far off in the distance.
I walked back over to a little grassy knoll where a group of bystanders with their cameras- at-the-ready waited. Before long, a woman with long blond hair hurried next to me and planted her tripod on the ground. As she set up her camera, she addressed the gentleman next to her, “are they ready to take off yet, dad?” Her father, a white-haired gentleman I guessed to be in his 60′s assured her that the planes were still sitting on the runway. We waited for what seemed an eternity for them to take off. I turned and asked the white-haired man, who now stood next to me, if he knew of any other B-24′s left that were still in use. “I don’t know,” he replied, but seemed interested in my question. We continued to talk together as his daughter adjusted the camera equipment. His wife was on board Witchcraft. Her father had also been the pilot of a B-24 during the war. I told him that my dad flew a B-24 named Rebel Gal, then asked if he knew the name of his father-in-law’s plane. “Oh what was the name of their plane?” he struggled to remember. He turned and asked his daughter, but she couldn’t remember either. We went back to our conversation when, suddenly, he blurted out, “Red Ass, that was the name of their plane!” We all laughed, and I tried to imagine “Red Ass” in big bold letters splayed across the nose of a B-24. We continued to stand and wait until each plane, one by one, ascended into the morning sky. Of course the only one I really cared about seeing was the B-24.
After the planes made it back, we all waited most impatiently for the officials to let us in so we could explore the aircraft more closely. I laughed as a group of silver-haired gentlemen wearing baseball caps sprinted through the gate once opened. Naturally, I had to see the B-24 first. I walked around Witchcraft slowly, imagining my dad and the crew of Rebel Gal, remembering the images I’d seen of him as a young pilot during the war. I then took a long look at the nose art. Pretty cool. Every once in awhile, I felt a rush of emotion as I thought about Dad, that he’d flown a plane so much like the one I was presently viewing.
They opened all the planes for visitation, so I climbed up the ladder to see inside Witchcraft. Very tight quarters. Even I, at 5’2″, had to stoop over so I wouldn’t bang my head on the roof, and it was hard to walk around due to such little space. I noticed immediately the two .50 caliber machine guns pointing out of the open windows on either side of the plane. These were once manned by two waist gunners. I traveled down the midsection where the bomb bay was located in the underbelly of the plane. All crew members, except the bombardier, would enter the B-24 by crawling under and through these doors. There was a very narrow catwalk situated between the two bomb racks, which led up to the flight deck and back to the tail gunner turret. The B-24 could actually hold up to 8,000 lbs. worth of bombs back in the day. The ball turret was located in this middle section just behind the bomb bay doors. It was a large ball-shaped contraption, which was operated hydraulically to lift and lower the ball turret gunner. It gave a whole new meaning to the word claustrophobic! The ball turret gunner was literally stuffed into these tight quarters by the waist gunners then lowered to the bottom of the plane. One of the mechanics on Witchcraft informed me it was the safest place on the entire aircraft. Next, I walked precariously across the catwalk up towards the nose. I noticed two very small seats on either side of the plane and assumed one was for the radio operator, who sat behind the co-pilot, and the other for the engineer, who sat behind the pilot. Unfortunately, the flight deck was sectioned off, but you could see all of the dials and levers that were at one time under the steely control of the pilot and co-pilot. Both the bombardier (the guy responsible for sighting targets and releasing bombs) and the navigator (studied flight charts and helped them get where they needed to go) were positioned at the front of the plane. Last stop was the tail gunner turret, which held two more .50 caliber machine guns.
I was so fascinated by everything. I imagined what it must have been like for my dad and the crew of Rebel Gal to drop bombs over Europe navigating their way perilously through heavy flak trying not to get hit. I thought about the kind of teamwork it took to complete each mission and how each member relied on the other during such dangerous conditions. Last year, I was fortunate enough to have received a booklet describing my dad’s World War II history. The booklet also contained excerpts from the bombardier’s diary of several of the crew’s missions. (My distant cousin, Steve Whitby, gave me a copy of this booklet, which he had written in 2006). In the diary, Paul Valachovic, the bombardier and Dad’s buddy, wrote about how sick he and my dad became of all the practice missions; they wanted “real combat.” On May 30th, 1944, they got it, and at midnight, arose for their first combat mission over Europe.
After climbing out of Witchcraft, I strolled around towards the tail of the plane and noticed an older man encircled by a small group of people. I guessed that the man was a veteran from WWII, so I sauntered their direction and casually joined in the conversation. I learned that the older man was indeed a veteran, a tailgunner on a B-24 who participated in the “Pacific Tour” and was based at Luzon, an island located in the Philippines. He told everyone gathered around him that he flew 22 combat missions. As I stood next to him, I noticed that he probably wasn’t much taller than 5’10″ and wore a pair of dark aviators. A tan baseball cap inscribed with “B-24 Liberator” sat atop his head. The old gentleman told us how he ended up as a tail gunner in the 5th Air Force by fluke. He was attending the University of Maryland when he joined the draft and wanted to get into flight training. His hopes were quickly dashed, however, when he received orders sending him to Ft. Mead and into the infantry instead. The gentleman expressed how disappointing this was. He was later sent to the Pentagon, where he serendipitously met a certain general who tore up his card and re-assigned him to flight training. “I considered myself lucky, because I might have had to fight in the Battle of the Bulge,” the old man told us, a look of relief upon his face. He eventually ended up going on to gunnery school after failing to pass preliminary flight testing. I told him that my dad was co-pilot in a B-24 named Rebel Gal. “Oh, he was an officer then,” the older man said. He explained that there were always four officers aboard a B-24 during missions, the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier. I didn’t know that. Later, he informed me that more officers were killed in the Army Air Corp than in any other branch of the Army during WWII. He explained that when one plane went down, all four officers on board were killed. I went on to say that Dad was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross at the end of his tour. The older man expressed what a high honor that was to be recognized for such an award and that it wasn’t given to just anybody. It was the second highest award bestowed at that time. I learned from my cousin, Steve, that all four officers of Rebel Gal were awarded the DFC. We continued to talk and reminisce together. I asked the gentleman if I could take a picture of him. He seemed honored and headed straight over to the tail of the plane where he reached up and touched the underbelly just beneath the tail turret. I thought that was especially fitting. After taking his picture, I asked what his name was. “Tom,” he replied. Tom extended his hand to shake mine. I asked Tom if seeing the old B-24 brought back a lot of memories. “Yea,” he answered in an almost inaudible whisper. I thought I detected a tear resting in the creases of his eye. We stood there together silently for a few minutes, looking up at Witchcraft. Finally, Tom broke the silence,
Have you seen the B-17 yet?” he asked.
“No, not yet,” I answered.
“Well, let’s go, Tom said, pointing the way over to Nine o’ Nine.
We meandered towards the B-17, Tom stopped every once in a while to lean on his walker and talk for a few minutes. I snapped a few pictures of Nine o’ Nine, then Tom asked,
“Are you going to go inside?”
“I sure am,” I said. Tom followed me to the ladder. “Are you going, too?” I asked rather surprised. I wasn’t sure if he would be able to get through OK in such cramped space. He was determined, nevertheless. The inside of the plane was so narrow that you had to let one person pass through before you could move ahead. Tom made it through the entire plane just fine though.
“It seems like the B-17 has more room than the B-24,” I said.
“Really? No, I believe there’s more room in the B-24, but then I may be prejudiced,” Tom rebutted with a smile on his face.
Afterwards, Tom suggested we go see the P-51 Mustang, Betty Jane. Before heading over, I took one more look inside the B-24. I couldn’t help but want to see it for the third time. Sure enough, Tom was right, the B-24 was definitely wider and slightly bigger inside than the B-17. I caught up with Tom and told him, “You were right, the B-24 is bigger!” He smiled. We stood admiring the P-51, joking with the other onlookers at how expensive it was to fly in the old Mustang, $2200 for a half-hour, $3200 for a full hour! I asked Tom if all the P-51′s were built to carry just a pilot. He told me that some later models were two-seaters, like Betty Jane, but during the war, only one-seaters were flown in combat.
After seeing all three planes, it was around lunchtime. I began to hint rather reluctantly that I needed to get back home. Tom, not entirely ready to end the afternoon, asked if he could buy me lunch. I was happy to keep him company and learn more about him. As we headed to the airport cafe, I asked if he had family here in Arizona. He told me that his wife had died last Christmas Eve and that she had been very sick for a long time. They’d been married for sixty years and had three kids now all living in other states. I guessed Tom to be around the same age that my dad would have been, 86 or so. He graduated high school in 1942, just a year after my dad. We sat down at a table right next to a window with a perfect view of the tarmac, the same table he’d eaten breakfast at that very morning as he sat watching the planes fly in. Over lunch, he told me that he got out of the Air Force as soon as he could after the war. One story Tom shared was especially touching. He and one of his buddies went out to lunch after having arrived back to the states. As they sat down to look at the menus, the old standard, “Sentimental Journey,” began to play in the background. It was the first time either had ever heard the song. They were so moved, both broke down in tears.
I enjoyed meeting Tom that afternoon. In so many ways, he reminded me of my dad, his demeanor and humility. As we left the cafe I asked if I could check up on him once in a while, and he happily accepted. I said that I’d love to show him pictures of my dad and the crew of Rebel Gal and his eyes seemed to light up. In a way, out of appreciation for my own dad and great respect for that generation, I was drawn to Tom and felt compelled to become his friend. I guess in some small way, too, I got to relive my father’s past. You just don’t meet people like that everyday.