The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field has something very special coming April 30 through May 30. The Liberty Foundation’s 2011 Salute to Veterans tour will feature the Boeing B-17 “Liberty Belle” and the rare Curtiss P-40E “Warhawk” fighter aircraft.
The B-17 flying fortress is particularly fascinating for a couple of reasons.
First, the plane and the men who flew them during World War II. The flying fortress also represents a personal history for me.
My uncle, Elmer Johnson, was a tail gunner on a flying fortress and was shot down over Berlin during the first daylight raid. Elmer was 19 and died that day. My grandmother and Elmer’s mother told me he was shot across his chest. He was able to get out of the plane, but his parachute either did not open or he was not able to pull the cord.
No one knows.
I remember all the years I was growing up seeing this person in a uniform staring out of the frame of an 8-by-10 inch photograph. To me at age 7, he was a man. Today I know he was a 19-year-old boy. And that is the true face of war and what it means.
My grandmother told me the story of his life many times, and I could never hear it enough times.
He was 17, attending Enumclaw High School. He was in Violet Cass’ science class.
Grandma told me how handsome he was, tall with dark, wavy hair. All the girls liked Elmer.
He was a boy looking for something beyond the walls of Enumclaw High and Cass’ class.
It was near the end of the year and the war was raging in Europe.
One day Miss Cass asked Elmer to stay after class. She told him she knew he was a smart boy, but he was failing her class because he couldn’t keep his thoughts inside the classroom walls.
Miss Cass told Elmer if would take one last test, she would pass him. Just get through the test.
Although he died before I was born, I can see him in that room with Miss Cass. She was my teacher in seventh grade.
Elmer told Miss Cass he knew she was trying to help him, and he appreciated it, but he just couldn’t spend one more day waiting for his life to begin, waiting inside that classroom.
Elmer went home and asked my grandpa, his dad, to sign for him to get into the service. He told grandpa he couldn’t wait, that he might miss all the action. There was no wait in Elmer, and my grandpa knew, and he never forgave himself for signing that paper.
I still remember a photograph in a box at my grandma’s house of my grandpa receiving Elmer’s purple heart. The look in his eyes in that newspaper photograph still haunts me.
Grandma told me after they received confirmation Elmer was shot down and was dead, Violet Cass came to see grandpa.
She thought it was her fault Elmer went into the war, because of her class. My grandpa told her there was no stopping that boy. Enumclaw just couldn’t hold him.
A few hours later after Miss Cass left, my mother found her dad sitting alone in the back of the milking barn, crying. He was holding a piece of wood with Elmer’s and a girl’s name roughly carved into it.
The real face of war.
I am really looking forward to seeing the flying fortress, and connecting some historical dots.