|By Jay Wischkaemper
Their faces are etched with the ravages of time, the wrinkled skin a testament to youth long gone. The gait has slowed. The hearing is dulled. Time is beginning to take its toll. Yet underneath the aging exterior, the eyes still twinkle with excitement and expectation.
The Confederate Air Force changed its name several years ago to Commemorative Air Force. It was a change borne primarily on the precedent of political correctness, but at this year's CAF Airsho, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps there is a significance to the new name that is entirely appropriate.
The CAF was started in the 1960’s when some guys in the valley of Texas bought a P51 Mustang for $2,500. Twenty years removed from the war they had helped to win, these planes and others like them were disappearing at an alarming rate. These men felt that was wrong, and started a preservation effort that has evolved into the modern CAF. The goal of the organization is to preserve at least one of every type of aircraft that flew in WWII. The results of their work congregate en masse every year on the first weekend in October at CAF headquarters in Midland, Texas. This year, close to 120 CAF planes were present to be admired both on the ground and in the air.
The planes will continue to fly as long as there is money to maintain them. Airplanes can be maintained. The people who originally flew them cannot. These men represent a priceless treasure. Most are in their mid 80’s. In another 10 years, all but a few will be gone.
In keeping with the Commemorative Air Force theme, the CAF does honor these men as well as the planes they flew. Oral histories have been taken of all who will give it so their stories of valor will not be lost. Each year, several are inducted into a special hall of fame. These are the ones who for the most part earned special honors during their service. The aces. The Medal of Honor winners. It is fitting that they be honored in this way, and I’m glad the CAF is doing it. But while I appreciate the ones who are honored, I feel for those who deserve more honor than they will ever receive. Most of those who served are not considered heroes in that they didn’t do anything out of the ordinary that caused a piece of metal to be pinned on their chest. Yet to get to know these men and to hear their stories causes one to realize how really heroic the actions of all of them were. I know several who are still living and have known some who have died, and to hear them speak of, and to read their firsthand accounts of what they went through causes a whole new appreciation for the sacrifices they made. They didn’t consider themselves heroes. They just considered themselves survivors. And considering the fact that close to half of those who served as flight crews in the Army Air Corp didn’t survive, that in itself is an accomplishment. They weren’t heroes at the time. They were just scared kids doing a job that somebody had to do. They were grateful to see the dawn of each new day. They left the ground not knowing if they would return, and knowing the odds weren’t with them. “Flak so thick you could walk on it,” is a phrase I’ve heard more than one of them use. Each mission was terrifying. If they came back from it, they all knew it was due to luck and the grace of God, not skill.
They all deserve our honor. Some live in your own community. Many aren’t part of the aviation community. Most probably never touched the controls of an airplane after they were discharged. Yet the stories are still there. Occasionally I read the obituary of a deceased veteran I have known and there will be a notation that they served in the Army Air Corp during World War II and flew some particular airplane. Most of the times that happens, I never knew they served. As I read the obituary, I wish I had known before so I could have heard the story. Stories that will be all too soon silenced for all of them. We should seek them out while there is still time.
Commemorate. It’s a fitting term to honor these brave men, and a fitting, appropriate name for a wonderful organization that gives us a glimpse of real heroes. Mark your calendar for Airsho 05. Look into their faces. Shake their hands. Watch them remember. Let’s commemorate them while we still can.
Jay Wischkaemper is a successful MassMutual life insurance agent based in Lubbock. He is a long-time partner in a Bellanca Super Viking, which he uses for business and pleasure.