Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"I flew top-cover during "The Battle of the Bulge.”

Thursday morning, while waiting for my son to get out of surgery, I met an amazing 92 year old southern gentleman named Lloyd Easterling. As I struggled to chase away the cobwebs due to the early morning appointment time he gently plopped his wiry little body into the chair next to me. For several minutes without a word we watched the British Open on the waiting room TV. From the corner of my left eye I saw him turn his head towards me for a moment as Tiger Woods struggled on the links at St. Andrews.  When he turned his head again I realized he was looking for some interaction--fine by me. Seconds later he finally broke the ice when he asked if I was an air force retiree. I told him yes, but it soon became apparent that golf was the actual thing on his mind as we conversed on Tiger’s continued downward spiral. Lloyd’s lifetime passion for the game was on full display. He opined that he hoped Tiger would eventually get his life AND his game together. “…it would be great for golf,” he said. 

I agreed, “It’s too bad he let fame and money go to his head, the one on his shoulders, and, the “other one,” nodding my head towards my lap.

He had no comment for my attempt at some bawdy humor at Tiger Wood’s expense so I asked Lloyd if he had anyone in surgery. He said nonchalantly that his wife was having a pacemaker installed. I told him my boy was having a simple procedure that most boys have as a baby. He nodded and asked how long since I retired.

"Since 2002, how about you?"

"1968, after 28 years in the air force."

I did the math, immediately sat up from my slouched position to take a closer look at him. My historical juices now aroused, I asked, “Wow! So, you served in World War II! How about Korea and Vietnam?”

At that he showed me the ball cap nestled in the seat next to him and sure enough the front of it was embroidered with “WWII-Korea-Vietnam.”

“Outstanding! “ I remarked enthusiastically, “May I shake your hand” and with a smile, shake my hand he did.

“Which theater did you serve in during “”The Big One,” Europe, North Africa, the Pacific?”

“Europe,” he said crisply, “in fact, I flew top-cover during The Battle of the Bulge.”

That’s when I learned his age. Misled by his spry alertness, cocking my head I quizzed, “Sooo, you must be in your 80s?

At that he proudly told me that he is 92 and his wife 90. I was surprised that anyone could be that age and still be so sharp minded.

I was anxious to discuss his flight experiences during The Battle of the Bulge and I began by telling him about my Uncle Bud, who was also a pilot of sorts, a glider pilot with the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. I explained how he learned to fly over in Louisiana, or more appropriately, to “crash land” his glider full of his men. These troops, if they survived the landing, he would then lead on the ground in combat.

(As it turns out, Uncle Bud actually got his glider training in North Carolina and as far as Louisiana was involved THAT is where he and fellow trainees were informed during the final days of their initial boot camp and infantry training that they were selected to be in gliders. That was at Camp Claiborne Louisiana. All this time I had thought he was a volunteer for gliders, but not so. It’s funny sometimes what you THINK you know—thank you internet, for the correction.)

Lloyd shook his head with respect, “Those boys had it rough, a tough scary way to get into the fight.”

I tested my knowledge of The Battle of Bulge, “Lloyd, from what I’ve read, you couldn’t have done much air support flying until the end stages of the battle because the weather was so low during most of the battle. True?”

“Yes, the weather didn’t break for about a week, but once it did we plastered them with everything we had. It was really something to see.” His eyes lit up as he described shooting up trains, bridges, tanks, and any other targets of opportunity he and his fellow pilots could find and attack.

“Well, the weather didn’t break soon enough to save Uncle Bud. He died in his fighting hole just outside of Bastogne when a shrapnel fragment severed his spine through the back of his neck.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

After a moment I asked, “So Lloyd, what did you fly during all that?


“Ah! The Thunderbolt! The “Thud!” I love that name, “Thud.”

He grinned.

He mentioned that some 20 years later during the “jet age,” he flew another powerful fighter, this time a jet, also nicknamed “the thud” – the  F105 Thunderchief. 

“Wow! To think you flew both “Thuds,” the P47 AND the F105, all in the same career! That is really cool to contemplate. The F105, I mean shoot man, that bird was HUGE! One of the biggest fighters we’ve ever operated, and FAST and LOUD! It was a well-named aircraft. You are THE man Lloyd.”

Turning fully to this mild-mannered looking air warrior, with newfound respect and admiration, I asked, “What other aircraft did you fly?”

“Over the course of my career many different aircraft, from the P51 Mustang to the F86 the F100 and many others.”

The Mustang—the thought of that vaunted aircraft brought to mind the equally praised Tuskegee fliers who flew P51 Mustangs with distinctive unit markings on the tails of their “birds;” as such they were called “the red tails.”

At the mention of The Red Tails his reaction surprised me a little. He shook his head looking a little peeved. Pressing him some he didn’t have anything bad to say about them personally but what seemed to disturb him is the massive notoriety they’ve received which he apparently thinks is exaggerated. He said quietly, “…A LOT of other flying units flew a lot tougher missions and didn’t get near the attention. The areas they covered during the war in many ways was not nearly as difficult as what other American pilots faced.”

I wanted to bring up the obvious factor in why the Tuskegee airmen received much of their fame, that being the social hurdles they faced just to get in the cockpit, but I decided not to. As a combat pilot during those dangerous times Lloyd is entitled to his opinion and actually I think he has a point if in fact the Red Tails’ exploits were given greater credit based on the race of its members, especially if it’s true that other, mostly unnoticed, units flew and fought just as hard.  I’m just glad that we no longer have “all Black units,” or all ANY kind of “all anything” units based on skin color, that we no longer NEED to have them as they did back when the military still reflected the rampant institutionalized racism of the mid 1940s and before.

Lloyd did have one more ancillary comment on the Tuskegee fliers when he mentioned with some apparent pride that he knew Ben Davis from his days at the Pentagon. He didn’t volunteer any other commentary, either good or bad, on General Davis, who was the commanding officer of the Tuskegee Airmen. Remarkably, as a black man facing enormous adversity, Davis rose to the rank of lieutenant general (3 stars) while on active duty during the decades after WWII and was awarded a 4th star after his retirement.

On the subject of “famous people he met” during his decades of service I was thrilled to learn that he has met such notables as Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur, not to mention most all of the famed generals and admirals of the 40s, 50s and 60s during his many years running programs in and out of the Pentagon.

When he brought up the times he had with Dwight Eisenhower (even when Ike was president!) I asked Lloyd if he had ever been to his retirement home that is now part of the Gettysburg Battlefield Park. I told him, “Lloyd, what struck me about his home is the ordinariness of it. It’s just an old refurbished farmhouse; nothing spectacular.” I went on about Eisenhower, “… and something that the general and I have in common is our love for Civil War History and most especially for the Gettysburg Battlefield. Did you know that “Ike” first went there and fell in love with it as a young officer when he was tasked to learn how the American army should use tanks in battle? He and his men would tear up and down Pickett’s Charge field in those old style tanks ripping it up with their tank treads! It must have been something to see!”

“Hey speaking of the Civil War Lloyd, did you ever get the chance to actually meet any Civil War veterans?”

“Yes, yes I did. I met one,” he declared.

“Did you shake his hand?”

“Yes I did.”

Thrusting my hand at him I requested earnestly, “Well then, let me shake the hand of a man who shook the hand of a Civil War veteran!”

Grinning at my enthusiasm, once again Lloyd shook my hand.

After a short lull as we watched a golf shot on the TV he quietly joked that after the war perhaps he made a mistake when he used his veteran’s benefits to get an engineering degree before rejoining the air force. For the rest of his career he said that that degree caused him to have to fight to stay in the cockpit because the air force continually wanted to put him on the ground running programs. “In that case,” I joked, “maybe you SHOULD have got your degree in phys-Ed or basket weaving!”  He agreed chuckling. Even so, he said he was able to continue to fly a host of different aircraft right up until the end of his career in the late 60s. One of his biggest regrets with having that degree is that it kept him out of combat flying during Korea and Vietnam, although he did spend plenty of time in-country during both wars.

One of the most important programs he worked on was the years it took our country and Canada to establish “The DEW Line” across the top of Alaska and Canada during the early part of the Cold War with the Soviets. I was amused to hear that he always took his golf clubs with him when he made his many trips up to the far north bases all situated very close to the Arctic Circle. Mildly shocked, but not completely so based on my own experience with the amenities available on most American military bases, I wondered that the air force actually built and maintained golf courses way up there so far north and out of the way.

“Oh yes!” he said enthusiastically, “pretty nice ones. In fact, I met Lowell Thomas up there and played golf with him. He would make USO trips to many of the bases and I ran into him several times.”

I marveled that he got the chance to meet the famous radio broadcaster and intrepid reporter. “You know what Lloyd? I’ll bet I’m the only guy you’ve told that to under the age of 60 who has any idea who the heck Lowell Thomas was, am I right?”

Lloyd agreed smiling.

“So, you must have retired as what, a lieutenant colonel or colonel?”

“Lieutenant colonel.”

“Did you have any commands that you are proud of?”

“Yes, I commanded two flying squadrons before retiring.”

I nodded, “Knowing a lot of fliers over my career, I completely understand your pride in getting the chance to lead other airmen where the proverbial rubber meets the flight line. Satisfying times, right? And after those three decades in uniform, you must have had quite a long post military working life I take it?”

Lloyd said that he successfully worked for several companies and even ran his own. His engineering degree and experience running air force programs definitely came in handy at that point. He’s also very proud of the successes of his children, all of whom must be older than me, and me almost 60.

On the subject of age, “92! Man! I can count the number of 90 year olds I’ve met on one hand and you don’t look like you’ve slowed down much. I’ll be lucky to reach 80. No one in my family gets to be 90, although the way my mom is going she probably will.”

“Oh, you’ll get there!” he said encouragingly.

I chuckled, “Nawww. I don’t think so. My kidneys will be shot long before then, but if I could be in your shape physically and mentally I wouldn’t mind making it close to that age! And to think you AND your wife are in your 90s. That is great! Oh, and how DID you meet your wife?”

Lloyd said he met the love of his life in Belgium after the war. 70 years later and here they are. I got the chance to see her in passing as they wheel chaired her out of the hospital while Lloyd scampered down a long flight of steps to retrieve their car. (Yes, he STILL drives!) Still waiting for my son to be wheeled out through the big bank of emergency room doors I jumped out of my car to say so long to Lloyd one last time, shook his hand and waved to her as well. (What a lovely woman!) Lloyd must have told her about me because she waved and called out a gracious friendly greeting, sounding way more Southern than European.

I feel most fortunate to have met Colonel Easterling. I hope he and his beautiful wife continue to grace the earth for many years to come.