There they were. Men in their 70's and 80's. Sitting in a hospitality suite of the Radisson Hotel in Alexandria. It had an unobstructed view of the Potomac River and the final approach to Reagan National Airport.
But they weren't paying much attention to the view. They were deeply engrossed in another view. One that seemed to verify, at least in human terms, Einstein's theory that there is no such thing as time, there is only space — what was and will be, is.
For this group, and thousands more like them, spread out across the Washington Metropolitan area this past weekend, it was the 1940's and they were part of the most perilous and imperative mission since the Dark Ages. It was their luck of the draw, in human history, to prevent its reoccurrence.
They were and are of "The Greatest Generation." They were and are survivors of the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force. And they were here not only to participate in the dedication of the World War II Memorial but also to relive their collective experiences throughout those nearly four long years facing death on a daily basis.
"There were so many ways to die." That is the subtitle of Chapter 14 in Bernard Thomas Nolan's book "Isaiah's Eagles Rising." It is not just another treatise on the last world war. It is an insight as to why the Greatest Generation became that way.
Rocketed from the era of the Roaring 20's to the abject poverty of the Great Depression of the 1930's, they had faced catastrophic change and learned to deal with it. Now they faced a war that enveloped the globe and had the potential to permanently alter human history.
An Alexandria resident, living in Carlyle Tower with his wife Sunny, Nolan flew 33 mission as a B-24 and B-17 bomber pilot with the 487th Bomb Group, 8th Bomber Command, based in Lavenham, England. "The Eighth Air Force suffered more casualties than any other army, navy or marine unit of comparable size in World War II," he states near the end his book.
But this past weekend, that fact was overshadowed, if not forgotten, by the lasting comraderie that comes from facing common death. Encompassing both fighter and bomber commands, "The Mighty Eighth" reunion "included everything from air crews to cooks," Nolan revealed surveying the room of "buddies."
"We lost 47,000 overall. Our bomber command lost 25,000. The worst year was 1943," he said. "We flew without fighter escort because our fighters didn't have the range until we got the P-51's. They came on line in 1944 and that changed everything."
ONE OF THE MOST famous aircraft of the Eighth Air Force was the "Memphis Bell." Piloted by Captain Robert Morgan, it flew 25 missions without a loss. Two Hollywood films have been made about its remarkable achievement.
Unfortunately, Morgan didn't make the reunion or dedication ceremony on the National Mall this past weekend. He died in early May.
As Nolan pointed out, the combat contract was for 25 missions. "On the surface it sounded reasonable enough, and in some ways I was grateful for the fact that there was a definite number of missions in the contract. Had I played out the numbers, I might have thought differently," he wrote.
"In 1943, when the Eighth Air Force was averaging losses of eight percent per mission, it meant on the average that nobody could expect to finish the tour. Losses of 100 percent would occur at 12.5 missions. In my case the 1943 odds scenario worked fairly accurately; my head was almost blown off on my 14th mission and I was shot down on my 19th," he stated in the book.
The plane had been hit by flak and lost two engines. It was able to limp back to the base in England. "That plane never flew again. But we did," Nolan clarified.
Flak was a major threat, according to Harold D. Farris of San Antonio, Texas, one of Nolan's compatriots at the reunion. He was a B-17 pilot with the 305th Bomb Group and flew 35 missions.
"I joined up on my 18th birthday in January 1943. They advised me to join on my birthday rather than waiting to be drafted. I graduated as a pilot while I was still 18. Just 13 days before my 19th birthday," Farris said.
"One of the things I'm proudest of is that I flew 23 missions while I was 19 years old. I was never shot at by German fighters. The damage we got was from the flak guns," he recalled.
All planes were equipped with extra armor plates under the seats of the pilot and co-pilot to protect against flak.
"One time I landed and the maintenance crew discovered a piece of flak stuck to the bottom of my seat. They asked if I wanted a new steel plate instead of the damaged one. I said 'no just added another. I want as much protect in that area as possible,'" Farris said.
FOLLOWING WORLD WAR II, Farris returned to Texas A&M University to finish his engineering degree. He worked on the design of the B-36 and B-58 long range bombers of Cold War fame. But as a member of the now U.S. Air Force Reserve he was recalled to active duty in both Korea and Vietnam. "I flew 88 missions during Vietnam," he said.
Frank Alston of Parrott, Ga, was a peanut farmer when America entered "The Big War." He admitted, "The Berlin raid was the only mission where I was really afraid."
Farris added, "It was one of the worst missions. We were the lead group to knock out their flak guns and we were looking right down their barrels."
They revealed that the flight pattern called for very close formation so that the bomb clusters would be most effective. This called for planes to fly as close as 25 feet apart, they explained.
As Nolan specifies in his book, "Formation flying was perhaps the most essential tactical ingredient that defined the Eighth Air Force Bomber Command's operational mode in the European Campaign." But it also had its downside.
"There were a lot of mid air collisions. I saw three taken out in one raid," Alston recalled. "And there were no parachutes spotted before they exploded." In his book, Nolan recounts such a collision right over their base in England on a test flight.
One of the prime advancements, in the early part of the war, for Allied bombers was the Norden Bomb Sight which was hailed as extremely accurate for its time.
"The problem with the Norden Bomb Sight though was that you had to be able to see the target. That's why radar bombing became more and more common as the war progressed," Nolan explained.
In addition to all the other adversities, there was the bone chilling cold of flying at a bombing altitude of 23,000 to 26,000 feet in an unheated aircraft. Missions averaged six to 12 hours depending on the distance to and from the targets.
"The winter of 1944-45 was very bad," Farris recalled. Even on a spring day with ground temperatures at 60 degrees, "temperatures at 20,000 feet in a standard atmosphere would be minus 25," according to Nolan's book.
DIFFERENT FROM Nolan and Farris, Alston returned to Parrott, Ga., after World War II, and resumed his peanut farming. He also worked parttime for the U.S. Postal Service as a rural letter carrier. "I was with the Post Office for the health and retirement benefits," he said.
Living just 12 miles from former President Jimmy Carter, Alston noted, "I had 45 years as a peanut farmer. Then one morning I got up and was just to tired to go to work. That's when I knew it was time to quit."
Nolan spent most of his adult life in aerospace related activities including his World War II years. After 22 years in the U.S. Air Force as an active pilot he joined NASA. For 15 years he worked in various management assignments in Washington, D.C.
Nolan was the program manager for NASA's Airborne Geoscience Program and served as program manager for Landsat Operations. Following his retirement from NASA in 1981, Nolan worked as an independent consultant to NASA and as a senior engineer for the Science Applications International Corporation.
"By May 8, 1945, VE Day, the Eighth Bomber Command alone had dropped 692,918 tons of bombs — more than a half million — on targets in western Europe and Germany lay in ruins," Nolan wrote. Even the chief of the German Luftwaffe, Herman Goering, attested to the tenacity and skill of American air power.
"Allied precision bombing had a greater effect than area [carpet] bombing, because destroyed cities could be evacuated, but destroyed industry was hard to replace... The Allies owe the success of the invasion to the air forces. Without the U.S. Air Force the war would still be going on elsewhere, but certainly not on German soil," Nolan wrote of Goering's statement at Nuremberg shortly before his suicide.
Nolan closes his war experiences with a quote from General George S. Patton. "The truth about a war was never known until one hundred years after it was over, until everyone who had fought in it was dead."
That may be true from a historically objective point of view. But the 380-plus members of the Eight Air Force who returned to mark the dedication of the World War II Memorial fit more into the title inspiration for Nolan's book, as he quotes at the opening of Chapter seven:
"But they that wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength: they shall rise up with wings as eagles." Isaiah 40:31.