It was the first clear day since the Battle of the Bulge — the day Ralph Leland Minker Jr. flew his B-17 Bomber over Germany in a seven-hour "mission to end all missions." It was a day Minker would see three planes from his group get shot down. It was Christmas Eve, 1944.
That night back home in Delaware, Minker’s mother, Edna, was writing a letter to her son. "I wish I could think the day had been for you just a little bit like ours — with friends and loved ones, warmth and a nice dinner — but always there has been in the back of our minds the thought that you had to go out on a mission regardless of the fact that it was Christmas," wrote his mother, prophetically.
But in terms of clairvoyance, it was Minker who had the upper hand, frequently writing his parents and saying, "I’m fine."
During two and a half years in the service, Minker flew 37 combat missions over Nazi Germany, encountering persistent anti-aircraft fire. At 20-years-old, he was the youngest pilot in his bomber group to join the Lucky Bastards’ Club, reaching the magic number of 35 missions for eligibility to go home.
Instead, Minker, a minister’s son, stayed on. He wanted to "finish up the job."
MINKER, NOW 81, of Reston has lived with Alzheimer’s disease the past several years. And while he may not always remember his heroic days piloting the Blue Hen Chick, more people are getting to know his story everyday.
Last September, Minker’s experiences during World War II were published in "An American Family in World War II," edited by Minker, his wife Sandra O’Connell and Harry Butowsky, a World War II history professor at George Mason University. The story of Minker’s life during the chaotic and uncertain time of war is told through 800 family letters. The illustrated book, which tells about everything from rationing to bond drives, took five years to complete.
Last Sunday, Nov. 13, at United Christian Parish, the three Reston editors held a book signing, which attracted a crowd of about 35 people. O’Connell and Butowsky began the program by reading excerpts from the book.
"We wanted to give you a small sampling, to let you know how you can immerse yourself in another time," said O’Connell to the audience.
During the signing, O’Connell talked about many of Minker’s missions. Operation Chow Drop, which consisted of dropping food to those left starving after the war, made up many of Minker’s best memories, said O’Connell, who noted in her talk that Veterans Day also recognizes the need for peace.
THE HISTORICAL significance of Minker’s life first drew Butowsky into the book project. But after he began reading the letters, Butowsky felt like he had stumbled onto a modern Shakespeare.
"The language of the book reaches the level of poetry, which makes this such a unique collection," said Butowsky. "It’s a testament to that generation."
In long, sinuous sentences, Minker tried to describe what a mission was like in letter to his father.
"An actual mission is one continuous surge between tense eager expectancy and weary monotony — the thrill as power surges to lift the great silver bird in flight, the jockeying to form in squadron — group — wind — division and airforce formation by 1200 planes, England — a cloud covered hearsay — a gilt of sunlit fields and towns — A symphony in early morning shades of blue, the cold grey channel, Germany, cold, a stick of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum, oxygen, fascinating flak, escorting Mustang and Thunderbolt fighters, unidentified contrails, more flac — close and black — the plane staggers from the concussion, peaceful smoking target, prop wash rocking the formation, # 1 prop surging and running away, I’m tired, the channel and England again, low altitude, off oxygen at last, wolf down a Hershey bar," wrote Minker.
IMPRESSED BY MINKER’S story, many at the signing also commented on Minker’s writing style. "If you read the book, you can see he was a brilliant young man," said Joanne Bury of Reston, who has known Minker for 15 years. "It’s amazing to me that he had the foresight to save all those letters."
For Steve and Darlyne Bryant of Reston, who came to the event to support Minker and honor veterans, the book was a powerful reminder of how things were back then. "We were both commenting that these were just children. It was remarkable that they could handle huge aircraft and be responsible for people’s lives," said Steve Bryant.
"This isn’t just a military history," said Butowsky, "but a family story about their hopes and fears and how are we going to get through this."
WHEN MINKER’S DUTY was complete, he returned to Dickinson College and graduated in 1947. Then he set down a path to follow his father’s footsteps, studying theology at Boston University. In 1950, he became an ordained Methodist minister. Minker, who retired in 1990 after serving eight churches in Delaware and Maryland, was inducted into the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame this past summer.
But he had joined the U.S. Army Air Corps when he was 18 years old. "His most intact memories come from this period, and I think the reason is because it was such a searing experience," said Butowsky.
About ten years ago, Minker and O’Connell began reading the letters again. It was the 50th anniversary of the war. "We’d read them on the date they were written," said O’Connell, "and when we were done reading them, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s."
So many of Minker’s friends died during the war, said O’Connell. "We all live to remember."