A Fourth Of July Spent Right
Over the doorway out of the museum were words that I was glad my 11 year old daughter paused to read:
valor of our defenders,
we diminish their victory.
And what valor we saw witness to. These beautiful airplanes are the few that remain; so many were gone so quickly in a flash of flame, a cloud of dust, a splash of sea water.
It was valor that spurred the designers, businessmen and production line crews that pushed the limits to produce so many thousands of these aircraft, enough to darken the daytime sky. And it was valor that caused the pilots, like my mom's cousin Christopher Fassnacht, to bravely push the planes forward through flak and fighters, often falling to their deaths, as Christopher did. My older brother is named after him, as is a cousin, and an uncle, who changed his last name to Christopher to honor just one of thousands of valorous heroes.
It was valor that caused Don Sutherland -- an energetic, ramrod straight vet in his 80s, not the leftist, America-hating actor who owes his freedom to the likes of this other Don Sutherland -- to slide over and over again into the tight fetal position of the ball turret gunner on a B-17 like Miss Angela. This graceful silver battle station of the air is one of less than two dozen of the Flying Fortresses remaining from a once mighty armada.
"Folks say all the time that my position was the most dangerous," Sutherland humbly said to us. "But there were 10 of us on each of these flights, and none of us was in any more dangerous a position than anyone else." The photo below shows the seat of the B17 nose-gunner, who was also the bombadier. That was certainly in a precarious spot, given the Nazi strategy of sending two fighters on a chicken run, guns blazing, straight at the oncoming bombers. Plexiglas and prayer was all that protected him!
He told us of his last mission, against Czechoslovakia on the last day of the war, remembering the date better than I do now. There were 650 planes on the mission; six were shot down.
"It's a shame anyone had to die on the last day of the war, but think of it," he said. "Sending 650 planes into enemy territory and having losses of less than one percent." Now, 60 years older than that brave young flier, Sutherland is still proud not of his role and his doings, but of his mission and his comrades in arms.
These were beautiful, powerful, killer airplanes, with a couple thousand horsepower and enough fuel tanks to get them there and back, God willing. On board were men much younger, and much braver, than me. Men like George H. W. Bush, who wasn't much older than my oldest daughter's boyfriend in the photo displayed proudly in the museum, along with another of him as an elegant, kind looking older man, who stopped by the museum during his presidency.
Next time you're in Palm Springs, pay them a visit to honor these men and machines who flew to protect and preserve that city on a hill President Reagan spoke of when he said goodby to us in 1989,
“a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, Gold-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace ...."