ASK RUFUS: The Passing of the Greatest Generation

Commercial Dispatch
Sunday 13 May 2012
Rufus Ward

The words written by Peter Pitchlynn to his brother 165 years ago rang loudly this week. Pitchlynn grew up at Plymouth Bluff and his childhood was marked by the Creek Indian War of 1813. Pitchlynn returned to Plymouth Bluff and Columbus in 1847 and recalled warriors and incidents of a war time childhood. He concluded his letter by saying:

“What brave noble fellows they were. They would have fallen and died around our little fort ere they would have allowed a Muskoke (Creek Indian) reaching us with their Tomma Hawks, among those who figured in those scenes how few are living.”

Last week my cousin Tom Hardy passed away. Tom epitomized what Tom Brokaw named “The Greatest Generation” and to me Pitchlynn’s comments are especially poignant for when I was a child Tom introduced me to Plymouth Bluff. And Tom’s memorial service was held 68 years to the day of when my father was shot down over Germany and taken prisoner.

Tom was a Marine pilot in the South Pacific during World War II, whose citations for medals read like something out of a movie. A war time Commercial Dispatch article has a photo of him receiving “3 gold stars in lieu of the 2nd 3rd and 4th Air Medals (for) night forays against the Japanese…in the Ryukyu Islands in which he destroyed three enemy planes.”

As Pitchlynn once described the heroes of his childhood so now are the heroes of World War II. Not many are left. To that generation we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

On one of those occasions when I really regret not having had a recorder, Tom and my father, a B-17 tail gunner in World War II who passed away in 2001, were together at an air show in Starkville. At the show was a B-17 and parked nearby was an F-4 Corsair, such as Tom flew. The Corsair was complete with the checkerboard markings of Tom’s squadron.  I had never heard either talk much about their time in combat but on that day they walked between the planes discussing and comparing experiences with Japanese and German fighter planes.

Tom Hardy (L) and Rufus Ward, Sr (R) trading stories beside a World War II B-17 at a May 2001 Starkville air show. Hardy was a Marine F-4 Corsair pilot in the South Pacific during World War II. Ward, the tail gunner on a B-17, was shot down over Frankfurt, Germany, and was a POW for a year before being liberated.

Most of the stories they told me were of the lighter moments. Tom once described how a fighter plane from his squadron was to carry the hard copy of an important document from the island where they were stationed to Australia. Tom described the machine guns and ammunition being stripped from the airplane before its mission. It seemed that the flight was a perfect opportunity to load the plane on its return flight with that rarest of war time supplies, beer, and the less weight from such needless things as guns and ammo the more beer that could be carried on the long flight. Tom said that the risk of encountering an enemy fighter was over shadowed by the thought of cold beer on a hot Pacific island. The flight was a success and upon returning the beer was buried in the sand on the beach. Aviation fuel was then poured over it and the rapid evaporation of the fuel quickly cooled the beer.

My father told of the time his crew had a weekend pass to London. The first night they went bar hopping but were constantly dogged and threatened with possible disciplinary action by a military policeman (MP). The next night they went to dine at one of the better restaurants in London. Just after they were seated a waiter came over and said an MP wanted to buy them a drink. They laughed and commented that their antagonist of the night before must be there feeling guilty and so they replied “no thanks”. The waiter returned and said the MP would like to pay for their meal and they again said “no thanks”. Then the waiter returned and said the MP wanted them to join him at his table. Thinking the MP from the night before had a real guilt trip going they replied that they “wanted nothing to do with a !*#* MP.” With an ashen face the waiter left and then returned saying the Member of Parliament was most distressed.  My father said they quickly left the restaurant.  

At the Starkville air show the conversation between Tom and my father had been nothing to laugh about. They discussed the difference in living and dying at 20,000 feet and friends who never came home. That great generation is passing all too quickly. It was only a couple of months ago that Jack Kaye, another South Pacific campaign pilot and hero, left us and now Tom.

To veterans who are gone and to those who remain we owe an unpayable debt and many words of thanks. But as to those of World War II, the words of 165 years ago sadly ring all too true today; “What brave noble fellows they were…among those who figured in those scenes how few are living.”

Published in: on May 17, 2012 at 8:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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