A Song for Memorial Day

Remembering is not mere nostalgia; it is an act of survival, our way of “watching over our hearts with all diligence.”
— John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance

Last summer I wrote a music review for PopMatters of the album Somehwere to Elsewhere by the reunited ’70s rock band Kansas. The opening track of the disc, “Icarus II”, recounts the true story of an American bomber pilot in World War II who steered his crashing plane clear of Allied troops on the ground. In my haste to get an angle on the review, I compared the album’s composer Kerry Livgren to a musical Norman Rockwell. I likened “Icarus II” to Rockwell’s paintings of the fictitious Willie Gillis, who appeared on several covers of The Saturday Evening Post. Time and reflection have revealed the dishonor done by that careless comparison. The song now occupies a special place of reverence in my heart.

Last fall, with “Icarus II” still fresh on my mind, I attended an air show featuring a number of vintage aircraft. Also in attendance that day was Theodore “Dutch” van Kirk, the navigator aboard the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb used in combat on Hiroshima, Japan. It was an honor to shake his hand and converse with him about his experiences. A group portrait of the Enola Gay crew sat nearby, and I asked van Kirk which face was his. “Who’s the most handsome guy in the picture?” he asked with a twinkle in his eye. Jokingly, I pointed to bombadier Thomas Ferebee.

I didn’t ask “Dutch” the question that has surely been leveled at him numerous times: “Are you sorry for what you did?” Such a question shows a lack of understanding for the time and circumstances men like van Kirk found themselves thrust into. Kerry Livgren sought to answer it in his lyrics for “Icarus II”. The pilot thinks aloud:

Here the air is cold, but my thoughts are clear
So I’m pondering why I must be here
For the evil that can come from the heart of a man
Must be answered in kind till it disappears

Stephen Ambrose’s latest book is entitled The Good Fight: How World War II Was Won. There was a definite purpose to that war — saving the world from international fascism. Subsequent conflicts haven’t been so cut and dried, and our current culture looks at recent wars with understandable disdain. Look on the bookshelves: volumes devoted to Vietnam look disturbingly similar to cheap “true crime” paperbacks. The Korean conflict is virtually unrepresented. Strangely, there isn’t much available on the Gulf War, either. But the books devoted to World War II have assumed the aura of over-sized, coffee table pictorial editions. There seems to be an element of nobility associated with that conflict that still casts a spell, at least on some, over half a century later. Two of my favorites are Bob Greene’s Duty: A Father, His Son, and The Man Who Won the War, and Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig. The latter is especially poignant; I am baffled that British films and television comedies routinely satirize their old war veterans.

Of the more popular volumes on current release is Carl Hoffman’s Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II. In it Hoffman forwards the thesis that World War II planes serve as a talisman to a more romantic form of warfare — one where men, not buttons and computers, made a difference. The vehicles they flew were hands-on, accessible, and adaptable. They brought the best in the men who flew them. Every combat sortie became its own epic story within the larger scope of the war.

After meeting van Kirk I went onto the tarmac to inspect The Yankee Lady, one of a dozen B-17’s still flight-worthy. An interior tour was available, so I crawled through the surprisingly cramped fuselage and sat down beside the machine guns mounted at windows on the sides of the plane. In my head I could hear the heavy metal section of “Icarus II”, where crunching guitars capture the frantic aerial maneuvers, and Phil Ehart’s snare and bass drums pound out the rhythms of machine-gun fire and bursting flak.

Back outside, I walked around to the tail section and stared into the unbelievably confined perch of the tail gunner. How could an average size man fit in there? Resting my hands against the aluminum skin of the plane, an unexpected wave of emotion welled up inside me, and I found myself leaning against the Yankee Lady with tears coursing down my cheeks. My 17-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son stood by silent confusion. I wanted them to understand what desperate circumstances this plane represented, to appreciate the valor and sacrifice of the men who lived out those forgotten stories.

And now we’re hit — it’s happened, this is what I feared
Something’s telling me my time has come
Though there should be panic, I can feel a peace
Strangely now I know my purpose
“Hey boys . . . get out while you can,
I’m going home…”

I have become the depository of one such story. My great uncle Clyde Hicks was a fun-loving prankster who half-way worked for my great-grandfather’s lumber business. The rest of the time he, like thousands of others during the Depression, would hop freight trains and ride across the country just to see where he might end up. He even talked my great-grandfather and grandpa into joining him on a few wayward journeys. He never married; he was too wild at heart to settle down. When America went to war he gladly volunteered, looking for the next great adventure. He didn’t become an airman — he ended up with the 807th Tank Destroyers, attached to the 83rd Infantry with the Third Army. One day in the Ardennes while he performed maintenance on his M10 “Wolverine” tank killer, one of the last remaining Luftwaffe planes dropped a bomb on a nearby building, and Clyde was killed by flying debris. He was buried in Belgium for a short time before his remains were returned to the North Carolina mountains. My great-grandmother lived to be 90 years old, but to her last day she never got over Clyde’s death. When she passed there was no one left in her immediate family to look after Clyde’s belongings, and in time they became lost.

On this Memorial Day, while others will attend cookouts, go to the movies, or find the nearest swimming hole, I will be going on a search to find Clyde’s grave. I will continue searching until I recover his posthumous medals. And in the process, I will regain a part of myself.