Friday afternoon, in the skies over north Texas, I slid into the co-pilot seat of a C-47 transport like the ones my Dad flew in the South Pacific in World War II, in a seat where he once sat.
In the pilot seat was one of his fellow pilots from the 13th Troop Carrier Squadron, Wellington Goddin, at the controls again 66 years after the last time he flew a C-47 for the “Thirsty 13th.”
Friday and Saturday, six former pilots of the Thirsty 13th gathered with family and friends to not only reminisce about their war experiences, but recreate them by flying one of two C-47s and a B-25 bomber.
The reunion was arranged by Seth Washburne, son of one of the unit’s navigators, and the author of a book about the unit I helped to edit and prepare for publication. This was our first face-to-face meeting after nine months of collaborating via e-mail, phone, and FedEx, and this was one of the greatest pleasures of the weekend.
So soon after the event, I find it difficult to put into words just what this opportunity meant to me, 24 years after the passing of my father. The passage of time was cruel in one regard – after 66 years of life away from the daily grind of the war, memories were shaky, and the anecdotes I hoped I might hear about Dad were never forthcoming.
But that didn’t dim the wonder and awe of being immersed in the company of his fellow pilots for two days, or the joy of meeting fellow children of Thirsty 13th members. So many stories, so many smiles and laughs, a few tears … so, so many rich moments.
If I had to choose one above all the others, it was one that happened shortly after our three-plane convoy landed in Fredrick, Okla.
We had flown to Fredrick to rendezvous with another pilot, Karl Peters, who could not attend the event in Fort Worth. Family, friends, and media milled around the tarmac greeting the pilots, taking pictures, and inspecting the aircraft.
Karl’s son, Brent, was walking among the group passing out replicas of the unit’s flight jacket patch he had made just for the event, one for each pilot and one for Seth. It was a gesture that clearly touched each of the pilots.
Then Brent approached me. He extended his hand – in it was a patch for me. He knew from conversations with Seth about the work I had done on the book, and he said he thought I deserved to have a patch, too.
I had flown to Fredrick in the B-25, and had left my camera bag in the hold when I exited quickly after landing to take pictures of the incoming C-47s. Carrying the patch, I climbed the ladder into the B-25, sat down in one of the jump seats. And for the next few minutes, all alone in that plane, with the rush of new memories and old, with the patch held reverently in my hands, I shed a few tears. Tears of joy, of wonder, of amazement. Each one seemed to have a different emotion carried with it.
But all carried one in common — a feeling of connection to something grand, something noble. A feeling of connection to my Dad, and to those who served with him. A feeling of connection to people I’d never met who were suddenly dear.
It is quite one thing to honor the service of our veterans, wherever and whenever their service. To share in this small way through having been given the same patch as those who served, for the simple act of editing a book about them? It’s an indescribable feeling I’ll gladly spend the rest of my life finding the words to express.