A WW II Airman Is Gone

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

I have known my uncle Willard was an Army veteran since I was old enough to look at family photos with him in uniform. I still remember my mother telling a story about when my uncle was home on leave during the war. He had taken his uniform off to wash my grandfather’s car and my mom took a picture of him. He was upset because after Pearl Harbor all military members were ordered into uniform at all times. Having photo proof of my uncle out of uniform was not something he wanted floating around.

I heard that story when I was in grade school and never forgot it. Whenever my dad, the Navy Master Chief, got leave we went home to Iowa. My uncle lived right next door to my grandparents, so Willard was the uncle I got to see the most.

He never talked about his military service with me when I was a child. It wasn’t until I was in uniform that we ever spoke about his time in the Army Air Force. He had started out in the infantry. You see, my uncle did not finish high school and this bothered him as long as I knew the man. While in the infantry, he was offered the chance to test to go into the Army Air Force. He was sitting in a room of high school graduates while testing and convinced he was not going to make the grade. He passed the test and noticed that some of supposedly more educated soldiers failed; I believe that was high point for him.

He left the Army one day and was sworn into the Army Air Force the next. He went to school to be an armorer. This meant, specifically, that he was trained to load the bombs on B-25 bombers, repair and load the .50 caliber machine guns and download hot ordnance if a plane came back without having dropped all of its bombs. This was a nerve-racking job, to say the least.

He was assigned to the 405th Bomb Squadron, in the 38th Bomb Group. The 38th BG was sent to Australia and Willard’s squadron was one of the two original squadrons. They spent 43 months in nonstop combat. His squadron was called the Green Dragons and because it was in combat from 1942 until the surrender of Japan, they had the highest casualty rate in the Bomb Group. 175 airmen did not come home.

My uncle would up-load a B-25 bomber, meet with the aircraft crew that he had eaten breakfast with prior to the combat mission and then they would fly away and be killed. The next day he would be assigned a different aircraft to up-load and hope that they would return from their mission. He told me the guys that he started out with were friends, but he did not what to make friends with the new troops, not when your squadron has the highest rate of airmen killed in combat.

Then there were the crews who brought an aircraft back all shot up and crash-landed it on the airfield. He was happy the crew got back, but he also knew he had to go inside the broken-up wreck and make safe any ordnance that was still onboard.

The most famous B-25 Mitchell bomber in the Army Air Force was the “Tokyo Sleeper” and it was assigned to the Green Dragons. In the early days of the war it looked like all the rest of the bombers, but it was eventually painted to look like a Green Dragon. This, of course, made it a moving target for Japanese flyers. My uncle loaded that aircraft for many a mission and then downloaded it when it came back all shot to hell. He finished the war on Okinawa with his unit, which was by then flying against mainland Japan.

Uncle Willard came home to his wife and got on with his civilian life. He was a master carpenter and there are literally hundreds of homes in southeast Iowa that he either built or refurbished over the course of his career. If you wanted quality work done on your home, you hired Willard Brown of Kingston, Iowa. I got to go out on the job site with him to watch and even as a kid I understood my Uncle's exceptional skills.

My uncle, Willard Brown died this past week. A good man, a good friend to all and a WW II veteran. We buried another veteran today.

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Copyright 2008, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.