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My Dad!

Warren William Whittaker

I Found My Father in a Small Wooden Box

I recently discovered my father. The discovery came from mementos saved more than forty years in a small wooden box.

Just as a small child is surprised every time the clown jumps out of a jack-in-the-box, every time I open his box I am surprised by the many things I learn about my father.

Unlike most people I did not have the opportunity to get to know or even meet my father as he was killed in an automobile accident a few months before my birth. He and my mother were married less than a year and she knew very little of his boyhood or teenage years and not a lot about his life before meeting her.

Then came the box.

My aunt, his sister Cappy, discovered the box as she packed to move. She found the small, hand tooled wooden box he had acquired in Sicily during World War II and had used to hold his mementos as she cleared decades of keepsakes from a closet. It is full of treasures. Many of the items date to his days as a glider pilot in the Army Air Corps. Others are from his years in high school and college. I regret there was nothing of his cross-country ride on a Harley after the war.

I had always known that he had been a member of the band when he was in high school and had been told that I had inherited my musical talent from him as did my daughter Andrea.

I did not know that he had starred in his senior class play at Collins High School. The handbill tucked into the box announced that the play "is worth many good picture shows." Now we know where my daughter Sarah gets her acting talent.

I never knew that he graduated from Beckley College, or that he had once owned a horse who would "run as long as he had breath in his body."

He sold the horse for $50, an enormous sum of money during the Depression.

I have learned that he also enjoyed writing letters and had many pen pals both in the United States and all over the world. He was also superstitious, believing that odd days on the calendar and odd numbers were lucky for him, especially the number seven. In his diary he noted January 19 as the birthday of his hero, General Lee. The year was 1937. I can find all of these traits in my daughter Robin.

We shared a passion for reading and writing and both loved quite walks in the woods. His diary notes many "peaceful" Sunday afternoon walks in the wood with the dogs.

One entry in the diary tells of his crush on a girl who had sent him a Valentine. "It was cute, but the writing on the back was cuter. Suddenly I became Tom Sawyer again." Yes, my father was an All-American boy.

He had fears just as I do. One entry in the worn green diary states his relief when a TB test returned negative.

I knew that he had served in World War II and have his medals and one of his uniform jackets. Reading his military record with the names Sicily, Naples Foggia, Rome Arno, Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe made it seem real. These were the battles and campaigns that were such a large part of the European Field of World War II.

He missed home and family during the two years he was overseas. He wrote poetry describing what he imigined was happening at his Grandma's house at the same moment he was preparing to go on another mission over Sicily. He longed for one of her homemade biscuits.

There are a few pictures in the box. Several of a girl friend of his youth in Beckley and others made from his glider when he was in training in Waco, TX. One in particular shows him with a deep tan. He even wrote a comment about it on the back. I can now look at my youngest, Emily and know that she shares that part of him with her deep bronze tan from the summer sun.

I discovered he had a passion for Spanish and used phrases from that language in much of his writing. He wrote about one day visiting the Latin America nations. Tucked into some other papers was a small clipping from a newspaper. It is yellow with age and contains only two lines that must have been used as filler in the paper. According to this scrap of paper that he had torn from a paper at that time there was one general to every 123 soldiers in the Mexican army. Now I wonder if he dreamed of fighting as a soldier of fortune and becoming a high-ranking officer working for a foreign government.

I had often wondered about his view of religion. My questions were answered in entrees written after the death of his baby sister who lived only an hour after birth. "We buried Little Caroll Natlie today at Coal City. Cap just about cried her head off. But all babies go to heaven so I don't worry much."

I also learned that I come by my tendency to be a pack rat honestly. Included in his treasures were some old buttons, a switch blade, a German swastika arm band, a hand bill in Italian that he had saved from a batch he had thrown from his glider, and an old insurance payment book that he had used to keep records of the serial numbers of his guns, purchases and the money he had in the bank. There is also an entry that explains why he kept such an odd assortment of items.

"Old match covers, a glider bolt, two old tow rings, two old wire splicers and a bag full of other worthless items, these are my treasures, worth not a cent to any man but me and to me each is worth the time spent in gathering them for each has an association of some time or place long forgotten except when recalled by my plundering through my bag. Then it is that I relive, and a colored pebble becomes a living picture, a desert sunset in all its beauty is sun again."

And through a box long forgotten, a man dead for more than forty years lives again in the mind and heart of his daughter.

This column was published and in the Tazewell County Free Press.

Onto the Battle Front

The other day I was watching the news of the NATO bombing missions in Yugoslavia and doing a little cleaning when I found a letter that I had laid aside some time ago and had never gotten around to putting up. It is dated March 31, 1945 and was written by my father, Warren Whittaker, when he was a member of the Army Air Corps in World War II. The letter is addressed to his sister who was also flying during the war as a WASP (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots.)

As I reread the letter, I couldn’t help but wonder if the American boys flying the jets on their missions over Eastern Europe were experiencing any of the feelings expressed in the letter. Yes the times and equipment have drastically changed but how much can people’s feelings and emotions have changed in 54 years?

Of course there are vast differences in today’s Air Force and the Army Air Corps of WWII. For one my father flew gliders loaded with men and equipment that landed behind enemy lines and didn’t get back into the air until the battle was over, if then. They were valued much as the Stealth Fighters are today, for the quite operation. However, Dad’s ship was silent because it had no engine. They were towed into the air, released and then glided to their destination.

In the letter he celebrated March 31 as payday and also as his third anniversary in the Army. Then he began his story of being dropped east of the Rhine, describing it as rugged but in many ways as “sort of like a big hunting trip.”

“I had a heavy load so I made a fast approach-- faster than Mable makes new friends --just as I’d make each left turn in the pattern there would be a batch of flack burst just off my right wing – showing they were landing just about right but using poor judgment.”

Dad referred to Mable in many different ways in the letter.

In many of the passages he seemed to be bragging to his little sister about his bravery but then he would always admit that only a fool isn't’ afraid in these situations.

“My co-pilot was on his first mission and pretty scarred, well, I was too, for that matter, but I have seen flak before. We got on the ground on good shape. Not a scratch anywhere and I’m proud of it for this is a damn good ship.”

He describes walking across a road after landing the glider and watching a fellow pilot smoke a cigarette while in a window just above his head a sniper was firing a light machine gun.

“ The Glider pilot puffed his cigarette and put his lighter in his pocket without looking up. We got four prisoners out of the house. They were plenty scared, thought we were going to shoot them.” He next tells about another “Airborne Joe” with a rifle was herding along about a dozen prisoners.

“Better scatter some, fellers,” he said. “There’s two German tanks due up the road in about two minutes.” “He was so nonchalant we thought he was joking.”

They learned in less than the two minutes that he had told them the truth.

“One was running along through a field about 200 yards from, and parallel to, the road. The other one I could hear but never did see as he was behind a row of bushes. They were MKN’s and this 88 MM rifle on the one and I could see it was jerkily pointing here and there like the finger of doom.”

He described the sound of slugs hitting the side of the tank as “hail on a barn roof.”

“It was enough to make the Germans button-up their hatches quick like and then they were forced to use periscopes and this slowed them considerable. In the mean-time our boys backed a little anti-tank gun out in the open and unhooked the jeep and skiddadled for cover behind a house leaving the gunner and the gun so helpless looking right out in the open, 200 yards from that iron monster. The gunman fired three times hitting the tank broadside every shot. It was duck soup for our gunman. The panzer caught fire and burned right brisk like, and the other tank turned tail and headed off in the direction of Berlin at a smart gallop, rattle-de-clank and kicking up dust.”

He talked about having to dig his co-pilot out of his fox hole but then tells of having to empty the dirt out of his own pockets and shaking the sand from his collar.

“What high adventure.”

According to my dad there were snipers hidden all along the road.

“ Now and then we would pass a burning house where the sniper had been stubborn and a fire grenade had to be used.”

The further along the road his group traveled the more rifle and machine gun fire they encountered.

“Several miles off we could hear the heavy drumming of the artillery. That would be preparation for the crossing of the Rhine, and the quicker they make it across the sooner we could ease off the pressure.”

Being in his third year of service Dad couldn’t help but shake his head at some of the mistakes made by those less experienced.

“Along about this time an excited young pilot, just over from stateside, dashed up with his arms full of maps and carrying a compass. What a sure way to get shot at! Every German sniper seeing an American with a bundle of maps thinks he is drawing a bead on a General at least. He started bawling that we were heading in the wrong direction to reach our objective and have we forgotten our mission etc. etc. All this with much arm waiving. He was the only one in the crowd lost and sure enough the Krauts opened up with a burp gun throwing bark and twigs over us from the trees that lined the road.”

“Everything happened at once then. The guy with the maps almost lost his gun, it was slipping from under his arm, he had already lost maps and compass so he grabbed at his gun and caught it by the trigger and the bullet plowed a deep ridge between my feet. And there was my co-pilot again making a neat foxhole, in the middle of the road this time, and the ground was pretty hard too.”

When the sniper had been dispatched my dad once again removed his co-pilot from his hole and proceeded to “liberate” a house to be used as their base.

“We found a German officer’s uniform with the cap still damp and warm in the sweatband. Evidently he thought his discharge papers had come.”

There were a couple of very fancy pictures of “Der Furhrur” and someone placed them in the backyard and cleaned a freshly killed chicken on them.

Dad, who always loved music found a German accordion, just like the one he had once owned and he walked up and down the road playing “There’s no Place Like Home.”

“The boys dug in along the road affectionately threw ripe vegetables at me as the tears rolled down their grimy faces.” Hidden in the back of a closet in the house Dad found a German flag and some Nazi party armbands. He returned to the states with the flag and one of the armbands. I now own them.

Just as our flyers today in Yugoslavia undertake most of their bombing missions in the shelter of darkness, the WWII pilots on both sides did the same.

“We had beautiful air cover all day but as night drew near it fell off and the German’s repeated the practice I’ve observed on all these missions, sending over a few fighter—bombers and light bombers at intervals all through the hours of darkness. They bomb, strafe, drop flares and play the nuisance generally.”

At this point in my rereading of this letter I am thankful that at this time we don’t have ground troops taking part in the battle.

“It wasn’t long after that I heard the steady clank of tanks trying to slip up on us. If you think the Germans can’t ease their armor around quietly at night you are mistaken. I’d have sworn they were four or five hundred yards away but the next morning their tracks were less than fifty yards from my foxhole.”

He also said there was nothing quite about the German infantry.

“They sounded like Sunday afternoon at the ballpark. I figured they were all drunk and I guess they were. After a quick estimate of the situation (that’s a phrase military big shots use and it looks all right here) I decided that silence was the better part of valor in this case at least and that my Tommy gun wouldn’t be very effective against tanks so they went on by. They had gone about three hundred yards past my position when, once again, all hell broke loose.”

Once again he dug his co-pilot out of his foxhole.

“If all the holes that lad dug on this mission were stacked up one on each the resulting hole would be deeper than Piney Gorge.” In the end there were 30 dead, 63 wounded and 84 prisoners out of an attacking force of what dad estimated as “probably a battalion strength.”

“ Not bad for around 70 Glider Pilots armed with one bazooka and mostly Tommy-guns.”

Around mid day Dad and his group saw a British Commando, which meant the Germans no longer surrounded them.

“It was a pretty fair show, Stars and Stripes said we took 2,500 prisoners in 24 hours. I wouldn’t know. I do know that many of us could have been braver but deader but why risk it? We had completed our mission and were still in walking shape. I guess that is what the army wants rather than a lot of shot-up heroes.”

I’ve heard about the pilot that was shot down on his mission over Yugoslavia. Following his rescue he is being called a hero. I am willing to bet that he and his family are just glad that he made it out alive.

This also ran as a column in the Tazewell County Free Press.

The day this was printed three American soldiers, members of the NATO peacekeeping force, were captured and held as prisoners of war. They have returned and have been reunited with their loved ones.

It Is The Soldier

It is the soldier, not the reporter,
who has given us Freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet,
who gave us Freedom of speech.

It is the soldier, not the campus organizer,
who has given us the Freedom to demonstrate.

It is the soldier, not the lawyer,
who has given us the Right to a fair trial.

It is the soldier who salutes the flag,
who served under the flag,
and whose coffin is draped by the flag,
who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Author unknown

To remain strong our nation must know where all of her brave warriors are!

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