Why this Aug. 6 is different for us
Aug. 6 normally passes without much notice in our household.
Sure, it’s a few days before our wedding anniversary, a few weeks after Bonnie’s birthday, a few weeks before mine.
Usually, tomorrow is just another day somewhere in between more noteworthy dates.
Not this year. The anniversary of the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, the beginning of the end of World War II, is a bit different this time around.
That’s because a bit of family history flew into our lives a couple of weeks ago. The only B-29 bomber still flying landed in Grand Junction, allowing us to visit the wartime “office” of my late father-in-law, Jess Chambers Jr., who flew combat missions in the big planes from a base on Saipan.
When Jess died 30 years ago, my mother-in-law, Gene Chambers, packed his WWII uniform and other memorabilia in an old green U.S. Army “trunk locker, plywood.” Sometime before she died, she handed it over to my son, Tony.
We’ve moved that chest around a lot, but hadn’t opened it in years before looking inside prior to touring “FiFi” and the flights my sister-in-law, Cathie Zarlingo, arranged for herself and Tony.
Quite a tale emerged…one a bit familiar to Cathie, Bonnie and me as Baby Boom progeny of “The Greatest Generation.” But much was new, or at least a reminder of forgotten stories and events, to the three of us and even to Tony, who never knew his grandfather but who, early on, immersed himself in military history.
WWII was a pivotal time in the life of a former Civilian Conservation Corps guy from rural Nebraska who entered the Army as a photographer and ended up piloting the biggest plane in the air at the time. Proud of his service, he was an active member of the 73rd Bomb Wing Association, frequently attending reunions, including one back on Saipan.
We heard, over the years, mostly the funny stories … the ones about breaking regulations and inverting his trainer, only to have to request instructions from the tower to get it right side up. Being reprimanded after encountering a large flying insect during another training flight and radioing in that there was “a buzzard” in the cockpit. Or about the old Harley-Davidson he and a fellow airman bought and rode around Saipan.
Occasionally he’d tell of more harrowing times … nursing a shot-up plane over thousands of miles of open ocean, landing with engines out or sputtering while burning the last few drops of fuel, even flying with part of the tail blown off (by one of his own gunners). Or of having to take over for a command pilot who froze at the controls on an early mission. Years later, that same pilot would made an apologetic visit to Grand Junction.
We found an Air Medal and a Distinguished Flying Cross along with the citation recapping a heroic effort bringing a crippled Superfortress and shot-up crew back from a mission. One of the books in that chest, a history of the 20th Air Force in WWII, had yellow highlighter marking dates and missions mentioned — ones where Jess’ combat record places him over Tokyo, Nagasaki, Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya and a dozen other Japanese cities.
There were 35 of those missions, each involving 14 or 15 hours in the air, between January and July of 1945. First Lt. Chambers was home on required leave in August, 1945, when Gene looked up from a newspaper and asked innocently, “What’s an automatic bomb?”
“Let me see that,” Jess said, grabbing the paper, then explaining it was the atomic bomb he and others had been sworn to secrecy about.
He never flew a plane again, but became a well-known local businessman responsible for, among other things, mechanical contracting on landmarks such as Grand Junction High School and the Salt Lake City airport.
Decades later, in an anesthetic haze after surgery, Jess kept looking down at the floor of St. Mary’s Hospital and muttering, “Those poor bastards.” His family always assumed he was remembering all those wartime missions that resulted in so much death and destruction.
Yes, Aug. 6 will be a little bit different this year.