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Guardian of history: retiree edited recollections of fellow WWII vets.

A chance encounter between my son Scott and a car's license plate was the opening curtain on two decades of service to my fellow World War II veterans. A few years after I retired from the Foreign Service, Scott said he'd encountered someone whose car had a 303rd Bomb Group Association (BGA) ornamental license plate. That was my outfit, which fought in the air war against Nazi Germany.

Since Scott had the man's telephone number, I called him--and thus was launched my career in retirement.

After learning about the 303rd BGA, I joined the group in 1991--three years after retiring from USIA at age 65--to offer skills learned in public affairs management. I served the group of about 2,000 air combat and ground support veterans and their families as vice president for reunions, managing five gatherings from 1995 onward in Colorado Springs, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Savannah and San Antonio.

In 2007, I organized our final reunion in Washington. The group, confronted by the passing of so many members, had voted to dissolve in 2008. Over the years, attendance at annual reunions had declined steadily from almost a thousand to barely more than a hundred.

I was also editor of Hell's Angels Newsletter for nine years, the 303rd BGA's 20-page quarterly publication, which kept members informed about association activities and had bylined articles by veterans on their wartime service illustrated with the authors' vintage photos.

In 2002, I edited and the 303rd BGA published a two-volume hardbound collection of 86 issues of the newsletter, from the first mimeographed edition of 1976 to the 20-page, full-color editions of 2001. A third volume in 2008 encompassed the 24 issues from 2002 through 2007. The three volumes cover members' recollections of aerial combat missions, ground support achievements, military awards, B-17 Flying Fortresses, escapes and evasions, prisoner of war experiences, memorials and more. They are in 1,000-plus homes and the collections of more than 100 university, military, museum and community libraries.

In a preface to the books, General T. Michael Moseley, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, wrote, "What an amazing group of men with incredible stories ... As I thumb through the pages and read your stories, I am reminded that you and your brother airmen are the proud heritage that America's Air Force is founded upon. We owe you a debt that we cannot repay."

One librarian called the volumes a "comprehensive and well-written record of the exploits and sacrifices of those who served in the 303rd Bomb Group," and another said they had "become more important as memories of World War II diminish with time."

My memory of my time in the 303rd is little diminished. In 1942, I enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corps, trained as an aerial gunner at a base near Las Vegas, then moved on to Salt Lake City for training as a radio operator. I flew as a radioman aboard a B-17 "Flying Fortress," a 10-man bomber. We staged mock missions out of Blyth, Calif., and Pyote, Texas, and then flew the aircraft to an English base about 60 miles north of London.

We flew bombing missions in 1943 and 1944 against targets in Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe, facing down the Luftwaffe and anti-aircraft artillery barrages. I was flying as radio operator/gunner with my crew on July 30, 1943, when our battle-damaged B-17 crashed in the North Sea on returning from a mission to Kassel, Germany. A month later, we crash-landed at a Royal Air Force base after a mission to Watten, France. We later counted more than 200 holes in the bomber from flak and enemy fighters. A month after that, we were forced to bail out when our B-17 Lady Luck caught fire on a mission to Nantes, France.

My most vivid memories, though, are of B-17s under attack, seen from my radio room at the height of battle, exploding in flames without a hope of survival for the 10 men on the crew, many of them friends. And then, the empty bunks that night in our Nissen hut.

My bombing missions came to an end when I was wounded by flak over Saarbrucken, Germany, in May 1944. I was not alone: Data show a high casualty rate for 8th Air Force bomber crews during World War II. Of our original crew of 10, only two of us had completed a full tour of missions by the war's end. I left England with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and Purple Heart, saying emotional goodbyes to friends who were among the most courageous men I'd ever known.

After the war, I used the GI Bill to earn a journalism degree, and worked at a newspaper and TV station in Chicago. I joined USIA in 1966, and did seven overseas tours, earning a Career Achievement Award in 1988.

Skills gained in Foreign Service enabled me to help my fellow World War II veterans and their families remain united for as long as possible and record their wartime memories for posterity. Keeping those memories alive was a gratifying conclusion to a career in retirement.

By Eddie Deerfield, retired U.S. Information Agency public affairs officer
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Title Annotation:Active Years
Author:Deerfield, Eddie
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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