Quiet Desperation

Looking down at someone to be looked up to

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Looking down from the second level inside the Aurora Mall 35 years ago, I saw an older man, mid-60s, walking alone and unnoticed.

He wasn’t hurrying but showed no signs of impairment. He was wearing a pale yellow button-up shirt and slacks, not jeans.

The B-17 was a four-engine, heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corps.

During World War II, the “Flying Fortress” was used primarily in the daylight bombing campaign that focused on German industrial and military targets.

Routing the planes to and from the targets was extremely dangerous. They were large and relatively slow targets for German planes and ground-based, anti-aircraft fire, including flak.

As he walked, the man looked all around and eventually up. He spotted me, waved, and I waved back.

The Air Force Association stated, “More than 50,000 Airmen lost their lives in the four years of WWII and the majority of those losses were on bomber missions over Nazi Germany in B-17s and B-24s. The average age of the crew of a B-17 was less than 25, with four officers and six enlisted Airmen manning the aircraft. Their chance of survival was less than 50 percent.”

At some point, the military noticed that morale was suffering because of the loss of men and aircraft, so they came up with a goal for flyers to aim for: complete 25 missions and you go home.

William Wyler, who directed two of my favorite films (“The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1946 and “Roman Holiday” in 1953) volunteered to serve as a major in the United States Army Air Corps.

Wyler went to England and directed two documentaries, one after noticing the painting of a shapely woman on the nose of a B-17 parked on the tarmac.

To the left of the painting were the words “Memphis Belle.”

Wyler directed “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” in 1944.

In 1990, a war film was released titled “Memphis Belle” that fictionalized the 25th mission of the plane Wyler had chosen for his documentary.

For some World War II B-17 flyers, the 25 mission goal came too late. Those who survived flew as many as 30.

The man below stopped walking and when I signaled I’d be down he took a seat on a nearby bench.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” stars Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and a non-professional actor named Harold Russell, a World War II veteran who lost both hands while teaching demolition work as an instructor at a base in North Carolina.

The aerial shots of Boone City, the city where the servicemen return, were filmed over Cincinnati.

One of the film’s most compelling scenes takes place in an “aircraft boneyard” when Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) walks among hundreds of retired B-17 carcasses. It was filmed at the Ontario Army Airfield in Ontario, California.

Years before I encountered the man at the mall, I discovered he had been one of the flyers who completed thirty missions and was the captain and pilot of a B-17.

I often think about that day when I saw him walking by himself, unnoticed.

When we met at the bench, he stood, and I gave my father a big hug.

Craig Marshall Smith is an artist, educator and Highlands Ranch resident. He can be reached at craigmarshallsmith@comcast.net.

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