High Desert Hangar Stories Voices from the air: Remembering the Greatest Generation on Memorial Day

Over time, we have watched and read many “service to country” stories about the famous B-17 Flying Fortress of World War II. Over the years I have been blessed to rub elbows with many men who at a very young age went off to war and brought back some pretty amazing stories of survival that broke up long hours of boredom in the air and on the ground.

We were blessed to have many of those men who came to work in the Antelope Valley aerospace industries, and truth be known we could have probably fielded a complete bomb group with all the guys we had around here.

B.J. Keirsted (Courtesy photograph)

Many times, they would show up at Memorial Day programs and veterans’ events. But over time, the numbers began to dwindle and at this year’s Memorial Day remembrance events you will be hard pressed to find one single World War II survivor from the air war over Europe or anywhere else in the world.

Now that dog tags and faded battle ribbons, along with old, yellowed photos in a cigar box on the mantel struggle to find their place in the modern world, it remains for the next generation to help the meaning of that titanic struggle live on, or to let it fade away.

Those of us born later are lucky we did not end up in that mid-20th century war that left so many scars on the hearts and souls of Americans who could never come to grips with their experiences in those 2,191 days of World War II.

The reality of remembering Americans from that era has now become spiritual, as we will very rarely see the faces of that generation at gatherings, with their old worn hats announcing that they were part of something bigger than themselves. The words of speakers and dignitaries will do little to fill the shoes that are no longer here, but of course it’s right and proper that we continue to stand in their empty footprints showing solidarity with their lives, and continue to honor them as best we can.

The faces that no longer grace these events were a special breed of Americans, and the air crews that flew those thousands of missions showed how diverse the war effort was. It didn’t matter whether it was in the trenches, on a ship or in the air, Americans were figuring out how to get along while facing death.

To best understand this, I went looking for just a random crew for a B-17 to show what the word “team” in teamwork really represented when the man your life depended on had very little in common with you or the others on his crew.

The B-17, called the Worry Wart of the 388th Bomb Group, had a crew representative of every other bomber and crew in World War II.

The pilot, B.J. Keirstead, came from a tough coal-mining town in Uniontown, Penn. Before the war, he and his sister traveled as a ballroom dance team under the name Jan and Janice.

The co-pilot, Cliff Conklin, was a sports jock from New Platz, N.Y. The navigator was Phil Brejensky, and along with radio operator Larry Goldstein, made up the two Jewish members of the crew. The bombardier was Kent Keith, a sheep rancher from near Ekalaka, Mont. The waist gunners were Jack Kings, a poor kid raised in the hills of West Virginia, and E.V. “Pete” Lewelling from Zolfo Springs, Fla.

The last two crew members were tail gunner Robert Miller from Chicago, and the top-turret gunner and flight engineer was a farm boy and an immigrant’s son named Edward Kozacek from Coxsackie, N.Y.

Phillip Brejansky (Courtesy photograph)

Looking at the makeup of just this one crew we can understand that they had a job to do, they were Americans, there was a war on, and they fought it, it was as simple as that, as if anything were ever that simple.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple, but speaking to that generation over the years, who came of age during World War II, the war was a rite of passage, a blood trial, and a calling to something greater than oneself.

This is the story of that generation and it’s reflected in the makeup of this one crew. They were brought together like so many others during that war, then flung apart afterwards, and it remained a central and defining part of their lives.

These men, like all the others in World War II, were born in the shadow of World War I, raised in the Roaring Twenties and then plunged into the Great Depression as adolescents. Then, when many were fresh out of high school, their world was darkened by the greatest war in history.

That’s when it became time for that generation to grow up, and as a Hollywood film put it after the war was over, became the best years of their lives.

The crew of the Worry Wart are now all gone, as are the thousands who made up the other crews that fought and died over Europe. The Worry Wart was one of the lucky ones; they completed their 25 missions, but not without the knowledge that their last mission would be one of the first strikes on Berlin and a life-and-death battle with the enemy. The Germans almost drove the plane into the English Channel on its return.

One thing a bit of research showed was the reality of the 70 million men and women who took up arms against each other, the many books and movies that tell the stories of that generation of soldiers around the world, always comes down to the final moments of a life like that of the Worry Warts pilot Captain Keirsted. He lived out the rest of his life sitting at a dining room table shuffling through old photos and flight reports in a nine-bedroom house where his mother once lived.

Clifford “Ace” Conklin (Courtesy photograph)

Like most men of that generation B.J. Keirsted didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but he revealed in a quiet and understated way. When asked about what he missed the most, it was always his wife Bobby, whom he lost in 1976; and the men he flew with, who are no longer at the other end of the phone when he wants to talk about the best years of his life.

On this Memorial Day, we remember all those who were lost and served this great country of ours that they gave so much for. In the quiet moments it’s nice to say a little prayer for all those we do not see at events. They sit alone around a small table with old photos and memories, straining to hear the voices of those that now speak only in silence.

God bless those invisible veterans, and may God hear our prayers and comfort them on this upcoming day when we remember all who that served, present and past.

Until next time Bob out!

Edwards Kozacek (Courtesy photograph)
Robert Miller (Courtesy photograph)
Kent J. Keith (Courtesy photograph)
Jack C. Kings (Courtesy photograph)
Larry Goldstein (Courtesy photograph)
E.V. Pete Lewelling (Courtesy photograph)

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