Looking in some old boxes in my closet, I was taking my time looking for something I had no idea what.
This happens often as I search for subject matter and topics, and I look for some nugget of history and a story to tell, and whatever chance deals me in some old box.
After some items caught my attention, I was about to move on when a small envelope caught my eye, and I remembered it from a chance encounter many years ago when I was heavily involved with the P-38 National Association.
It was from the many reunions I attended with World War II pilots who flew the P-38 in every theater and training facility in the world.
At one of these events, I made friends with a pilot named Virgil from the 1st Fighter Group who flew combat in North Africa against the Germans, who were making a play for the rich oil fields of the region, as well as protecting the Mediterranean from Axis advancements in the region. After several hours of hangar flying and enjoying some adult drinks, we became good friends, and I listened intently to his stories of flying combat in the most inhospitable desert in the world.
Many times, you see movies and read books that show the pilots returning to bases in other European locations and even though very primitive, they had many creature comforts to distract pilots from the stresses of those early combat years of World War II.
When the 1st FG got the call to move out of England and set up operations in North Africa there could not have been too many happy faces, as heat, sand, and scorpions became just a part of everyday life along with living in tents and the stress of fighting Germans in brutal conditions. It was bad enough risking life and limb every day, but then add in heat, weather, and the constant threat of blinding sandstorms. It’s amazing more men did not fold and quit.
One can only imagine those nights in the desert sleeping, if you could, in those tents and facing day after day of relentless duties of Airmen in a 1940s sandbox.
Spitting camels, sand spiders, and locals you didn’t know were friendly, just added to the overall feeling of unease. In every aspect of your days and nights, you pressed on only to end up grieving the deaths of your fellow combat pilots.
Back when I was taken into the fold of the World War II pilots, I was blessed to become a trusted ally of their memories and many times our relation grew to many phone calls and letters, and the sharing of obscure stories that had been locked away in the gray matter of the aging veteran. As time moved on and the Greatest Generation became just a memory, I found myself looking into my own gray matter and looking for the things that would bring a value to current generations.
As I sat looking at that old box and envelope, the memory had my hands shaking as I opened it up to find the treasure of a World War II P-38 pilot that had sent me a memento of his time in North Africa that survived a long journey from the battlefields.
At the time, Virgil was getting ready for a Fighter Group move north and he wanted to visit the location of one of the German bases whose planes his unit was always mixing it up with in the air. They made an unscheduled stop at the old German field and walked around the shot-up and abandoned aircraft that at one time was chasing him across the desert sky. One particular German ME -109 Messerschmitt caught his attention as it pretty much looked like the foe he had tangled with on a few of his sorties. Walking over to the plane, he circled it a couple times, made his peace with it, then turned to leave. But something made him turn back, and he walked to the rudder of the plane, took out his knife and cut some fabric from the plane as a keepsake.
Thus, the journey started for one man’s memento that he carried all the way to his end-of-duty assignment flying combat, and a long trip home over the Atlantic in a troopship only to find a spot in his home albums of collectibles that helped share the story of his time flying combat in one of the most godawful places on earth in World War II.
Pressed between pages hiding in the dark, the memento was visited when the need and the heart required it, and little did I know that at some point in their existence that wrinkled old hands would put them in that envelope with my address on it, and end up becoming one man’s experience passed off to another in the hopes of his journey continuing on long after his death.
Virgil in some manner, felt that this memento belonged with me more than anybody else as what was left of his service and experiences and family got all his other treasures from his war years. But somehow a part of that old German war plane he believed he had chased and been chased by, in the skies over the sand needed somebody who could understand. A person who valued that moment when the Messerschmitt gave up its skin to become a young man’s memory; an item he felt would define his life.
Here we are in August of 2023, and 80-years later Virgil’s story still carries on as a tribute to all the Virgils of World War II, but also to those over the years who have embraced the stories and passions of veterans and did their best to do right by their service, making sure their stories carry on for future generations.
Funny you can read a blockbuster novel or see a big production Hollywood movie, but in reality, many times sitting down with a few old artifacts from a time long ago, does more to reach the soul. This memento makes me feel blessed that the soldier who lived this story felt his moment in time needed me to be its publicist and champion.
I’m truly blessed.
Until next time, Bob out …