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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Veterans Day

By Art Shay in News on Nov 11, 2013 9:20PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week the oldest veteran we know rediscovers sonnets he wrote his wife during World War II.)

I write on Veterans Day when I realize what a privilege it is to merely draw breath. And not to have succumbed to enemy fire like some 65 million other soldiers in our stupid or vengeful wars. And not yet to add my remains to the military or civilian cemeteries of the world, to eventually fertilize the very hallowed ground that surrounds the known and honored dead. To be one of the silent minority making up the terribly beautiful rows of crosses, Stars of David and holy Islamic scimitars vouchsafing a death for some higher cause than stopping a bullet from a kid with better aim than you. And then there is ashes and also the Unknown vets.

I like wearing my Air Force Veteran baseball cap. Any number of strangers uptown and downtown nod, smile and say, "Thank you for your service… My father, (brother,and in one burst of tears, aunt) died in the war."

They mean and can tell from my age—my war, WWII. I see the broken human detritus of more recent wars up at the VA hospital in North Chicago when I renew my increasingly expensive pills. Each visit I make an effort to return or stop the orders for some of the new pills that don't help or, indeed, hurt. The officious pill clerks always say, "You'll have to take that up with your doctor." But I did take it up with her. Then I remember it took five years for me to get VA hearing aids; I was on the line just after hearing-impaired Iraqis. It took my letter of complaint in the Chicago Tribune on a long ago Veterans Day to get the German supplier, Siemens, to restock the VA. As a former bomber of several Siemens cities, I threatened to petition the company to at least have as much clout as our former Iraqi enemies. I sent a copy to the then-new Obama administration but they never answered. I must have sounded like another pre-Obamacare crank.

Just when something like that happens to shake your faith in your service-something unforeseen occurs. An intern my assistant Erica hired to annotate 500 of my wartime love letters to Florence, transcribed (from my bouncy handwriting) one I wrote a day earlier, Sept. 27, 1944, Yom Kippur, just after the 29th of my first series of 30 missions.

Here it is. I was 22.

Sept 28 [1944]

Dear hon - don't know what I wrote yesterday, probably was hysterical, I'm in the hospital now (we all are) and we are being treated for "shock." I'm ok, I have a lump on my head where my camera hit me after it stopped a 20mm cannon shell. They hit us after we left the target - about 200 I guess, FW 190's & M 109's .I was riding the nose turret for a change doing pilotage navigation, & Heisel was on desk navigation - we were leading the low left squadron.

Phillips got one from the tail, when they came in first, the first pass they made about 10 or 12 of our boys went down, exploding and burning. Chutes, men, props, rudders—everything was falling in the sky. It was awful. A major McCoy's ship went first, right behind us. 20 mm's were exploding all over, by the hundreds. The FW's came then from behind and I got long bursts in at about 11 different ones—one of them came up then to the right and I just held the triggers down & followed him across the sky at 50 yds. away. I got him across the crosses on his wings & got the engine. Black smoke came out & orange fire. Then he bailed out. I couldn't get a good [camera] shot at him in his chute. He had black flying suit & black boots on. They gave me credit for 2 probables & this one confirmed FW190. That was number 29 & we've had it. Darling Mercy / our roommate's crew—with Milt Fandler's crew & us are all that's left of the 703 squadron. Four of us in all got back to base out of about 39-49 who took off. It was a Yom Kippur. x Arty


I don't remember Milt's crew, but I remember the daze that fell over our commander, Col. Jimmy Stewart, the actor, and the squadron commander. Best I can make out of the last word in my scrawled handwriting is "Dreamery." Shock is what it was. It still is. Thirty-five of us actually went out in our Liberators and only four of us made it back to base. The worst one-day loss the Air Force ever suffered. We lost 119 men. Overall, the 8th Air Force attrition rate was 71 percent. Our chances of coming back from any mission were less than even.

Published with permission

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