To Be A Fraction Of This Man
June 6th 2012, Sixty eight years after Operation Overlord takes place on the beaches of Normandy, the day the United States lead the worlds greatest invasion. A defining moment for the Greatest Generation.
What did I do that day? I escorted a man named Frank Royal to an interview with the local news media. This interview was being held at a local operation that rebuilds and restores World War 2 fighters and bombers back to original flying condition. The local news wanted to interview my Grandfather about his memories of combat in World War 2 on the anniversary of D-Day.
The stories he spoke of during this interview were not foreign to me, I have heard many of them and have been lucky enough to spend my entire life in the same city as my Grandfather, so needless to say I have spent good amount of time over the years listening to recollections of his career. Today was unique though, I was fascinated watching my Grandfather sit next to a cockpit of a recovered P38 Lighting (one that he likely flew) and answer questions with such poise and confidence that even the news reporter was impressed by the quality of his memory and detail.
Col. Frank Royal, USAF, 39th Fighter Squadron
Pacific Theater of World War 2.
That title alone tells a story, we are talking about the Greatest Generation here and I am lucky enough to not only be learning lessons from this generation, but doing it first hand. My Grandfather is 97 years old, he still lives on his own and can speak about details from 70 years ago better than I can recall what I did last week. He has lived through World War 1, The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, World War 2, Korean War, and every other major conflict and piece of American History up to 9-11 and beyond. That is a lifetime of wisdom and experience obtained through some of the most challenging times in this countries history. His generation provided the grunt work that built this nation.
To tell his story I would have to write an entire book, that is not the intentions of this article however. I wanted to express some of the life lessons I have learned from this generation and how it should apply to the younger generation of firefighters coming onto this job today. Here is a very brief rundown of his story and some of the other members of the Greatest Generation he flew with.
Before America began to fight in World War 2, Frank Royal was pre-med, setting himself up to be a Doctor and begin his career. He walked away from this dream to pursue another. In his words, he knew America was going to end up in this war and he wanted to set himself up in the Army Air Corp before they actually engaged. This would allow him time to become a fighter pilot and obviously be involved in the fight when the time came. He joined the Army Air Corps, and began his road of becoming a pilot. Actions like this define dedication to duty, and your country. To give up a career that you know will be stable and financially reward you for rest of your life, to ensure you will make it into the Army Air Corp in time to be part of the initial fight is a shining example of bravery without even seeing combat yet. This is selfless dedication to others, which is something that any firefighter should know something about.
My grandfather was assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron, a group of fighter pilots that were involved very early in the war. He was stationed at Selfridge Field Michigan with his group of fighter pilots. They were flying the P39 Airacobras and were one of the few combat ready fighter squadrons in the nation.
Here is the 39th line up on the flight line in Selfridge Michigan, My grandfather is the third man in from the left. This is where they were stationed when they got the word that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. America had now entered the war and they were activated to fly to Bellingham Washington to defend and patrol Americas coastline from the Japanese, but were quickly sent to the Pacific to defend Austrailia, and were among the earliest fighter squadrons sent into combat. This is where it all happened, victories, losses, heroes and flying aces.
That is a small part of the squadrons history, but what really interests me is the men who made this history. These men were sent into combat out gunned, out numbered and very under equipped with the capabilities of their planes. The P-39s were slower, could not fly above the Japanese and could not outmaneuver them. However its what they had, and they had a job to do. When my grandfather was asked about the lacking planes compared to the more advanced planes that would be delivered to them shortly and how this would effect them fighting the more advanced Japanese fighters he responded with.
“We were completely convinced that we were the best fighter pilots in all of the world, just show us the go button and we will take care of the rest”
They wanted to do their job, and that was it. They had a mission and it didn’t matter what kind of equipment they had or if the enemy was better equipped, they had a job to do and they thoroughly believed that they were the toughest group of fighters that would be in the air. A very simple but heroic thought process. Its a thought process with no baggage attached, it is simple determination without worrying about the things that do not matter, they had there priorities straight and believed in a common mission.
My grandfather flew with some of the greatest fighter pilots of World War 2, men whose names will live on long after you and I because of what they did for this country. Take a minute someday and look up guys like Richard Bong, “Aces of Aces” he had 40 confirmed kills in air to air dog fights. His first assignment was with my Grandfather as his commanding officer. How about a guy like Charlie (Sully) Sullivan, after a dogfight caused him to crash land his plane, he survived in the jungle, was taken prisoner by locals, won a shootout with the hostile natives and walked for 30 days surviving only off of the contents of his pockets. When rescued by the Aussies, the plane taking him back crash landed, which he also survived. He finally made it home and then went on to finish a 30 year career in the military. Tom Lynch was a well known ace with 20 confirmed kills and a good friend of my Grandfathers. This man was a decorated pilot who was known as one of the best fighter pilots and leaders in the Pacific, he was killed in action by anti aircraft fire during a mission. These men hold a proud honor that speaks to their efficiency in the air. They were the first squadron of fighter pilots in WWII to achieve 100 enemy kills and had over 20 Aces just in the 39th. These are men of great character.
Good men have died so others may live. This generation of men knew the meaning of hard work, selfless dedication, and a very real recognition and understanding that their life may be cut very short in the name of a bigger cause. They did this to defend our country and preserve our right to continue on living in a fashion of our own choosing. They didn’t go into battle with the hope of dying, in fact most probably feared it, however because of men like this, willing to push forward while over 400,000 of their fellow countrymen were killed, they created the most feared fighting force in the world and thrust America into a respected powerhouse.
When I think of the common problems faced in the American Fire Service and wonder how I can do my part to try and improve my small slice of the job, it automatically causes my mind to refer back to this generation. I take lessons that they learned along with the examples they set and apply them to my outlook on the job. Here is a few of the common arguments and problems that I feel the Greatest Generation has provided examples for as long as we are just willing to listen.
We discuss LODD frequently, which we should, I completely support the mission of killing less firefighters every year from preventable situations and make that my goal for every person that I ever have the pleasure to work with, that being said, we still must stress the centuries old mission of the fire service. We are a part of a very small group of people who have promised to protect our common man. We must train, prepare, use discipline and think, but do whatever it takes to protect our people and get the job done. This is not a position we should except if we are not willing to always make human life our priority and realize that we could be faced with great danger during this mission. It was done for you and I, selflessly, and we must carry on one of the greatest traditions known, service to others, for others, above ourselves. These men defined the meaning of that tradition.
Hard work and determination was what these men knew, it is how they lived their lives and what set the USA up for success. Many years before us the determination to work extremely hard is what built the foundations of this country. If we begin to settle for the easy way out we will surely see the results. I feel one of the only ways to truly honor what my Grandfather and these men did for us, is to show it in my work ethic. To continue on a legacy of willingly choosing the hard route when it is the right thing to do. You must have a desire for hard work, dirty work, and uncomfortable work. This is easy to find if you are willing and it is much easier to go to sleep at night knowing that you strive for an honest days work where you earn every penny of your check. Entitlement is an enemy that is growing, if we as a fire service stop respecting seniority, tradition, mentorship and strong work ethics, we begin to walk a line that could be difficult to cross back over. Don’t feel entitled to your pay check, rank, position or your personal comforts, instead earn them. Because if you have not earned them, how can you fight for them?
Respect your fellow firefighters in the same way these men respected their fellow fighter pilots. Respect does not mean just being nice to each other, that is the easy form of respect. I don’t think you can just be a “nice guy” to show respect, because if you truly respect me than I will know I can count on you, that you will be reliable to perform your duties when I need you most. The nice guy on the ground does the other pilots no good in the air when he cannot be relied upon to perform his duties at high level. There was no room for that type of disrespect because the consequence was death. We should view respect in a similar fashion, make it mean something. Don’t always agree, but always respect your fellow firefighters views, their background, their families, their experience and their religion but just as importantly show them the respect of reliability, be someone that they can completely count on without hesitation.
These are a few of the many things that I strive to model myself after, I believe strongly in what my Grandfathers generation has done for us, I attempt to honor them through solid work ethic, and can only hope to one day show the type of wisdom, poise, respect and leadership the men like my Grandfather have earned the hard way.