Following Father in Flight
In 1943, Hughesville resident Bruce D. Starr, Jr. was a 19 year old who had secured a job working in the war-defense industry at the Glenn L. Martin factory near Baltimore, Maryland. There were other men from the local area who worked there, so Bruce traveled with them and returned for occasional weekends. His job included work on the Sperry ball turret which was an important component in the American Army Air Corps’ bomber aircraft. While he worked to help create the means for the U. S. forces to fight effectively against the Axis powers, Bruce became more and more convinced that entering the war as a member of the fighting forces was inevitable for him, and that when the time came, he wanted to be in the Air Corps, and wanted to man one of the same ball turrets that he was helping to build. He enlisted in August of 1943, and from October 23, 1944 to April 16, 1945 he served as a gunner on a B-24 crew, flying 45 missions over Europe.
Throughout her childhood and until Bruce’s death in 1981, his daughter Nancy heard Bruce’s stories and reminiscences of his time in “the War”. It wasn’t until later that she realized he had only told her the funny stories, those about which he could chuckle and shake his head at the naivete’ of his crew-mates and himself. Flying in a B-24, inferred from his tales, was cold, yes, but exciting and filled with visions of towering cumulus clouds, blue skies, and the adrenaline rush when escorting fighter planes joined the bomber group. It wasn’t until later that she heard, second-hand, about the anguish of waiting on the ground for the other planes to return, or the terror of seeing flak-bursts directly in front of the plane, or the days of being hidden from the Nazis by the Yugoslavian “underground” before being literally lifted onto a ship to return to the airbase near Naples, Italy.
Over the last decade or so, the last remaining flyable B-24, named “Witchcraft”, has visited the Williamsport/Lycoming County Airport as part of its cross-country tour. Nancy has made it a point to visit each time, and has made sure her children have also seen the type of craft Bruce flew in. They have all felt a much stronger connection to the grand-father they never met by seeing this representative of a major event in his life.
Thanks to her husband Barry, on Wednesday, October 10, 2012, just days before their 20th wedding anniversary, Nancy boarded the B-24 at the York Airport for a low altitude, 30 minute flight over southern Pennsylvania. The pilots seemed to be operating a time machine, as Nancy was using a 21st century digital camera to record a flight in a World War II aircraft, flying over the Gettysburg battlefield!
Noise! Rumbling! Wind! It was apparent that the B-24 was a bomb-delivery system, and that humans were sort of an after-thought. It’s as though the engineers (who had to get these machines into production faster than anyone thought possible) could be heard saying , “Hmm. . . put in a little seat here for the gunner a slab of plywood will do. Let’s make a walkway through the bomb-bay. They’re all skinny young men, so a foot-wide will do. And to get to the nose-gunner’s position or the bombardier’s sight, they can crawl around the pressure sensitive doors over the nose-wheel. It’ll give them an easy escape hatch, too! Oh, just be sure not to step on it in flight or you’ll have a long step to the ground.”
In a burst of sentimentality, Nancy had taken along her dad’s leather flight helmet. While it wouldn’t have provided much protection from flak or shrapnel, let alone more powerful projectiles, it did give a sense of calm when she put it on her head for a brief time. “The whole ride was a continual flow of emotion, thinking about the father I knew, and realizing that he was only 19 years old when he was one of thousands who were defending our nation, flying in an aircraft like this! Although his combat time was only seven months, it was such an intense experience that it helped to define him for the rest of his life. His passion for reading and learning, studying history, and helping others learn and enjoy life, all had roots in that short, horrible, exhausting time of his life.”
Nancy and her brother grew up with a veteran who rarely spoke about his service, and yet let his children know that he was proud that he had served his country. His son, John Starr, followed his lead, serving as a sergeant with the Pennsylvania National Guard in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the same rank his father had held while flying over Nazi Germany.