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About the Author
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Early Life to Enlistment
I was born in a red brick bungalow on Oakland Avenue, a main thoroughfare on the outskirts of Helena, Arkansas, on March 3, 1925. The house sat high above a terraced front lawn that dropped sharply to the street. My father, the most fastidious man I ever knew, somehow enjoyed raising chickens as a hobby. They clucked away in a small backyard cut short by a towering orange cliff behind our house that was overgrown with dark green Kudzu vines.
Helena, a small town on the west side of the Mississippi River and about sixty miles south of Memphis, was the quintessential southern town. During the decades following the Civil War, Helena, surrounded by thriving cotton plantations and lumber mills, prospered and expanded upon its traditions of southern hospitality, lavish entertainment, and easy living. Words and phrases of those living in the heart of the fertile Mississippi Delta were spoken with the same deep southern drawl of those in neighboring Mississippi and Alabama.
My parents were married in June of 1917 during World War I. My father, James Miles Faulkner, was twenty-three and on leave from the Medical Corps. My mother, Louise Pettit, was seventeen. She was a beauty then and remained so all her life. With full make-up and coiffed hair, even at the age of 93, she still looked good. After arriving at Dallas's Baylor hospital in February 1993, and sensing she might be in trouble, she turned to my wife and said, "Ann, call my bridge partners and tell them I may not be there tomorrow." She died two hours later.
My earliest memory is at the age of four throwing rocks down to the street at passing automobiles. I swear I can still recall that sickening sound of the shattered glass windshield as I watched the car skid to a tire-screeching halt. The driver looked up, saw me, and jumped out, furious. I ran and hid behind some bushes and watched him storm up the long, steep row of concrete steps. He banged on the front door and demanded retribution from my father. My father was a stern disciplinarian, and I expected the worst, but was relieved to receive nothing but a stern lecture.
My father and my godfather, Warren Brown, were partners in the Brown- Faulkner Ford Motor Company dealership in Helena, where they sold more tractors than cars. Helena was a small town and everyone knew everyone else. To help boost sales, my godfather persuaded my mother to drive around town each year, smiling and waving at everyone to call attention to the newly arrived Ford models.
My mother, from Hot Springs, and my father would join large parties on the Mississippi paddleboats, dancing to the music of the all-black band led by W. C. Handy. The well-known Handy, still acknowledged today as the Father of the Blues, would lead his band as the boat pulled away from the Helena docks at dusk, roamed up and down the Mississippi River, and, after a night of dancing and revelry, returned to dock at dawn. Handy wrote many songs still popular today, including "The St. Louis Blues," and he frequently joined his good friend, Louis Armstrong, in New Orleans.
The word "babysitter" would have been foreign to my parents. Until the roof fell in financially in 1929, I had a nurse, Rebecca Leech. She was black, and my family called her "Beeka." My parents hired her when I was born, and she was then 17. According to my mother, Beeka and I would sit on the front steps every day, side by side, looking down at the cars passing by on Oakland Avenue, while wobbling our knees and sucking our thumbs.
During the prosperity of the late twenties, we moved further out to a new, larger house in Waverly Woods, a new suburban section of about fifty homes on land cut out of a dense forest. The house sat on a promontory with two other houses. Inside a circular drive, they looked out from different angles over the curved street to the surrounding heavily wooded areas.
I loved Waverly Woods. My older brother, Jimmy, and I would play in the forest of tall trees and underbrush that stretched behind our house. I would wander through, searching for "Jack in the Pulpit," and watch the haze develop and float above the ground as the older boys laid down smoke screens with newspaper-fired torches tied to the top of fence posts while playing war games. In wonder, I watched my father empty the lily pad- covered goldfish pond on the side of the house by sucking on a garden hose to set the draining in motion. I found a small tin star the size of a fingernail on the front lawn (probably from in a square of chewing tobacco) and was certain it had fallen from the sky. I would lie on my back on the grass and stare at the moving clouds. As a boy, I received a book with drawings of Charles Lindbergh, our national hero, and his Spirit of St. Louis flying machine. It was just three years after his historic flight to Paris, and he was still the most talked about man in America.
Inside our house on the sun porch overlooking the fishpond, I would watch the turntable spin on the upright Victrola and listen to the records, fascinated by the image of the dog, cocking his head into the speaker horn. Our tall, mahogany radio with its oval top sat on a table against the wall. In the late afternoons, we all listened, along with one-third of the nation, to "Amos and Andy," which began every sequence with the familiar voice of its announcer with his distinctive introduction, "Here they ah."
My father drove us all to Chicago during the summer of 1929 in a new, dark Lincoln sedan. Mother and Dad rode in front, while Beeka, who spent much more time with me than my mother did, would sit between Jimmy and me to maintain peace. At least that was the plan. The Chicago trip was a long and arduous disaster, made more difficult by my constant demands, always with the underlying threat of loud bawling. As we cruised over the two-lane highways, I would stand up behind my parents, calling for immediate responses to my thirst, my hunger, and my urgent need for the bathroom. For diversion, I would turn back and renew the ongoing tussles with my brother, all of this interspersed with the same question, repeated every few miles, "How much further is it?" On a long trip, a restless child is in total control.
At the Chicago hotel, my father learned that the New York Yankees were in town to play the Chicago White Sox and that Babe Ruth was on the roof and available for autographs. He took Jimmy and me up to the top deck to see him. Under an open sky above, we watched a small crowd of men, encircling, taking photographs, and laughing with the Babe as he stood alone, his back to the waist-high red brick barrier.
These glorious and prosperous times would come to an abrupt and unexpected halt. Suddenly, especially sudden for my brother and me, as we were never consulted about such matters, we began spending much of our time in Hot Springs in my grandmother's red brick cottage on Hobson Street. My father returned to Chicago, this time on the train, alone, looking for a job because his Ford dealership had gone bankrupt. The stock market crash in October 1929 snatched a life of comfort and optimism from my parents and thrust them, and virtually everyone else, into a bleak, uncertain future. The onset of the Depression caused tremendous changes for my family. Twenty years later, George Wagoner, a Yale graduate and my colleague at the Aetna Casualty Group, would tell me of his father's jumping from the window of a Wall Street skyscraper to his death so that he and his mother could survive on his father's life insurance. My own father, having no luck finding employment, told me of his looking down on a busy LaSalle Street from the open window of the Chicago skyscraper with the same resolution of his problems in mind.
I do not recall there ever being any gnashing of teeth or signs of panic on the part of my parents, even though this wrenching experience must have caused many hidden tears. As traumatic as it was, I believe the blow was softened because they shared the tidal wave of economic loss with many others around them, somehow lessening the pain individually. In the same way, I later watched airmen accept the sudden loss of their close friends with an unnatural equanimity, simply because of knowing they may be next. My father lost not only his business but his new home in Waverly Woods, for which he paid $18,000 — a huge sum in the late 1920s.
Until recently, I had never felt my generation was special and assumed that we simply responded as any other American generation would have if faced with the challenges of Adolf Hitler and Japan's treachery. But, now I wonder. This depression became a way of life, tenaciously hovering over our nation year after year for a decade. Could it be, that living a life of constant economic strain, experiencing years of struggle and deprivation during the worst and longest depression in our country's history, helped to fortify our young men and steel them with a discipline and strength to withstand adversity and hardship, as opposed to a life of comfort and ease during the relatively prosperous years since the war? For those reasons, perhaps it is possible that our generation was better prepared for what was to come than others.
It was during these stressful times, still a child, that I actually met popular humorist Will Rogers. In February 1931, his plane landed on a grassy field just outside Helena. Rogers was the most beloved man in America and was often referred to as President Number Two. He and his pilot, the well-known record-breaking air racer, Captain Frank Hawks, touched down at 7:30 that morning in a single engine, biplane with two open cockpits. They were on a mission. The worst depression in history was now ravaging the nation. To meet the threat of starvation, daily breadlines were common in all cities. The government had closed Helena's First National Bank, which my grandfather had been president of before he died. My father's automobile dealership was bankrupt. National unemployment would reach twenty-five percent.
President Herbert Hoover asked Rogers to make a tour of the nation to boost morale and instill hope. Somehow, little Helena, Arkansas was on Roger's itinerary. Rogers arrived at the large, metal-clad Legion Auditorium at 8:20 a.m. The Helena Boys Band stopped playing when Rogers ran down the aisle and leaped up to the stage. The overflowing crowd cheered wildly as Rogers brought continuous laughter for over an hour with his unique brand of homespun humor. When finished, he jumped down and rushed back outside. Over two hundred cars, mostly all-black Ford Model A's and Model T's, followed him in single file along the narrow two-lane road back to the grass field to watch him take off. A collection taken at the rally raised $1,800 to buy food for Helena's hungry and needy.
My father must have been involved with the reception committee because he was the last person to speak with Rogers. I remember standing at my father's knees, looking up at them as they talked by the airplane. Suddenly they both looked down at me, and Rogers leaned over and held out his hand as my father said, "Tom Pettit, this is Mr. Will Rogers," (children in Helena were addressed by their first and middle names). I have always remembered that kind face and friendly smile. I watched the plane turn for take-off and was almost knocked down by the prop-wash from its loud engine. For years I would hold up my hand and brag, "This is the hand that shook the hand of Will Rogers."
Over the next few years, we moved frequently. My father found employment with an insurance company in Chicago, and we moved for short stints to Oklahoma City, then Dallas, then to Houston, and finally back to Dallas, always finding time to revisit Arkansas.
I hated those trips to Helena to see our relatives and the hordes of my parents' friends. While my mother looked forward to these returns to her days of glory, to the place where she was loved and revered, these visits to me were — anathema. As a young boy, I found that Helena was no longer my happy home of play and fun, but a place where I was loath to return, a place where I was now looked upon by my mother's aggressive and kissy friends as a choice, enticing morsel. With my hair plastered down and dressed in clean, starched clothes, worn only for these tortuous occasions, I hardly recognized the pristine image in the mirror.
On sighting my mother, these young southern matrons would run and engulf her with shrill-voiced glee while I cringed at her knees, dreading the inevitable. With great anticipation in their eager eyes, they would turn to look down at me, a defenseless and inviting victim, quaking and dreading. Like sweet-scented vultures, they would pounce with the buzzing enthusiasm of bees swarming an isolated flower. At an early age, I learned the stark fear of a defenseless wildebeest, surrounded by attacking jackals. Seeking satisfaction of some primordial maternal urge, they would swoop me up and pass me from one to the other, squeezing me and anointing my face with multiple kisses. Yuk! This was agony. I was expected not only to endure these humiliations, but to enjoy them with a smile. It was impossible even to grin, but I somehow managed to bear it. As the years and visits grew further and further apart, the cooing and cuddling diminished, and as I grew up, Helena, once again, became a pleasant place to visit.
My grandmother's home in Hot Springs became our summer sanctuary. A city of 35,000, Hot Springs, Arkansas is like no other in the United States, and is much the same today as it was then. The stately cream- colored Arlington Hotel loomed above the end of Central Avenue and looked down upon eight large and individually distinctive bathhouses. They sat back from the street with manicured green lawns in front and they lined the north side of that busy thoroughfare. Abruptly behind them rose the towering North Mountain with its narrow, serpentine concrete road spiraling to the top. Across from the bathhouses were restaurants, auction houses, and shops. Until medical science gradually sliced into the popularity of "taking the baths" by providing alternatives to Hot Springs's therapeutic waters, well-known personalities from all segments of America were lured to this unique and attractive city. Many professional baseball teams, including the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, located their training camps in Hot Springs until the mid-1920s. For years, gambling was wide open, attracting tourists, celebrities, and even Chicago gangsters, like Al Capone, whom my grandmother had seen one evening at Belvedere, the popular local nightclub, where patrons dressed formally, dined lavishly, and gambled legally.
My grandfather, Thomas J. Pettit, owned hotels in Hot Springs and Helena. He died in 1929 when I was four, leaving my mother's mother several small rent houses. We called her "Maywee" because my brother, at age two, could not pronounce "Mary." Maywee was a real character. She had been pretty as a young girl and when older, sitting in the back seat between Jimmy, age 11 and me at 6, patted her knees, smiled proudly at us, and said, "Don't you two think these are the most gorgeous legs you ever saw?" Actually, she was slightly bowlegged.
She had a heart condition, and I overheard my parents whispering she may have taken too many nitro glycerin pills. I knew about nitro glycerin from a gangster movie, and until they straightened me out the next day, I worried that she might explode.
My grandmother had built a new two-story house near the base of the Ouachita Mountains on Central Avenue. I would look forward to our visits every year when I would search for crystals around the nearby cliffs and towering trees. Although my brother, older by almost six years, and I shared the indignities of simply not being an adult, we still seemed to be at odds with each other about most things and, when facing a conflict with our parents, to my chagrin, Jimmy would often side with them. I simply could not count on him for support or understanding, and I was largely alone, isolated in an adult world while coping with my boyish interests. In growing up, we were, of course, largely influenced by our experiences at school, listening to the radio, our parent's daily prompting, and the occasional inclusion in after-dinner conversations, frequently with visiting guests. Sometimes we were allowed to sit and listen, but never to offer any comment or opinion.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Flying with the Fifteenth Air Force"
Copyright © 2018 Tom Faulkner and David Snead.
Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments from Tom Faulkner,
Acknowledgments by David L. Snead,
Chapter 1 Early Life to Enlistment,
Chapter 2 Flight Training and Move to Italy,
Chapter 3 Flying with the Fifteenth Air Force,
Chapter 4 A Grueling Stretch,
Chapter 5 Slow March towards Thirty-five Missions,
Chapter 6 Mission to Augsburg and Internment,
Appendix A Standard Flying Training Stages for Pilots (May 1944),
Appendix B Thomas Faulkner's Combat Mission List,
Appendix C Diamond Shape Heavy Bomber Group Formation for 40-Planes,