A Letter from a Daughter

18-Year-Old Bill "Tailgunner" Drewry in 1943

18-Year-Old Bill "Tailgunner" Drewry in 1943

Elizabeth Drewry Responds to her Father’s ‘Trip of honor’

My emotional highlight of Forever Young’s April 2011 trip to Washington DC for World War II veterans was watching my Dad salute his fallen comrades as a bugler played Taps.

We were standing at the Tennessee column of the WWII Memorial, where the veterans had gathered.  They had just finished naming the dead–calling out one by one all the boys they knew who hadn’t come home.  As the last bugle note faded to silence, tourists young and old, from all over the world pressed forward, eager to speak to the veterans.  They wiped tears from their eyes, saying over and over, “Thank you. Thank you for your service.”

Our group of heroes shook hands and said with understated dignity that they didn’t consider themselves special, just men and women with a crucial job to do.  So they took the hill, tended the wounded, escaped from prison camp, stormed the beach, parachuted into enemy territory. They saved lives and protected freedom.

My own Dad was a tailgunner on a B-24, The Green Hornet.  He was seventeen when he signed up for service and flew his first mission a few days after his nineteenth birthday. Like thousands of others, he served his country, returned home, got a job, married, had children, and never spoke of his war experiences.

Only after we were grown did we, his family, hear stories of what it was like to fly bombing runs over Germany in heavy clouds and flak.  We heard about how loud the planes were, how bitterly cold, how often they ran low on fuel and had to “land on fumes.”  We heard about the heart-stopping moment Dad sat in his tailgunner’s position, eye to eye with the German pilot of an ME 262 jet fighter on an attack curve.

But mostly we learned about Dad’s regard for his fellow crew members, and the special bond they formed over the course of 35 missions. In their later years, they reached out to contact one another, corresponded, and visited.  Of that brave crew, Dad is now the “last man standing.” When he was interviewed by the NBC Today Show about this special visit to the WWII Memorial, he said he wished only that his fellow crew members were there to receive the honors, and that he would accept on their behalf.

The outpouring of gratitude and respect for our veterans was the hallmark of every stop on the trip.  We saw it at the Marine Museum, where soldiers stood at attention in the rain to salute our arrival, at the Air Force Memorial, the Iwo Jima monument, and the other war memorials, as if people had been waiting for this chance to meet and thank our heroes. At airport arrivals and departures, our veterans were celebrated with cheers and handshakes, even a water canon salute over our plane arriving in DC.  We heard bands strike up the songs of all the branches of service–”Over hill, over dale….Anchors away, my boys….From the halls of Montezuma….Off we go into the wild blue yonder”–each stirring anthem catching in my throat.

I can’t overemphasize the efficiency and hard work of Diane Hight and the Forever Young organizers of the trip, supported in their efforts by Travel Leaders of Collierville, Woodsbridge Elks Lodge, the Memphis Fire Department, Bellevue Baptist Church and other generous individuals and groups. Every detail was attended to, every contingency considered, so that the trip was enjoyable and comfortable for the veterans and their family members. Logistics aside, what gives this program its special character is the obvious affection and regard Diane displays for the veterans–each one of them is made to feel personally honored and appreciated.

My Dad, “Tailgunner,” had the trip of a lifetime.  So did his family members who were lucky enough to be part of the group. It was an experience we will remember all our lives.