A WW II Torpedo Bomber's Love Story

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An essay by Paul H. Belz, 2000,

As he told his story I saw fear slowly grip Ben and twist his ruggedly handsome, gentle face into a grimace of dismay and bewilderment. His precious Peggy—at age eighty still the quintessential impish Irish pixie; cute, perky and sassy—is besieged by debilitating medical issues defying diagnosis. The American health care system, driven by Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) rather than physicians in the year 2000, has set the couple adrift in a rudderless boat.

The aging warrior hasn’t felt intense fear since 1945. This modern edition bites deeper with fangs that inject the venom of panic because it is his life’s love, not he who is being threatened as he desperately gropes for an elusive strategy while her pain persists and her emotional anguish grows as relentlessly as any physical tumor.

Unlike the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II, old age’s infirmities and the inexorable path to death, exacerbated by the bewildering health care system of the welfare state the United States has morphed into, are two opponents that can never ultimately be defeated. In contrast to Ben’s military experience, there are no clear orders emanating from a highly structured chain–of–command.

Helplessness, guilt, confusion, and America’s new social paradigm—which includes baby-boomer children too busy with their own lives to offer effective assistance—are coalescing into a more formidable foe than Tojo’s minions and their kamikazes. Because Peggy’s health enemy is nebulous, faceless, and still nameless, solutions are more evasive than Japanese Zeros, Zekes, and Vals. And insoluble frustration is so damn wearying.

Ben and Peggy grew up during an era when the sick put complete trust in one home–visiting family doctor, rarely changed physicians, and second opinions were deemed insulting to your M.D. Physicians, along with lawyers and clergy, were sacrosanct.

Now the couple is floundering in the nascent age of computers, medical specialists, insurance company rather than doctor–driven decision-making, routine second–opinions, and expectations that patients (rather than that familiar family doctor) take charge of their health issues. Complex medical decision-making and the attendant assimilation of a dizzying array and daunting volume of paperwork has them in a stranglehold of bewilderment.

Ben and Peggy are in the denouement both of life and the sweetest love story I’ve encountered during my decade–long daily mallwalking routine. I’ve become a regular and pleasantly–anticipated acquaintance of theirs as I speed–walk past the Norman Rockwellésque couple each morning between eight and nine a.m. on the mall’s fourth floor. They often stroll hand-in-hand, he unfailingly wearing gabardine pants, tie, and tweed jacket while she impishly teases passers-by and wins their smiles with Hershey’s butterscotch candies. She literally gives a sweet to everyone she passes in the mall each morning and is endearingly known as the “candy lady.”

Ben’s face, framed by gorgeous, full, gray hair at age 78, is a window to a non-confrontational personae, and an ever-present pewter tie clip of an airplane is the only visible clue that you are in the company of a warrior and leader within journalist Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.”

That tiny bit of pewter is a persistent reminder of human fragility and the current of good fortune that swept Ben through a rich life to elderly status and the inevitable “dog–fight” with mankind’s only inescapable opponent. His tribute is simple: “That plane got me through the War alive. I’ve worn its replica every day to remind me that life is a precious and tenuous gift.”

They met as Depression-era young teens in 1936 when she was a junior and he a freshman at Friends High School in Baltimore, Maryland. The star athlete with the matinee-idol appearance unmercifully teased the red-haired pixyish Irish beauty who was born a Roman Catholic but whose family soon switched to that religion’s more staid Episcopalian cousin. She recoiled at his hair–yanking and related idiosyncrasies of infatuation. Particularly galling were his taunts of “Hey Reds!” but she was too young to perceive that a gregarious, star lacrosse player could be reticent with girls and that he was expressing his affection in the only convoluted way his personality allowed at the time.

He was emotionally skewered when her father’s career compelled a hasty family move to New England. The flame in her had never been ignited. Without mutual friends, Ben remained unaware that her father’s tuberculosis–wracked body was quickly ravaged by the harsh Northern climate and that the family retreated to Baltimore just six months later.

But serendipity can enrich lives as abruptly as improvident intrusions can devastate them.

On a cold, dreary January day in 1940, Peggy’s best friend Martha persuaded her to go ice–skating on beautiful Lake Roland in Ruxton, a wealthy north Baltimore suburb. As the two accomplished skaters cavorted on the crowded lake, an athletic figure silently glided from the periphery, audaciously wrapped his arm around Peggy’s waist and reintroduced himself. Now a more socially confident University of Maryland student/athlete on lacrosse scholarship, Ben confessed his high school infatuation and tossed fresh embers at Peggy, instantly igniting a romance that not only melded an infrangible partnership but fueled rather than consumed their evolution into extraordinary individuals. They celebrated their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary in April, 2000.

Simply watching the two walk together for a few moments provides as eloquent a testament to their love as any spellbinding orator could proffer. The word exuberance pesters one’s mind like a persistent gnat when in their company.

But when World War II was escalating, their fledgling love became sorely tested. A two-year courtship confronted an abrupt and daunting roadblock in 1942 when, shortly after the Battle of Midway (the May 24th to June 6th American victory which overwhelmingly turned the tide against the Japanese), Ben, then a junior at the University of Maryland, received his draft notice. He immediately joined the Army Air Corps and trained in North Carolina until severe hay fever forced a switch to the Navy where birds on the carriers, ironically, worsened his hay fever to asthma. Asthma would have disqualified him from the Navy but he concealed his condition, got some relief from pills and there were no medical tests in 1942 that could divulge his secret. World War II was a war men lied to join, not evade. Ben’s generation tore their lives apart to cross an ocean to witness and endure unspeakable horrors in a tenuous struggle to preserve democracy.

He trained and served stateside in 1942 and 1943. Mirroring many couples, Ben and Peggy married before his battle–group shipped to the Pacific front for two years of combat duty. They married in April, 1944 and their first-born, Clare, greeted the war–torn world early in 1945. Ben wouldn’t see his precious daughter for seven torturous months and ultimately rejected re–enlistment and a promotion in order to accelerate the return home to his family’s grateful embrace. A staggering number of men doing his work didn’t survive to luxuriate in that pleasant rite–of–passage following the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.

He was a torpedo bomber pilot (a group affectionately known as torpeckers), one of only 25,000 U.S. pilots of all types in World War II. Ben flew a TBM made by Martin Marietta in Baltimore, which was part of the General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division. It was identical to the TBF–Avenger manufactured by Grumman and both planes were nicknamed “Pregnant Peggys” by airmen. George H. W. Bush flew one to war–hero status and ultimately the White House.

 The efficacy of this machine, in which Ben would attack the Japanese and seduce “Lady Luck” would determine whether he ever saw his beloved Peggy again. It was forty feet long with a wingspan of fifty–four feet. In addition to the pilot, whose duties included the operation of two wing-mounted fifty–caliber machine guns, the TBM carried a bombardier/radioman who aimed and dropped 2,000 pounds of bombs and torpedoes, and a turret gunner (facing the rear) who manned a thirty–caliber gun. The aircraft cruised at 147–mph at about 300–feet but had a top speed of 276–mph and could climb as high as 30,100 feet at the rate of 2,060 feet–per–minute. The flying range was 1,010 miles.

Unlike Hollywood depictions, Ben’s planes had no pinup girls painted on the fuselages and he didn’t grow attached to one plane; he flew a different TBM on every mission (called “hops” by navy men). Life didn’t involve a lot of camaraderie, but as in most wars was filled with boredom, briefings, prayer, periods of stark terror, and adrenalin–driven duties. When attacking targets, bomber pilots relied on their air group’s Hellcat fighter planes for protection from the scourge of the Pacific skies, the Japanese Zeros. Without that umbrella, Pregnant Peggys were flying suicide missions. In combat situations, one’s life was as dependent on comrades’ skill, courage, and luck as it was on one’s own. When Ben dove to torpedo a ship from between 400 to 800 yards away, he and his crew could see the faces of the Japs who were shooting at them from below. TBMs often returned to their carrier with hundreds of bullet holes in their fuselages. If fighter jet protection broke down, they didn’t return at all.

Home for Ben was an escort carrier. He was a tiny cog in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet, commanded by five–star Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. One branch of that fleet was Ben’s Escort Carrier Group headed by Rear Admiral C. T. Durgin. Escort aircraft carriers, much smaller than full–sized carriers, were known by the acronym CVEs and a carrier group was labeled CVEG. Military men simply called the carriers “jeeps” while the public used the term “baby flat tops.” The carrier group or fleet was composed of six divisions, each headed by a rear admiral entrusted with between four to eight carriers. Each division’s planes were organized into air groups which were combinations of fighter planes and torpedo bombers. Ben’s was Air–Group Thirty–Three, headed by Commander Fillmore B. Gilkeson.

Air groups were broken into squadrons of either fighters or torpedo bombers. Fighter and torpedo pilots carried equal status; there was no social pecking order. Air Group 33's fighter squadron contained twenty–four Wildcat Fighter planes (replaced a few months later by a newer model called the “Hellcat”) when training began on April 22, 1944. That number dropped to sixteen fighters along with a squadron of six torpedo bombers when the Air Group was ordered off to war, preceded by a qualification cruise at Pearl Harbor. Eight night bombers (which Ben sometimes flew) were added on December 30. On March 5, 1945 the Air Group headed for the war zone and their first mission in the Caroline Islands, which laid the groundwork for an operation in Okinawa.

All of Ben’s missions or hops were from escort carriers or jeeps (CVEs) rather than land bases. His primary carrier was the USS Sangamon, commanded by Captain A.I. Malstrom, the highest ranking naval officer Ben would meet during the war. CVEs were originally designed for escorting troop transports, fleet oilers, and plane–ferry duty but their performance in the victory over the Japanese in the Battle for Leyte Gulf established them as formidable fighting ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific. They could launch an attack of a thousand planes and proved invaluable in protecting supply lines in the Pacific and destroying the Japanese submarine menace. They provided air cover for the last three great invasions: Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Often these small carriers were converted from merchant ship hulls.

Ben’s combat flights were all dangerous albeit carrying varying degrees of glamour. Some were to simply spray DDT over the troops to kill malaria–bearing mosquitoes, one was to bomb a weapons transport masquerading as a hospital ship (the entire crew was taken prisoner) and others were called “heckler” missions where pilots could use discretion or “free–lance” looking for recommended targets.

Conserving sufficient fuel to return to the carrier required keen judgment and instincts from a pilot, and miscalculating would result in a dangerous water–landing. Ben ran out of fuel only once, narrowly reaching the carrier, but bouncing over all the tail–hooks (lines which snag the planes on the flight deck) and barely averting a crash on deck.

He referred to his wartime duty as “mop–up” but he was being shot at with live ammunition nonetheless. He was fortunate, however, to have missed action such as Midway in early 1942. The Battle of Midway turned the fortunes of war against the Japanese in the Pacific as four of its prize carriers were sunk, the Hiryu, Akagi, Kaga and Soryu. These were four big carriers that were the bulwark of the Japanese First Carrier Striking Force and they were protected by two battleships, two heavy cruisers and eleven destroyers. Behind those destroyers came the Japanese battleship force and various support vessels. The Japanese fleet charged with taking Midway was the largest in the world at the time.

This armada began sailing on May 27, 1942, just a month after Ben was drafted. The Japanese commanded the Pacific, but code–breakers earned the element of surprise for American forces by deciphering that Midway would be the next Japanese target. The U.S. only had two healthy full-sized carriers (known as CVs), the Enterprise (CV–6), and the Hornet (CV–8). They were belatedly joined by the hastily repaired Yorktown (CV–5). At Midway, American torpedo bombers became the most devastated element of the armed forces. The brand new TBF Avengers were sacrificial lambs, slaughtered at the altar of keeping Japanese fighter planes engaged and low in the sky, enabling American dive bombers to attack the unprotected carriers.

The battle began on June 4th with an air skirmish at 12,000 feet. Some entire 14–15 plane torpedo bomber squadrons of Avengers were destroyed at Midway. But the primary U.S. loss was the sinking of the carrier Yorktown, although destroyers rescued most of the crew. Nevertheless, Midway was a victory and the tide of war had turned by the time Ben finished training and shipped to the battle zone in 1945. Since he knew he was flying for the winning side, returning alive became a higher echelon focus.

Ben confided that during an attack, all fear and creative thought was suppressed because events transpired so quickly that the mind’s focus automatically locked on the rote mechanical duties exigent for success. Training, instinct and luck determined outcomes. If TBMs were disabled by anti-aircraft fire and didn’t disintegrate on impact with the water, crew members would have to swim for their lives before their own depth charges exploded. When they attacked, they were too low to eject and parachute.

Religious services on the hanger deck were the brand of opiate that soothed men’s souls while letters to and from loved ones was the brand that warmed their hearts and steeled their resolve in battle. Those activities were the only psychological balm for the not–yet–evacuated injured. Ben wrote Peggy a letter each week although mail only got in and out about once a month.

True love. It must survive the dangerous exhilaration of infatuation and evolve to a love where the happiness of each partner is unambiguously dependent on the happiness of the other. Each time I think I see it, I ponder whether the individuals “settled” or capitulated as individuals, or whether their partnership enriched and expanded their individuality. If parents, I ponder whether they consciously or subconsciously entombed both their individuality and spousal relationship in favor of parenthood because juggling all three became too daunting a feat in the high-paced lifestyle tyrannically imposed by modern American society. Ben and Peggy escaped both traps.

Many who claim to be happily married have simply acquiesced to an accommodation and a comfort level in a marriage which requires them to wrap up their romantic instincts, creative pursuits, and anything else that formerly identified them as an individual—and indeed what may have attracted their spouse in the first place—in mummy-like fashion and store it all in a psychological sarcophagus.

With the war behind them, Ben and Peggy raised their children, kept their marriage vibrant and fresh, and continued to grow as individuals. They were mutual best friends but she encouraged Ben’s art lessons and he her doll-making along with other activities that stamped each as a uniquely gifted person. They didn’t feel as though they neglected their children by making their marriage primary. The formula for maintaining a healthy marriage may be the most important educational lesson their two girls ever received.

With a sociological tsunami submersing the American family and over 50% of marriages in the year 2000, I’m uncertain whether Ben and Peggy represent a bedrock–embedded lighthouse flashing a beacon of hope for society, or an antediluvian, helpless anachronism, a rudderless boat to be inevitably swallowed in the American whirlpool of individual–worship and moral relativism, leaving no wake for pursuers of their true–love paradigm to follow.