28 April 2011

THE GEORGIA PEACH'S FINAL SORTIE

THE GEORGIA PEACH'S FINAL SORTIE
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 29 April 2011


"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
                                               Albert Einstein


Last week's Commentary, "DRAWING COLORING MADDY," included insight about portraiture and a short story about a hasty crayon sketch (supporting photographs remain posted) for friends. This week's offering, though much different than last, a portrait--in word and paint--for friends from the artist's point of view.


For today...

"The Georgia Peach"--moniker carried by baseball's Ty Cobb. But today's Commentary is not about Cobb. And it's not about baseball, peaches, nor Georgia, per se. It is about sorties, and more.


On to the story...

Thirty-four years ago come November, at the kind invitation of a college friend, I, along with another mutual college friend, spent Thanksgiving break (from University studies) at his parent's home in the low country of South Carolina.

Much of that visit has faded from memory. What's not faded is the overall impression left on me by our gracious and generous hosts. And the incredible spread his mother tabled, for three or four days, satisfying insatiable college boy appetites. Did she ever.

Six years later, during a three-year span, there was opportunity to visit my friend's parents several times.

Then four years later our paths crossed again--indirectly--through their son.

Another nine years passed before seeing them again. That was the last time.

I saw my friend about five years ago. Our college friendship has endured though contact only occasional because of busy, chaotic lives and distance, and time just seems to quietly ease on by pausing for no one. But last week came unexpected contact, indirectly, from family. More about that shortly.

Shifting gears...

Six years after President Woodrow Wilson officially declared, by means of proclamation, 14 June (1916) as Flag Day, Richard Alexander Stearns, Jr. was born in Augusta, Georgia, to proud parents Richard Sr. and Edna.

I know nothing of junior's childhood and youth. I don't know if he played sports or had a paper route or if he was a cub or boy scout. I don't know if he was an "A" or average student. I don't know if he fished, hunted, or skinny-dipped in ponds on hot, sticky southern summer days. As to the swimming--probably. I don't know of his dreams or if he had a job in high school or if he owned a car and tinkered with the engine. I don't even know if he had siblings. Probably. But considering he was old enough to remember the Great Depression my guess is life was not so easy at times and plowing through challenges developed a tempered steel-like character; something that would serve him well in life, and sooner than imagined.

And it's probably a fair guess that after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor young Stearns, some six months shy of his 20th birthday, was among the hoardes of young men who rushed military recruiting stations to defend America. Patriotism, honor, and duty come to mind--forged in that tempered steel-like character.

During World War II, serving in the Army Air Forces, sometime referred to as the Air Corps, Lieutenant Stearns flew P-47 Thunderbolts--the escorting, dive-bombing, strafing, dog-fighting workhorse known as "Jug." It was one hell of an airplane, destruction it's mission. The young men who flew "Jug" hailed from big cities, small towns, and farms from coast to coast. And Georgia was well-represented.

Some were shot down.

And Lieutenant Stearns--"The Georgia Peach"--was among the "some."

After more than 50 combat sorties, Lieutenant Stearns was downed on 09 April 1944--Easter Sunday. And he spent thirteen long months held against his will--a Prisoner of War (POW) behind barbed wire and the watchful eye of armed guards--in Stalag Luft 1, Barth, Germany.

For a sense of the magnitude of aerial combat that fateful day, an excerpt from the combat chronology (text bolded by author), for the month of April 1944, of the "United States Army Air Forces in World War II" follows:

"Sunday, 9 April 1944

EUROPEAN THEATER OF OPERATIONS

STRATEGIC OPERATIONS

(Eighth Air Force): Mission 293: 542 bombers and 719 fighters are dispatched to aircraft factories and airfields in Germany and Poland; the bombers claim 45-8-14 Luftwaffe aircraft; 32 bombers and 10 fighters are lost; 10 bombers are damaged beyond repair. Details are: 1. 145 B-17s are dispatched to aviation industry at Rahmel, Poland and Marienburg, Germany; 96 hit Marienburg, 41 hit Rahmel and 3 hit targets of opportunity; 6 B-17s are lost and 44 damaged; casualties are 8 KIA, 9 WIA and 60 MIA. 2. 151 B-17s are dispatched to hit the Focke-Wulf plant at Poznan, Poland and the Heinkel plant at Warnemunde, Germany; 85 hit Warnemunde, 33 hit Poznan and 18 hit Marienehe Airfield; 12 B-17s are lost and 93 damaged; casualties are 6 WIA and 120 MIA. 3. 246 B-24s are dispatched to hit an assembly plant at Tutow, Germany; 106 hit the primary, 14 hit Parchim, Germany and 6 hit targets of opportunity; 14 B-24s are lost and 30 damaged; casualties are 17 KIA, 6 WIA and 140 MIA. Escort is provided by 119 P-38s, 387 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-47s and 213 Eighth and Ninth Air Force P-51s; the fighters claim 20-1-6 Luftwaffe aircraft in the air and 19-0-8 on the ground; no fighter support is available over the targets because of bad weather or distance: 2 P-38s are lost, 2 damaged beyond repair and 9 damaged, casualties are 1 KIA and 2 MIA; 4 P-47s are lost, 1 is damaged beyond repair and 2 damaged, casualties are 2 KIA, 2 WIA and 3 MIA; 4 P-51s are lost and 1 damaged beyond repair, 1 pilot is MIA. Mission 294: 5 of 5 B-17s drop 2.752 million leaflets on Rouen, Paris, Amiens and Caen, France at 2224-2338 hours without loss. 23 B-24s are dispatched on CARPETBAGGER operations."

That was one day. Think about the damage to aircraft and wounded fliers. And more mind-numbing, the losses--of airmen and aircraft. And those who fell, literally, into enemy hands.

Nearly 9,000 Allied airmen--some 7,600 Americans and the rest Royal Air Force--were imprisoned in Stalag Luft 1. Lieutenant Stearns spent time in compounds South and North 2. In South he was held in Barracks 1, Room 6 with 23 others--two of whom, Racener and Freeman, were from the Peach State. And while in North 2, Barracks 2, Room 9 he was held with 18 others, one, Armisted, hailed from Georgia.

He was repatriated shortly after Germany's surrender in early May 1945.

I never heard him speak about the particulars of what was surely an awful experience.

And though that hell would have been enough for most men to conclude they'd done their duty he continued to serve in uniform--logging nearly 100 combat photo reconnaisance sorties during the Korean War.

He retired from the United States Air Force in 1964. Think about that. He was 42, fought in two wars, and had been held captive during his first one.

And as I remember and his son recently wrote, he flew some sorties over a place called Laos.

After flying for another decade as a corporate pilot for an outfit in North Carolina, he decided to settle in the South Carolina low country. I can't imagine civilian flying was anywhere near as thrilling, nor as terrifying--at times, as flying military aircraft. For corporate passengers surely would have been terrified, not thrilled, by  loops, dives, barrel rolls, and the like--even if performed by a skilled combat aviator. But it was relatively safe, no one was trying to shoot him down, and compensation was probably respectable.

He was long retired from active duty (and a year or two from civil aviation) when I first met him--knowing him as "Colonel." And as I noted, at the time I was a mere college schoolpunk who knew some but not much about the military (my dad was Air Force for ten years but ended service when I was young); most I learned from dad's stories, reading, and old war movies on TV.

During that Thanksgiving visit, on Lady's Island in the Beaufort area, the "Colonel" extended an invitation to his son and two guests to accompany him on a visit to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. He was going to the Exchange and maybe the Commissary. Unsure of any other intentions, and in those days only vaguely familiar with the mysterious lore of the famous Depot, we looked at each other and unanimously declined. I still think about that brief conversation and wonder why we didn't go. Probably nonsensical fear of the unknown. I've always regretted that decision.

And little did I know at the time less than three years later I'd be a Marine.

And three years after commissioning, following a stint with the 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune,  assigned to the Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island. And living in quaint Port Royal--less than a mile from the gently arching bridge, spanning the Beaufort River, to Lady's Island and a few left turns to my friend's parent's home.

Strange. Ironic. Serendipitous.

During that three-year tour, though busy with the demanding pace of recruit training and graduate school, I had opportunity to visit my friend's parents on several occasions. But the tone of those visits was different now that I wore a uniform. The "Colonel" had more to talk about with me. And he did. He shared stories of his flying and war days. I don't remember them the way I wished I did now while penning these words but one visit does rise above the others.

He invited me to dinner and to meet several of his Air Force buddies--all in their mid-60s and gray. First impression was they shared a bond--a sense of camaraderie I understood. They spoke of exciting times during their youth flying airplanes in combat. As I recall, all had been war prisoners. I might be wrong about that but don't think so. One of them was held captive for more than five years. He didn't bring it up the others did. Matter of fact I think it was my friend's father who told me. A POW for five years? Hard to fathom back then. It still is.

I don't remember their names or if they were "roomates" at Stalag Luft 1. But I remember them as personable. As remarkable. I remember answering a few questions about being a Marine and my duties on the Depot. Kind of them to ask for my duties, with barely four years active service, paled in comparison to what they did during their first four years, and careers. They told stories and laughed a lot. I guess for good reason. They'd survived about the worst life can throw at someone. Why not laugh.

After Parris Island it was off to the University of Mississippi--Ole Miss--for duty with the Navy ROTC unit as the Marine Officer Instructor. I knew some of the Air Force ROTC staff--aviators. I thought about the "Colonel" during those days. Some of the NROTC students, Navy and Marine, would go on to flight training. Some earned their 'Wings of Gold.' As an aside, some of those students are still flying--they're lieutenant colonels and colonels and commanders and captains. Some have flown combat missions. As far as I know, none shot down or held captive. Thankfully.

A year into that assignment in Oxford and my college friend called about a project on his mind--something for his dad. He had come across some old black and white family photographs from World War II and asked if it was possible and if I had time to paint something for him--it'd be a Christmas present; a special one that year.

Of course. Absolutely. Send me what you have. I'll take a look. I'll make time.

The 30 x 24 inch transparent watercolor is posted left (click image to enlarge). The painting pretty much sums it up.

His dad, "The Georgia Peach," was a kill short of being an ace when downed. Barely detectable, because of the image's small size, is the beginning of his girlfriend's name--"Frenchy"--written on his life-preserver. It's how it appeared in the photograph so that's how I painted it--thinking something like that just might be important and it'd be wrong to exercise artistic license and omit it. I remember learning, after completing and shipping the painting, this might have been a light-hearted touchy matter at home--he didn't marry "Frenchy."

Anyway, the painting was a hit and held revered wall space along with the rest of the "Colonel's" service memorabilia. I suspect it reminded him of exciting times. And times, at least some, he'd just as soon have forgotten but couldn't.

Nine years later--1996--I was aboard Parris Island on temporary assignment and had chance to again visit with the "Colonel" and his wife in their home--the same home of the Thanksgiving 1977 visit. He poured us a drink then talked about and showed me the painting. It was nice to see it--where it belonged. A man with a quick wit and sense of humor, he made a passing comment about "Frenchy" then smiled, winked, and laughed. And that was that. A distant memory from youth.

Sending Christmas cards through the years after that first visit I always addressed the envelope "Colonel and Mrs...". Of course--protocol and respect.

Ten years after my last visit it was time for me to retire. Hard to believe.

I sent my college friend and his parents invitations.

I heard back from my friend a day or so before the ceremony. He called to say he'd been trying to figure a way to make the west coast trip with his dad--and surprise me. That explained his atypical RSVP tardiness. But it just didn't work out because his dad was not in the best of health. How great it'd have been to have them join the celebration. But the thought alone was enough of a gesture.

After retiring and while on a trip back east for long overdue visits with family and friends, we made it by my  friend's home in North Carolina (regrettably not down to Lady's Island). During our overnight stay he told me his dad was a major, not colonel, but ever appreciative of the "promotion" I had innocently given him. I thought about that surprising news. Then it dawned on me that when first meeting him my knowledge of the military and rank structure was only cursory and that since he was a retired officer and pilot, and as they ususally were in the movies, he was a colonel.

But the corrected rank, though nice to know for record-keeping, matters not to me. The man was a decorated, albeit humble, warrior and served selflessly to include enduring unimaginable personal sacrifice. He carried himself like a colonel. He spoke like a colonel. And had the wisdom of a colonel. Therefore, he'll remain a colonel to me.

Now, about that unexpected contact last week...

A Facebook post forewarned my friend's father, "The Georgia Peach," was not well--the end of his remarkable life was near.

In his daughter-in-law's words on Thursday, 21 April 2011: "Dick Stearns, my father in law, POW in WWII for 13 months, retired Air Force, is about to take his last flight over the rainbow. Please keep George and his family in your prayers."

I figured the family was 'all present' on Lady's Island. And thought about them. And recalled my visits with this gentleman, his wife, and longtime friendship with their son--my friend, George.

The following day's Facebook post: "Major Stearns has flown over the rainbow."

And she sent an email: "Richard Stearns, Retired Air Force, POW in WWII for 13 months, my father in law, made his final flight up and over the rainbow today. I am sure the ride was smooth and the view was amazing. I salute you sweet man, noble veteran. We will miss you Poppy."

And the email confirmed the whole family surrounded and comforted him--at home on Lady's Island. Carrying on are his wife, four children--the oldest son graduated from the Naval Academy and, like dad, served honorably, and four grandchildren.

Though not certain, I'm guessing decorations under his wings include a number of personal awards, at least one Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals, and quite probably a Purple Heart among other unit and theatre-specific awards; all recognizing noteworthy service to country.

"Colonel" aka: Major Richard "Dick" A. Stearns, U. S. Air Force (Retired), "The Georgia Peach," born 14 June 1922, soared like an eagle on his final sortie--clear and friendly skies all the way "home"--on Friday, 22 April 2011.

And shall we likewise pay tribute to his escorts--his "wingmen," four more of our country's warriors, Private First Class Antonio G. Stiggins, U. S. Army (Rio Rancho, NM), Sergeant John P. Castro, U. S. Army (Andrews, TX), First Lieutenant Omar J. Vasquez, U. S. Army (Hamilton, NJ), and Captain Joshua M. McClimans, U. S. Army (Akron, OH) killed that day, 22 April, while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan.

Honors to the fallen warriors. With the traditional "missing man flyby" salute for "The Georgia Peach," courtesy of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8_FqJcFRas

Five. Spiritually the number relates to chaos, unpredictability, the wonder of life, adventure, and travel with note the best journeys may be of mind and spirit. How fitting.

Heroes all of America.

And that is indisputable.

Now at rest, their peace eternal.

Taps.

Post Script

Army Air Forces during World War II: http://www.usaaf.net/chron/44/apr44.htm

Chilling and sobering artwork of Stalag Luft 1 by an American (his, too, quite a remarkable story) held captive: http://www.merkki.com/art.htm

At this writing, during the month of April, 2011, 41 of our forward-deployed warriors have died in service to country. Of mention, none on the 9th--the 67th anniversary of Lieutenant Stearns' capture.

Author's Endnote

Ty Cobb was born and died in Georgia. Beyond moniker, somewhat sharing a life experience of "The Georgia Peach" featured in today's Commentary, Cobb, in 1918, served in the United States Army. A  captain, he was assigned to the Chemical Corps with the Allied Expeditionary Forces headquartered in France. He instructed soldiers how to withstand chemical attack. He did not fly and research did not turn up record of combat. His service though brief, little more than two months, was honorable. He was discharged and returned to the United States.

2 comments:

Tom Carty said...

What a great tribute, Andy! RIP Major Stearns. This documentary will give a pretty good idea of what the P47 mission was. Directed by William Wyler, same director that did the original Memphis Belle documentary:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038171

Thomas E. (Ed) Gregory, Col. USMC (Ret) said...

Well done, Andy! I have long admired and revered the WWII generation--long before Brokaw got on the bandwagon. In particular, the Eighth Air Force experience has long held my fascination. As much as we Marines make a big deal about our predecessors' monumental sacrifices in WWII, it is telling that 8AF casualties eclipsed the entire Marine Corps' in that war.