What it means to be part of the Greatest Generation
We wait alongside them in the grocery checkout line and hurry past them on the street. They are members of our churches and grandparents to our children, but how often do we pause to ponder the content of their lives?
As teenagers and 20-somethings, they traveled to distant countries, knowing they might die there, and returned to lives forever altered by their experiences. They risked their lives, left jobs, and cast passions and aspirations aside until their missions were fulfilled.
Indeed, all who served in World War II — in battle or supporting roles — deserve unyielding gratitude, but as each Veterans Day passes, the time for thanks dwindles. We can still shake their hands and hear their stories, but for how much longer?
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the ranks of World War II vets are shrinking by about 1,200 a day nationwide.
A few of those who have retired in Far North Dallas take time to recall, for those of us who weren’t there, an era that shaped the world.
If you run into one of them today, it might be the right time to say “thank you”.
“We all waited for those words: ‘Bombs away, let’s get the hell out of here.’ ” — Victor Hancock
Before the war, Victor Hancock had never been afraid of anything. But the war changed his life.
“I came face-to-face with the reality of how you would react if someone tried to kill you,” he says. “I got plenty scared. Once the engine starts, you go about your business like you were trained.”
Hancock was two months from graduating high school when he volunteered for the Army Air Force in 1942, just as his two older brothers had done. (The Air Force became a separate branch of the Armed Services in 1947; until that point, it was part of the Army’s Air Corps and collectively known as the Army Air Force.)
“There was a war going on, so there was no doubt you were going to be in it,” Hancock says.
He joined thousands of others for preflight school at Kelly Field in San Antonio. He finished training in May 1944 and became a pilot in the 57th Bomb Wing’s 488th Bomb Squadron. He was stationed on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic and then headed to a base on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. By January 1945, the war in Europe was ending, and the Germans tried to escape to their country via the three-mile wide Brenner Pass within the Alps.
“Our job was to close the pass,” Hancock says. “We all waited for those words — ‘Bombs away, let’s get the hell out of here.’ Then you had the long flight back to Corsica over enemy territory.”
They’d often return with bullet holes in their B-25s, which Hancock describes as some of the most durable aircraft in the Air Force.
“It could take a tremendous amount of damage and still bring soldiers home. There were 875 crewmembers lost. It would have been four times that [without B-25s].”
Hancock co-piloted six of the missions and encountered a few close calls that could have resulted in more than just a few holes in the plane. Once, while they flew through the mountains at 5,000 to 6,000 feet, the Germans fired anti-aircraft guns. Hancock says he approached a box canyon with no way out. They had to quickly pull up or crash right into the side of the mountain.
“The Germans were shooting at us with flak busting on our tails. It’s all very slow motion.”
Hancock knew he wasn’t invincible. His brother had died in combat the year before.
“I was absolutely devastated. I was, no doubt, aware of my mortality. I was not a man who thought I couldn’t die.”
U.S. forces dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in the South Pacific before Hancock’s squadron arrived.
Today, he lives in the Canyon Creek neighborhood with his wife of 65 years. He retired in 1992 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. His home office is covered in papers, old photographs and maps because for the past 16 years, Hancock has edited a quarterly journal, “Men of the 57th”, published for his fellow crewmembers from the 57th Bomb Wing. It includes updates about veterans and personal accounts from missions.
Hancock, now 87, sometimes speaks at neighborhood elementary schools, sharing his experience of being a part of the “greatest generation”.
“Our reaction to circumstances made us a little different. One of the kids asked me, ‘Could we do the same thing?’ I said, ‘Of course you could.’ ”
“I knew I was going to join the Army. So many more guys were dropping out to join.” — Jim Laprelle
Jim Laprelle marched through campus with the ROTC at North Texas Agricultural College, known today as the University of Texas at Arlington.
“We were going to have a parade down the baseball fields,” he says. “We were all waiting in line, and I heard the sergeant say, ‘The Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor.’ I knew I was going to join the Army. So many more guys were dropping out to join.”
After training in Madison, Wis., Laprelle headed overseas April 1, 1942, for what he calls “a wonderful April fool’s joke.”
The Dallas native and Estates West neighborhood resident worked as a mechanic with the Flying Tigers, the first American Volunteer Group, recruited by a presidential sanction. Stationed with the 12th fighter wing in the foothills of the Chinese Himalayas, Laprelle was part of the central nervous system for all aircraft flying in and around war zones. He and his crewmembers readied planes for combat, helped them navigate through enemy territory and helped bomber pilots take off and land safely.
But things didn’t always run perfectly.
Laprelle remembers a tragic P51 accident that woke the crew, sleeping in nearby tents.
“In the morning, we could hear the aircraft warming up to go on a mission,” he says. “It didn’t sound too good. It exploded. We could see the pilot in the cockpit. We couldn’t get him out because he was already dead.”
The pilot’s ammunition had somehow ignited — a rare occurrence. But to this day, Laprelle believes the man deserved a medal like those killed by enemy fire.
“Did he not die defending his country as much if he had been shot down in combat?”
During his time with the Flying Tigers, Laprelle met all kinds of people who flew into the base, including an old friend with whom he used to play sandlot baseball as a kid. Another bomber pilot didn’t hesitate to show his gratitude for the crew after returning from combat.
“He landed his plane, got out, shook all our hands and said, ‘I just want to see the people and the equipment that brought me in here,’ ” Laprelle says.
The Flying Tigers were told when the war ended, but “we didn’t find out until later that it was an atomic bomb,” Laprelle says. He sailed back to the United States on a ship and reunited with his family, who met him in New York City.
“It felt great,” he says. “I know my mother felt good.”
And at Pier 88, not far from where his ship docked, sat the USS Missouri, aboard which the Japanese peace treaty had been signed.
“The villages were like 17th century Western towns. There wasn’t much of anything.” — John Hever
They operated in remote, Third World countries. They didn’t receive morale-boosting entertainment from traveling celebrities.
These soldiers were often called “The Forgotten Army”.
“There’s not too much written about the China-Burma-India theater,” neighborhood veteran John Hever says.
Hever was a teenager in Brooklyn, N.Y., when he joined the Army in March 1943. He became part of the 931st signal battalion, which oversaw radio transmissions. They were sent across the Allied countries of Southeast Asia where Japanese troops were invading.
“We were some of the first troops to land in Shanghai, China. The villages were like 17th century Western towns. There wasn’t much of anything. Our mission was to establish ground and air communication between the British and American troops.”
They resided in tents, and every couple of days, Hever wrote home to his family, who called him by his nickname, “Bud”. Sure, the soldiers became homesick, but they tried not to think about it, he says.
“You knew you weren’t going home, so why worry about it?” he says.
The atomic bomb dropped just before Hever’s battalion geared up to enter Japan.
“Thank God that never happened,” he says.
He was discharged from the Army in January 1946 at Fort Dix, N.J. For 40 years, he worked as a salesman for a silver company that relocated him to Richardson. He served on the Richardson City Council for 10 years before retiring.
Like most war veterans, Hever has held onto memorabilia such as Chinese money, military pamphlets, newspaper clippings and even a bundle of unopened letters from his father that never made it to the base.
At 86 years old, Hever has been married for 62 years and has six children and 11 grandchildren. Now expecting his ninth great-grandchild, he looks back on his years in the Army with few regrets.
“It was a long process that was well worth the adventure. It feels good. I’m fortunate that I was in the service, and I came back safe.”
Click Here to sign up for the Advocate’s weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Far North Dallas.