587th Bomb Squadron, 394th Bomb Group
|Memorial Day 2003: Help with grandson's essay brings out veteran's memories
Monday, May 26, 2003
By CATHY ZOLLO
It was a high-speed medium bomber they nicknamed the Widow Maker, but it wasn't for the widows it made on the enemy side.
World War II Army Air Corps pilots with a dark sense of humor called it the Flying Coffin for all the men who died taking it to war. Its real name was Marauder.
"I thought it was a good plane," says Joe Connery, who will be 80 Wednesday. He piloted 28 missions in roughly a year and was awarded the Purple Heart for a bullet wound, the French Croix de Guerre and the Air Medal, among others.
Even with his recommendation of the plane, though, Joe recalls some touchy takeoffs when he held his breath until the heavy plane was in the air. Along with its own 12 tons, the B-26 carried a crew of five to seven men, four 1,000-pound bombs and was defended by 11 .50-caliber machine guns.
Mr. Connery remembers bone-chilling flights to his targets the Marauder didn't have heaters and once getting so lost in clouds that he and his crew were seconds from bailing.
He watched, even photographed, planes falling out of formation to crash. He doesn't know what happened to the crews.
Joe came home after the war, went to college and became a school administrator in Chicago. Pat went to work for Eastern Airlines and the two traveled to most of the places he knew during the war.
But Joe Connery's stories of World War II in Europe were locked inside him until recent years.
A common thread that runs through veterans of World War II is or has been a reluctance to talk about their wartime experiences.
They were a generation of men who went on with their lives after the war, often declining offered praise in favor of the welcome dullness of a normal life.
Joe remembers giving a bare-bones report when his seven children asked what he did in the war.
Even a son attending the Air Force Academy couldn't pull the details from him.
Then the grandkids started asking.
"So we made a movie," says Pat, his wife of 55 years.
The Connerys finish each others' sentences the way most long-married couples do, only in their case, she is the repository of war facts Joe might've forgotten.
"What was the name of that?" he turns to her more than once when he talks about his fighting days.
There's no chagrin when she says, "I've heard them so many times," by way of explanation.
In the home movie, Joe explains with stories and maps what he saw as a bomber pilot in eight European countries. It took a week to make in the 1980s, and the Connerys joke that technical problems could've been grounds for divorce.
Most importantly, it was the first time Joe spoke in any detail of the war, and it opened him to sharing the stories his family was hungry to hear.
It also readied him for his most recent assignment.
Grandson Alex Troyan had to write about an important event for his fifth-grade classl.
The 1940s era photographs, books and artifacts that have occupied his grandfather's office weren't lost on Alex.
"Once (my teacher) said it, I knew I was going to do my grandpa," Alex says.
The paper's title, "My Hero, My Mentor, My Grandfather," makes Joe stand a little straighter, while he and Pat take turns heaping praise of their own on their grandson.
Alex is the oldest of four boys and 18th of the Connerys' 21 grandchildren. There is a great-granddaughter as well.
He is a terrific student, a musician and a genius when it comes to fixing things.
"We call him MacGyver," says Pat.
For his part, Alex wants to follow his grandfather, at least up until the school administrator part after his flying days are over.
"I probably want to be a pilot," he says. "Then I'll probably make planes for the military."