Odell Myers, Pilot
438 Squadron, 319th Medium Bombardment Group
2nd Lt. Odell Myers, Air Force Advanced Flying School (AFAFS)
Stockton Field, CA, July 26, 1942 (Graduation Day)
A presentation at
Bond Park, July 3, 2003
Independence Day Eve Patriotic Program
By the Cary Town Band
Sponsored by the Town of Cary, NC
Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
CAN THIS NATION LONG ENDURE?
By Odell Myers, author of THRICE
An American Army POW's 900 days Under Axis Guns
McFarland & Co. Inc., Publishers: Jefferson, NC 28640- 0611
Mr. Hammerle, members of the Band, Fellow Patriots:
What risks we Americans take! Mr. Hammerle invited me to speak at this Independence Day eve celebration and you came to hear the music and my speech yet no one censored my speech. Nor was I required to pass a litmus test for patriotism.
No one even thought of a litmus test for patriotism but merely assumed that I might say something interesting because I served in the Air Force in WWII and was an Axis prisoner of war in Europe for 900 days.
That POW experience and the current terrorism aimed at our destruction certainly focused my attention on the unique foundation principles of the United States of America.
No nation, however, has a monopoly on patriotism or some idea of independence. In WWII, Germans, Italians and Japanese were and still are patriots. To the citizens of the former USSR, WWII was the great patriotic war! Afghanistan's Taliban are patriots. Iraqis are patriots! So are Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians, Iranians, North Koreans and so on.
Patriotism-whether or not so named-is as ancient as human kind and loyalty to a geographic place and/or a culture is a major factor in mankind's survival.
About 431 BC, the Greek dramatist Euripides wrote: There is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land.
More than a century earlier when the Jews had been defeated by Nebuchadnezzar and deported to Babylon, the captives cried: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.
About 165 years ago in North Carolina and neighboring states, the United States of America deported approximately 16,000 Cherokees from their homeland to what now is Oklahoma. En route on what they aptly called the Trail of Tears, some 4000 men, women and children died. I intentionally mentioned my Cherokee ancestors lest we forget that our European ancestors wrested this lovely land on their own terms from native Americans who had lived here for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.
Home is where the heart is! In every tongue, history praises those who have sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve their homes. History also records that no clan, no tribe, no nation has ever been tolerant, at least initially, of anyone who thought and acted otherwise.
Although patriotism usually includes territorial loyalty, it obviously has dimensions beyond geography! Both are extolled in one of our familiar songs:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
What is that next to the last line? Something about brotherhood? On any scale, brotherhood is a dimension beyond geography! For us, it is rooted in the novel and daring words at the beginning and the end of the Declaration of Independence:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
Let's skip the long list of grievances and read the last line:
... for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
According to King George and the British government, the patriots who signed that historic document were traitors who deserved hanging by the neck until they were dead! Nevertheless, they signed their names to bold daring words! Words more easily uttered than realized in the structure of the new nation. Followed after the war, therefore, by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights that began defining and limiting-yes, limiting-the freedom newly claimed:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
These documents are remarkable for including so few principles. They are astounding, however, for excluding a vast number of divisive principles; for example: The patriots might have established a monarchy, an oligarchy or a plutocracy. They might have selected one of many competing religions or sects as the national religion. They might have chosen an easier and more familiar path to nationhood.
But they did not. They chose an arduous uncharted path.
Suppose that the Declaration of Independence could be changed, brought up to date to match conditions that were not imaginable two hundred years ago.
Should something be subtracted from the unalienable rights? How about the notion that all men are created equal? It plagues us today and it certainly troubled the men who signed the Declaration. Some of them owned slaves. Few of them considered native Americans equal. What about life? Liberty? The pursuit of happiness? Government by the consent of the governed?
Should anything be added? A state religion? A most favored race? Now wait just a minute! Added by whom? Subtracted by whom?
Could any person, political party, religious group, non-religious group, ethnic majority or minority, think tank, private militia, terrorist, terrorist group or group of any kind whatsoever add to or subtract from the Declaration of Independence without destroying the nation itself?
Why did those old patriots make amending the Constitution such a daunting task?
The answers are in the Declaration's list of grievances against King George. They understood freedom because they were not free! And they embedded the litmus test for patriotism in the fabric of our nation.
It is simple and straightforward: It requires loyalty to this lovely land, loyalty to self-evident truths, loyalty to each other and always sacrifice, sometimes, the sacrifice of life itself.
The freedom they won was not free; it is not free for us; it will not be free for our descendents. In war and in peace, in actions large and small, freedom first requires doing what ought to be done-a daunting task amply illustrated by the nation's stunning successes, its dismal failures and the steady stream of constitutional cases before the United States Supreme Court.
In 1936, when Japan began creating its empire of the rising sun, when Germany was seeking living room and singing Deutschland uber alles, when Italy was dreaming of a new Roman empire, I was sixteen years old and still in high school. Career, college and girls headed my list of priorities. That's not quite right: Girls, college and career headed the list.
World events culminating in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed my priorities. My orders to report for pilot training in the United States Army Air Corps arrived the following day-December 8, 1941.
On December 4, 1942, my B26B medium bomber was shot down in Tunisia. I was captured, hospitalized and finally sent to a permanent POW camp in Italy.
Until then, I had taken freedom for granted. Upon losing it, freedom moved to the top of my priority list.
Awake or asleep, freedom dominated my thoughts! In one frequently recurring dream, I escaped, ran ahead of pursuing soldiers and desperately tried to reach my home. I always made it to the front porch, pounded on the door and cried It's me, Daddy, open the door! Hurry! Please hurry!
But my father never opened the door. Instead, the soldiers always rushed onto the porch, grabbed me and yelled Roll call! Roll call! Everybody out for roll call!
Then, like a paddle ball on a rubber band, I snapped back across thousands of miles from Texas to Italy, climbed down from my upper bunk and stumbled out to be counted on another day that looked exactly like yesterday and tomorrow never came.
Until September 8, 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allies. The Italian soldiers simply disappeared. We were free. No Special Forces rushed to our rescue. No Medivac helicopters landed in the camp. No one mistook us for heroes. No Hollywood producers smelled money and offered us contracts. Instead, the Senior Allied POW officer issued an incredible order: Do not leave the camp. Anyone disobeying this order will be court-martialed!
Imagine our dilemma and the ensuing debate. While we debated, however, the Germans recaptured us and quickly moved us to a railhead for shipment to Germany.
At the risk of our lives, two friends and I escaped from a guarded camp, temporarily hid in an Italian village, then hiked over the mountains for about 100 miles toward freedom. We were recaptured, however, in the front lines and sent to a POW camp in Germany where we remained until liberated by Russian troops on May 1, 1945.
The freedom you and I now take for granted was won in WWII at the staggering cost of 60 to 70 million lives-friends and enemies. According to the latest U.S. census, that is approximately the same number of people living in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
I survived; many of my friends did not. I have seen the wounded, the dying, the dead, thousands of POWs and thousands of Russian soldiers who restored my freedom. I have seen hundreds of concentration camp prisoners for whom liberation came too late.
Following the pivotal battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln addressed the ages:
Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
Did the testing end at Gettysburg, at Appomattox, Versailles, on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, at Panmunjom, at Saigon, at the World Trade Center, at Kabul, at Baghdad? At Raleigh? At Cary? At your house? At mine?
"... can this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure?"
Imagine starving until you are a skinny bag of bones. Imagine scavenging a garbage dump for scraps of food. Imagine trapping sparrows for a sliver of meat. Imagine stealing a few bites of food intended for a peasant's pig. Imagine trying to divide starvation rations into equal portions while starving men watch every move?
Imagine being crammed together for years in rooms so small that you cannot move without bumping into someone? Imagine wearing the same clothes for months and forgetting what a hot bath feels like. Imagine facing enemy guns every day for 900 days.
Imagine stress like that described by Stephen Vincent Benet in Western Star:
"The idle, human gossip of hot-blooded, quarrelsome men, cooped up together too long through the itching weeks when you get to hate a man for the way he walks or snores at night or dips his hand in the dish, but most of all, because you keep seeing him and cannot help but see him, day after day after day-...."
How could anyone stand it?
The answers range from faith to duty, honor, plain orneriness, no other choice, who knows and so on. Every answer, however, has this common thread:
I endured them just as they endured me through a few good times and lots of bad ones.
"... can this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? "
On your shoulders, on mine, lies the heavy hand of history-a mandate to continuously and lawfully create a united nation out of diversity that is sometimes rich and rewarding but often is willfully ignorant, intolerant selfish and cantankerous. On our roads, in our towns and in our cities, we encounter rage fueled by a me-first get-out-of-my-way mentality. Further complicating our already difficult task are terrorists who kill us in the name of their god and criminals ranging from a Timothy McVeigh and teen-age assassins to top corporate executives who subvert freedom to their own ends.
Indeed there is much to endure and much that can be left to the courts and other authorities. For the remainder, however, we must endure each other in order that ... this nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal will long endure.
Please join me:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
December 4, 1942
"Aproaching the harbor ... altitude, 250 feet." Maj. Jones' voice droned our mission strategy over the intercom. "Climbing to 3000 feet.... Leveling off. IP coming up. Take us in, Mick."
"Roger," answered Lt. Mikolasy, the bombardier-navigator.
"Check in. Turret? OK. Tail? OK. Belly? OK. Drop those suckers, Mick, so we can hit the deck and get out of here!"
Jones, the 438th squadron commander leading this mission on the harbor at Bizerte, Tunisia, was our most experienced combat veteran, having flown with Doolittle's Raiders on their surprise attack on Tokyo. This was his fifth mission, our fourth. He did not believe in lingering over the target. Nor did we.
The German defenses of Bizerte harbor in Tunisia, a key point in their buildup of forces in North Africa, made our previous missions seem easy. As we reached the altitude for the bombing run, the open door in the belly of the plane gave me a bird's-eye view of what was happening on the ground: strategically located along our path from the initial point to the docks were several flak batteries- some containing 88mm guns and all of them in action!
At one battery a little to the right of our flight path, the crew was scurrying around, swinging the gun to our azimuth and elevation and firing! As the smoky tracks of shells were arching upward, I was trying, futilely since my gun had no front sight, to use the tracers in my ammunition to hit that battery. Since I had no training in aerial gunnery, I was wondering just what 1, a silver-winged pilot, was doing in the belly of a B26B Marauder on a dangerous bombing mission against a heavily defended target. Somehow Maj. Jones' reason, I don't want you to get behind the rest of us on missions, was unconvincing.
Simultaneously with the exploding shells, our plane shuddered, hesitated momentarily as though it had flown into something viscous, almost solid. The tail section filled with smoke and the smell of cordite. My urgent attempt to contact Maj. Jones on the intercom failed. Swiftly, I strapped on a chest chute and started forward through the bomb bay, noting with relief that all of the bombs had been dropped. Then, through the open bomb-bay doors, the ground looked close enough to touch. So I returned to the tail section where Herwig and Hillman - good men from my regular crew who, like me, had been assigned temporarily to Jones's crew for this mission -were waiting and gave them the bad news: toolate to get to the cockpit ... too low to bail out ... can't tell whether or not anyone is in control ... plane's in a flat turn to the right ... we're going down....
McFarland & Co. Inc., Publishers: Jefferson, NC 28640- 0611