While the distant past is only accessible from the archaeological record and documents, more recent history is readily accessible, and usually takes the form of "old people." Old people are a wealth of semi-useful information, and since most people ignore them, they are very happy to share their stories with you if you even hint at a passing interest.
Having one of the last remaining World War II bomber pilots as my grandpa, I consider myself a lucky person. His eyesight is fading and his hearing is about gone, but upstairs he's 100%. He seldom talks about the War with me, and I'm sure it's because I'm female. (When I mention this to other war vets, they all nod their heads knowingly. Still not sure what that's about.) Still, the man's not getting any younger, so when I visited for Thanksgiving, I waited until my grandma left the room to take a call before I pounced.
To get around Grandpa's hearing issue, we use a little white board. I wrote on the board, Who are those people with you in the photograph on your desk? Where are you guys?
I pick up the black and white picture and bring it to him. It depicts 5 young men in Army Air Corps uniforms in a bar.
"That's my crew. We were in Italy. That's where we were stationed, so we could fly bombing missions over Europe."
464th Bomb group flying in formation.
How many missions did you fly?
He laughs. "49."
I write Why is that funny?
"It was during the 46th mission that the plane went down. After we were recovered, I asked to be put back on the flight list so that I could complete 50 missions. I flew three more, but then we were sent home."
You crashed a plane, then wanted to fly again?
"I liked flying."
464th Bomb group flying side by side.
What made you want to be a pilot?
"Well, I was bedridden for over a year when I was little..."
"They said a cancer of the bone, but maybe polio. When I saw pictures of airplanes, I knew I wanted to do that! When the war first started, I didn't have enough education to be a pilot. [He had been at the University of Illinois when the war started, and didn't finish.] But then I ran into a friend of mine who was flying P-38s. He told me that they needed pilots badly, so I spoke with his commanding officer, and got to go to cadet school."
I know you crashed a plane - where did you go down?
"We were taking a lot of enemy fire, and one of the crew was killed. I ditched the bomber in a pond* in Yugoslavia, near Dubrovnik [official records say either "the Adriatic," "a flooded field," or "a lake."] You know, we've been back there several times. It's a walled city, and it's just beautiful."
Did you see the crash site again?
"No, I never saw it again."
464th Bomb group.
How did you get out of the plane?
"That was the tricky part. We went in to the pond, and the plane was filling up. But then something happened to make it roll over so that I could get out. Some members of the local resistance helped to get the other crew member out." [details on the rest of the crew have been sketchy, but one seems to have been cut down by enemy fire before the crash]
Did you have to swim out?
"Yes, and it was cold. Not a good experience."
What time of year was this?
Yeah, I guess that would be cold.
"But the resistance said they couldn't help us until nightfall. It wouldn't be safe to move us until then."
So you had to sit under a tree somewhere and shiver for hours?
"Yes, well as I said, it wasn't much fun."
(Honestly, I can't imagine much worse than having your plane shot down, your friends killed in front of you, you almost drown trying to escape the sinking fuselage in icy water, and you have to sit, soaked, for hours in a foreign country waiting to be captured or shot, watching your other friend's life slowly leak out).
And the other guy? I ask.
"He was in a bad way." Grandpa frowns at this point. "There were bones sticking out..." He doesn't say anything for a second. "He didn't last." [This, by the way, is the reason my grandpa installed seat belts in all his cars upon his return from the War.]
Trying to figure out if this was the plane that crashed... still researching this one.
He perks up. "But the neat part was that the resistance put us in a German ambulance. They covered us in blankets and told us they were going to drive through the enemy German lines, then our own lines. We were told not to speak. The driver had a German uniform."
That is pretty cool. So you got through the German lines okay.
"We did, and past the walls of Dubrovnik."
The crash is why you got the medal.
Obviously not wanting to discuss that in depth, he says, "Did you see my new medal case? Your father and uncle helped with that. I'll show you."
Bombs drop from a plane in same squadron as Grandpa.
We walk to the hallway where his medals are displayed in a shadow box. His Silver Star is near the top. The ribbons are still vibrant. I pointed at the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
"I know what these are for, but why did you get these?" I point at others.
He studies them. "For doing a good job I guess."
By this point my grandmother is off the phone, and now Grandpa only wants to discuss how lovely Croatia is this time of year.
So naturally I have to research the rest.
I knew he was a bomber pilot. He was a member of the 464th bomb group, 777th Squadron.
Grandpa is 3rd from the left. Bomber Reunion 2002.
I found out that he received the Silver Star in 1945:
And his "doing a good job" medal?
The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the Armed Forces of the United States, shall have distinguished himself/herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
I'd like to find out more about that crash, but it appears that I will have to consult military documents and books from here on out. It is mentioned in at least one book. I've learned that just because the Past is conveniently sitting in the same room, doesn't mean he wants to talk.
Or maybe he still takes the "loose lips sink ships" slogan seriously.
*1945 Newspaper article briefly discussing crash.