“I’m half asleep, and all of a sudden I hit the top of the roof of the radio room,” Tom said. “The pilot had to put the plane in a dive. I hit the floor, then I hit the top again.
“We flew 19 missions. I came closer to being killed that day than on any of the other missions.”
It wasn’t the Luftwaffe that almost downed Tom’s Flying Fortress. It was a squadron of American planes, a dozen Yankee B-17s. Somewhere up there, apparently distracted by the early morning sun, planes had gotten off course.
Tom had grown up in Arlington County and graduated from Washington-Lee High School. He’d been drafted, then volunteered for the Army Air Corps, but only as a way to escape the hot and buggy swamps of Louisiana, where he was being trained for the tank corps.
Tom survived the war, went to work for Pennsylvania Central Airlines, which became Capital Airlines, which bought Viscount Airlines, which merged with United Airlines. After he retired he moved to Rehoboth, Del. He’s 89.
For nearly 70 years he wondered what exactly happened that spring morning when two dozen planes tried to occupy the same airspace. Just this month he found out.
Tom was part of the Eighth Air Force’s 305th Bombardment Group. He’d always heard that it was bombers from the 91st that spoiled his nap. But he checked records and found that the 91st wasn’t even flying that morning. Someone said maybe it was the 398th.
As it happened, Tom knew someone from the 398th, a buddy of his from high school named Lew Burke, now living in Centreville.
Formation flying is devilishly tricky. A lead pilot sets the course and everyone else keeps his eyes on the plane next to them. Lew was a co-pilot, trading command of the plane back and forth on long flights.
“The pilot was flying,” Lew said when I called him. “He was looking out of his left window. He didn’t see this group coming. I saw them, and they kept getting bigger and bigger. At the last minute, I grabbed the wheel and dumped the plane. We dived under the oncoming plane, which would have gone in our waist window.”
Four years after their graduation and 4,000 miles from Arlington, the two Washington-Lee kids came thisclose to having a most painful reunion.
Said Tom: “Of all the planes and all the bomb groups in England, what are the odds that his squadron of 12 planes and my squadron of 12 planes ran together?”
After the war, Lew went to work for C&P Telephone. He’s 89 now. He was 21 when he flew America’s most fearsome bomber into Nazi Germany.
I asked him if he was scared.
“I was not as scared as I should have been, because I was not as smart as I should have been,” Lew said. “They often say there’s courage and there’s stupidity. It’s a fine line between which is really courage and which is stupidity.”
I think it’s pretty clear which side of the line Lew and Tom were on.
“Sundown,” by Gordon Lightfoot. That’s the first record I ever bought, a 45. It was a gift for Kaela, who I thought was my girlfriend in fifth grade. I say “I thought” because, while she had not been creeping round my back stairs, she had been hanging out at the monkey bars with other boys. Even now, I can’t hear that song without thinking of her infidelity.
Saturday is Record Store Day, an opportunity to celebrate vinyl and independent retailers. In honor of that, the AFI Silver is screening “Record Paradise: The Musical Life of Joe Lee.” It’s Michael Streissguth’s low-key documentary about the son of privilege who owns a record store in Silver Spring. It’s at 8 p.m., and tickets are $5.
Bye for now
I’m taking a week off. See you back here April 29.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.