WWII Fighter Pilot Shared Haunting Story With the World

Mr. Aanenson helped inspire the story line of
Mr. Aanenson helped inspire the story line of "The War," Ken Burns's World War II documentary. (Us Army Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As a fighter pilot in World War II, Quentin C. Aanenson fought a very dangerous war.

He first saw combat on D-Day, and in the ensuing year, he dive-bombed and strafed tanks, bridges and German infantry at low altitude. He took direct hits from antiaircraft shells and flak on more than 20 missions and survived two crash landings. He watched so many of his fellow pilots in the 366th Fighter Group die that he stopped making friends with the replacements.

After 75 combat missions, Mr. Aanenson rotated home for a short break. He married the girl he'd met during basic training and went to see his parents in his southwestern Minnesota home town. There, he picked up his boyhood hunting rifle and shot a pesky gopher. As he watched it die, "something snapped," he said. "I resolved never to kill again."

Fortunately, he was never asked to. By the time he was due back for duty, the war was over.

Mr. Aanenson, 87, who became a life insurance executive after the war, died of cancer Dec. 28 at his home in Bethesda.

A trim, modest man who looked like the unassuming grandson of Norwegian immigrants that he was, Mr. Aanenson's reflections on the brutality of combat deepened the understanding of war among millions of television viewers. He had rarely spoken of his military service until after he retired, when his children suggested that he document what he'd gone through.

The result became a movie, "A Fighter Pilot's Story," which he intended as a private family memoir. In 1992, he showed the video to a reunion of the 366th Fighter Group Association. Fellow veterans urged him to get it into wider distribution. WETA aired a three-hour version in November 1993. By that June, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, more than 300 PBS stations had broadcast it.

Filmmaker Ken Burns heard about the video while he was researching his World War II documentary. His interviews with the eloquent Mr. Aanenson led Burns to Minnesota, where he found a treasure-trove of wartime newspaper columns written by the editor of the local Rock County Star Herald. How the farm town dealt with the loss and heroism of its sons formed the narrative underpinning of Burns's 2007 documentary, "The War."

A principal officer at Mutual of New York for 32 years, Mr. Aanenson received some of his profession's highest managerial honors. He was selected its "Manager of the Year" from a field of 147 before his retirement in 1986.

"That helped me come to peace -- this sounds strange -- with the dealing in death," he later said of his career in life insurance. "You have to choose life over death. I don't mean to be melodramatic about it, but that was the motive."

But the war never entirely left him. He was haunted by the fear that he had once mistakenly fired on Allied troops. The first time he fired on a column of German soldiers along a roadside, the impact of his shells pitched their bodies into the air. He knew he was doing what he was trained to do, "but when I got back home to the base in Normandy and landed, I got sick. I had to think about what I had done. Now that didn't change my resolve for the next day. I went out and did it again. And again and again and again," he said.

He wrote affecting letters to his fiancee, not all of which he mailed. Later in life, after nightmares kept him from sleep, his right hand, the one that controlled the fighter's guns, would not work well enough to hold a coffee cup. Blinding headaches from a wartime concussion plagued him for decades.

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