Coming home in one piece

A Veterans Day story

Opinion: Columns

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Paul Oppenheim

Last spring, during a visit with my older cousin Clyde in Colorado, we were recalling our favorite uncle, Pat Anderson. Pat died back in the mid-1980s, and after his death, Clyde inherited a box containing Pat's World War II medals, plus various clippings and photos from his wartime experiences. He was a waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress from 1943 to 1944, and among his papers was a photo of nearly a hundred men lined up on the wings, fuselage, and in front of a B-17 at Bury St. Edmund, England. It was the entire 410th Squadron, part of the 94th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. One of the old letters identified his location in the group, as well as the names of several fellow crew members.

Pat's real name was Karl, but he'd been known by his nickname since early childhood. He enlisted in August 1942, and was assigned as a radar operator in England. He had always wanted to fly, and in one of the old clippings Pat described himself as "too heavy, too tall, color blind and too old" to do so. But replacements weren't arriving fast enough and the Air Corps urgently needed gunners, so he volunteered. He was nearly 40 years old, about twice the age of most of his fellow crew members.

Aside from color blindness, his vision was excellent, and in one of his letters he told of informing the doctor at his flight physical that, despite the color problem, he could "sure as hell tell the difference between a star and a swastika." He passed. And his fifth-ever airplane ride was a combat mission, at a time when American bombers and crews were being lost at an alarming rate.

From those clippings I also discovered that a plane he often flew was named "Kac's Flak Shak," and that he was on many dangerous missions over Germany facing intense German fighter attacks and heavy anti-aircraft fire. On one mission over Brunswick, with no fighter escorts, he wrote of his plane limping back to England on three engines with its horizontal stabilizer shot away-a three-hour battle with German fighter planes all the way. Pat and the rest of his crew emerged without a scratch. After 25 missions, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters and assigned back to the U.S.

My childhood memories of Uncle Pat recall a very funny, generous and interesting guy who delighted in entertaining his young nieces and nephews during family gatherings. His family roots were in Crete, Neb., but he moved west during the Depression, eventually establishing a prosperous insurance and real estate business in Hermosa Beach, Calif. He was on the city council there, and even served a term or two as mayor during the 1960s. He remained a bachelor until age 60.

As a kid, I was aware that he had flown B-17s during the war, but knew little else about his wartime experiences. Then in the fall of 1968, I was home on leave as an Army lieutenant during the Viet Nam War, and drove out to see relatives in Lincoln, Neb. Pat was also visiting, and the two of us took in a football game at Doane College, where we had both gone to school. It was my first occasion to spend much time with him on an adult level, and our military service gave us something of a common bond, though separated by over 30 years.

After reading the old clippings and letters with my cousin Clyde, I searched the Internet for more information on the 94th Bomb Group. And there was plenty of it-even the name of Pat's plane. There was also a guest book where I entered my name and my relationship to him. A few days later, I was surprised by an e-mail from someone named Andy Mays, a lobster fisherman from Maine, whose great uncle, also a B-17 crewman, was killed during the war. Andy had extensively researched the 94th Bomb Group and was familiar with many plane names and their crew members. In the search for information on his uncle, he established contact with the families of other crewmen. His lobster boat is even named "Lost Airmen" in honor of his uncle and others who perished on wartime missions.

He also informed me that the pilot of Kac's Flak Shak, George Kacsuta, age 90, was still alive and well, living near Pittsburgh, and that they had recently spoken by telephone. Initially, Mr. Kacsuta didn't recall the name Pat Anderson, so I sent more information to Andy Mays, including Pat's age at the time. Mays called him again, and then it clicked. Yes, Mr. Kacsuta knew my uncle very well, not as Pat but as Karl, his real name. That explained the initial confusion. So one evening in June, Clyde and I called George Kacsuta to extend our greetings and establish a small connection with a man who had served in combat with our uncle. He seemed pleased to talk to us, and it was a fascinating, and somewhat emotional conversation more than 60 years after those two brave men had flown together. I followed up by sending Mr. Kacsuta copies of the old newspaper clippings, photos and letters. Then in early October, Clyde said he'd like to personally shake the hand of the man who had carried our uncle back safely from many missions and suggested we drive to Pittsburgh to see him.

A couple of weeks later that's what we did. George Kacsuta lives with his daughter and son-in-law, and looks at least 20 years younger than his real age. He showed us a large scrap book of his flying career, and generously gave us a copy of the personal flight diary of his 25 missions (18 of them with our uncle). Looking over those materials gave us an increased appreciation of the danger these men faced, often on a daily basis.

He and his daughter also told us that in the late 1990s, one of the few B-17s still flying was in the Pittsburgh area for public viewing. They toured the plane and paid for a brief flight. And more than 40 years after his last B-17 flight, George had a chance to take the pilot's seat again. B-17s have manual controls, with no hydraulics or other power assists-like a car without power steering. He said he was delighted when the pilot told him, "George, you haven't lost your touch."

Based on our brief meeting with George Kascuta, I believe he could still fly a mission and get us home in one piece.

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