“Flyboys” – A Personal Memorial Day Remembrance

Memorial Day honors those who died while serving in the military. There are many personal stories that highlight the sacrifices made. This is one of the stories.

Memorial Day is now a three-day holiday. Many of us think of it as three days off of work without much thought to why it has been set aside as a holiday.

And, if this video is an indication, many do not know what the holiday means or, if they do know what it stands for, they do not think it should be a holiday. As one Georgetown student proudly stated in this video, he learned in his gender studies class that the holiday is a celebration of “American imperialism” and since starting college and taking that class he had been on a path of “f*** the U.S.”.

For many families, the holiday is personal. The view that celebrating and remembering those who died in defense of their country as nothing more than “American imperialism” is offensive.

Here is one example.

What is a Flyboy?

“Flyboys” is a term popularized in American English in a book on World War II in the Pacific by James Bradley and published in 2003.

The Bradley book refers to Airmen, specifically fighter pilots, in World War II. Based on actual events, he describes an air raid over a Japanese island, Chichi-jima, in which ten American crewmen survived being shot down. Nine of them were captured and subsequently killed and cannibalized by their captors. He also describes Japanese society leading up to World War II and how it came to become a military threat.

The events were discovered after World War II. In 1946, 30 Japanese soldiers were court-martialed on Guam and four Japanese officers were found guilty and hanged.

Flyboys more generally refers to pilots, and oftentimes specifically to those who fought during World War II.

Military Service and Patriotism

In World War II, Americans often saw the war as a struggle for survival, and serving in the military was usually considered a patriotic duty. There were 12 million men and women serving in the military. America was less urban and more rural. Millions of young men living on farms went into the military to do their part to help America prevail in the World War.

Many men were drafted or joined a military service prior to being drafted. There were some exceptions for men working on farms as Americans needed a large food supply during the war and hiring workers and people with farming expertise could be difficult.

In the small town of Plainfield, Vermont, two young men who worked on a farm decided to join the Marines instead of milking cows on a dairy farm. They viewed it as a patriotic duty even though it was not necessary for both to join as their work on the farm would have enabled one of them to avoid going into the military.

Portrait of Marine lieutenant Ralph Russell
Marine Lieutenant Ralph Russell

The younger man who joined the Marines wanted to be a pilot. He succeeded. He learned to fly at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. After intensive training throughout 1943, he found himself stationed as a pilot on the USS Bennington late in 1944.

Operating out of the Caroline Islands in the Pacific, raids were conducted supporting the Okinawa campaign in 1945. On March 14, 1945, the Bennington started a series of attacks on the Japanese homeland in preparation for an invasion.

Alternating Boredom and Intensity

As many who have served in the military will attest, time in the military often means alternating between periods of boredom and periods of intense activity. Life for the flyboys aboard the Bennington was apparently no different. On March 5, 1945, Ralph wrote to his parents:

We’re supposed to be resting now but as far as I’m concerned I get more tired of hanging around doing nothing than when we’re at sea. We’ve got no place to go but a little sand island where they have a shack and sell beer….There’s nothing else to write about. We’re just sitting, doing nothing but wish they’d either send us back to the states or back where we have something to do.

Obviously, the boredom gave way to more exciting events. A few days later, in an undated letter, Ralph wrote again to his parents:

I have neglected to date this letter. I’ll just say the eve before battle. It’s no longer a thing new to us….It’s just like taking off on a gunnery hop at Santa Barbara. Last night and today we had the roughest weather I have seen. Our ship is pretty big though…it’s the boys on the destroyers that I pity. We have not received any mail in almost a month except for one letter I got from a girl in California….So for lack of more dirt, I’d better close. Don’t worry, we always come out on top.

A few days later, on March 19, 1945, the American military task force began flying off fighter aircraft to sweep over the airfields around Kure Naval Base in Japan. An air attack of of 158 Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, escorted by 163 Hellcats and Vought F4U Corsair fighters attacked Japanese ships and installations in the area. Total casualties of the battle resulted in 14 American and 25 Japanese aircraft shot down.

On March 24, 1945, the Commanding Officer on the USS Bennington sent a letter to Ralph’s parents. He wrote:

…[O]n March 19th, we were intercepted and attacked by a very large formation of enemy fighters in the neighborhood of Kure Naval Base…During the fight, Ralph’s plane was hit and he started gliding towards the Inland Sea with his engine smoking badly….Ralph has opened his parachute in preparation for a jump….If Ralph was able to bail-out or make a water landing, he is undoubtedly a prisoner of war now.

Missing in Action

Ralph is still listed as officially missing in action. His body was never recovered. I was advised by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that urns had been located in a cave in the area that may be filled with ashes of American military personnel that may have been pilots and may have included remains of Ralph Russell. Identification was not possible.

Summary

Memorial Day has a long history and was created to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military. Most of us think of the holiday and are grateful for the sacrifices that have enabled Americans to continue to enjoy our freedom while there are some, such as the Georgetown student quoted above, who learned in college that the holiday is nothing more than a celebration of “American imperialism.” Hopefully, he will eventually learn enough history elsewhere in his college experience and overcome the lessons transmitted in his gender equality course to see a broader context—including threats the country has faced to the individual freedom so important to others that they were willing to defend the system we are still able to enjoy.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47