Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Final Salute To Our Family's FlyBoy

The first house I ever bought was the typical, sweat-equity special: Low on charm but high on potential. The first day I owned the house, I tore out old cabinets and found rations booklets dating back to World War II. I never understood those rations booklets until I met my wife and her grandparents.

World War II was all about sacrifice. Professional sports slowed while collegiate and prep sports in some instances stopped, as they did in 1943 when the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) shelved the boys' basketball tournament. The Chicago Cubs missed the first era of lights by 45 years when the Wrigley family donated their lighting material purchase to the war effort. Bomb shelters and draft boards were the order of the day and life went on with heavy hearts and responsibilities alike. Detroit shed her Motor City moniker and instead became the Arsenal of Democracy.

I never really knew my wife's grandfather, Bill R. Whitesell, besides the handful of times we shared a few words. That's Whitesell in the picture to the right, receiving a rank and pay grade increase in an official United States Air Force photo taken at Tachikawa Air Base. Whitesell passed on this morning in Monroe, Michigan at 86 years of age. Naturally Debbie's side of the family knew him best as Grampa. I've witnessed this grief already. My parents, grandparents and siblings have either passed on or moved on from any further contact.

Bill Whitesell was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1922. By the time Adolph Hitler's German Nazi military machine was beginning to dominate and desecrate Europe in 1940, Whitesell -- like so many other strapping American boys -- was enlisting. There's a reason this era of young Americans is called America's Greatest Generation and this is one of those defining characteristics; Uncle Sam didn't have to ask twice. Whitesell joined the Army Air Corps but earned wings in the Navy Air Corps, too -- a dual designation that is rarely witnessed in modern times.

Through WW II, the Korean War and Vietnam, too, if it had two wings, an engine and a prop, Whitesell could lift it into the sky and push it in and out of clouds. He motored the famously amphibious PYR-5's in the Pacific Theater; hauled the mail in C-130's; flew both the light B-25's and heavy B-52's from Willow Run and whistled through the wind in P-38's and C-47 Gooneybirds, too. Whitesell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

He ascended to his final rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1965 while flying AC-119's -- better known as 'Flying Boxcars' -- over the darkened skies of Vietnam at nearly 50 years of age. His call sign was "Shadow Zero-Niner", a fact recalled more than a few times as his family remembered his life and times this morning. His wife, Jacqueline, recalled the many men he saved, including 125 he discovered in a cave on a single flight. Whitesell also lived with a heavy heart for the kills he made during his combat duties. Glory is brilliant. Grief is messy. The fighting men and women of America live with this burden long after the bands stop playing and the parades end.

Yet the most amazing feat might have been obscured save for an innocuous comment made in passing. Whitesell moved his family an astounding 48 times and managed to keep his marriage in tact for 66 years, right up until his morning passing.

Maybe that accomplishment, in light of today's throw-away society mentality, deserves the most credit. Sitting around the table listening to the war stories was a stoic reminder of the sacrifices so many of us have never been asked to partake in. We enjoy the daily fruits of a country Whitesell's generation risked their lives for several times over. It almost makes you vengeful of corporate America's numerous irresponsibilities we will be forced to bear the brunt of in the coming years. That we continue to destroy the good life that was handed to us without a second thought is sickening.

Bill Whitesell will get a military burial and a 21-gun salute, but it won't be on CNN. He didn't earn his 15 minutes of fame as 'Joe The Plumber'. He was the unassuming war veteran. He was a husband, a father and grandfather many times over. He was an air cadet, a pilot. He was "Shadow-Zero-Niner".

Bill Whitesell embodied what being an American used to be all about. Sacrifice for the greater good, even if that greater good meant the ultimate sacrifice. It's a lesson we can all sacrifice a few minutes for.

(Official USAF photo courtesy Whitesell family collection)

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, due August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing.

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