*Update* The program with Tom Jones is scheduled to air on Thursday, July 3, at 2pm Central time. You can listen live at our website or listen to the podcast any time.
I interviewed an astronaut today who spent 52 days in space on four separate Space Shuttle missions, and took three space walks at the International Space Station. Tom Jones (you can visit his website here) is the co-author of a fascinating new book about some unsung heroes of World War II. The book is Hell Hawks!: The Untold Story of the American Fliers who Savaged Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
These young men, some as young as 20, played a crucial role in the liberation of Europe from the Nazis during the last 16 months of WW II. Unlike some of the air groups in Europe, these men did not have fixed bases from which to operate in England and Belgium. These fliers camped out in often appalling conditions near the front lines, picking up and moving when necessary.
Their job was to coordinate with ground forces in preparing areas for the invading allied troops. The planes they flew, the P-47 Thunderbolt, also known as “the jug”, were little tanks. Ground forces were always glad to have them overhead because they were great defense tools as the troops moved forward. They didn’t get shot down as easily due to their design. The bombers grew so accurate that they could drop their weapons on military vehicles below. The wife of Earnest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, was a war correspondent on the front lines during the war. She described seeing actual Nazi official’s cars turned into rubble on the roads because of the 365th Fighter Group and their amazing Thunderbolts.
The book tells the story of the combat missions, the victories and the tragedies that took place through the voices of those members of the Hell Hawks who are still living. Tom Jones said that the men were dismissive that anything they did was unusual or heroic. Their attitude was, “we did what we had to, and anyone in our position would have done the same thing.” The word “duty” came up frequently, Tom Jones said, in the interviews he did with these veterans. That was a generation that understood and unashamedly used that term. You don’t hear that word as often these days in the general public. While America faces enemies within and without that are every bit as dangerous, the attitude of the public seems different today.
There is a lot of cynicism generated by the ongoing Iraq war. Like our soldiers in the Middle East today, soldiers and fighter pilots of the 1940’s were thrust into situations they had never encountered before—situations that required incredible courage and bravery. I really believe there are still many courageous young people and many of them are serving our country right now in the armed forces. Their families are also unsung heroes who have endured unprecedented repeat deployments for their loved ones. In the midst of the ongoing conflict, this often gets forgotten.
The Tom Jones interview should air on July 3 or 4 if all goes as planned. The book brings to mind again the sacrifice of an earlier generation to protect our God-given freedoms. We can’t be reminded often enough of the price that was paid by so many young people who were called to duty and who lost their lives when they had just begun.
The book is also a great salute to those veterans of that combat unit who played such an important role in the ultimate victory over Hitler’s evil empire. Tom Jones was an articulate and fascinating guest. Some day, I’m going to interview him on his experiences looking down on our lush blue planet from low earth orbit at the International Space Station. What a sight that must be!