Chet Bowers was among the “regular customers” for the Idaho Statesman’s Letters to the Editor section when I arrived three years ago.
You remember a guy like Chet, 96, because his submissions are handwritten and hand-delivered. He would summon me to the front desk when he got here and hand over his latest epistle, and then we’d visit for a moment.
Though the subject of his patriotic letters suggests the persona of Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, in person he is slight with a soft voice, a big laugh and a straightforward smile, like Jimmy Stewart.
Except for whispers in the community and a few passages in his letters, I would not have known Chet was a World War II co-pilot who flew his B-17 in 35 combat missions (and one “milk run”) over Europe in 1944, including on D-Day. I didn’t really learn his full story until I saw Chet on TV at the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, I asked him to write a Guest Opinion spelling out the significance of that momentous occasion. The next thing I knew, Chet stopped in to let me know he might be leaving Boise, where he had lived most of his life.
For a couple of years I thought of him on Memorial Day, D-Day and Veterans Day. I looked for Chet to show up at the office. I asked around; nobody seemed to know what had become of him. I knew Chet was getting on in years, and at times I feared that he had succumbed to time, like so many of his WWII brothers and sisters. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, less than 1 million survive today. Hundreds die daily.
But not Chet. Not yet. Thanks to the Warhawk, I got a phone number. I was relieved when Chet answered and I was surprised to learn he was on his cellphone and taking a ride from his new home in Idaho Falls clear up to Dillon, Mont., just him and Jake, his 10-year-old German short-hair rescue dog. I have relatives in their 90s who are in assisted-living facilities. They neither drive nor operate cellphones.
“Ah, we drive, 200 miles or so, get out and explore the countryside, look into some timber and then call it a day,” said Chet. “Jake — he’s as old as I am — is content to sit in the back seat and then get out and have a little fun when we go into the woods.”
Now I get the part about the “Greatest Generation,” and the spirit of people like Chet who survive the loss of spouses (his wife, Maida, died two years ago), war buddies and old friends. People like Chet stay aloft in life gliding upon the rare air of their memories, experiences and principles.
Don’t get me wrong, Chet has the deepest respect for the military and the sacrifice and the remembering of Memorial Day — but he lived it and survived it. He’s not one to frequent the 21-gun salutes at cemeteries, even though he says, “I lost so many friends” over there in Europe. He does enjoy associating with the folks at the Warhawk.
“I don’t have any war buddies left,” he said, pondering, then naming a bombardier, George Meyer. “Well there may be one in New York ... but I haven’t talked to him in years.”
He thinks of all the men in the squadron and on board during bombing missions to thwart the Nazis, when anti-aircraft rounds pierced the fuselage and, on rare occasions, wounded somebody. “Red Daniel got hit, I recall,” he says.
When Memorial Days roll around, you are more likely to hear Chet reminisce about what happened a week later, on June 6 –– especially 72 years ago in 1944.
“D-Day was the biggest military event the world will ever see,” he said, recalling a bombing mission he made flying out of England in support of the effort. His job was to suppress enemy troops and fortifications around Normandy, France.
To his mind, that battle is unique in history because of the bold mission and the convergence of so many land, air, water and ground forces.
“From here on out and into the future, warfare will be rockets and sneaky things,” he said.
So, I break ranks with tradition today to write about a veteran who is still with us. I know Memorial Day is a time to remember our fallen heroes. I do remember them, and honor them. The freedoms we enjoy would not exist without the ultimate sacrifice of the 1.3 million Americans who gave their all during one of our nation’s conflicts.
But I wanted to honor one of our living heroes before it is too late. It is rare today to get to speak to an American who was there for D-Day and witnessed it from the perch of his cockpit.
Some 400,000 Americans never returned from their duties in World War II –– not even in death. Some are buried overseas, such as my uncle, Staff Sgt. James F. Carlin, my mother’s brother, who was killed by a sniper during fierce fighting in the “hedgerows” of France in August 1944.
I never got to meet or know Uncle Jimmy. That’s why I cherish knowing a few of the last remaining WWII heroes who still live among us.
They were there. They add a three-dimensional aspect that leaps off the pages of history and looks you in the eye. Acknowledging the death of my uncle seven decades ago, Chet paused and spoke solemnly: “That was some tough duty up there in those hedgerows.”
Chet says he may be moving back to Boise soon. I can’t wait to see him again, and hear more while I still can.
Excerpts of Chet Bowers’ opinions through the years
On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day
There are few Americans alive today, other than the dwindling number of World War II veterans, who comprehend the magnitude of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.
Never in history has such a force been assembled to save the world and its people from rule under a military dictator.
Hundreds of thousands of young men from America, England, Canada, Australia and other Allied countries jumped off their landing craft into the icy waters of the English Channel to assault the beaches of Normandy. Airborne units jumped from aircraft or landed in gliders to attack the enemy from the rear. Good Americans died on the beaches in the first few hours.
Every man who participated in this attack was a hero — he faced a well-trained enemy using the finest weapons the Fatherland could produce.
June 1, 2014
Military can afford budget reductions
How important is “war” to our total economy? And, what kind of “war” are we talking about? It will certainly bear no resemblance to World War II and the use of formal military units.
Should we consider letting those nations with ongoing battles between various cults and religions settle their own problems without Uncle Sam’s unwelcome intervention? The British tried to inflict their culture and lifestyle on the rest of the world, and it nearly bankrupted that nation.
Maybe we should take our money and our troops and go home to work on our own staggering financial and cultural problems.
April 16, 2013
In our past, there was a generation or two of pilots starting with WWI who flew by the “seat of their pants.” This meant that they had an intimate knowledge of what the aircraft was doing and what action was necessary to correct a bad situation.
With our overload of technology, we have reached a point where pilots have become gauge-watchers instead of functionally operating the airplane.
The 777 crash landing in San Francisco illustrated the point. The aircraft was obviously too low and too slow on the final approach. ... We need to teach our pilots how to manually fly the airplane to prevent future tragedies.
The classic “Miracle on the Hudson,” where pilot Sullenberger flew his jet like a powerless glider to a safe water landing, is an example of superb airmanship. Wish that all commercial pilots had his experience, knowledge and ability.
July 20, 2013