P-47  "JUG"

The 412th Reunion of 2006 in Millville

(My report to family and friends on the activities as I saw them)

By Dennis E. Hayman

 

I met Dan Dameo in 2000 when Marie and I attended an air show at the National Warplane Museum in Elmira, New York.

When you see the P-47 Thunderbolt up close and touch it you are immediately moved by its presence. It is an awesome flying machine. If you have researched it a great deal, as I did, it is even more impressive in person. Its place in history reaches out to you while you are near this airplane known affectionately as “The Jug”.

Dan was pre-flighting the P-47 prior to their part in the air show. The plane was sitting on the tarmac not too far from the rope fence where we in the crowd watched. An elder and his son were standing next to us and the son told us his father had been a P-47 pilot in WWII. We caught Dan’s eye and he came over – and when we told him that the man was a P-47 pilot Dan immediately lifted up the rope and invited him to come to the plane. They talked for some time, which really pleased the WWII pilot and his son.

Later when the planes were open for closer inspection, Marie and I went over to the plane to take pictures. A new plan had been hatched in my mind by that time. I saw the look in that veteran’s face when he was reunited with his old aircraft – and, in my mind, I connected that back to our new ‘family’ at the 412th Fighter Squadron reunions.

They had graciously invited us to be members when we found out that my uncle, William Morse Miller, was a pilot in the 412 before he was killed in action on Christmas Day, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge.

We were already helping to plan the 2001 reunion which was going to be in Elmira – with a tour at the Museum there.

We talked with Dan about what a nice thing he had done for the WWII pilot and he explained how important that was to him. His own uncle was a B-17 pilot and he had attended their reunions. We started talking to Dan about how nice it would be to have a reunion in conjunction with an air show at Elmira – but also realized that it would be very difficult for the members with the crowds. I wanted them to be able to see and touch a flyable P-47.

While some of the pilots belonged to the P-47 Pilot’s Association and had opportunities to see the Jug in action since the war, most of the Crew Chiefs and other enlisted folks had not. Their families never had this opportunity in most cases, as there are not many of the planes left in flying condition. In listening to them talk about their experiences in Europe during the war I had a feeling that this would be special to them.

Dan suggested that his American Heritage Airpower Museum would allow him to bring the P-47 to Elmira during our reunion in September 2001. The air show season would be over and it would be seen as an educational opportunity for the museum. He said that he could set it up with the Elmira museum people and bring the P-47 into the hanger, set up tables for our dinner nearby all the planes and have some ceremonies there.

I was delighted, of course, and our correspondence began in earnest to achieve that. The museum was very cooperative and it looked as if this would be a really special event. And it was a special event at the museum and all around Elmira. However, the P-47 did not make it to that reunion. Our reunion was one week after September 11, 2001. Dan was not to be allowed to fly out of the New York area.

Since then I had this vision of what it would be like for the squadron members to go back in time to their youth – even just for a few moments – to be together around the aircraft they kept flying. “Keep ‘em Flying” was their motto and their memories of maintaining and flying the Jug were still very clear. So was the brotherhood that they experienced during wartime. My hope was that this special group of people could feel that strong emotion again – by being around the P-47.

In Millville, New Jersey, on August 22, 2006, this finally came to fruition. Working around schedules and weather right up to the night before, Dan and I finally coordinated him being there during our visit to the Millville Army Air Force Museum. MAAFM is a very special museum with long ties to the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (P-47 pilots practiced gunnery and bombing there during WWII). There is even a sign there that says: “JUG spoken here”. And the people we brought to the museum certainly spoke that language.

The wonderful staff of the museum warmed many a heart that day. They have achieved a place that still has the flavor and feel of a WWII airfield. When the P-47 roared overhead and landed, taxied up to the flight line right in front, it was like going back in time. I could see it and feel it in the squadron members – and the crowd of press, photographers and museum staff could as well.

Dan unstrapped in the cockpit, turned all the switches off and stood up to applause and cheers. When that stopped he looked around and spotted me. He yelled: Dennis! Well, I made it – five years late! Then he climbed down and was immediately surrounded by the crowd.

There was plenty of time for questions and remembrances, and photo opportunities. Then Dan joined us inside the museum where the staff had set up a fine lunch for us. Dan addressed the squadron, telling them how honored he was to be able to meet them all. He always enjoyed meeting the people who maintained and flew the P-47 in the war and he addressed them as the Greatest Generation. It was a special moment.

After lunch he told us he would take off and circle the field a couple of times before flying back to Long Island. He would not be allowed to do any aerobatics. But seeing him off was another special moment.

Dan was actually about 20 minutes late in arriving and the museum staff put out chairs for the squadron members so they would not be too tired. I watched them during this time and it was almost like watching them waiting for a mission to come back from a combat sortie. I had heard many times how they watched the skies for returning planes. The losses of P-47 pilots, flying ground attack missions down as close as 100 feet, were high. Many of the Crew Chiefs had told me time and again, with tears in their eyes, about how many pilots they lost. It was a very personal thing for them – for they could only wait while their pilots and their planes went into combat. They told me how they prayed that none of them were lost because of some mechanical mistake they may have made to the aircraft – causing it to go in. They told me how sad and dejected and angry they were when the planes came back and their spot on the tarmac was empty. The 412th had one P-47, “B’COMINBAK”, which had 212 missions before it was shot down (the highest record in the European Theater). She never missed a mission because of mechanical failure. I wished that Roy Thurman, could have made this reunion, for that was his plane. But most of them did not last that long. I saw the emotion of those memories in the eyes of the squadron members as we waited.

It showed up again as Dan Dameo prepared to leave. They all watched as Dan pulled the big heavy four-bladed prop through some rotations to get the oil out of the cylinders and the same expression returned. Once Dan was in the cockpit and all the preflight work done, he asked me to have the airport service man pull the wheel chocks. Then the man left and there was no one around the plane but the 412th crews. No one made them get back behind the fence. I think that Dan did this intentionally.

There was a standard action that one goes through for starting the engine (To make sure no one was in the way of that big propeller). When all was set, the pilot would yell to the crew chief: Clear! The Crew Chief would reply: Clear! Then the pilot would start the engine while the Crew Chief watched to make sure all was well. It always seemed to me to be the moment in time when the crew chief, who was responsible for the aircraft, gave it over to the pilot who flew it. There was a bond of trust there.

Dan looked out and yelled: Clear! Several voices of Crew Chiefs responded: Clear! As the engine coughed a couple of times and burst into its throaty roar, there were a lot of misty eyes standing around it. Salutes were exchanged between pilot and ground crew and Dan taxied out to the end of the runway. The ground crews and pilots lined up waiting for him to take off and as he lifted off just about in front of us (with that 2000 + horsepower engine roaring), all of us waved our hats to him – just as they did when every mission left during the war. A very emotional moment for me, as my uncle was one of those pilots who did not return from a mission. So many of them gave their all for us. The squadron members are always remembering and honoring those who are forever young in their minds. It was good to be a part of this human story. People helping people – it is how they made it through the war – and it is what we need to get back to now, hopefully in peace. This is why I am pursuing the story of how they helped the children of Dongelberg Orphanage and were in turn helped to keep their perspective by those children – people helping people. Bringing those people back together at a reunion is another on-going goal.

My reward was in being present during all this. Just watching the reporters and photographers from several newspapers talking to the squadron members was worth it all. It pleased me so much to see the happy faces, the tears, the brotherhood still intact after all these years. I did not do it for this reason, but it was nice to hear the heartfelt words like: thanks, awesome, wonderful. Being a part of this history was enough for me. Everyone seemed to enjoy the notoriety they got in the next day’s newspapers also. To have one’s sacrifices remembered is a good thing. Several different newspapers carried the story and pictures. I cannot say enough about the warmth and kindness of the folks at the Millville museum. My hat is off to them all. They are dedicated.  Most are volunteers doing what they love to do – and that is so special.

So the camaraderie carried through the whole reunion. This is a very special group of people – because they never forget their link to each other. It has blossomed into a family event as well, many of the younger generations now attending. Our goal is to keep this going on as long as possible.

Some organizations have had to stop reunions and disband because as the organizers get older it has become difficult to carry on. We are nearing that stage in our group as well, and our coordinator, Bob Colangelo who has done such a wonderful job of not only planning but also putting out the squadron newsletter, and Bill Geise, our excellent  treasurer and official photographer, have asked for some volunteers to relieve them of some of their duties.

I told Bob that I would be willing to help on one condition – that he and the other members still participated in the role of advice and consent – since I want to make sure that all events represent the wishes of the squadron members. We younger generation can be their arms and legs in the preparations, but we need to reflect their wishes. Our goal would be for them to have fun. Joe Ritz Jr. and Kathleen Vesey offered to co-chair the planning committee with me, and they feel the same way. Other younger members agreed to help. Ann Barber (Wohlfeil) volunteered to keep the books for the squadron. These things were brought up at the meeting on our last night and agreed on by the whole group.

The group previously agreed to have reunions in the East one year and on alternate years in the Mid-West. The 2007 reunion will be in the Mid-West, and we will immediately start looking at locations, factoring in such things as costs, accessibility, events for entertainment, transportation to events, and pleasant environment. We need to have a place where we can be together and enjoy the fellowship that always is an integral part of each reunion.

I am further proposing that our planning committee, once we have settled on a site for 2007, also look into sites in the East for 2008. The plan would be to present several alternatives, complete with ideas of what we could do in each place – in time to have Bob include them in a newsletter before the 2007 reunion – thus letting the members think about it in advance, and then vote on a site during the 2007 reunion. It would give us a head start and let everyone participate in the selection.

My personal goal is to still be working on ways to bring the people from the Castle de Dongelberg together with our squadron members. That would be a wonderful reunion indeed. We have found several of the ‘children’ (now my age) in Belgium and two children in the U.S. (These two, Frieda Becker and Robert Essinger Wachenheim, were among the hidden Jewish children staying at the orphanage and their pictures appear in those taken at the Christmas Party in 1944). In order to do this we will have to find a means of raising the funds to get them here. So far, all of our attempts have met with failure – but we have not given up at all. This is a wonderful story of how people in the terrible circumstances that war bring, helped each other survive emotionally and physically. It needs to be told and I believe it will be.

For my part in this group, I am continually driven by the memories of my uncle, Bill Miller. I feel him encouraging me to participate as much as possible. Somehow I know this pleases those who have gone before us. Often during the reunions, I envision them having their own reunion at the same time, and keeping an eye on us.

So in that spirit, I raise a glass of cheer to toast them one and all. I see them doing the same. Bless us all.

Peace, Blue Skies, and Keep ‘em Flying!

Dennis


 
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last update: 26 Aug 06

 
 

412th Squadron patch image courtesy of Bruce Lowell and Bob Colangelo.