This is a Veterans Day story for young readers.
Young readers who haven’t had to serve in the military or go to war.
Teenagers and twenty-somethings who may never have known a combat veteran.
Previous generations grew up with them. Combat veterans seemed to be everywhere. My father served in the Marine Corps during World War II. Most of the dads in our neighborhood fought in that war. Some of my friends fought in Vietnam. I’d have been a Vietnam veteran if the Navy hadn’t sent me to fight the Cold War in Europe instead.
The point is that until recent times young people had more opportunities to spend time with combat veterans. They grew up with them, knew them personally, knew what they did for our country. That changed to a significant degree with the advent of the volunteer military. It’s not as common for young people today to know veterans or to understand and appreciate what they went through to give us the country we have today.
So, all you young folks who don’t know a combat veteran … meet Charles “Chick” Blakley.
Blakley wasn’t a general or an admiral. He isn’t a Medal of Honor recipient; he wasn’t famous for what he did in World War II. He was just an ordinary soldier who grew up on a farm near Parma. One of millions of ordinary soldiers who won an extraordinary victory that saved the world from a terrible fate. If you don’t appreciate what they went though or know how much we owe them, maybe his story will help you understand.
Blakley joined the army in August, 1942. For those of you who are sketchy about the history of that era, this was eight months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, an American Naval base in Hawaii, in a sneak attack that killed thousands of our sailors. It was what brought the U.S. into WWII. Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, meanwhile, had defeated and occupied much of Europe and was murdering thousands of Jewish civilians in concentration camps. It was one of history’s darkest periods.
Blakley was one of 16 million Americans who went to war to stop Germany, Japan and their allies from ruling the world. He was 20 years old. He’d taken flying lessons and gotten a private pilot’s license as a student at the College of Idaho in Caldwell so he was assigned to the Army Air Corps. The army taught him how to work on B-24 Liberator bombers.
“I thought I was going to be a B-24 mechanic,” he said, “but then they sent me to a gunnery school in Texas.”
Instead of working on bombers, he became an aerial gunner – one of the scariest jobs imaginable. You stand behind a window with enemy fighter planes shooting at you. You shoot back, but the odds favor the guys in the fast, maneuverable fighter planes over the sitting ducks in the bomber windows. Blakley’s post as a waist gunner was the most vulnerable position on a B-24.
He went on eight missions, bombing a German-controlled heavy water (nuclear) plant in Norway, V-1 rocket plants in Nazi-occupied France and other targets.
“Actually, I went on seven and a half missions,” he said with a wry smile.
On Jan 21, 1944, his plane was shot down over France. The crew members attempted to parachute to safety, but not all of them made it. All four of the officers were killed – including the pilot, whose parachute either didn’t open or caught fire. Blakley landed safely in some trees, but was far from being out of the woods. German soldiers invariably searched for crash survivors. Two members of his crew were caught and became prisoners of war.
“I saw a trail through the trees and started running,” he said. “After a while I saw some people coming the other way so I hid behind a bush. I could see them as they went by. There was a woman and one of the guys from our crew with them so I jumped out and joined them.”
The people were members of the Resistance, French civilians who, among other things, helped soldiers trapped in Nazi-occupied territory. They hid Blakley and three other members of his crew while arrangements were made for them to catch a train to Paris. From there they would head south toward Spain and freedom. The Resistance supplied them with civilian clothes (his flight boots were replaced with patent leather dress shoes) and forged French ID papers.
The men stayed in Resistance safe houses in Paris before boarding trains heading south. At one of the stops, they jumped off of the train when it slowed down, hid until the train station’s lights went out and walked all night to a farm, where they slept in a barn.
“To stay warm, we’d take our shoes off, lie down with our feet in the armpits of the guy across from us and cover ourselves up with hay. We hadn’t had anything to eat since we left Paris. Our first meal in five days was the boiled insides of a sheep.”
They stayed there for a week, then started walking toward Spain.
“We spent 13 nights walking across the Pyrenees mountains in waist-deep snow. The last couple of hundred feet was a glacier. It took about two hours to climb it.”
In patent leather dress shoes.
To keep his legs from freezing, he used a trick he’d learned growing up on the farm outside of Parma. There, he’d made leggings out of gunny sacks to keep his legs warm in the winter. In the Pyrenees, he used pieces of an overcoat to make leggings that kept his legs from freezing in the snow.
In January of 1944, the men reached a small town near the Spanish border. From there, two members of the Resistance drove them to Barcelona, Spain and the British consulate there. Blakley was sent from there to London and then back to the U.S.
He spent six months in an army hospital in Spokane for, as he put it, “nerves.” Today we call it post traumatic stress syndrome. He served out the duration of the war as a training instructor, returned to Idaho and a career with Idaho Power, raised a family.
I asked him how he thought the world would be different if we’d lost WWII.
“It wouldn’t be the way it is; that’s for sure. I don’t know if it would be as bad as N. Korea is today, but it definitely wouldn’t be the world we know.”
No, it wouldn’t. If not for 16 million Charles Blakleys, we might be living under a dictatorship with few if any of the freedoms or luxuries we take for granted. Like people in N. Korea, we could be living with torture and starvation.
Blakley will be 96 years old this month, on the day after Thanksgiving. When you think about the things you’re grateful for that day, you might want to include the veterans who helped make them possible.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Know someone who’d make a good column subject for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.