The Tail Gunner’s Daughter: A Memoir

Chapter Two – Part One

It was one of the last Transatlantic crossings she would make, and it was my first. With the revenue from selling more lake lots, in the summer of 1967 Mom and Dad took our family to Europe on board the RMS Queen Mary, sailing from New York to Portsmouth. Dad was excited about it because he had been on the Queen Mary when it was used as a troop transport vessel during WWII.

“It was October, 1944, and held 15,000 U.S. troops,” he said. “I was fifth bunk high in the library, which they made into sleeping quarters. The swimming pool was covered over and used as a mess hall.”

Dad said that Mickey Rooney had been an entertainer on board, and one day Mr. Rooney was playing blackjack with some other guys.  “A bunch of us G.I.’s moseyed up to the table to watch them. I couldn’t believe it,” Dad said. “Mickey Rooney threw down a twenty and then all the other guys tossed down twenties and all these twenty dollar bills were just lying there on the table. Twenty bucks was a month’s pay to us then.”

We were too young to play poker on the Queen Mary, but my fourteen-year-old sister, Denise, and her new shipmate Frances – I think her name was Frances – entertained themselves swooning over Noel Harrison. The man had no chance for escape, unless he wanted to swim to England. They were on his heals the entire crossing. Of course, Denise had to explain to me that he was a heartthrob actor, singer, and the son of Rex Harrison.

“Who’s Rex Harrison?” I asked.

“You know, the guy in My Fair Lady,” she said, trying to be patient with my ignorance.

Aside from watching Denise stock Noel Harrison, I played cards in a fancy room with Dalene and Mom, and swam in the indoor pool filled with ocean water. The salt stung my throat and burned my eyes.

As long as I live, I’ll always remember the red crazy, paisley carpeting throughout the ship. I’d follow paisley path to the gift shop because the shiny shelves were filled with endless bottles of perfume with my name on them: Tabu, by Dana; Canoe, by Dana.

“Can I have a bottle of that Tabu?” I asked Mom one day. “What’s tabu anyway?”

“It means you can’t have any,” she said.

“But look, it has my name on it,” I said, pointing.

I’ll buy you this bottle of Canoe. It has your name on it too.”

Canoe? I thought. That’s what we paddle around in at the lake. I was eight with a pixie haircut and had no idea what to do with perfume, but Canoe didn’t sound as mysterious and alluring as Tabu.

We landed in England and saw the sights: Stonehenge, which was a weird place full of rocks and boulders piled on top of each other, and Buckingham Palace – with the frozen guards whose fuzzy hats resembled the soldiers’ hats from The Wizard of Oz – a movie I hated because of the mean, flying monkeys, and because David always told me I looked like the wicked witch of the West with her green face and pointy nose.

In a department store, we tried on kilts. Denise emerged from the dressing room and Mom gasped. “That’s too short! She’s only fourteen!” The sales girls raised their eyebrows and whispered to each other when Mom yanked on the skirt trying to cover more leg. It was the sixties, it was England, and mini-skirts were the rage. But not on Ursula’s daughters!

Mom dragged us through different cemeteries in search of her ancestors. She said, “It’s important to know where you come from. Unfortunately, most of my ancestors were run out of England 200 years ago for stealing horses. So they fled to America and founded Harlan County, Kentucky.”

“Why is it so important to know I came from horse thieves?” I wanted to know.

“Because it’s your history!” she exclaimed. I shrugged my shoulders and tip-toed around more tombstones and grave markers. She also informed us that we were descendants of an immigrant who came to America on the Mayflower; John Alden. These things were unimportant to me, but Mom loved her heritage, and many years later she found a Harlan family crest and displayed it proudly in the entryway of her house.

mayflower 2

Our heritage

mayflower 3

As we toured through England, I listened to people talk to my parents. There was something odd about the way they spoke and I pointed out this fact to Mom.

“Mom, the people here talk funny.”

“No, Dana, to them you’re the one who talks funny.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Dad drove in circles trying to find RAF Bury St Edmunds, but we never made it there. “Things sure do change after twenty-odd years,” he said.

Bury St Edmunds was an airfield that opened in September 1942 and was used by the United States Army Air Corps, Eighth Air Force. My Dad, Keith (his given name is Norman, but he always preferred his middle name), was stationed there as a tail gunner in B-17s, or what he and everyone else called the “Flying Fortress.”

Dad flew in several different B-17’s but he remembered flying the most in Ruhr Valley Express, and Miss Lucy-Valves. “The B-17 was called the Flying Fortress,” Dad explained, “Because on one of our missions over Germany that plane took 154 bullet and flak holes in the tail section alone, just missing the tail gun turret by mere inches. Three engines died and our pilot tried to get us back to base, but we had to emergency land at another base just off the English Channel. He was a hell of a pilot though. He landed that plane with one engine. After we came to a stop, the pilot yelled to me through the headset, ‘Hey, Dewey! You still back there?’ The tail section, gas tanks, and three engines had to be replaced. Those bombers were tougher then shit even when they were blasted to Kingdom come. A lesser plane would have crumbled. That’s why it was called the Flying Fortress. Prit’near indestructible.”

Lucy Valves

Miss Lucy-Valves

Dad told us that his pilot, who flew the crew through 35 missions – the average number of missions for a B-17 before it was shot down was fourteen – was twenty-one years old. The co-pilot and my Dad were nineteen. The oldest crew member was twenty-two.

Returning to base from more productive missions, Dad would put his foot up on the rudder cable and mess up the plane’s trim. The pilot compensated for the wobbly trim and after struggling with it a while, finally got the plane flying straight. Then Dad would take his foot off the rudder cable and the plane’s trim would be messed up again. The pilot again trimmed the plane and Dad repeated the process. The pilot figured it out and yelled into the intercom, “Dewey! Are you fuckin’ around with the rudder controls?” Dad said he always got a kick out of doing that because, he thought it was funny, and he liked to hear the pilot swear because he was a Mormon from Provo, Utah.

Dad frequently entertained himself during his service. “Sometimes, when it was calm in the air, I’d get so bored in the tail gun turret that I’d shoot my .45 out the window for fun.” One day their mission was scrubbed during the Battle of the Bulge and again, Dad got bored so around 0900 he and some buddies went out behind the Barracks into St. John’s Forest hunting rabbits in the snow with a Thompson sub-machine gun and some pistols. A guy who stayed behind in the barracks said they made more racket than an actual battle.

Dad was caught with the smoking guns and was demoted from sergeant to private, and he’d just been considered for staff sergeant the day before.

“My pilot tried to get my rank back, but it took a long time.” Dad laughed, and then became serious. “But what really pissed me off was that when we got caught, all the other guys pitched their guns into the bushes. I wasn’t about to give up my weapon, that’d been stupid, so I kept mine and got busted.” Dad continued, “Some other guys I knew of in the war tried to desert to Switzerland and as punishment only had to dig ditches. That really pissed me off. I lost a rank and all I did was shoot at rabbits. And I don’t think I even shot one! Then on payday, I walked up to the payroll guy in the combat section to pick up my money and told him my name was Private Norman K. Dewey.”

“No way!” said the payroll guy. “Privates are non-combat pay. What’s a private doing on a bomber?”

Dad said the guy was completely stunned. “I stood in front of him and laughed, realizing how ridiculous I must have sounded.”

Dad traded with other guys their military-issued chocolate bars for his military-issued cigarettes. “I didn’t smoke, but I’d eat a candy bar before every flight. Then I’d just throw it up I was so nervous,” Dad said. “In fact, I didn’t keep much of anything down.”

No kidding! I thought. Had it been me, I would have crapped my pants too. During the war he was five feet eleven inches tall and weighed a hundred and fifty-five pounds. I’ve seen those tail gun turrets. You have to crawl down a tiny hole and sit in a tiny space with pretzel legs, so it was probably a good thing he yarked every flight.

“Unfortunately,” Dad said, “I either puked up the chocolate bars into my mask, or the updraft would toss it back in my face. The guys called me ‘Puke Face Dewey.’”

Published with permission by NKD

“Puke Face Dewey”

To be continued . . .

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About Dana J Dewey

I was a slow learner as a child and to overcome my fear of school, as an adult I attended many of them. I ended up with a master of science degree in counseling psychology and I'm a licensed mental health counselor who is passionate about mental health. This blog is about life, joy, and the pursuit of good mental health, and the eclectic way in which it's achieved. I'm blogging a memoir, The Tail Gunner's Daughter, and later, Parent-Able: Seven Strategies for Raising a Physically Disabled Child Without Going Insane.
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