How I Became a True Believer

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old planeThe anniversary of D-day (when the Allies invaded France) has passed, so I thought I'd write something personal about WWII.

It's early in the year 1945. I'm in the nose of a B-25 Mitchell two-engine medium bomber. I'm a flight officer and I'm the bombardier of our six-man crew -- it's my job to use the top-secret Norden bomb-sight and drop the bombs where they're supposed to go. We're nearing the strategic Brenner Pass (a pass through the Alps), through which the Germans move much of their munitions with which they supply the Nazi forces in Italy. (The Norden bombsight is a top-secret instrument, and every bombardier has sworn to guard it with his life).

I can feel my two metal dog tags, cold against my sweaty chest. On my tags is an "H" for Hebrew. To be caught by the Germans as a bombardier means death. To be caught as a Jew in combat against the Nazis means death on the spot (forget the prison camp). The Army gives us Jews our choice of putting an H on our dog tags or not. I chose, for some reason, to have the revealing H stamped into my brass dog tags. (The H identifies you as a Jew, and tells the grave-diggers the way you want to be buried, just in case you don't make it).

I'm lighting a ciggie with my stainless steel Zippo lighter (it throws up a tiny, steady blue flame at 10,000 feet), just enough to light my cig. I'm sitting on my steel helmet. I wear two chutes, one on my back and one on my chest. If a fragment of flak comes up from below, I want to protect my fannie area -- this for obvious reasons.

I've already dropped our collection of 100 pound bombs, and I'm thinking that I'm lucky because they all went out -- no single bomb stuck in the bomb bay rack. If one is stuck, I'm the poor bastard who has to crawl out on the open bomb bay and pry it loose.

Now the flak is coming up big time. The Brenner Pass is one of the most heavily guarded areas in Italy. It's ringed with German 88s. The Krauts are using their damnable radar-controlled 88s as they try to knock us out of the blue Italian sky. Black puffs are appearing all around us. Some of the bursting flak whacks our fuselage, and it sounds as though somebody is throwing handfuls of gravel at the plane.

I take a deep drag on my ciggie and break out in a cold sweat. The plane in front of me is hit; it's left engine is burning. My good friend, John Mahoney (the "Mad Irishman" with a great voice), is on that plane. I watch as his plane drops out of our formation and sinks slowly towards the good earth. I remember that his bomb bay doors were closed (what a screw up), and he's still got a full bomb load in his "Mitchell." And I wonder if his bombs are armed. If so, when they hit the ground Mahoney will be blown sky-high. I catch a glimpse of his plane hitting the ground -- no explosion. That lucky devil, his bombs still had their props on -- they were on safety. No explosions.

The flak is all around us now. I'm crouched (stuffed) in the corner of the plexiglass nose of our plane. I have a fantasy that I'm a tiny invisible bat. Crackle goes another round of "gravel" on the side of the plane. Suddenly, I remember with chagrin that I've always been an agnostic. "The hell with that!" Then I say aloud, "Please God, get me out of this alive and in one piece, and I'll never ask you for anything again."

I lied. I've asked for a lot since those days.

After the War I've had many other "flirts" with death. A mastoid operation in which I barely survived, two heart attacks, a stroke, a broken hip at the age of 86, a high speed (65MPH) motorcycle crash on California 80 East. Too many near death experiences for one man.

So the other day I asked myself, What have I learned from all these incidents -- any one of which could have left me for dead? I've had too many near-death experiences to call them merely a series of coincidences. My thinking is that the good Lord wants me alive for some reason. Conclusion -- I guess my work on this planet isn't finished -- I'm still here.

Awhile ago a friend asked me how long I want to live.

I said, "Maybe to 110."

"Why would you want to live that long?" he questioned.

I answered, "I want to see what happens."

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About Richard Russell

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