Today as I was sitting in the waiting room, while my wife was
seeing the dentist, an elderly couple came in and sat down across from
me. I looked up from my reading to glance in their direction across the
waiting room and as I looked, I saw that the gentleman had on a ball cap
with embroidered lettering indicating that he was a world war two
folded my book and began to contemplate my feelings as I waited for the
opportunity to approach. The gentleman's wife was seated next to him and
was completing some paperwork for the dentist office.
As I looked on,
another gentleman seated adjacent to them, struck up a conversation with
the man and as they talked, I could hear spillovers of the conversation,
enough to learn that the man was a former crew member on a B-17.
Hearing that piece of information immediately piqued my interest, as
I have an elderly friend who flew B-17's during the war and the plane
has always been an area of love and interest for me since I was a child.
So I waited for the right moment, then I stood and walked over to the
gentleman to introduce myself and to shake his hand. He immediately
brightened up upon my approach as I was wearing my 3rd Marine Division
Vietnam veteran hat. He readily extended his hand and smiled. I shook
hands and told him that I appreciated his service and was literally in
awe to be in the presence of a man such as himself who had flown on
He introduced himself as Elmer Browning, "B-17 Ball
Turret Gunner." That realization further enamored me, and I sat down
immediately right in front of him on the reception room coffee table and
began to listen intently to some of his remembrances of his life and
As I did so, his wife Melba looked up from her clipboard
and smiled. She then reached inside a small bag at her feet and handed
me a copy of a small book and one for the other gentleman present. The
book was titled "Elmer's Tune" and it is the story of Elmer Browning and
his experiences during WWII as a B-17 ball turret gunner.
Some might call a meeting such as ours today as a 'by chance'
meeting, I would call it serendipity.
As we sat and talked, Melba
(upon seeing my hat) thanked me for my service. I asked her if I could
buy one of the books and she said "you sure can." I asked if she would
take a check and she said "yes and Elmer will autograph it for you too."
As I handed Elmer the book and a Pen, I noted that he was having trouble
hearing me when he asked my name when he asked who to address it to.
Melba interjected that Elmer had lost the hearing in both ears due to
his experiences in the ball turret, but added "he can read lips."
She went on to tell me that the book was based upon Elmer's journals
and that she had told him one day "you need to write a book about this,
as this is part of history." She then said that Elmer had dictated the
book and that she had typed and edited it and then they found a
publisher. Melba also noted that the book was a bit thin when they
finished, but that this to had been providence, as they had taken to
giving copies of the books to service men and women deploying to Iraq
and Afghanistan....."and the size is perfect for them to travel with.
They couldn't have carried a big book with them" she said.
took the pen and slowly addressed the book to me and added this line,
"thank you for being interested in our life. God Bless....Elmer
Elmer then handed me the book and pointed to the
photograph on the cover of a young man in his sheep's wool lined flight
suit, squatting in front of his ball turret. He tapped the photo with
his finger and said: "that was me when I was 19 years old."
for the next thirty or so minutes literally in awe of this fragile man
who I learned from his wife is eighty six years old. As we talked, his
Melba would explain things or tell the stories and Elmer would interject
with his own comments. He can apparently read her lips well enough from
the side to make out most of what she is saying and he obviously he
knows the stories.
Melba told me of the time when he and his
crew were on a mission to bomb Berlin and right before coming over
target, it was his time to get down in the ball turret and prepare. She
said he told her of hearing this mysterious harp music, but after a
while, the music was interrupted by the pilot coming on the intercom to
tell them that their target was aborted due to cloud cover and that they
were heading to an alternate target. She said that he told her that he
never heard the harp music again and that no one else in his crew
apparently heard it.
Melba spoke of the time when Elmer's turret
was shot up and about to fall off the plane and the crew was desperately
trying to pull him back up through the escape hatch and they couldn't
quite get him out. When he suddenly felt this giant hand on his
backside. She said: "he said he felt this giant hand on his buttocks
that pushed him up and out." She said: People don't believe that, but
there were angels with them." Elmer just nodded in agreement.
She also told me of the time when his plane was shot up so bad, that
they almost didn't make it back. Of the frantic time they spent
jettisoning everything on the badly damaged plane, in an attempt to keep
it airborne just long enough to get them back to England. And that on
the return from that mission, they threw everything into the English
channel as they flew back, including the ball turret and all the machine
guns and everything else that wasn't bolted down.
Melba sat and
told me of how the pilot landed the plane on the expanded steel runway
of a fighter base somewhere on the coast of England, as the plane
couldn't make it any further on its own. She told me of how Elmer had
told her of the indignant young fighter squadron leader who came
charging out to chastise the crew of Elmer's B-17 for having landed
there and blocking his runway. He ordered them to move the damn thing!
Then in the midst of it all, how he stopped and looked at the battered
old flying fortress and exclaimed: "Oh my God! How did you ever fly that
thing back? The plane so obviously damaged as to make it a wonder that
it could remain in the air at all.
But fly it they did and the
pilot landed it, just in time according to Melba, as the last engine
died as they landed. She said the pilot looked up at the indignant
officer and told him: "if you want it moved? You move it." As Melba
related the stories, Elmer would interject comments. "It's all in the
As I listened to these stories of living history and was
captivated by being in the presence of Elmer and his wife, I handed him
one of my Patriot Guard business cards and began to explain what the
Patriot Guard Riders do and why. I also asked Melba if Elmer had ever
been to Washington and seen the WWII memorial. She said no. I told her
of the Honor Flights program that are taking WWII veterans on day trips
to Washington and that the Patriot Guard had recently escorted one such
flight from Fayetteville Ga. last fall. I told her that we escorted a
hundred and seventeen WWII vets to the airport and that later (a couple
of months later), we participated in a reunion with them at the Fayette
County community center.
Elmer said he would like to see the
memorial one day and Melba asked: "do they let the wives go along too?"
I told her that they did and that they send chaperons and medical staff
along with them to cover all eventualities. Elmer and Melba both smiled
upon hearing that.
A few minutes later they came to take Melba
back to her dental appointment and I sat for another fifteen minutes
with Elmer just taking about his experiences and the plane. I told him
that the day we held the reunion for the Honor Flight veterans, that
they had a B-17 do a flyover and how the old fortress had made two low
passes for the veterans.
Elmer's face changed slightly and he
told me: "I'm glad I wasn't there, I still get cold as I can be every
time I see one. (B-17) Brings back the memories of the time I spent in
the ball turret and how cold it was." He then added: "It must have been
the Liberty Belle. I signed the turret on that one and they put
something over it to seal it so it wouldn't wear off."
took off his hat and showed me his ribbons on the side of his cap. Elmer
had the miniature ribbons for the medals he was awarded during the war
and I could tell he was waiting to see if I recognized any of them. I
looked at them closely and I told Elmer: "I know what this one is,
that's a Purple Heart. And this one, that's the Silver Star" and as I
reached the upper most ribbon on the left and pointed to it, before I
could say it, Elmer did. "That's the Distinguished Flying Cross." (The
second highest award given by the United States military. Second only to
the Medal of Honor). Elmer pointed to the rest of his ribbons and named
them all. European theater awards, presidential unit citations and air
medals. Many with numerous stars and oak leaf clusters. Elmer Browning
is a true American hero.
Elmer added that of the original ten
man crew of his B-17, he was the last survivor. The other one (their
radio man) had passed last year. Now it is just Elmer. He was obviously
one of the younger ones.
Before long and all too soon, my wife
appeared and it was time for us to leave. As she came into the waiting
room, she saw me sitting on the coffee table in front of Elmer and I
could immediately see the questions in her eyes. I stood up and
introduced her to Elmer and told her that I had simply been sitting here
talking to a hero and who he was. My wife immediately began to tear up
and when Elmer extended his hand, my wife reached and gave him a big hug
and thanked him for who he was and for all he had done for this country.
Elmer then turned and looked at me as I stood there and then he
slowly saluted me. I returned the salute and asked him if I could take a
picture with him. I gave my wife my camera phone and we took a picture
together. After one last hand shake and a hug of thanks, we departed.
And as soon as I got home, I immediately fired off an email to
the Honor Flights national site That is now my new mission. I want to
insure that Elmer gets to be on the next Honor Flight to Washington and
if at all possible, I intend to be there with him.
Elmer my friend!