Story and Photos by Leigh Dorrington
It’s not for me to write about the men and women Tom Brokaw described as our ‘Greatest Generation’. My father, my uncles—and an aunt, who served in the Waves—showed me by their example all their lives.
One uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Another fought on Iwo Jima. Seven in all from my mother’s and father’s families served in WWII . Most importantly, they all came home. When I was growing up, my best friend’s father was one of the first American ‘advisors’ in Vietnam before we had ever heard of the country. He came home, too.
I read this morning that Memorial Day has become a holiday we celebrate with an increasing disconnect between families who have lost someone in service to their country and those who see the holiday as the first big event of the summer. The story reminded readers that Memorial Day was once a somber holiday when a grateful nation remembered those who had served or given their lives in defense of our country, often with quiet family gatherings.
I have had the privilege in the past two months to contribute to an event that recognized American veterans on Memorial Day, and especially those who designed and built the F4U Corsair fighter at Chance Vought here in Connecticut. The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the first flight of the F4U Corsair prototype on May 29, 1940—from the same airfield where the event took place. The Corsair became the most effective American fighter of the war, and served with the air forces of England, France, New Zealand and Australia as well.
A Mitchell B-25 bomber was flown to the event, similar to those flown by Doolittle’s Raiders in the first strike on the Japanese homeland—flown from a carrier deck with little hope of returning home safely. Few did. This one is maintained as a memorial to Disabled American Veterans. A Douglas C-34 Skymaster transport present flew in the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49 saving Berliners from the Soviets by flying 24 hours a day, seven days a week except when weather grounded them and providing provisions as varied as food and coal—and hope—for 15 months until the Soviets accepted that Berlin would remain free.
Corsairs also flew close battle support in the Korean Conflict and remained in production longer than any other American aircraft of the the WWII era. A North American T-28 Trojan that entered production following WWII was flown to the event by NASA Shuttle astronaut Joe Edwards, who has also been awarded the U.S.’s first peacetime Distinguished Flying Cross for making a carrier landing with one eye blinded, a collapsed lung, broken arm and no instruments.
Sikorsky built flying boats and flew the first successful helicopter on the same site in Stratford, Connecticut where the Corsairs were built. This facility later built turbine tank engines for American battle tanks until it was shuttered in 1997. Now nothing is built there. One former employee was selling t-shirts. Examples of Sikorsky helicopters participating in the event included an LH-34 Seabat, the helicopter that took the U.S. Army into Vietnam, and the UH-1D Huey–the helicopter most closely associated with Vietnam. A later Chinook had seen duty in Iraq, as well as a Black Hawk. The pilot of the Black Hawk was asked how many his aircraft held. ‘Sixteen, Sir”. Then he was asked how many he had carried in a combat zone? “Thirty-eight, Sir. When you need to move people out, you do what you have to do.” The crew of a Rhode Island National Guard C-130 only returned from active duty in Afghanistan last month. Heros all.
But the surprises were the unknown individuals who attended the event and shared their personal experiences. Most of the men who flew Corsairs in combat and were honored at previous reunions have now passed away, but a woman who worked at Chance Vought and who’s desk sat next to the test pilots shared her memories of the struggle to make the Corsair the airplane it became. Veterans from all American wars from WWII to Iraq and Afghanistan attended. A gentleman drove his 1921 Locomobile Model 48 to be displayed with the historic aircraft. Locomobiles were built in Bridgeport and advertised as the ‘Best Built Car in America’. This particular Locomobile, however, was the very one that carried Charles Lindberg in his New York ticker tape parade after becoming the first man to fly across the Atlantic solo after taking off from nearby Long Island. Another gentleman was the great nephew of Ralph DePalma, winner of the 1915 Indianapolis 500.
If you’ve read this far, I think you do understand what I am sharing. Since my father first took me to the Indianapolis 500 in 1964 I have missed only one race in 45 years—at the Speedway or on television—until this year. I can tell you I missed watching the 500, but I gained more by spending the weekend with people who have made Memorial Day more than the ‘Memorial Weekend’ advertisers have hijacked.
I hope you’ll remember, too, next Memorial Day. Spend some time with someone who has personally made Memorial Day what it is—or should be. You’ll be richer for it.
[Source: Leigh Dorrington]