Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Heroes Among Us

In a local restaurant, I ran into a precious woman I know who lives in a nearby retirement village.

We exchanged greetings, and she introduced me to the people at her table. One man, Rae Preston, wore a silver replica of a P-47 Thunderbolt around his neck on a bolo tie.

“Are you a WWII vet?” I asked.

He nodded. “Flew ninety-five missions.”

Mercy. “Did you fly on D-Day?”

“Sure did.”

I’m reworking a fiction manuscript right now which has a historical link to D-day, and felt this was a divine appointment. “Could I interview you?”

So, a couple of weeks later, my husband, Jerry, and I went to visit Mr. Preston. He had a bit of a hard time understanding me as people with hearing issues often do, so I brought Jerry with his booming voice along as back up. Turned out Jerry’s ROTC years were an unforeseen benefit, as he knew questions to ask that hadn’t even occurred to me.

Mr. Preston did indeed fly ninety-five missions between  1943 and 1945 as part of the Army Air Corp which after the war became the United States Air Force. Initially, he along with others in the 358th Fighter Group went in to France to prepare the way for the attacks on D-Day. Later, they accompanied the C-47’s that carried the paratroopers in. And as General Patton made his way across France, they provided air support.

A replica of a P-47 Thunderbolt hanging from the ceiling anchored his memorabilia wall.

Partial List of Rae Preston's Missions

 We looked through something like a yearbook one of his comrades had produced, The Story of the 358th Fighter Group and Ancillary Units, , and he showed us pictures of brave men who flew with him--one who later became a General. He pointed to a man in a group picture. “He didn’t make it home,” he said. Like so many.

Between the pages of the book, we even came upon a congratulatory letter from General Patton.
He said, "I had three planes assigned to me one time, fortunately they always brought me home, but they'd be all shot up."
When asked if he was ever wounded he said, "Never got a bullet."

One mission in particular stands out in Rae Preston’s military career. From the account in his history book, we learned that at night, Germans would pull guns from “tunnels, fire several rounds and return to their protective camouflage as daylight broke. One of these shells landed so close to General Patton’s Nancy headquarters that it shattered the windows, almost claiming the life of one of the Allies’ greatest commanders.

Lieutenant Rae Preston led eleven aircraft to attack the tunnel (at Teterchen). Poor weather and intense flak were encountered in route, and the aircraft had to take violent, evasive action in the thick haze to avoid the shells.” One air collision claimed a life and another plane barely made it back to base, but after regrouping, “Five planes dropped ten bombs on the west end of the tunnel, scoring a direct hit…on the return trip a locomotive, ten cars and a barracks were strafed and damaged.”

After my husband read this aloud, Mr. Preston moved from his chair to a nearby bookcase. He lifted a plastic bag. “A fellow I know has been to France a few times, and he brought a piece of the tunnel we blew up back to me.” He smiled as he held out the stone fragment to us.
After visiting a while, we thanked him for his time, and as we left, Jerry said, “He has not idea he’s a hero, does he?”

He in fact did not. He came back after the war, flew a helicopter for a while, and then fell out of a pecan tree and suffered a head injury. His flying days over, he later became a postal worker. I imagine many of those he worked with never knew what he’d done as his humility cloaked his service.

As we celebrate the Fourth of July, find a veteran and thank them for their service, and for the freedom we enjoy.

And let’s be more aware of the heroes among us.

"Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord . . ." ( Psalm 33:12)


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