Remembering My Dad a Pilot
By, Colonel Richard S. Hefner USAF (Retired)
Most sons probably remember their dad as a dad and not as a pilot, a war veteran, or a war hero. Dads were just dads and that generation seldom talked about what they did in the war. Therefore, when recently asked what my father told me about his days as an aviation cadet and a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force, I was hard pressed to recall documented, factual accounts. Sitting around the table and talking about the war was not a normal or frequent event. The following is the best I can do to recall some of those distant and infrequent times when my dad, Richard C. Hefner, told me about his life as a WW-II bomber pilot. Additionally, I am including only those stories for which I have found collaborating information or actually witnessed to be true.
My first recollection of Dad having done something “cool” as an aviator occurred when I was in my early teens. I found a copy of an Air Force magazine that had a story in it about the pilot of a Martin B-26 who was awarded the “key to a city” in Florida by its mayor for keeping a disabled bomber from crashing within the city limits. The article told of the crew bailing out after the plane had lost an engine. The pilot, my dad, steered the plane towards the ocean, tied a rope to the throttles and then chopped the throttles as he bailed out through the bomb bay section after the plane had cleared the city. When I asked Dad about the article, he merely acknowledged that it was accurate. No further comments, end of discussion! However, I did find a single notation in his log book that he had joined “the Caterpillar Club” which required for membership that a crewmember successfully bailout (hitting the silk) of a disabled aircraft.
Unfortunately, Dad’s second bailout did not earn him any positive notoriety, but rather 13 months in German POW camps. I have his log book and have seen newspaper clippings documenting his downing, his capture, and his liberation. In late 1943, the U.S. Army Air Force reassigned Dad to fly the B-24 Liberator. His bomb group became known as “the cotton tails” due to the white stripes on the planes’ vertical stabilizers. German fighters zeroed in on the “cotton tails” because their missions were deeper behind enemy lines and their targets were of strategic value. Dad had nicknamed his B-24 “Gadget” and in early 1944, he began flying several missions a week into enemy territory. As I understand it, when a pilot completed 50 missions, his tour in the war zone was over and he came home to fly around the country and sell war bonds. The oil fields at Ploesti, Rumania were a long distance from Dad’s base in Italy, so those missions counted double. On June 24th, Dad was scheduled to bomb Ploesti. The inbound mission was #49 and the return to Italy was to have been his 50th and his last. I do not recall whether “Gadget” was hit on the inbound run or after the bombs were dropped and the turn off target was completed; however, the B-24 was hit by enemy fire and could not stay with the formation. Dad nursed the wounded aircraft back towards Italy, but he and the crew had to bail out over Albania. The 50th mission was never completed and Dad became a prisoner of war. He was initially moved to several different German prison camps before settling in Stalag Luft 3 for the remainder of the war. He was liberated in the summer of 1945 by Patton’s Third Army. Somehow, he came to possess a photo of General Patton urinating in the Rhine River. I have seen this photo and was told of its rarity but have no idea where it is today.
I only remember Dad being willing to talk about being a prisoner of war three times. The first time was after watching the movie, The Great Escape (1963), which starred Steve McQueen and was based on an escape attempt at Stalag Luft 3. Querying Dad about his tenure in German prisons, I learned he was imprisoned at Stalag Luft 3 just after “the great escape” took place. He dismissed it by saying that Hollywood’s creative licensing went too far and that it was the Brits who really engineered the effort, not the Americans. Probing deeper, I asked him what it was like being in a prisoner of war camp. Dad looked at me, tears came into his eyes, and he left the table. The question was never answered and I never asked it again. It was the first time I saw my dad cry.
The second POW situation Dad was willing to discuss was his experience on December 24, 1944. On that Christmas Eve night, the American prisoners gathered in an open area outside their barracks and began to sing Christmas carols. The words to the songs had been written down on pieces of paper that the prisoners had trouble seeing due to darkness. To the surprise of the POWs, when the German guards in the towers heard the singing, they turned their spotlights on the group, illuminating the area so the prisoners could read the words to the songs.
The third result of Dad being a POW was one I witnessed but we never really discussed. Dad became a hoarder of food. For many years, I thought having a large supply of canned goods in a panty was pretty normal. After I married and realized that having such a large supply of canned goods was a little excessive, I decided to ask him why he kept so much food in the house. He looked at me then said he spent a full year being hungry as a POW and had vowed to himself that he would never go hungry again. I later learned that Germany had food shortages near the end of the war and prisoners at war camps were seldom given adequate food as set forth in the Geneva Conventions.
My last and most memorable recollection of Dad as a war veteran happened in spring of 1966. Dad had become a representative for the U.S. Air Force Academy the year after I had received my nomination and selection. In the spring of my freshman year, he attended a conference at the Academy and stayed through the weekend in hopes of spending some time with me. I was on the Academy’s freshman tennis team and on Saturday of that weekend, the team traveled to Pueblo, CO for a match. Dad drove down to the match and I was allowed to have the afternoon with him after the match. He mentioned he had an old war buddy who used to live in Pueblo and he wanted to look him up. Dad thumbed through the telephone book and found the name he was looking for. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name; however, I do clearly remember the event. The old war buddy was his radio operator on “Gadget” when the plane went down in Albania. These two war veterans had not seen each other since that fateful day. Neither knew if the other had made it out alive. As Dad entered the candy store which his radio operator now owned, the two men stared at each other as if frozen in time, then embraced each other and broke into tears. That was the second and last time I saw Dad cry.
Dad continued to serve in the North Carolina Air Force Reserves until his retirement. His two weeks of active duty was usually to Myrtle Beach AFB and he often took the family. While most kids my age were excited to be at the beach, I was excited to hang around Dad and the other pilots … listening to them telling their flying stories and talking about hot new planes in the Air Force. Throughout my life, people have asked me what motivated me to join the Air Force and become a pilot. Well, when I really stop and think about where my motivation came from, it’s pretty obvious that my dad was a significant factor in my decisions. It’s also pretty obvious that since he bailed out of disabled aircraft at least twice and possibly third time (which I have not discussed because I could not document), I’m a pretty lucky guy to even be here!
(The information in this article is primarily from my time with my dad. I have tried to discuss only those things I believed would withstand scholarly scrutiny. With a Master of Arts degree in Military History, I fully understand the importance of factual accuracy. However, please remember the purpose of this article was not to write about history. It was to recall a son’s memory of stories he heard from his father about his days as an U.S. Army Air Force pilot.)