The young nurse’s aide walked into the hospital room, turned off the blinking call light above Uncle Phil’s bed. “What do you need?” she asked.
“It’s hard for me to breathe because of my sore ribs,” he said in a raspy voice. “This is for the birds – something has to be done!”
“Well, let me talk to your nurse and see what we can do for you.”
She turned and walked out of the room, her steps echoing down the hallway.
Fifteen long minutes passed, but still no nurse arrived with Phil’s medication. He gasped for every breath. I stood up and headed out of the room, determined to get relief for him.
Five or six people dressed in pink and green outfits stood around the nurse’s station, talking to each other. When they saw me, their conversations ended.
“May I help you?” a nurse said.
“Yes, Phil Fielder in Room 170 is still waiting for his pain medication.”
“Oh my! The nurse must’ve forgotten to follow up on my request. I’ll go get her,” said the young aide.
She turned and hurried down the corridor toward the cafeteria.
I stood there absolutely frustrated by this careless turn of events. A dam burst within me.
“Do you know this seventy-seven year old man was a World War II hero? He flew on thirty-five bombing missions over Germany. On one of those flights, he saved the entire ten man crew with his bravery. This man is a hero, and he was younger than all of you when he did it,” I proclaimed.
Maybe, my intensity caught these people off guard, or possibly, it was a sincere regret for their lackluster patient care. Whatever the reason, they collectively mumbled, “Really? We didn’t know that.”
Walking away, I struggled to control my anger.
Don’t they realize senior citizens have helped to make America great and deserve to be treated with dignity and honor? I thought. Some of them have even earned the right to be called a hero.
Sixty years earlier, Phil was a handsome seventeen year old Iowan whose boyhood years were cut short by World War II. Four older brothers had enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor. He followed their lead by signing up on July 10, 1942.
He kissed his sweetheart goodbye and boarded a train to boot camp. After that was completed, he attended airplane mechanic’s school and specialist’s training for P-38 fighter planes.
But yet, like many young men, Phil wanted to be in the action, not sitting on the sidelines thousands of miles away from action. So, he volunteered for gunnery school. He was accepted and sent to Pueblo, Colorado. Upon graduation, he was assigned to a B-24 bomber crew as a flight engineer and a machine gunner.
In the midst of his hurry-up-and-wait army schedule, Phil found time to marry Helen Kimler on October 24, 1943. What little honeymoon they enjoyed was brief. But fortunately, she was able to travel with him to Pueblo, Colorado. The months quickly passed by for these kids until Phil was sent overseas. Helen then returned to Iowa, pregnant with their soon arriving child.
Phil’s ten-man crew was a part of the 15th Army Air Force and the 485th Bomber Group. Their ages ranged from 19 to 23 years old. Captain Tom McDowell was a respected veteran at the ripe old age of twenty. Uncle Phil was the second youngest at 19 and the only married man in the crew.
Landing inVenosa, Italy, the B-24 crew flew their first mission on September 6, 1944. Thus, began their countdown towards a minimum of thirty-five bombing runs over enemy territory before they could be reassigned to less hazardous duty.
Thirty-five missions over Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Austria. Thirty-five flights bombing oil refineries, rail road yards, ammunition plants, ball bearing factories and whatever else. Thirty-five trips through anti-aircraft fire filled with deadly flak so heavy it appeared to be black clouds. Thirty-five times taking off knowing that one in three planes would not return that day. Thirty-five tests of courage far beyond what most normal men could ever bear. It’s no wonder these crews became life-long friends after enduring such peril together.
On one particular mission, Phil’s B-24 came under heavy anti-aircraft fire just after they dropped their bombs. A piece of metal flak tore a hole in the hydraulic reservoir tank causing oil to spray all over the cabin. If left unfixed, the bomb bay doors would remain open and the plane’s wheels would not be lowered into their landing positions. Valuable seconds ticked off. Something had to be done or the plane would have to be ditched, forcing them to use their parachutes. A dangerous last resort for B-24 crews over enemy territory.
“See if you can do something! And be quick about it!” Captain Tom shouted to Phil.
Looking around, Phil saw a small broom under the pilot’s seat. He broke the handle off and made his way toward the hydraulic tank with it in hand.
Under normal conditions, this was a precarious trek because there was no aisle to the rear parts of the plane. There was only an eight inch wide catwalk which spanned over the thin aluminum doors. But on that day, the bomb bay doors were wide open with high winds ripping up through them. Plus, the plane was at an altitude of twenty-eight thousand feet, with temperatures at forty degrees below zero. Everything, including the catwalk, was covered with slippery hydraulic oil.
Phil unhooked his front parachute pack and edged sideways out over the long oily catwalk, much like a high wire walker in a circus. He crossed the open bomb bay doors to the leaking tank. When he arrived there, he cut off a finger of his leather glove, shoved the broom handle into the lopped off piece and stuffed the jury-rigged wad into the tank’s gaping hole. The leak stopped.
When they arrived back at base, did a military band play for our hero? No. Did any reporters rush to write about his heroic act of courage? No. Were any medals given to him? No. Did he really expect any of this to happen? No.
Instead, Phil received the grateful thanks from the ones he considered the most important people in the war zone – his crew members.
Phil and his whole crew went on to complete their quota of thirty-five bombing missions in April, 1945, and was then reassigned back to the states. There he was reunited with Helen and finally introduced to his seven-month old son, Philip, Jr.
In the words of Stephen Ambrose, Uncle Phil was a perfect example of the “citizen-soldiers” who bravely fought in World War II and then returned to have productive lives.
Looking back, Uncle Phil summed up his actions by saying, “Somebody had to do it. It just turned out to be me.”