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The Campaigns of Courage tells the tale of the European and Pacific Theaters of War.

JACK WEATHERLY: WW II Museum keeps story of fight for democracy airborne

NEW ORLEANS – Maybe one of the airborne B-24s shown in the films at The National World War II Museum was his.

One hundred seventy-eight bombers left Benghazi, Libya, on Aug. 1, 1943 on a 1,200-mile flight to Ploesti, Romania.

Second Lt. David E. “Sonny” Burt

The B-24 Liberator crews flew at near treetop level to avoid radar, and dropped their payloads on the key Nazi oil refinery, setting off hellish flames that nearly engulfed the planes.

They prayed, when they had a chance, that they weren’t blown out of the sky by cannon fire and flak. Many were. Fifty-three bombers did not return, along with 660 airmen.

Five Medals of Honor and 56 Distinguished Flying Cross medals were awarded after the raid. One of the latter was given to Second Lt. David E. “Sonny” Burt of Attala County, my uncle, who flew in one or more of the raids over that target, which was eventually reduced to a nonfactor.

To include that historic raid, “The Tidal Wave,” and the others,  and so many other aspects of what indeed became The Greatest War, what began as the National D-Day Museum on June 6, 2000 is now a six-acre campus that includes soaring modern buildings with the latest in technology and real, three-dimensional machines of war to present the story in world-class fashion.

It tells the story of not only the invasion of Fortress Europe on D-Day, thanks to historian Stephen E. Ambrose as co-founder, but also what it took to conquer the Nazi empire as well as that of the other Axis powers – Japan and Italy.

TravelAdvisor ranks the museum as the No. 1 attraction in the city of attractions. It has been designated an official national museum by Congress.

We spent one day in the Campaigns of Courage – the battles and tales of the European and Pacific theaters of war.

Databases can contain the numbers, the names and even more personal detail of the tens of millions who fought in the great struggle.

But not the individual lives.

Here is one.

In a tall oak wardrobe in a farmhouse in Attala County, Mississippi hangs a brown-leather flight jacket decorated with 51 white bombs, one for each of that many missions over Nazi-held Europe.

Sonny Burt wrapped himself in it every time as a pilot when he fired up the four 1,200-horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines of the B-24, which roared to life and shook the earth before leaving it behind.

As a child, I counted the bombs more than once to make sure I had the total right. It was an exercise in the arithmetic of heroism.

He was a personal hero. My brother and I, who were growing up in Memphis, were fortunate to spend time on his farm during the summers.

He would let me tag along when he went quail hunting, sort of his tail gunner without a gun, or, better perhaps, a loose cannon. I was amazed by the speed at which he wheeled and fired milliseconds after the muffled explosion of the game birds’ takeoff.

He indulged my boyhood curiosity. He listened to my childish comments, and questions. Such as:

“Uncle Sonny, why aren’t you flying airliners?”

Patiently but plainly, he said: “Well, my nerves were shot, Jack.”

“What do you mean?”

He said when a traffic light turned from red to green he found himself pulling back on the steering wheel and trying to take off into the wild blue.

That may well have been the least sign of his frayed nerves. Otherwise, if you didn’t know, he was just a gentlemanly farmer.

On the mantel of his bedroom fireplace was a sign. It was a piece of flak taken from his plane. Eight inches long and jagged, it was a different kind of medal granted by the Nazis.

He married a pretty Mississippi girl, whom I came to know as Aunt Judy and on whom I had a boyhood crush. Now 92, she’s marking their 70th wedding anniversary this year.

The big, boxy B-24s were called “flying coffins” because they were hard to fly and hard to parachute out of, especially for those at the controls.

The saying is that are no atheists in a foxhole, may apply here: there are no atheists in a cockpit.

Ambrose’s 2001 book, “The Wild Blue,” focuses on George McGovern – later a U.S. Senator and then a presidential nominee running on a peace platform – as a B-24 pilot whose experiences were representative.

McGovern put in his mandatory 35 missions. Sonny Burt logged 51, though I doubt he was matching scores with anyone.

He was just grateful to be alive.

In 1983, the year Sonny died from cancer, he said the past 40 years had been a gift.

That a history museum has such pull is a hopeful sign in an age when the millennial generation has lost its bearings and is flying blind and many in the older generations are seemingly losing their grip on the realities of sacrifices and earned freedom pulled from the stranglehold of tyranny.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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About Jack Weatherly