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Keep 'em Flying, Boys

I dare say it: for the remnant of our Greatest Generation still living among us, none speak freely about their role in World War II. Was it part of a moral code? Protocol to honor the dead? Or asking 'why' their peers had to perish are questions only God can redeem?

On this Memorial Day, my prayer is one of profound gratitude for those soldiers who gave their lives to defend our nation's security. No one is born brave, nor are human beings wired for grief. We rise and fall to life's reversals like the changing winds of war. And somehow, when courage surfaces in the midst of tragedy, we celebrate the positive outcome.

from Vol. 4

An Ode to Joe

BY SUMMER OF ’42, MACDILL Army Air Field would be all about the business of training the B-17 Flying Fortress groups before deployment to England. The laborious bomber drills ended in June, and the B-17s were moved to less vulnerable bases in America’s heartland. Twelve B-26 combat groups were fully retrofitted with upgraded engines and longer wingspans.

PFC Joe Carter knew he was partial, but the B-26 had the lowest casualties of all the Allied bombers stationed in Europe, and he was proud of the MacDill reputation. He was a team player born with a tireless work ethic, and he was determined to do his part so America could keep winning. The new wing at the hospital would open in September. Until then, Joe Carter was assigned one crucial task after completing another; stocking shelves, taking medical supply inventory and training the other medics for rotational shifts for the improved hospital operations. 50,000 airmen had already passed through MacDill, a facility that could comfortably accommodate 15,500 full-time men and women.


Such was the hand dealt to my late father who enlisted in 1941. He was only 17, and with the Allies crying for mercy, he was shipped to Utah for the Army Air Corps' medical training school. When he came of age, he had risen in rank to earn his wings as PFC Joseph Cooper, Yet, after another disappointing physical exam, his dream of flying away was clipped on the wings of a mastoid ear. This abrupt medical deferment deemed him 'unfit for battle.' What on earth was Uncle Sam supposed to do with a guy like Joe?

Dogging the headwinds of fate, a long bus ride across America delivered him to Tampa Bay --MacDill Air Field, to prepare the new hospital for what would ultimately be headquarters for the grizzly forensics of America at War. "The Battle of Tampa Bay" was the first and last stop on Joe Cooper's military deployment. Far from mundane, and after reading his letters written to loved ones, I have learned that my father's resilient optimism was perfected at MacDill. The fact that he attended the surgeons, patching up America's sons and daughters, rendering a bedside manner second to none - these were the state side's brightest and best. And I believe it probably made all the difference for some of the boys' life or death injuries.

Like most medical technicians, Joe saw more than his share of death and dying. Ministering to fractured bones, lost limbs, and the silent horrors of shellshock were the daily rigors of his MacDill wartime drills. Working with the medical teams, Joe Cooper hustled his way around the base hospital, stocking supplies, assisting in surgery, or boosting morale on a moment's notice.

The G.I.s did not speak publicly about their eyewitness accounts in the gruesome war across the Atlantic. But remaining loyal to countless buddies at MacDill was a lifetime past-time for my family I can also remember the early 1950s, playing dolls with the two woolen blankets emblazoned with the U.S. Air Force logo. We treated those wartime souvenirs with honor. Instinctively, like never wanting to be sick, I knew not to ask any more about MacDill.

What was his mindset? It could have been as simple as his formula for child rearing: Don't dwell on your problems. Always strive to live well - no skipping school without a temperature of at least 100 degrees. Above all, keep life's failures to ourselves. My dad learned how to patch 'em up, and keep 'em flying; therefore his work on any given day was embedded with a very worthy cause. We were trained likewise to express a similar love for country. Never to forget.

By 1943, Joe had formed a baseball league to play in the empty Grapefruit League stadiums that dotted the Florida coastline. It helped that his C.O. was also a baseball fanatic. During the winter months, Private Cooper starred on MacDills' "Bombers" basketball team, where his hustle and team spirit were contagious. (I possess the newspaper clippings to verify the legend.) But Dad had another motive for living life on the sunny side. As he processed the endless casualties at MacDill, a life-altering affection for a gal in Kalamazoo stirred him to give the war effort his all. Then he could go home!

My parents' letters of endearment record more of what Joe did not say than actual descriptions of a busy hospital at war. Between the omissions, Dad inserted a sentimental fervor that surely underscored the complexity and gravity of his mission. Imagine the soldiers whose letters never arrived home, or after it was too late. Joe Cooper was a lucky one, despite his dashed hopes for serving in battle. If only he could keep his glass half full, just maybe his attitude would offset the revolving door of devastation.

His "gal" back home was as fastidious to chronicle the young soldier's impressions, and she wrote him back with gusto. With her effervescent artillery of questions, Willo saved her pennies for a trip to Florida - boarding her own bus for a window on the war. Theirs was a match made in heaven, but their story never forsakes the sacrifices. May we always remember the Greatest Generation, and every other soldier who left it on the field for us.

Copyright 2022 Rebecca Tempeman, all rights reserved.

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