Dick Bailey nudges his wheelchair next to the podium. Summoning the little remaining strength he has in each arm, he presses against the chair to stand. An aide places an arm under Dick’s elbow and guides him to a tall chair behind the microphone.
“I’m not as feeble as I look,” Dick says with his gravely voice. “I spoke to this group some months ago, but if you think I’m repeating myself, just turn down your hearing aids.”
The WWII Atlanta Roundtable audience is in for a treat. “Dick” is ninety-six-year-old Richard Bailey, former World War II United States Army Air Force First Lieutenant and B26 Martin Marauder pilot. He completed sixty-five missions in the European Theater during his service and was was awarded not one but two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals.
During a serious moment, Dick answered an audience member’s question about how low the B-26 could operate. On D-day during one of Dick’s missions at a normal flying altitude of 10,000 to 12,000 feet, low clouds made it impossible for his crew to spot their bombing targets. Dick came around for a second pass at 5,000 feet. Nothing. He came around at 2,500 feet. Still nothing. A fourth pass at a frighteningly low five hundred feet was successful.
I’ve written about Dick before (see: Decorated Story Teller). Here, I’m sharing some of Dick’s comments and his humor. As I interview World War II veterans for my upcoming work on World War II, I have found humor is one trait that runs through each of the stories. The ability to laugh at yourself, your situation, and with others sustained veterans like Dick through some of the most trying times.
Dick describes the conditions during the Battle of the Bulge, the dense forest, the knee high snow, the cold. It was so dire, he says, “the birds were walking.” That’s an image you won’t find by reading books. One more reason why it is so imperative to talk to these veterans. Now.
Dick has a special fondness for the B-26. It’s understandable—the durable, fast and heavily armed bomber had the lowest loss record of all the era’s bombers. And, it saw him through the war and safely home. With its relatively short stubby wings, the B-26 had an ungainly shape. “We called her the flying prostitute,” Dick says. “With those short wings, she had no visible means of support.”
A B-17 bomber pilot once asked him about the B-26’s take off speed. Dick replied 145 miles per hour. The astonished B-17 pilot said, “What? That’s as fast as we fly!”
The B-26 was hard to shoot down and so was not the German Luftwaffe’s favorite target. Perhaps the B-17 a larger and slower flying U.S. bomber was. In jest, Dick derides the B-17, calling it nothing more than a powered glider. Fighting words, I am sure, between U.S. pilots.
Read more about Dick Bailey in the book: Combat Veterans’ Stories from WWII by Norman Black. The book is available from the Acworth Bookstore in Acworth, Georgia. And don’t miss a chance to see him in person if you are in the area.