In his memoir, "Combat Missions: Flying the B-24 Liberator Bomber Out of Manduria, Italy, 450th Bomb Group, 720th Squadron, WWII.," Burl Harmon, 78 years later at the age of 97, describes the impact of WWII on him, a 19-year-old from Boone, Iowa. After being drafted in 1943, unable to even drive a car, he found himself the Flight Engineer of a B-24 Liberator Bomber, responsible for the mechanical safety of an "Ugly Duckling" on 38 combat missions from March to October 1944. Twenty of those bombing missions in Ploesti, Romania were so dangerous that the U.S. Army Air Corps counted each of them as two missions, increasing the crew's tally from 38 to 51.
Harmon vividly describes the severity of problems caused by the wounding of his navigator and the danger of his B-24 separating from formation to return home alone. He praises the P-51 escorts flown by the intrepid 332nd Black Squadron, Tuskegee Airmen, who accompanied his squadron. Their "Red-Tailed" presence raised crew morale and led him to avow, "Without a doubt, I am alive today because of their heroic efforts".
Returning home, the author confronts civilian life, learns of his parents' impending divorce, the loss of his longed-for girlfriend, and enters a new entanglement initiated by his mother after she proudly placed one of his letters in a newspaper. Months later, he enters college and begins his new 40-year trajectory as a high school teacher and administrator.
Harmon's anecdotes and details move far beyond a simple initial story to a story of momentous transition confronting millions of Americans. Harmon captures the resilience, responsibility, and acceptance of war and its implications. As he writes in his "Introduction," "even though the implications of WWII tested our democracy... Our task ahead is to continue to integrate those left out, the marginal among us, into the fullness of American life."
Years later, as the narrative moves to an end, Harmon reflects on ten memorable characters from his missions. He lists their acts of brotherhood and sadly reports that two died (one in combat and one in a possible PTSD-related accident), and another spent the remainder of the war in a series of Nazi prison camps after being shot down. One, whom he considered his closest brother, he sadly lost contact with him and "never connected after the war".
Burl Harmon's Combat Missions captures a young boy's growth to adulthood under dramatic characters shaping circumstances. He gifts us all, especially his family, friends, and former students, with an engaging memoir that depicts an insecure time through a thankful senior veteran's eyes.