Flying in her father’s footsteps

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There are times when such an overwhelming desire to remember a group or a special occurrence defies logic for those who choose and dedicate their lives to one another. A reuniting of spirit occurs, a special camaraderie of lives thrown together at a time when those who were a part of something special cannot be forgotten.

This is the spirit of the crew of a B-17 that flew many missions during World War II. The late Wilmer Strawn of Hume was a member of that crew and now his daughter, Renee Craig, is a sister in spirit to those men her father flew with.

Strawn was a unique young man who lived a life that was full of contradictions and unusual circumstances. He was a boy when he moved to Hume with his mother, after his father died. The new home was the farm of his stepfather, Elmer Grafton, and this took some adjustment.

When he finished grade school, he was expected to find his way into the workforce, but he was determined to go for more schooling at the Hume High School. In order to get to school, which was a long distance from home for the daily trip, he took odd jobs offered by a couple of widow ladies in Hume. They provided his room and board, which enabled him to finish high school.

Soon after graduating he married the love of his life, Ruth St. John, in 1937. He got a job with the state highway department, but left that to join the Army during WW II to pursue a dream of becoming a pilot and helping American forces. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Strawn did not become a pilot, but he did serve on a B-17 crew for 34 missions on bombing runs until Germany surrendered.

He returned to Hume in 1946 and helped re-establish the American Legion Post in that village. During WW I there was a post in Hume, but it closed because that war was supposed to be the war that ended all wars.

Strawn was the first commander of the American Legion Roth-Williams Post 369 Veterans Memorial of Hume. He became a Standard Oil dealer in that area and was known as the candy man because of the way he threw candy out of his truck window while delivering fuel.

Craig well remembers the smell of that old truck and the clinkity-clink of the chain attached to the back axle, providing a ground so static electricity did not cause a fire.

He was gifted with a good singing voice and performed at funerals and weddings. He was also a true member of the Methodist Church, and he sat on the board of trustees for the local congregation.

A few years after his service in the Army Air Corps, he began meeting with his old comrades in arms, and his daughter remembers all of the places they visited that had to do with the homes and lives of that group.

Clayton Meyer, of the 423rd Squadron, 306 Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, sent a letter to Strawn and theother surviving members of that faithful crew on May 8, 1995 – the 50th anniversary of VE Day.

The letter conveys the tight connection between this band of brothers, and Meyer wrote,

“The memories of our experiences in ‘44 and ‘45 is the glue that has kept our friendship together all these years. I don’t know if we could do again all those things that we did so long ago, but I would like to believe that we could saddle up one more time if we really had to. It might take a little longer, but I’m sure we could get the job done just one more time. I want to take a moment in time to thank all of you for the memories and experiences that we all shared together over 50 years ago. These memories have indelibly imprinted all of our lives. I think that we can all proudly say that we did the job the best way we could. We hired out to do a good job, and I think that’s what we did.”

Strawn presented this information on that 50th anniversary to the church one Sunday, but he broke down without completing it. His steadfast wife, Ruth, finished it for him.

Following Strawn’s death, the crew’s co-pilot, Hugh Hostetter, made a practice of calling Ruth Strawn to see if she was OK.

Craig carries on the tradition of memorializing the troops that served by speaking at the special days of recognition at the Legion Post her dad helped start.

Her father took the close family members to see B-17s many times and explained all about what each of the 10 members of the crew did. In order to more fully understand what this band of brothers went through, she rode in a B-17 when it flew a few spectators at the Terre Haute Air Show.

She said it took her 20 years to finally take that ride, but she is glad she took the time and expense for what she considers the absolute ride of a lifetime.

Craig was supposed to sit in the area where her dad did most of his flights as a waist gunner, but she got a seat next to the top ball turret. She felt like she was packed in the plane like a sardine and found it hard to believe how the original crew moved around with all the flight uniforms and oxygen masks on.

When the flight began she felt the rumble of the plane on the runway and then the air rushing through the plane as it got in the air.

Craig said she was so full of adrenaline and excitement there was no way she was going to get sick. She got just a little bit of the feeling that her dad did when he flew so many times and that seemed a reward to her, so she really wasn’t that fearful.

The plane she rode had a false wooden floor, which was unlike what her dad flew in. She said it was hard to believe how they got around with just a small metal track down the center of the plane.

Craig is thankful to Texas Raiders Commemorative Air Force for making the ride possible. She is still excited about that ride last August into the history of a band of brothers and would gladly go again.

Craig also appreciates her husband, Rick Craig, and other family members accompanied her to the airfield.