So many times a man’s dream takes a few turns when he least expects it. The quest to spread one’s wings and leave the nest can result in serving others and his country.
One young man, Wilmer Strawn, from the small village of Hume was searching for his wings in a little different way because he wanted to become a pilot. Before he started this quest he married classmate Ruth St. John in 1937 when he was only 18 years old.
His adventure began as a young married man during World War II. He tried enlisting in the armed forces to fight against the forces of tyranny. His enlistment efforts during the early stages of the war were denied because he was married, but in June 1943 he was accepted since he had no children. Strawn went off on the road to become a pilot in the Army Air Force.
Basic training camp was in Keesler Field, Miss., for new recruits. This was much different than working for the state of Illinois as a state highway maintenance man caring for the roadways of our state. After basic training, Strawn was ready to take flight training.
He went to Penn State College for cadet courses and received flight instruction for a three-month training period, but again his marital status was an obstacle. The Army Air Corps did not let him continue on the road to become a pilot because of concern about losing the head of a family. Piloting in wartime was a high-risk venture.
The Air Corps transferred him to a school in Nashville, Tenn., for aviation weapons training. He accepted that new roll to help in the war effort and soon became proficient in the courses he needed to be a member of a B-17 Bomber crew
Strawn’s next assignment was Armament School in Kingman, Ariz., where he received extensive training with 50-caliber machine guns. This training included maintaining and repairing weaponry and target practice.
The next step was Buckley Field near Denver, Colo., in January 1944. This was more to his liking because his wife was able to visit him multiple times. Several months later he arrived in Florida for more training with members of a dedicated crew. The crew trained together for night flying, high-altitude operations and simulated combat conditions.
Then it was on to a Georgia staging center for overseas assignment. His wife was also on hand to wish him well.
The crew had a new airplane named Toggle Tessie and flew it to Thurlieh Royal Air Force base in England, a base for the U.S. Eighth Air Force. They arrived in December 1944, and after a year and a half of training, Strawn was ready for a real adventure.
Strawn was a meticulous note writer and saved many records of his war memories.
In his own words, he described his first bombing flight: ”Bombed Kassel marshling yards and tank works. Had three targets to pick from and flak was heavy, several holes in plane. Bombed from 26,500 ft. and -42 degrees. Used instruments for bombing cause we had little visibility. Not bad for my first mission, but I was scared stiff anyway. I will never forget Jan. 1, 1945 as long as I live. On oxygen for five hours.”
His contingent, the 306 Bombardment Group, is credited as the first over Germany during WW II. Strawn flew 34 missions within a 4-1/2 month period. He started as a waist gunner for 23 missions, then a tail gunner for five missions and then as a togglier in charge of releasing the bombs.
Many bomber crews returned home after 24 missions, but as the war went on the Air Corps changed the rotation to 35 missions. Strawn’s career ended with 34 missions because Germany surrendered before he flew the 35th. In Strawn’s notes about the bombing raids, he gave great credit to the ability of the pilot to bring them home. Sometimes it seemed impossible because of low fuel or really bad weather. He indicated the crew was scared to death when they flew the last miles just above the treetops, and he also gave credit to the navigator and his instruments for landing them in one piece.
Strawn did experience frostbite a couple of times, but he carried on and recovered in short order. Flak was dangerous to fly through. Flak was shrapnel from exploding shells that were fired by rapid firing anti-aircraft guns and exploded at a predetermined height aided by radar.
The Toggle Tessie crew was extremely fortunate to have never been hit directly by the exploding shells. Less than 50 percent of the bombers returned to England during the war. On one mission, Strawn had to remove a piece of flak from the tail wheel and crank the wheel down by hand so they could land.
A bombing mission over Berlin encountered a problem when the bomb bay doors did not open. He crawled down to the doors and pulled a piece of flak out just in time to release the bombs. He brought a piece of flak home with him as a reminder of what might have been.
After the war, the crew flew Toggle Tessie back home through Iceland and landed in Massachusetts. They then flew to Texas where Strawn was reunited with his wife and they remained until he was discharged. He is credited with 291 hours of combat and 459 hours of flight.
Ultimately his wings were not representative of his becoming a pilot, but as an important warrior of a crew that was supported by the wings of the B-17 Flying Fortress. Among other awards Strawn received are his gunner’s wings and the Air Medal.
The story of his family and his service did not end when he got back home to Hume. Strawn was a modest Christian man who was a dedicated warrior. He was one of the many who made it back, but we should also remember how well so many of them served and not just at Memorial and Veterans Day. There are B-17s still flying, but that is another story according to Renee Craig, his daughter who provided the information.