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Jewish World Review March 24, 2000 / 17 Adar II, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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'I tell myself that they've gone on vacation' -- "YOU LOOK AT YOUR FILM in advance to pick out the target area," Tom Ferebee said. "You decide what the best aiming point will be.

This was last Memorial Day weekend; he and I were sharing living quarters in a place in southwestern Missouri. Tom and his wife had one bedroom, I had the other, and we shared a living room. He was 80 at the time.

"In Hiroshima," he said, "it was pretty clear to me that it had to be the T-shaped bridge."

Ferebee -- who died the other week at the age of 81 -- was the bombardier on the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the world's first atomic bomb. Paul Tibbets flew the plane, Dutch Van Kirk navigated, Ferebee, peering through the Norden bomb sight, released the bomb -- and finally World War II was going to be over. The carnage and destruction on the ground beneath the plane would be terrible beyond imagining -- but at last the killing would end. The war would be won.

And here we were, more than 50 years later, on Memorial Day weekend in Missouri -- a Memorial Day weekend that would turn out to be the last of Ferebee's life. Tibbets was a few doors down from us; Van Kirk, too, had his room nearby.

They had invited me to come with them on what would be their last time together, although they did not know it then. In the year and a half since my father's death, I have been working on writing a book about why the war had so much to do with forming him into the man he became; why he and the fellow soldiers of his generation, once they returned home from World War II, remained so connected to the young men they had once been. My dad was an anonymous soldier with an infantry division in North Africa and Italy; Tibbets, Van Kirk and Ferebee, it can be said with some degree of accuracy, won the war.

Yet the three of them went out of their way to help me understand my father's life, and the lives of the others who served -- the old soldiers, sailors and fliers who are leaving us every day. "Who knew about who doesn't matter," Tibbets told me one day -- meaning, whether you were a famous combat pilot or a soldier no one ever heard of, you all had the same job.

In an exceeding gesture of generosity, the three of them invited me to come along with them on their trip last Memorial Day. I have not written about that trip before; I haven't even told my own mother about it, until now. But when Tom died last week, I wanted to say something here about the kind of man he was.

He never thought about winning a war, or even fighting in a war. He wanted to play baseball -- for the St. Louis Cardinals.

"That was my dream," he said. "I went down to Florida with the St. Louis Cardinals for spring training in 1939. That was the dream I was after. I wasn't good enough yet. And then the war came."

He was no politician; none of them were. They did what they were asked. In the case of Tibbets, Ferebee and Van Kirk, what they were asked was to carry out the single most violent act in the history of mankind. They were chosen for a reason: To end the war, the United States wanted to send the best combat pilot it had, the best navigator it had, the best bombardier it had. The three of them were in their 20s when they got the assignment.

Last May in Missouri we would go to restaurants, and younger customers would sometimes look at the three of them almost patronizingly: three old men. Out for the Early Bird Special. If only the younger people in the restaurants could have heard our conversations -- could have heard what these three old men were talking about. When this country needed the very toughest and very best combat airmen it could find, to do the most important job in the war. . . .

I asked Ferebee if helping to win the war was the most satisfying thing he could ever imagine.

"I would rather have helped the Cardinals win a World Series," he said. "That's all I ever wanted."

I spoke to him after he became ill last winter; he knew the end was coming soon. I sent him some books to read, and tried to explain to him that many of us really do understand the debt we owe to him and his fellow soldiers, but he knew that the world will always look upon Hiroshima with great ambivalence, and that the only three people who understand it completely are the ones who were asked to carry out the task, to end the war: the three old men at the dinner table.

Once, over Memorial Day weekend, in the living room we shared, I asked Ferebee how, in combat, he dealt with the death of people he cared for.

"I always told myself, never get close to anyone," he said. "Never get close to anyone, because you might lose them."

But, I told him, he had lost people who were close to him many times during the war.

"I told myself, when you lose someone, treat it like they've gone on vacation," he said. "Tell yourself that they're on vacation, and they're not back yet."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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