A Story of Thanksgiving & Hope
Completely surrounded by 15 of the best fighter planes Japan has to offer, bullets and cannon rounds smother the B-24 Bomber called the “ Daisy Mae.” Bloody wounded and dying men are everywhere on board. There is no place to hide. Even if there were, the eleven men on board today, will fight to the death if need be, to save each other and to save their ship. They are desperately trying to pay life forward for their buddies.
Flying and fighting at 17, 000 feet, and at 300 miles per hour, the B-24 Bomber, is struggling to fly with jagged edge metal pushing against the wind, leaking fuel, and the fire power of the enemy. Illuminating tracer rounds are starting fires throughout the doomed ship.
From his ball-turret gunnery position, located beneath the 10 man crew and the largest bomber in the world at the time, Sergeant Fran Perkins, lay wounded after shooting down two Japanese Zeroes and taking two more Zeros, out of the fight. He is totally blind, Fran’s front gun sight from his machine guns, was driven into his forehead by the second exploding warplane directly in front of Fran’s deadly aim. He lay bleeding from massive wounds and is completely blind.
The remaining Japanese fighter planes begin to turn around and head back to their base on Wake Island. Perhaps it is because they lost too many aircraft to the fierce fighters aboard the Daisy Mae or perhaps they are straying too far from their airbase on Wake Island. If they run out of fuel, they will have to crash land in the shark infested waters of the Pacific Ocean. If the severely damaged Daisy Mae, falls apart or her engines dies out, she and all aboard will receive a similar fate.
The valiant ship and crew are still 1200 miles from home, their base on Midway Island, with very few instruments that are operational and nothing but miles and miles of ocean and a severe storm they must fly through as well. This is the worst tropical storm in ten years. The wounded and dying ship will have to give everything she’s got to weather the storm and land safely.
Aboard the Daisy Mae, men are wounded and some are dying. Fran Perkins struggles to move his wounded body and crippled gun turret back into the belly of the ship. He knows his tour of duty is over, since he is blind. Perkins feels he is only dead weight on the ship and is now worthless in saving his crew from the deadly high speed battle raging at 17,000 feet of above the sea.
Lt. Benjamin I. Weiss, the Navigator on board, studies his maps on the Navigator’s table set up in the cabin directly behind Pilot Joe Gall, and his trusty Co-pilot, John Van Horn.
Picture yourself looking over Ben’s shoulder as he studies his maps. Today, if you could study a world map, you will see exactly what Navigator Weiss is looking at on July 24, 1943. You and Ben are looking at the clear blue Pacific Ocean with no land masses between Wake Island, the site of the battle and Midway Island, the airfield where they must land. There are over four hours of open sea, and now possibly five or six because of the damaged aircraft engines. The only ships at sea they may encounter along the way if they ditch the massive bomber in the ocean, are two enemy submarines that are tracking Daisy Mae by radar. The Japanese submarines will not take survivors. They will take no prisoners.
Convinced to stay on his new course adjustment, Weiss leaves his table and runs to the rear of the ship. There, Flight Engineer Arvid B. Ambur, after saving the hydraulics, is now administering first aid to the wounded and dying aboard the struggling ship. Weiss can do nothing more as a Navigator but just maybe he can help as a healer.
“Fran, Do you have a girl back home?…
Fran Perkins lays between wounded Myron Jensen, the Bombardier, and Joe “Pop” Evans, the wounded Aerial Photographer. Since Perkins is the only man conscious, Weiss asks the blind airman;
“Sergeant, Do you have a girl back home?”
Nineteen-year old Perkins, nods, “Yes, her name is Elaine.” He hesitates and looks downcast. “I’m blind now, Elaine won’t want me anymore.”
Lt. Weiss thinks for a moment, and then responds as a much older and wiser man, although Ben Weiss was only a few years older than Fran.
Smiling, yet assuming the role of a superior officer, Ben orders boldly, “Sergeant Perkins, ten years from now, after this War is over, I want to have Thanksgiving Dinner at your home and I want Elaine to cook for us.”
“Yes Sir, “Fran responds loudly, as he is trained to respond when communicating with a superior officer.
Then the Navigator kneels down, his voice softens as he says, “we will make it back safely, I swear to you we will.”
After a long pause, Perkins asks softly, “Sir, can you navigate by the stars?” Perkins is thinking of his life long dream of piloting his own plane from Midway Island at night and navigating by the stars. He is also fully aware that now he will never achieve that dream.
Ben Weiss responds, “ I need to get back to the cabin and keep Daisy Mae on course for Midway. We will talk later, I promise.”
Ben stares at his blind and helpless,comrade who is bleeding and lying on the floor. Ben states boldly, “Never underestimate the power of hope.”
Ten Years Later…
It is Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1953, ten years after Fran’s last mission on his beloved, Daisy Mae. After a few miracles, most of the crew made it back to Midway, and a brilliant Australian eye surgeon working in Hawaii, was able to restore one of Fran’s eyes. Both eyes move together, however blindness in Fran’s left eye remains. Fran is very grateful this Thanksgiving, as he is able to accomplish his goals without a one eye handicap.
Fran’s wife is preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The holiday aroma of Turkey, stuffing and baked pies fills the small apartment in Evergreen Park, Illinois near the tough South-side of Chicago.
There is a knock on the door. My Dad, Francis J. Perkins, former gunner on the B-24, Daisy Mae, springs like a Jack-In-The-Box, from his dining room chair. The door opens and standing there is a man, a few years older than my Dad, with the biggest smile I have ever seen in my life.
“Come in and meet my family,” Fran beams.
“Ben, this is my wife, Elaine, my Lady Elaine. This is my daughter Linda and my son Wayne. Family, this is your Uncle Ben.”
Navigator Weiss smiles as he replies, “I have waited ten years, to meet you, again and I am especially happy to meet Elaine. I had a strong feeling we would all meet someday.”
Ben opens his bottle of Mogen David wine and begins a Thanksgiving tradition in the Perkins home lasting long after our new visitor was gone and even after three more baby girls are born to Fran and Elaine Perkins, years later.
The Thanksgiving dinner is wonderful and the conversation is lively, but conspicuously absent of talk about the War. This is a silent tribute to the friends and family they lost during World War II. Fran and Ben are living their lives because of those friends. Their friends sacrificed and payed life forward to the two young men enjoying a grateful Thanksgiving that only they can fully understand and appreciate. Somewhere, the rest of the silent crew must be smiling.
After dinner, Ben has a surprise for the Perkins family. Weiss commands, “Saddle up everyone, we have a mission to complete. We must complete our mission.”
Within, two minutes, we find ourselves loading into Ben’s rental car. He takes us to an airport in Chicago as he has a surprise for the Fran’s family. During World War II, the airport was called CIT or Chicago International Airport. Today, Chicago International Airport, has had a recent name change. It is now named after the most significant battle of the Pacific Front during World War II. It carries the famous name of the battle that restored hope in every living American in the summer of 1942. It was the same name as the airfield that the Daisy Mae took off from and crash landed during her famous battle at 17,000 feet above Wake Island.
The airport Ben, Fran and the family are traveling to is now called “Midway.”
At Midway, Ben unloads the car and quickly and efficiently loads the family onto a small single engine airplane. Fran in the front passenger seat, Linda and Wayne in the rear seat. As Ben was lifting up Fran’s six year old son, little Wayne asks the World War II hero, “Uncle Ben, do you have a name for your airplane?”
“Yes, I do as he winks at my Dad. I call her the Daisy Mae.”
The Last Flight of the Daisy Mae…
The autumn sun is setting as Ben’s Daisy Mae is taking off from Midway. Soon, they are flying over Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, Soldier Field, and all of the venues that the Perkins family will enjoy over their lifetimes because of the heroics of the two young men sitting in the front seats and the brave sacrifices of the other nine crew members on one hellish day in the summer of 1943.
Fran and Ben fly as two brothers, flying, talking, laughing and just having fun. This time there is no rank or decorum separating them. In place of bullets and bombs, there are heroes and hope.
Ben turns the plane around and heads out to the darkest regions of Chicago’s Lake Michigan. Soon Ben turns over controls to Fran and is teaching him how to fly for the very first time. Fran cannot believe it. With his young family as witness, Fran Perkins obeys every command Ben gives him and enjoys every moment he is sharing with his family.
“Fran, I remember the last time we were on the bomber together. You asked me if I ever navigated by the stars. Do you want to learn how?
Fran Perkins can barely speak. An emotional lump fills his throat. Fran nods “yes” and Ben points to the star filled November skies.
Fran Perkins is now learning how to fly and navigate by the best damned navigator in the whole damned Army Air Corps. Ben Weiss delivers on a dream and a promise he made ten years earlier in a desperate battle, when the odds were neither Ben nor Fran would survive.
Ben instructs Fran to look out the window into the star filled black skies over Lake Michigan, and says, “Fran the secret to navigating at night involves mastering two tools.”
“What are the tools I need to master. I’m ready,” Fran replies determined.
Fran is feeling the same excitement he felt many years ago , when he was just nineteen climbing aboard his very first B-24 bomber with his buddies.
Ben points to the windshield and then to his right and says, “first you need to find the North Star which is located near that frying pan formation over there and then you need to master the most important tool of all.”
“OK, what tool is that, Ben?”
Ben smiles, “You need hope. Never underestimate the power of hope.”
Excerpted from the Last Flight of the Daisy Mae: A Story of Heroism and Hope at 17,000 Feet, by Wayne F. Perkins author/publisher. You can order the book from Amazon.com and fine bookstores everywhere. You can also ask your librarian to order the true story of heroism and hope, for your public or school library. It is available through Baker and Taylor Library Wholesalers, and Createspace for libraries. Copyright ©2016 Wayne F. Perkins, Whispers of Heroes.