Tant: Remembering Daddy's war: D-Day in a B-17
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Athens Banner-Herald | Story updated at 7:29 pm on 6/5/2009

June 6, 1944. D-Day. Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe that would topple Hitler's Third Reich, had begun. The D-Day assault on Nazi-occupied France by tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that was launched 65 years ago today, has been the fodder for scores of books and Hollywood films such as "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan."

For my father, Sgt. Warren O'Neal Tant, D-Day was not just words on paper or images on a movie screen. For Neal Tant, D-Day was all too real as he lived "the longest day" in the cramped confines of the ball turret of a B-17 bomber. It was Daddy's last mission of the war, and he ended his military service as a participant in an operation that proved to be a turning point in history.

Hollywood films depict American airmen as dashing, daring "gentlemen flyboys," but my dad always had a different view. "War is not glorious," he always said. "It's scary. It's cold. It's awful. You're trying to kill other young guys that you'd probably drink a beer with in any other circumstance - and they're trying to kill you."

My father always had high praise for his fellow airmen, for the ground crews and for the tough B-17 bombers that took him and his crew members through the flak-filled skies over Nazi Germany and occupied France.

Aptly called the Flying Fortress, the B-17 bombers were bristling with guns and packed with a heavy load of death-dealing ordnance in the form of explosive and incendiary bombs. The rugged warbirds were legendary for their ability to absorb punishing blows from German fighters and artillery while still making it to their targets and back to their bases in England.

My dad often joked that "the B-17 was made by Boeing, but I thought it was made by Timex because it could take a licking and keep on ticking." Indeed, my father's tough old B-17 brought him and his buddies home from 30 combat missions plus many more reconnaissance flights and dangerous "decoy" missions flown to lure German fighter planes away from the actual primary targets.

"I didn't mind bombing military targets, and I'd do it again," Daddy always said. "I hated it when they sent us to bomb cities. I knew that innocent people like children were dying then."

World War II airmen tried to lighten their burden by giving their planes such monikers as "Round Trip," "Dead Man's Hand," "Able Mabel," "Glamour Gal," "Virgins from Hell" and "Jersey Bounce." My father's plane was called "Rowdy Rebel" because, as he explained, "We had 10 guys on the crew, and nine of them were from the South. We made the 10th guy an honorary Southerner by baptizing him with corn liquor."

My father was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, but the military honor he may have cherished the most was a certificate given to him after his last mission on D-Day, making him an official member of "The Lucky Bastards Club" for surviving his string of air war missions. His brother, my Uncle Norman, also was a survivor after being captured by the Japanese and living through the infamous Bataan Death March.

Though the British joked that the American airmen were "overpaid, oversexed and over here," their true feelings were engraved in the stone of the handsome granite memorial to the fliers of my father's 447th Bomb Group that the English placed in the small town of Rattlesden near their air base. The memorial is a touching tribute to the airmen and their ground crews "in remembrance and gratitude of their fight in the cause of freedom."

Decades after the war, Daddy returned to England and visited the memorial. He died on June 6, 1996 - 52 years to the day after he flew his last mission in the cold and lonely ball turret of a Flying Fortress.

• Ed Tant has been an Athens columnist since 1974. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, The Progressive and other publications. For more, see his Web site, www.edtant.com.
Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Saturday, June 06, 2009