This Memorial Day weekend we are in Boston with our extended family to remember Uncle Dick. At 22 years old, my wife’s uncle Richard G. Dinning, found himself as the pilot of a B-17 flying bombing raids over Germany. He was a budding law student when Pearl Harbor changed his world, he enlisted and ended up in Cambridge, England commanding the cockpit of a Flying Fortress. He promised his crew he would get them all home safely, and after 26 flights he did just that, unlike many of the other crews who followed the same routes. My Uncle Jim made those flights and never came home. He died when his plane went down in Holland.
–James Alexander Harnish
At the end of the war, one last flight was probably Uncle Dick’s most chilling—a rescue mission to bring French prisoners of war back to France from the brutal prison camps of Poland. He seldom talked about that flight. Later in life, however, he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’ Honneur (Knight of the National Order of the French Legion of Honor), the highest civilian award given by the French Republic for his efforts on behalf of the French troops.
Once he spent time in a B-17, I guess flying just got in his blood. He became an executive with Allegheny Airlines, which became US Airways and is now part of American Airlines. He flew his own Mooney until he was in his 80’s, traveling around the country to air shows accompanying a B-17 and B-24. He called himself the “living relic” as he sat beside the hulking B-17 and regaled visitors with his stories.
He died just shy of 100, the last of the “Greatest Generation” in our family and a part of that quickly fading generation of men and women who went to war to save the world.
Uncle Dick never forgave Ronald Reagan for firing the Air Traffic Controllers, but he loved the poem President Reagan shared at the time of the Challenger tragedy. I share it now in his memory, in honor of all the B-17 pilots and especially those like my Uncle Jim who gave their lives in service. It was written by a Canadian World War II pilot who died in a plane crash over England:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air ….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Thank you, Uncle Dick, for the life you lived and the world you gave us.