Courtesy Ben MontgomeryThe other day I was searching for something behind my desk, and I found an envelope. My dad’s funeral, in November 2011, had been kind of a blur, but I remembered a teacher from Kellyville High School in the Ohio community where my dad grew up pushing an envelope into my hands that day. I must’ve taken it out of my briefcase when I got back, and somehow it had slipped into the crevice between my desk and the wall, unopened.
Now I read the teacher’s handwritten note on the outside. She explained that inside was a speech given by my grandfather about two decades before. He didn’t much like talking about the war, but he had agreed to be the school’s Veterans Day speaker. The teacher had loved my grandpa, who had died two weeks before my father, and she thought I should have his speech. Her kind note concluded: He received an awesome standing ovation, and many tears were shed by guests and students. In loving memory of your grandpa.
I began reading my grandfather’s war story, which I had never heard.
In my senior year, in 1941, I was seated about where you are seated. I was 17. Your history books will tell you that on December 7 of that year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was commissioned a second lieutenant. I began training to fly the B-29 bomber, and I was stationed in the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, bombing targets on the mainland of Japan, 1,500 miles away.
Courtesy Ben MontgomeryOn July 19, 1945, we made a bombing run on the Mitsubishi aircraft factory in Osaka, Japan. My good friend Bob Johnson from Minnesota was on another crew, and he was flying on the plane behind us as our wingman. There were 42 planes in the formation, each carrying three 4,000-pound bombs. As we neared the target, the Japanese attack on us began in earnest. It was so heavy I believed you could get out and walk on it.
About 30 seconds from “bombs away,” Bob Johnson’s plane took a direct hit and exploded. From my limited visibility, I could not see the fate of the crewmen or their parachutes. I only saw huge pieces of their aircraft fly by. On my plane, we took a hit in our No. 3 engine and headed for home. Home that day was a little coral island called Iwo Jima. As we were taxiing in, you could see the price we’d paid for that tiny island—7,000 crosses marked the graves of U.S. Marines and infantrymen along the runway. My heart was heavy, not knowing what happened to Bob. I was 21, and I thought I was tough, but I could hardly see the taxiway because of the tears in my eyes.
Then we had a day or two off, and our squadron commander gave us permission to paint a logo on our aircraft. We all voted for the right gunner, Milton Gross from Philadelphia, to paint the picture. He chose to paint the picture of a tastefully dressed beautiful young lady. We called our aircraft the Victory Girl.
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illustration:robert karr, source photo: Courtesy Ben MontgomeryOn September 2, 1945, we flew cover for Gen. Douglas MacArthur as he steamed into Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri and signed the declaration of peace with the Japanese. The war was over. I got home on Thanksgiving Day.
In 1995, the crew of the Victory Girl decided to have a reunion. I was retired, living on a ranch near Slick, Oklahoma. I flew to Pennsylvania, walked into a Holiday Inn conference room, and saw a crew I had not seen in 50 years. We were all wrinkles, baldness, and aches and pains, and we were missing four crew members.
An enlarged picture of our original crew was shown, and I said I’d like to know what had happened to Bob Johnson. I’d been wondering about him all these years. You could have heard a pin drop. A tear fell on the old photograph.
“You don’t know, do you?” one of the men asked.
“No,” I said. “I couldn’t see.”
“Well, we saw,” he said. “All the chutes came out ‘streamers’?”—which meant that Bob’s plane had been destroyed.
The book was closed on Bob Johnson. At least now I knew.
We went around the room, each man taking time to relate what had happened in the 50 years that had passed. When it was Milton Gross’s turn, he passed around pictures of his family. He said when he got home, he enrolled in the Philadelphia Institute of Art. One night, he went to a party. He walked in and saw a beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, about 20 years old: his real-life Victory Girl.
He introduced himself. They began to date, and in due time, he asked her to marry him.
But the real story is how she came to be at that party.
Ten years earlier, when she was ten years old, she was a Jew living in a small village in occupied France. One night the Germans kicked in the door of her house and found a young mother making supper for a daughter. Her mother was shot point-blank, and the girl was thrown into a German army truck, driven to a prison compound, and tagged for the gas chamber. How you can exterminate a little girl, I don’t know.
“In the darkness, as the guard passed, her uncle pushed her through a hole in the fence.”
She was sitting in the barracks on the eve of being sent to a concentration camp when a man came up to her in the darkness and asked her a question. “Are you Sarah Pertofsky?”
She said, “Yes.”
ANONYMOUS/REX/SHUTTERSTOCKThe man said, “I’m your uncle, and I have around my neck a green dog tag. I’m a Jew and a machinist, and they are keeping me for work. You have a red dog tag, and that’s not good. I’m going to trade tags with you.”
So he took her tag and placed his around her neck.
“Let’s go outside,” he said. “I need to show you something.”
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Outside, he pointed to the Big Dipper and showed her how its lip points to the North Star.
“Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “I’ve found a hole in the fence just big enough for a little girl to squeeze through. When the guard passes the hole in the fence, I will push you through, and I want you to put that North Star over your shoulder and keep it there and go. You’ll be headed south. I want you to run straight south for three days until you come to a village called Monet. My wife lives there, and she will take care of you.”
In the darkness, they crept to the fence, and as the guard passed, her uncle handed her three crusts of bread that he’d saved, and he pushed her through. Sarah ran across the road, hid in a clump of tall grass, and turned and waved goodbye to him. Then she ran and ran and ran, all night long. When morning came, she stopped and licked some dew off the grass and ate one of the crusts of bread. Then she went off again, straight south. She stopped to drink water from a creek but kept going. On the third afternoon, she saw an old farmer hoeing a field. Sarah ran up to him and cried, “Monet? Monet?”
“Yes,” he said. “I know Monet.”
He brought her to that village, and they found her aunt. The aunt took her in, raised her, and put her through school. Sarah was living and working in Philadelphia when Milton Gross, my right gunner, walked into that party. The two of them now live there, they have three children, and they enjoy their life together.
What’s the price of freedom? All the Bob Johnsons, all those crosses along the taxiway on an island in the Pacific, and all the lives lost during that war. They paid for us and paid with their lives. And the uncle and mother of Sarah Pertofsky—they paid the price for a little ten-year-old girl. Oh, what a price.
To you, it’s free. Hold it high.