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Remembering -- and uncovering -- the legacy of Private Ralph Yeager

  • Published
  • By Col. Athanasia Shinas
  • 624th Regional Support Group
On December 7th, 1941, three days after he turned 19 years old, Private Ralph Yeager was running from the Hickam flight line alongside two fellow Airmen when a Japanese bomb landed behind them, wounding his friends and bouncing shrapnel off of his helmet.

War had come to the territory of Oahu and America.

Private Yeager survived the attack and the war – and I am part of his legacy. You see, Private Yeager, or as I called him, “Pappy,” was my grandfather.

Although I lost Pappy to cancer when I was only 10 years old, he inspired me to join the Air Force. Today, I serve as the 624th Regional Support Group Commander at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Never would I have dreamed I would have an office just two blocks from his barracks building (now the Pacific Air Force Headquarters), or right next to the baseball fields he used to play on. But serving alongside our Pacific Warriors has given me the opportunity to walk in his footsteps – and the opportunity to discover, understand and connect with the stoic Airman I knew as Pappy, and his World War II experience.

This proved to be a unique challenge. Pappy’s wartime service records were destroyed in a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, so some of the puzzle pieces I was looking for weren’t readily available. Luckily, however, he had sent home numerous pictures, poems and articles that created a solid framework on which to build. I collected all the artifacts I could get my hands on from my mother and grandmother and sought out Jessie Higa, a Hickam volunteer historian, to help me take what I’d learned a step farther. Jessie was able to uncover so many more resources and articles that shed light on what would have been a normal day for Pappy on the island before going to war, as well as uncover details that were likely destroyed as part of the Records Center fire.

Together, Jessie and I learned about the places Pappy traveled as a sheet metal worker and about his time as a tail gunner in the B-17 Flying Fortress – details I excitedly shared with my family.

Living on-island and doing this research has not only helped me better understand my Pappy’s experience and the history of World War II, it’s also made me think about the parallels and differences between Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001, as well as our individual paths as Airmen. On September 11, I, personally, was not directly under attack. I did not have close friends wounded or killed. I have deployed multiple times to the Middle East within the CENTCOM AOR, and while having experienced indirect fire, stressful convoys and green-on-blue threats, I have never experienced the level of combat that my grandfather did. I can, however, relate to his shock, anger and vengefulness after the attack.

                “I watched them lower our flag to half mast
                Saw them bury our boys that fought to the last
                I thank my God for my life and my all,
                And I swear with my buddies, their sun shall fall.”

When Pappy returned from the war, he married his next-door neighbor, my grandmother Marian, and moved on with his life, working as a machinist and in the trucking industry. He rarely spoke about the war, threw out his medals, and suffered survivor’s guilt largely in silence.

I remember walking with him once in the park across from our house in Mountainside, New Jersey, and he told me that all he wanted when he died was for me to come pour him a beer once in a while – the cheaper, the better.

I remember the 21-gun salute at his funeral made me cry with surprise, and seeing my grandmother cry for the first time when she was handed his flag.

So many times on my journey as an Airman, I’ve wished Pappy was there, especially when his oldest brother Charles was at my commissioning ceremony in Boston. I talked about him during my RSG Assumption of Command, on the lanai at the Hickam O’Club, where I knew he probably didn’t spend much time as he was enlisted air crew.

I think of him when I visit my Airmen in Guam, where I know he probably flew out of after the liberation of the island from Japanese forces in the summer of 1944. His bravery, his sadness, and his love for his country inspire me to reflect on the effects of war on his generation and my own.

I wish I knew more about his service, wish I could build him a shadow box like I hope to have one day.

All I know are what he saved in scrapbooks and what Jessie found in local Sunbury, Pennsylvania newspaper articles, my favorite of which concludes, “Restricted by military regulations from divulging for publication any details of his combat experience, this 21-year-old flier has several times had a grim foretaste of calamity in close encounter with enemy planes, and upon once occasion was saved with his crew, from imminent death through a succession of incidents seemingly miraculous.”

I love that…and I love him.

This December 7th marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Oahu and 80 years since Private Yeager and his friends were bombed. I’ll be honoring them by attending another anniversary ceremony at the flagpole that overlooked the chaos that was the flight line that day.

I hope that you, too, will take a moment to remember and reflect on the day that lives in infamy.