"THREE WARS, Always a Pilot" Captain Lawrence "Lee" Russell - B-25 Pilot in the 321st Bomb Group, 445th Bomb Squadron, 57th BW, 12th AF, MTO during WWII.
(as written by his daughter Bonnie Russell)
Years ago I told Dad one of the most irritating things about him was he never “struggled” over a career choice. At age ten while living in a tiny, map dot town, Dad heard a noise overhead. He looked up and saw an airplane.? That was it. on three separate occasions.? That means he’s pretty good at flying.? Actually, Dad was a natural in the cockpit.? And as far as the wanderlust thing goes; his itchy feet still itch.
Dad turns 87 today.? He may be the oldest living pilot who flew in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.? He’s lived his whole life infused with a combined love of flying and wanderlust, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross three differen times.
Which means today and tired of this hero stuff, I’m going to write about some of Dad’s other annoying traits.? The first being Dad hates talking about himself, and the second - I'm a publicist. So like, what did he think I'D DO?
Unbeknownst to anyone, Dad's wanderlust ramped up in high school after the family moved to Chicago and next door to a pilot. In high school, which he almost didn’t graduate because while Dad would complete a reading assignment, he would not write the book report. Hated to write. I don’t know why. But ultimately his father, a college professor, had to convince high school officials Dad had read the books assigned and he was allowed to graduate.
Meanwhile, Dad took high school dates to the airport to watch take-offs and landings. He got away with being a cheap date because he had a devilish grin, an easy manner, and was stunningly handsome. Girls were crazy about him. By crazy - I mean crazy enough to form a fan club about Dad. Which he thought was silly. My mother, who transferred in her senior year from Jersey, wasn’t a member of the club, but she noticed Dad. He was the kind of guy guys liked…he played football and basketball and was generally very athletic. His reflexes remain the fastest I've ever seen.
Dad got away with things girls have been letting cute guys get away for a long time. Like asking them out on short notice. On the last day of school Dad asked mother out for
the first time.
They dated briefly, but Dad’s wanderlust was getting louder in his head. In the summer Dad would hitchhike away from town for hours in the morning, and then around sunset, hitchhike back.
It was a different time.
Until one day without so much as a “see ya” Dad walked to the highway, stuck out his thumb and within fifteen minutes was sharing a ride with a preacher driving a brand new car. Dad has always had a thing for brand new cars. So the conversation went like this. . . . . . . . . .
Dad: Where are you headed?
Dad: (hopping in) Great! State or DC?
A couple hours and some conversation later, the preacher suggested it might be nice if Dad let people know he’d well, moved, and pulled into a Western Union. Dad jumped out and sent two telegrams.
One to the family telling them he was going to California; and other to my mother to break a date they’d made for later on in the week.
When he reached California, Dad met and moved in with some guys in Venice Beach, He learned to body surf by day, and when not working nights parking cars at one of the fancy Hollywood restaurants where movie stars dined, hit the clubs. Venice Beach was hot and cold running girls, and number of them were running after Dad, who liked to dance. When I asked Dad what dance was his favorite, he grinned and said,
“The hold ‘em close dance.”
Oh, I forgot to mention - Dad's a master of the understatement.
Growing more adventurous, Dad took one of his girlfriends to Tijuana for the weekend. Waking up at the beach hotel on Sunday morning, Dad was instinctively aware of a different vibe in the air. Within the hour he learned Pearl Harbor had been attacked and that was that for teenage adventures. They packed up immediately. When I asked Dad to describe the border situation, he laughed and said,
“A little tense. The border was a little tense that day.”
The real story? Dad was so tan officials thought he was a Mexican trying to sneak in. Dad had to show them his tan line to convince them he was a gringo.
Dad took his pilot training in Texas. He was the first to solo, graduate, and almost the first to wash out.
It seems the “fly-boys” had been buzzing the town on a too regular basis, and the town was pretty sick of it.
The Base Commander was not feeling the love. He was feeling the heat. So something had to be done. The Commander immediately scheduled a mandatory meeting in the Tower Briefing Room, at 1300 hours for all pilots, minus those scheduled to fly.
The mood was a little tense. The Commander told the pilots in no uncertain terms the base had to have good relations with the locals, period. It was imperative. The Commander, tired of having had his ear chewed off by the local mayor, released his frustrations on the pilots. And the more he talked the more he wound himself up. The Commander thundered buzzing had gotten out of hand, and strong measures would be taken. The next pilot caught buzzing would be washed out of the flight program, and possibly the Army-Air Corp., too.
That got their attention.
Dad missed the lecture because he was flying.
And he buzzed the tower.
I’m still not clear on the details, but Dad invited Mom to see him graduate – an invitation that sent Mother’s mother into a complete tailspin. My mother was a “good girl” and her mother absolutely did not want her only child traveling alone to see some fly-boy pilot and looking like a “camp follower.” But my grandfather was a pilot and liked Dad, so Mother was allowed to take the train to Texas for Dad’s graduation.
It was a disaster. First, she couldn’t find him due to a reservation mix up and then only caught a brief glimpse of Dad at the actual ceremony. They met up at the graduation party, but Mom said they were quickly separated and the last she saw of Dad, he was squirting seltzer on someone. Then she didn’t see him again. Ticked off, Mom gave up looking and went back to her hotel.
Dad was passed out in front of her door.
They married a couple months later, and set up house. Three months after that, Dad was ordered overseas. One month later, Mom learned she was pregnant.
Shot down on his last mission, the parachute worked fine, but what really worked well, was the Germans, who were shooting at the downward floating crew, were really lousy shots. The most nervous guy in the crew, “Shakes Martin” landed in the backyard of a member of the Italian underground resistance and was back in the States in eleven days. Dad wasn’t as lucky. When his flight boots hit terra firma a German solider walked up and said,
“For you da war is over.”
I asked Dad what he said in return. Dad said he just shrugged.
And off to POW camp he went. The same camp used in the movie The Great Escape. And if you’re wondering, Dad said it was exactly as he remembered it.
Prisoners were allowed to write once a month. A couple of months went by before Mom got the idea Dad’s letters were suddenly being held. She wrote him she didn’t know why, but would get to the bottom of it even if she had to see the head of the post office himself. The next month Dad wrote and said his letters weren’t being flagged. Said he wasn’t writing. Stunned, Mom wrote back and asked why. The next month she received the answer.
“Because,” Dad answered. “Nothing is ever new.”
Seven months into Dad’s incarceration and after an uneventful, full-term pregnancy, Mom delivered a little boy. She named him Terry. But the labor had been difficult, the flight surgeon had been unskilled, and Terry died a few days later.
Neither of my parents talked about the letter Mom wrote telling Dad the news.
Nine months and sixty pounds later, the Germans were releasing some prisoners, but executing others. It was impossible to get a line on which line of prisoners was going where. To freedom or death. The Germans could be drawing straws for all anyone knew.
With that, Dad and a hundred other prisoners were ordered to march. They marched all day and bedded down for the night in a barn. Not being the kind of guy to march to what may have been his own execution, Dad decided he was at least going to try to escape.
He asked another pilot who also knew celestial navigation, a farmer, and a guy who spoke French, if they wanted to join him in for a trip to Paris. It seemed like a good idea to them.
Dad told them to keep quiet about it, and they’d make a run for it as soon as the guards fell asleep. Drawing straws to establish the order of exit, Dad’s straw ranked him third. When guard finally dozed off, the men quickly took off. The fourth guy was shot.
To this day Dad swears he broke a land speed record heading out the door and into the Black Forest.
During this time Mom was working at an insurance company in Chicago. Everyone knew her husband was a POW. So when the call came in from her mother-in-law one day, one normally, busy office suddenly went pin-drop silent.
“La Verne” said Dad’s mom. “I just heard from Lee. He escaped. He’s in Paris.”
Not so much a dutiful wife, my mother bellowed into the phone,
“That damn fool. I KNEW he’d try something like that!”
Dad returned to Chicago and enrolled in school full time. Worked full time too as soon Mom was pregnant with my sister.
Dad picked up his last DFC in Vietnam. Which brings me to one of the annoying traits I’d mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
How it’s supposed to work is this: if you went to Vietnam, you were supposed to get your pick of assignments after your return. You couldn’t just call it, but you were allowed to put in for three bases and someone picked.
At the time we were in upstate New York. We’d already lived in Ohio, New Mexico, San Antonio, and Little Rock. To my way of thinking California was up next. And after four years of Beach Boys songs featuring hot cars and surfing, I wasn’t just more than ready for some left coast living, I was a surfer girl in the making. All I needed was a beach.
Dad put in for two bases in California with the third being a throw away.
We were transferred to Waco, Texas.
I wondered who Dad had pissed off.
As a present to himself, Dad bought a T-bird, the coolest muscle car around.
One day I backed it out of the drive, barely grazing a tree stump. Just a kiss of a “ping.” However, it knocked the “Th” off the lettering - which meant now the side of Dad's prized Vietnam reward car said, “Underbird.”
I thought it was hilarious. I still do. Dad? Not so much.
But having said all this, about ten years ago I asked Dad to highlight his accomplishments.
Dad immediately answered,
“Shooting a three over par on the north course of Torrey Pines when I was in my forties.”
Startled, I asked, “What about escaping POW camp?”
Dad shrugged. “You move on.”
How annoying is that? Although many consider Dad a hero, he does not. If pressed, comes the eternal shrug. Turns out the guy feels like he was just doing his job. Saw a need and tried to fix it. That's pretty much it.
A couple years ago, Dad had to give up golf, his other true love. That took a little time to get over. Knowing how he loved the game and forgetting Dad is a master of the understatement, I asked why he gave it up. “Well Bon, when I'd swing I'd fall down.”
Dad has since picked up kayaking. And, in a return to his misspent youth, he's back to hanging out and pool halls and has his own stick. He plays partners with a guy with Parkinson's.
Dad said it's interesting. You never know where the ball is going to go.
Dad's succinct. Doesn't speak in paragraphs for the simple reason he has the ability to communicate volumes with an economy of words.
Another of Dad's many talents is an ability to make a Red Cross delivered chocolate candy bar last an entire week, until the next shipment arrived. Though half-starved, Dad paced himself and ate economically, too.
Dad's precise. As a child, I remember asking him what he thought of Elizabeth Taylor. It was during the whole Eddie Fisher - Debbie Reynolds fiasco. After Eddie had left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor.
By the time I asked the Pope had already condemned Taylor.
This was during a time when national news media didn't cover movie stars, except for business purposes like the Oscars, and gross receipts. However, even national media was pulled into the fray to weigh in regarding the most famous divorce on the planet.
So I asked Dad what he thought of Elizabeth Taylor (Lee Remick was more his type.) I never forgot his three-word response.
*** "Loose moral fiber" ***
On my parents twenty-fifth wedding anniversary Mom received a bouquet of flowers from Dad. The card attached featured a typically brief message.
*** "Cheer up - the first 24 are the hardest." ***
When Dad was in POW camp he didn't always write, although German officers allowed prisoners to correspond once a month.
Mom wrote and asked why he wasn't writing. Dad answered, "Because nothing is ever new."
Dad's a man of action. If he sees something that needs doing, he does it. Sometimes it's just that simple. Below is Dad flight-checking the car before a trip.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0KfvOYqFKU :) :) :) :)
Conversationally speaking, I tend to um, go long.
Clearly, I was adopted. They just always refused to admit it.
Once - in an annoyed tone, my mother asked,
--- "Why do you always want to talk about everything?"
--- I still don't understand the question.
Written by daughter *** Bonnie Russell *** "LEE" is still going strong.
Barbi Ennis Connolly 321st Bomb Group Historian and the Historical Research Team of John T Fitzgerald, Patti Johnson and Barbi Connolly. PRINCESSBARBI_B25@msn.com