Even now, as I look back on it I'm struck with the wonder of it—not the mess and stress of combat—but the wonder of flight.

Few of us who came of age in the 1940's had been up in a plane before we joined the Air Force. I had. In the mid-'30s brother Bob and I had saved our nickels and dimes and even contributed our collections of Indian-head pennies for an airplane ride offered for a dollar apiece. The two of us fitted into the front cockpit of a canvas-covered, two-winged "Jenny", the training plane for the aviators of 1917-1918 war. Our pilot opened the throttle. The plane bounced along the grass field and zoomed into the sky. Two sharp banks and we came in for a smooth three-point landing, undercarriage and tailwheel touching the ground at the same time. We'd been airborne for only minutes, but the flight was good for hours of talk. Indeed, our adventure seemed even more daring when, days later, part of the tail of the Jenny fell off. The plane fluttered down, caromed off a house roof, and piled up on the front lawn before the eyes of an amazed homeowner on the outskirts of Greenfield. The plane was a heap of bent metal, broken wood, and torn canvas, but somehow the pilot walked away from the wreck unharmed.

On my first flights across Texas I looked down on a world as new to me as the earth was to the first astronauts circling our globe. We flew only a few hundred to a few thousand feet above the land. Features below were easily matched with details on our aerial charts. Dusty Texas towns were seen aloft to be neat little grids imposing local order on the broad flatlands. At night these drab hamlets were transformed into multicolored gems sparkling on the plain. And as a quondam student of geology I was curious about large rock structures visible from above. On dreary days when we climbed through gray-bottomed sky-muck, I was delighted by the fleecy whiteness of cottony cloud tops in the sunshine.

In a later year came the fabulous hours above the Mojave Desert when I was in sole command of my yellow-winged biplane. "There I was spinning my Stearman down, when suddenly an airliner..." Now airplanes lift us to places in hours that used to take days of travel. However, we ride stuffed with many others in an aluminum tube so high in the sky that we are nearly divorced from the earth. The passenger trains of my youth were more exciting. But when I see contrails—"scratches in the sky" my daughter called them—I think of the skies over Europe. And when I hear the buzz of a piston-engined plane I still look up and think of skies over Texas and over the Mojave Desert. Flying was wonderful!


(for John H. Finley, Jr.)


Also Ulysses once—that other war
(Is it because we find his scrawl
Today on every privy door
That we forget his ancient role?)
Also was there—he did it for the wages—
When a Cathay-drunk Genoese set sail.
Whenever "longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,"
Kilroy is there;
he tells the Miller's Tale.

At times he seems a paranoiac king
Who stamps his crest on walls and says, "My own!"
But in the end he fades like a lost tune,
Tossed here and there, whom all the breezes sing.
"Kilroy was here"; these words sound wanly gay,
Haughty yet tired with long marching.
He is Orestes—guilty of what crime?—
For whom the Furies still are searching;
When they arrive they find their prey
(leaving his name to mock them) went away.
Sometimes he does not flee from them in time:
"Kilroy was—"
(with his blood a dying man
Wrote half the phrase out in Bataan.)

Kilroy, beware. "HOME" is the final trap
That lurks for you in many a wily shape:
In pipe-and-slippers plus a Loyal Hound
Or fooling around, just fooling around.
Kind to the old (their warm Penelope)
But fierce to boys,
thus "home" becomes the sea,
Horribly disguised, where you were always drowned,—
(How could suburban Crete condone
The yarns you would have V-mailed from the sun?)—
And folksy fishes sip Icarian tea.
One stab of hopeless wings imprinted your
Exultant Kilroy-signature
Upon sheer sky for all the world to stare:
"I was there! I was there! I was there!"

God is like Kilroy; He, too, sees it all;
That's how He knows of every sparrow's fall;
That's why we prayed each time the tightropes cracked
On which our loveliest clowns contrived their act
The G. I. Faustus who was everywhere
Strolled home again, "What was it like outside?"
Asked Can't, with his good neighbors Ought and But
And pale Perhaps and grave-eyed Better Not;
For "Kilroy" means: the world is very wide.
He was there, he was there, he was there!
And in the suburbs Can't sat down and cried.

Peter Viereck (1916-2006)

"Viereck was, for five decades, professor of modern history at Mt Holyoke College. His first book of poems,
Terror and Decorum,
won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. He has also published extensively in political science and history."

From Stokesbury, Leon, ed., 1990, Articles of War: A Collection of Poetry about World War II

A Brief History of the 493rd Heavy Bombardment Group

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