On Saturday, August 6, I was privileged to attend the unveiling of the memorial to American airmen who fought in World War II at the Wings Over the Rockies aviation museum in Denver, Colo. Created by Major Frederic Arnold (Ret.), an artist who flew P-38 Lightnings in the Mediterranean theater, the monumental sculpture depicts a pre-flight briefing, with the squadron leader at the mapboard explaining the mission plan, while his men and the pale ghosts of their fallen comrades listen on.
American airmen suffered a horrific casualty rate during the Second World War, with over 88,000 being killed in action. Of the 14 men in Arnold’s squadron, twelve were killed in six months of combat. Arnold and the other survivor vowed to memorialize their fallen comrades. Now 94, Arnold has finally fulfilled that vow.
At the sculpture’s front, we see the squadron leader explaining the mission.
The pilots listen on — both the living in bronze khaki, and the pale ghosts of their fallen friends. Halfway through the tour of duty, nearly half of the original squadron had already joined the spirits.
The sculptures represent not any particular individual, but rather a particular character type, and each has a nickname to go with it. For example, in the photo above we see a pilot named Montana, a young rookie fresh from the States raising his hand to ask a question. Next to him, with his arms folded, we see a veteran pilot, named Lucky Strike. He’s heard it all before — promises of good weather, of light opposition, etc. — and he’s not buying it. To his left we see Eager Beaver, writing the mission instructions on his wrist (WWII fighter pilots were not allowed to carry maps which could fall into enemy hands), while in the rear, Speed synchronizes his wind-up watch, the key instrument used to coordinate mission operations.
Note Handsome, sitting relaxed with a cup of coffee at the edge of the bench in the photo above. A veteran flier, he chooses to wear stylish saddle shoes instead of regulation combat boots. A ghost sits close behind him, mournful in the knowledge that his friend will be next to die.
There is a video telling the story of the Airmen’s Memorial. It is called “Lest We Forget: The Mission.”
Frederic Arnold flew 46 combat missions before he was shot down over Sicily and taken prisoner. He escaped, and, after rejoining his unit, completed his 50-mission tour of duty. He then returned to the States, and became a test pilot and the author of the pilot’s manual for the P-47 Thunderbolt, the P-51 Mustang, and the P-80 Shooting Star, America’s first jet fighter. He also penned a memoir of his combat experiences: Doorknob Five Two is a real gripper.
In recent decades, a number of rather sterile memorials have been erected to U.S. war veterans, mostly by professional artistes, who, in my view, have been more interested in displaying their personal virtuosity as practitioners of the avante garde than in honoring their subjects. In Lest We Forget, U.S. airmen are fortunate in having a deeply meaningful memorial actually meant for them — made by a real artist who was, and is, truly one their own.
I was born in 1952. In my youth, they were everywhere. My father was a World War II veteran, so were all of my uncles, and the fathers of all my friends. Now they are nearly all gone. It is fortunate that this monument was completed in time to give at least the few that remain what may be their last salute.
But the memorial was not meant for them alone. It was also meant to speak to us, and those that will follow us, so that, as a great man once said regarding the fallen of an earlier conflict, “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The monument will remain at the Wings Over the Rockies Museum in Denver for the next six months, after which it will be transferred to the World War II Museum in New Orleans.