Jerry Huber has been my neighbor for 25 years and I never knew he flew 50 combat missions as a B-24 engineer-gunner in 1944-45. Earl Carey served as postmaster for half the towns in the region, including Rock Island, Waterville and Malaga. But, in 1945 he was by his own description, just a 17-year-old kid from Hartline suddenly thrust into the hurried preparations for the invasion of Japan.
Both these men will be on the Honor Flight from Spokane early Tuesday, taking a full load of World War II-era veterans to Washington, D.C., for deserved recognition and a whirlwind tour of the famed monuments. Honor Flight Network is a nationwide nonprofit effort to “transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices.”
A week from today Huber and Carey will be together at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. Some 70 years ago they set out on not-so-different paths to that spot. In 1943, Huber was a 20-year-old from Rock Island, just married to his sweetheart Betty, who set out to Spokane with the intention of enlisting in the Navy. At the induction center he was two tables away from his goal, when a man at the desk said, “Son, I see you’d like to go into he Navy, but I have different plans.” He stamped AIR FORCE on his papers, and suddenly Huber was in Biloxi, Miss., for basic training. Then came stops in Utah, Texas, Arizona and Kansas. There was mechanics’ training, gunnery school, training flights all over the United States. His daughter Gayle was born, and she and Betty followed when they could. Then his crew picked up their fresh bomber, flew to South America, then Africa, then Italy, and then into combat. He flew missions over southern France, Germany, Austria and the Balkans. He was a waist gunner and engineer, his job to nurse a battle-damaged plane. He recalls several times transferring gasoline from one tank to another after an engine was shot out, and seeing fuel stream off the aircraft’s wing (“It was a little hairy,” he said.). He flew over the famously deadly Ploesti oil fields of Romania, with its 1,100 guns, six times. His voice breaks when he recalls one mission. His plane was third in the formation. “The two airplanes in front of us just disappeared,” said Huber. “The bombardier had control of the plane. He could not deviate until bombs away. As soon as bombs away came, our pilot said, ‘Everybody’s on their own. Let’s get out of here.’ I know the Good Lord was there.” The crew was a unit, a family, said Huber. Toward the end, they were farmed out to replace the missing on other crews. “We lost our bombardier,” Huber said. “He flew replacement one day and that happened to be the plane that was shot down.”
Not long after, Carey, three years younger than Huber, was in basic training at Fort Lewis, then processing payroll. They were told their next stop would be an island, somewhere near Japan, to prepare for invasion. “They just knew it was going to be terrible,” Carey said. The atomic bomb killed thousands, but saved millions, said Carey. The Japanese surrender was an enormous relief, and Carey and his comrades could concentrate on processing the papers of men like Huber, who was mustered out as a tech sergeant at Walla Walla, not long after VJ Day.
Huber found work in Wenatchee with the Great Northern railroad, became its yardmaster, and 50 years ago bought the house on Idaho Street where he and Betty, wife of 70 years, still live. They raised their children Gayle, Jerry Jr., and Rebecca. Carey owned a taxi company in Wenatchee, but went back to the Postal Service and with wife Nadeen became a roaming postmaster, eventually being named National Postmaster of the Year in 1992, and retiring as postmaster at Malaga. His daughter Robin Carey will be a volunteer guardian on the Honor Flight.
Both these men are honored and excited by the trip. Huber, at 90, said seeing Washington, D.C., has been a lifelong dream. Carey has been there many times, but never as an honored veteran, never to see the memorials.
Wish them both a safe journey. Their sacrifices a lifetime ago let people like me grow up in a peaceful and prosperous nation. For men and women like them, those who survive, our gratitude should be boundless.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.