Saturday, March 8, 2014

VET STORY 3 | Pilot Charlie Miner, Jr.

John Tepper Marlin (L) and Charlie Miner, Jr., John's
Island, Vero Beach, Fla., 2014.
I have been writing about the life of Will Woodin, FDR’s first Treasury Secretary, whose major contribution to ending the panic caused by bank failures has been neglected by history. 

Along the way, I have gotten to know several more members of the Greatest Generation, those who experienced the Great Depression and World War II. One of them is the grandson of Will Woodin, Charlie Miner Jr.  

He provided reminiscences about his grandfather that are quoted in my articles in the East Hampton Star about the Treasury Secretary and his boat, the "Nanin".  As we approach the 70th anniversary of D-Day this June, I recently talked with Charlie in Vero Beach, Fla., where he lives between September and June, asking him about his wartime experience.

The number of surviving veterans of World War II is tiny.  Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 27,560 were still alive in 2010 - excluding the 2,812 who also served in Korea and the 961 who also served in both Korea and Vietnam. One year later, in 2011, the number fell to 19,641, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That is a loss of 28.7 percent. At that rate of loss, the number of living U.S. veterans from World War 2 fell below 10,000 in 2013 and will be down to barely 7,000 by the end of 2014 - i.e., 0.04 percent of all those who served. The median age of World War II active-duty survivors was 92 in 2011.

Charlie Miner, Jr. is one of those survivors and turned 92 a few months ago. He studied engineering with the Princeton Class of 1943. Before he graduated, he enlisted in the US Army Air Force and graduated from single-engine flying school in March 1943. He says:
Because I had an engineering background, I was assigned immediately to a sub-depot in Charlotte, N.C., where they rebuilt planes that had crashed within 500 miles of Charlotte. My job was to test-fly the rebuilt planes before they were returned to their home bases. A variety of planes were being rebuilt, so I got flying time in many types of aircraft.
Charlie was married in October 1944 and two weeks later reported for combat training in two-engine B-25 planes at the Greenville, N.C.  Army Air Base. The North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, named after General Billy Mitchell, an advocate of greater air power, is described on the Boeing website as the “most versatile” bomber in World War II. It had a crew of five — a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, radio operator and gunner. Nearly 10,000 of the bombers were built between 1941 and 1945. According to official data, the B-25 was:
the most heavily armed airplane in the world, ... used for high- and low-level bombing, strafing, photoreconnaissance, submarine patrol and even as a fighter, and was distinguished as the aircraft that completed the historic raid over Tokyo in 1942. 
After his training, Miner was shipped off to Europe, and started flying missions out of Corsica, where he was instructed by RAF and RCAF pilots who had been assigned the B-25. While the B-25 was versatile, it could be delicate if flown above the maximum speed, which was 518 km/hour for the earliest model. Charlie still wonders about the risk-taking propensity of a few of his instructors:
Some of those RAF and Italian pilots were daredevils. They didn't seem to care if they lived or died. The Mosquito was a laminated-wood plane that could remain undetected by radar and yet break the sound barrier, and the pilots loved it. They would dive from 5,000 feet. In one case, the wing just came off. The pilot, of course, went straight down with the rest of the plane and was killed.
As later models of the Mitchell bomber (B-25A through B-25J) were developed, the armaments were increased to allow the bombers to shoot back at targets, and the maximum speed was lowered.

When the German army was pushed north in the Italian boot, Charlie's squadron relocated to Fano on the Adriatic, about 150 miles south of Venice. From here they flew about 17 missions at about 15,000 feet over the Brenner Pass in the Alps between Italy and Austria. Charlie can't remember exactly how many of these he was on, but enough to remember his friends going down into the snow below while he tried to stay in formation.

The war in Europe ended in May 1945. In July 1945, Charlie was assigned the task of flying a B-25 back across the Atlantic. He had to fly an indirect route because of the medium range of the planes. They could only go up to the theoretical 3,000-mile maximum by adding droppable fuel tanks. These extra tanks were utilized in the previously cited Doolittle (Tokyo) Raid in April 1942. According to official records:
The B-25B bombers could take off fast enough to be launched from an aircraft carrier, but they could not land safely on their return. They were supposed to find an airport in China. A combination of unexpected discovery and bad weather resulted in all 16 of the B-25Bs being lost in the raid, but Doolittle and his squadron got out of Japan and most of the crew members survived. Col. James ("Jimmy") Doolittle feared he would be court-martialed for the lost planes. Instead, he received the Medal of Honor from FDR and was raised two grades in rank to Lt.-General.
Charlie had to bring one of these B-25s back. He had to fly down the West African coast to avoid the North Atlantic squalls and provide for frequent refueling. He flew over to the Ascension Islands, then on to Natal, Brazil, then to San Juan, P.R. and to Savannah, Ga., refueling at each stop.

His B-25 safely returned to Stateside, he went back to civilian life. He first worked for the New York Central Railroad under Willard Place, Vice President for Finance. From there he went to work for  Owens-Corning Fiberglass in Darien, Conn.,  on the concept of building railroad cars with fiberglass-reinforced-plastic shells. While the concept eventually worked, the first impact stress-test by Pullman failed spectacularly as the experimental cars shattered. Charlie reoriented the idea, pioneering the application of fiberglass-reinforced plastics to the building of boats, an idea that succeeded and took over much of the industry.

Miner left the fiberglass business for Wall Street, working first for Rand & Co. in the municipal bond department. He then joined Clark Dodge & Co., in the same area. It became part of Dean Witter and later part of Morgan Stanley. Charlie Miner quit the business at nearly 70 years of age.

The toll - of the Depression, of World War II and just advancing age - on the survivors from Charlie's generation may be judged by the fact that he was told at his 70th reunion last year that only 125 members of his Princeton class of 1943 are still alive - out of the 630 original members of the class. Fewer than ten members of his class showed up and to his disappointment he didn’t know any of them. Charlie says: "I was told last year that only seven alumni have survived from the Princeton Class of 1936." He asked me contact his friend Dottie Werner the Princeton Alumni office and she quickly responded with an email to me confirming his numbers. But, she said, "the number from 1943 is down to 104 and the number from 1936 has dropped to five."

I was reminded by her email of Saints Going Marching In. "When I am 70 years out in 2032, I want to be in that number...", I thought to myself, "...maybe."

Charlie falls back on gallows humor about his being a Survivor. Here are some of his funniest comments:
  • At several places he hangs out, he says, “the average age is… deceased.” 
  • If you are playing golf for money, he says, “collect when you are two bucks ahead because your opponent may not finish the round.” 
  • Ocean Towers, he informs me, is also known among his colleagues as “the Pearly Gates.” 
  • The people who move on from there to Oak Harbor are said (even by their residents) to have gone to “Croak Harbor.” 
Some of the jokes told in his set relate to the high cost of some of their favorite Florida haunts in retirement areas:
  • A popular upscale grocery store in Vero Beach, the Village Beach Market, is called “Why Pay Less?” 
  • The Golf and Bay Club in Sarasota is nicknamed the “Golf and Pay” Club.
  • But despite it all, he says, quoting from a phlegmatic friend vacationing in Florida who was looking at clouds taking over the sky, "It's better than Massachusetts."

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