Great American Hero Tribute – Happy 4th of July!

Last week I was both honored and astonished. I met George W. Allen.

George W. Allen walked into the United lounge in the DFW airport in a suit, with a cane, and a World War II veteran ball cap.

He got his oatmeal and black coffee and sat down at the handicapped table. He told me that he was in the Army Air Corp in World War II. He flew B-29s during his 3 years of service in the Pacific.

He was shot down twice, and that was how he was introduced to the US Navy. He was a guest on the US Navy submarine that picked him up in the shark-infested waters off Japan, at a time when being in a Japanese POW camp was worse than being captured in Germany. George said he liked his time with the Navy, first, when he realized that the periscope he saw while in the ocean was from a US and not a Japanese submarine.

Second, he said that the food on that submarine was the best he had at any time during the war. “Real eggs!” He said. “Not the powdered ones which he got with the Army. “Actual cooked food! Three times a day!”  Third, he said people really nice. The officers took up a collection so he would have clean and dry clothes.

During those 7 days on that Navy sub, George learned that the Navy practices something that is hard for most people to imagine called hot-racking. George said he never knew that his time sleeping in a rack (what the Navy calls bunks or beds) was limited to an allotted time. On subs at that time, sailors were assigned time in their rack in 5-hour increments because there are not enough racks for everyone, and that space is needed for things, like ammunition and food.

So the Navy shares bunks. This is where the term hot rack comes from – the rack is still warm from when the other guy gets out of it. Still, he chuckled, it was a much better than the option – being picked up in the ocean by a Japanese ally or George’s other fear – the sharks.

I asked what George was afraid of back then, and he said he was afraid of being captured by the Japanese and the sharks in the ocean. (See my article on the USS Indianapolis in Leadership Embodied about Captain McVay. George had great reason to be afraid of sharks in the Pacific Ocean.)  He said when he had to bail out of that plane, he said every prayer in the book and he made up a few on the way down. He laughed again. 

The second time he had to jump out of his plane, the plane’s engines were on fire. But by now, he was experienced.

His third exciting landing was when his injured plane was diverted to land off Mt Suribachi, yeah, that Suribachi, because the landing gear wasn’t deploying. The single landing strip on Okinawa had 100 other planes coming in to gas and go, and while agonizing , they could not compromise that single airstrip being occupied for one plane. They simply had no other place for planes to land, so the air strip could not accommodate one single plane without landing gear. This is air controller triage. So George’s plane had to crash land on the side of the mountain. Everyone on that plane lived, which is a testament to the pilot, an Army Captain Kelly (not related to me).

Tom Brokaw was right. My parents and their peers are those people who show up when needed, those who serve others, and those who sacrifice. They didn’t expect a thank you and they don’t think what they did was particularly differentiating.

They truly are The Greatest Generation. And George W. Allen? After the war, George Allen got a job with an airline that merged with United Airlines, and he retired from that job in 1988, after 40 years. He still flies around the US wearing his suit and ball cap.

He is 92 years old and going strong.

P.S. I gave him my business card which indicates my Navy rank. I asked him what rank he made in the Army.

George: “Well, I got out as a corporal.”

Me: “George, you were naughty! You got busted!”

George, more chuckling: “Yes, I got busted twice.”

And we both laughed.

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