“I got tired of seeing everybody else walking down the street in a uniform,” Young said. “I had a good job. They never would’ve drafted me and, all at once, I just decided it was my time.”
That sacrifice epitomizes the contributions that so many veterans have made in serving the United States. Those millions of veterans have allowed this country to become the great nation that it is, said Tom Johnson, a Vietnam veteran. Without them, democracy might be just a theory studied in history books.
Johnson, a helicopter pilot who flew in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, was a civilian pilot given the choice to be drafted and serve in the infantry or enlist in the Army and serve as a pilot.
“Of course, I chose the latter,” said Johnson, 63. “I flew 1,100 combat hours in one year, another 500 non-combat, which brings the total to 1,600 in one year. That’s astronomical given that a civilian pilot flies about 50 hours a year.”
Although he was not a completely willing enlistee, he believes he returned home a better man for having served, and he’s proud to be a veteran.
But when he came home, he discovered a nation that was hostile to him. He and his comrades were even told not to return home in their uniforms. He didn’t want his sacrifices, and those of his comrades, to be forgotten, so he wrote a book, “To the Limit,” published in 2006, about his experience.
“A veteran to me is a civilian who’s signed a contract with his or her government to defend the principles that have made this country strong,” Johnson said. “They have removed their civilian clothes, put on a uniform, entered training to do a specific job and have done that job very, very well, usually far from the eyes of their friends and family that they left behind.”
There’s not much difference between the old veterans and a new veteran, Johnson said. They all served their country, but the sacrifices they made were as unique as the people who made them.
Young flew 27 missions in a bomber with the 376th Bomber Group, part of the 514th Squadron.
“I flew in Africa, Italy, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Austria, Albania,” Young said. “The average lifespan of a ball turret gunner is three missions. I found that out a few years ago.”
He wasn’t originally supposed to be in the ball turret, one of the most dangerous positions on the bomber, but he inherited the job when the soldier who was assigned to it couldn’t handle the position. He was the only other soldier on the plane small enough to fit in the tiny space. So, he squeezed his 160-pound frame into the turret and took on the job without complaint. He scanned the skies from his perch at the bottom of the plane and fought for the lives of himself and his crewmen time and again over his nearly three years of service. His post was an unexpected one and he remembers shooting down one enemy plane as it tried to surprise the bomber by coming up underneath it.
“He was surprised when I opened up on him,” Young said.
During his 27th mission, on Dec. 28, 1943, Young’s plane was shot down over Italy. Young was able to parachute out of the plane with relatively minor injuries, but he was captured by German soldiers and sent to a POW camp in Austria. The camp where he spent the next 18 months, Stalag 17, is the camp memorialized in “Hogan’s Heroes,” but the reality had very little to do with the television show.
“It was rough,” Young said. “I went from 160 to 115 pounds.”
He attended roll calls at all hours of the day and night, standing in his skivvies in the snow for hours while they deloused, counted and recounted the prisoners. There was abuse, but the prisoners did what they could to avoid it. They made friends with the guards, up to a point, because the prisoners knew the guards didn’t want to be there any more than they did.
“But, you never trusted them, because they didn’t trust you,” Young said.
He was liberated three days after the war ended. Young didn’t return home to a ticker-tape parade, but he did return home to a grateful country. He’s noticed the sentiments of the public toward veterans change from grateful to cold over the years, though. He does see the country becoming more welcoming to its military again. He’s noticed the attitude people have shown him has changed and that is a welcome change.
He remembers that in the Fourth of July Parade in Carrollton, three years ago, he felt especially honored.
“We was riding in an automobile, convertible, and on it said, ‘Ex-Prisoners of War,’” Young said. “All at once, they would look and they’d look again, look up at us and look down at our sign and they’d get up and salute us. That made me feel good.”