My cousin Robert sent me a disk with hundreds of scanned pictures from our grandparents’ photo albums.  He even scanned in a set of newspaper clippings from their scrapbook.  I was pleased to receive this set of family history and spent quite a while browsing through all the pictures.  It is great fun to see your grandparents as children; aunts and uncles and cousins through the years.

But there was one folder of pictures and clippings that I keep going back to, that has captivated me from the first glimpse.  The folder was called simply ‘WWII’.

My uncles never talked about the war or what they did in it.  My mom knew a few of the main points – Uncle Bob was in the infantry and badly wounded at Anzio, Uncle Bill flew on B-17’s out of England.  That’s about it.  And both of them have passed on in the last few years.  Well, I’ve learned a lot more now.  And it makes you think about what is important, and about the relative difficulty of your own problems when stacked against theirs.

Here is my uncle Bill:

On the back of the picture are these words:  “Billy Joe Cates        Youngest Ball Turret over Germany”

And this faded newspaper clipping which I transcribed:

19-Year Old Gunner Given Flying Cross

S/Sgt. William J. Cates, 19-year-old ball turret gunner on the Flying Fortress “The Eagle’s Wrath” has been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘extra-ordinary achievement’ while participating in raids on Nazi targets.  He already held the Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters.

Cates, whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert G. Cates, live at Atoka, described his toughest combat experience as the mission to oil refineries in Brux, Czechoslovakia.  “Going into the target we weren’t damaged at all because we were flying in the lead group and the 200 German fighters that picked on us an hour before we reached our destination concentrated their attacks on the group below us”  Cates said.  “They knocked down several planes in that low group and, after we had dropped our bombs, we went down and filled in one of the empty spots.  Then they hit us.  Our radio man was wounded and an ammunition box in the waist received a direct hit and exploded.  The oxygen was shot out all over the plane.  Our flaps were shot away and one tire was punctured.  When we finally reached the Eight’s base in England and landed on the one tire, it exploded from the extra pressure.  It was a rough ride.”


Sorta puts all your troubles into perspective, doesn’t it?  Hassling with the computer or with the commute just doesn’t hold a candle to being shot at in the skies over occupied Europe, does it?

Sorta puts your accomplishments into perspective, doesn’t it?  Making a buck or getting some feel-good certificate just pales in comparison with saving the world from fascism.

Those guys were heroes and we would do well to remember what they did.  And teach our children about what they did.  Its all a little close to home for me right now, thinking about my uncle who I knew well, but not as well as I thought I did.  He never talked about it, at least not to me.  I wish he had.  If your uncle or father or grandfather fought for our country, you should ask them about it while there is still time to learn.

Maybe later I’ll share uncle Bob’s story, too.

Meanwhile I’m going quietly to my corner to think about what I can do to make this a better world; they set a pretty high standard for us to live up to.  And say a little prayer for all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who are in harms way today, still protecting us.

In the meantime, maybe we could just hold down the indignant internet clamor for a bit, because after all, it really isn’t all that important, is it?  Especially not when you gain some perspective.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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20 Responses to Perspective

  1. Jim Hillhouse says:

    I think all of us know the fight over NASA isn’t near the plane of fighting for our nation’s existence that was WWII. At the end of the day, our nation will get through this–we’ve gotten through worse.

  2. Graham says:

    It’s a double edged sword, perhaps. It’s good that we’ve not had to live through such adversity but that has left us untested. I hope that if such times came upon us I could do as well as my grandparents but I honestly don’t know. Hopefully I will never have to find out.

  3. I recently attended a talk by Scott Carpenter, who pointed out that so much of the foundations of our space program (radar to protect the RAF, V2s to bomb London, computers to break cyphers,…) were born out of that conflict, and that if WWII had never happened, the arrival of the space age might easily have been delayed by decades.
    But yes, I understand your perspective. My dad spoke of looking around after dropping bombs over Iwo Jima, and seeing only one other bomber left in his formation, and how he broke down and cried when returning from the South Pacific upon seeing a street light for the first time in years.

  4. P. Savio says:

    WW2 was, in part, about the survival of Nations and cultures. Manned spaceflight is ultimately about the survival of the human species.

  5. Thank you for your perspective. I have a 2nd cousin, my Mom’s cousin we all call Uncle Bob, no matter what generation we are, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He is a humble fine example of a man, like your uncles. I am grateful and proud of him.

    I give thanks to him and to you for reminding me freedom isn’t and never will be free.

    I too, pray for our soldiers still in harm’s way. Also, I gave a few bucks to the USO so the soldiers can smile and know we care. Popular war or not.

  6. brihath2711 says:

    Wayne- I can relate, my Dad, Sgt. Richard Hathaway fought with the 5th Ranger Battalion, and landed on Omaha Beach, meeting up with the 2nd Rangers in the defense of Pointe du Hoc from German counter attacks. He never talked about it much until the 1980’s when he went back to Normandy. I know he was amazed that he made it through combat when so many of his buddies didn’t. He made it all the way to victory in Germany. Fate rewarded him though. In 1994, he was honored to introduce President Clinton at the D-Day 50th Anniversary celebration on the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. I got to watch him on CNN. He is gone now, but I will never fgorget what he did. All our military deserve our thanks.

  7. Gene Mikulka says:

    Wow, just thinking about what I was doing at 19 years old. It sure wasn’t risking my life while saving the world from pure evil, that’s for sure. Bless everyone that stands in harms way to protect us now and in the future.

    Sadly, relations I have who combated the Nazis in WWII do not wish to talk about their experiences. They all did their duty and saved the world from the scourge that was Hitler’s regime. War is not a thing of beauty, and as such they engaged in activities and saw things that no person should ever have to do or see. The scars were deep. One relative, a very gentle man, kept those secrets locked inside him and refused to talk about his experiences in World War II . It wasn’t until he passed away in December 2008 that we learned of his valor during the Battle of the Bulge.

    I wish I had known, just to have the opportunity to say thank you.

  8. Rod Wallace says:

    Very nice words and a lot to think about. If you are interested, I have a book that my step-dad wrote about his WWII experiences in the Battle of the Bluge. PS. Did we ever look that young?

  9. Ben Whitehouse says:

    Would you please consider archiving your old blog entries from the NASA website over here. No telling when budget cuts will cause NASA to eliminate their archive. You’ve got some great gems and important insight that deserve to continue to be available.

    • waynehale says:

      I’m really sorry to say that I don’t own those old blogs any more and can’t access them any more than you can. But I guess I have drafts of most of them and I’ll think what i can do.

  10. no one of consequence says:

    When my dad was dying in a medical stupor brought on by the drugs, he was verbally reliving the Battle of the Bulge he’d been in. He never would talk about WWII no matter what for many decades. Then here in the last few hours I was getting this unexpected in the moment first person account as he struggled for life on the battlefield concurrent with losing the battle in the hospital. Here it all flowed surrealistically, triggered by the certainty of death.

    He’d spent most of his life in aerospace with significant contributions in national security, commercial and science space missions. But what he came back to in his last moments was a muddy cold battlefield foxhole surrounded by incoming mortar shells, sniper fire, and his own personal commitment to the nation embodied in that moment.

    Thank you for sharing that.

  11. David Buchner says:

    Astonishing. Your uncle’s nonchalant — no, more like matter-of-fact — recounting of such a near-death ordeal is as astonishing as the events themselves. That is a MAN.

  12. lukeandrew says:

    Having lived in Poland for a couple of years and visiting with the folks there and sites like Auschwitz, I’ve developed a deep respect for all those who lived through WWII times. Unfortunately, they’re disappearing quickly.

  13. Yusef Johnson says:

    While attending Tuskegee, I was blessed to have met many of the Airmen who still resided in the area. Their stories were amazing, and served to constantly remind me that freedom wasn’t free. I completely agree with one of the earlier post:I wonder if we are worse off for not going through such a time as that.

  14. rocketguy101 says:

    Three friends of mine at church fought in WWII, two of them have passed away. One of them worked on the Manhattan Project; the other flew one of the first waves of paratroopers into Normandy on D-Day (he wrote his story for the 50th anniversary of D-Day and I posted it for him here . The third friend was shot down in a B-17 over Germany and spent 1 year, 1 day as a POW in Nurnberg. All three of these gents are/were so humble, and it just amazed me to learn of their stories. Thanks for sharing about your uncle.

  15. Guy-Christopher Coppel says:

    Dear Wayne,

    I cannot agree more on the perspective you give through this post.

    I have indeed felt overwhelmed by the exact same feeling myself walking on Utah,Omaha,and Juno beaches last June. So much so that reflecting among the amazing cemetery overlooking the Omaha beach, one can only be ‘physically’ forced into reassessing a number of things, personally as well as collectively.

    Twenty five years exactly are separating the D Day ‘landing’ from the Lunar landing. My dad saw the GI’s coming in his little town at the same age I saw Neil and Buzz as well as all I could not see ‘behind the scene’ at NASA, changing my life.

    I grabbed a pebble on the beach which undoubtedly was there in June 1944. It is sitting on my desk, as a reminder…It is dark red, as a matter of fact.

    I wrote one day on an HQ panel I was designing “Exploring space, discovering ourselves”.

    We are ‘exploring space’ today with all who were involved with the last World War as peaceful partners. Let me enjoy thinking that these guys on the Normandy cold and rainy beaches in June 1944 put us where we are (at many levels) and allowed two of their sons to grab a few pebbles on the Moon for all of us to start discovering ourselves.
    The tale of these two landings is by extension indeed your Uncle’s and all those of this generation on which shoulders we stand respectfully, and certainly in debt.
    Thanks again for sharing what we sometimes forget too easily and take for granted.


  16. Dave H. says:

    My late father was a bricklayer for United States Steel’s mighty Homestead Works.
    He never thought of the “big picture”, or how what he did affected others. For instance…

    He never spoke of the war, perhaps because he felt that he played no role. Like your Uncle Bill, my father was also in the Eighth Air Force. Perhaps they knew one another…since my father passed in 1997, I’m sure that they’ve met already.

    My father was a craftsman…they sent him to North Dakota to learn how to repair holes in those B-17s. But he didn’t like it, and picked a fight with an officer. This earned him a stint at steady KP. Strangely enough, this is what he actually wanted to do. As he would pragmatically explain, “you ate the same foods as the officers and you got a 48 hour pass every other weekend instead of once every 30 days.”

    Now, when you looked like Clark Gable, and had a two-day pass every other weekend, life was good indeed.

    He never thought that the meals he cooked were often the last good meals, or often the final meals, eaten by those bomber crews. He certainly knew who didn’t come back, but it was just part of the war. Still…

    My father used to say that if you had to go into the service, the Air Force was the best because it was the only branch of the service where people shoot at the officers…

    He was a master of pragmatism. And he was my hero. This December 27th will mark 13 years since prostate cancer took him, and I will remember him and weep because I miss him.
    You never truly get over your parents’ passings, you just learn to live without them.

  17. Benjamin Pawlik says:

    My father served as a member of the 297th Engineers in WWII, which built the roads and bridges that carried the invasion forces at D-Day through France, Belgium, and Germany. The engineers were required to be ahead of the bulk of the forces, and were always subject to hostile action. Like many others, my father spoke little about his experiences, other than an occassional acknowledgement when viewing some particularly brutal depiction in a war movie or documentary.

    One regret which he did repeat, and which continued to trouble him, was an action which he was ordered to perform. His Company was present at the liberation of a concentration camp, where thousands of dead and dying prisoners were held, and many of their captors were taken as prisoner. I will not repeat many of the details which I learned since then. My father continued to be troubled by his order to protect the German prisoners, and he was requird to fight off the former concentration camp victims from beating their former guards to death. That was the only time his emotions came through.

    It was many years after I worked in the space program, and after my father’s death, that I learned the camp was Nordhausen, which was the death camp for prisoners who built the V2 rockets, but were too weak to continue working.

    I often think about the links we have with the past, and the moral complexities which arise over time. It reminds me that there are no black and white explanations or answers to our issues and problems, whether technical, personal, or political. Compromise and acceptance are required.

  18. William Powers says:

    As with other folks of my generation, when we were growing up, everybody’s dad or uncle was a WWII vet. Whenever I could, I would ask about their experiences. None of them would say. Not one. The most they would say was “I was in the Army” or “I was in the Navy.” I found out a little more about my relatives by asking my mom, but that was it. From that, I concluded that war was something that the participants did not want to be reminded of.

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