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Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Last Debreifing of Bill Boyd

I took this job for love. There was no money.

A woman I know, a talented producer and director I have worked with over the the past several years, needed a favor.

Her father, Bill Boyd, is getting up in years. He's 86 years old now.
As a young man of 22 he was a bombardier in a B-17 with the 8th Air Force flying missions in World War II over Germany. On his 18th mission, he was shot down, wounded by flack and captured on the ground. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. And after years of keeping his story to himself, telling bits and pieces of it to family and other veterans of the war, he was ready to tell his war story on camera. His daughter said to me, "Dads still real sharp, but now is the time." Knowing my love of history, she asked me if I would interview him.

How could I say no?

I know my American History pretty well. I knew I could help him tell his narrative. But we wanted something more personal. We wanted to look inside the man who went to war, came home and raised his family. We wanted a document that included background and details that would help future generations and historians put a face on the dry text of history. And I wanted the details that are often not recorded. Details so ordinary in the moment, that they become lost in later interpretation. Anyone who has talked to veterans of that war know those details and inside looks are hard to get. But Bill was ready to tell it and I wanted to help him.

We talked for almost 10 hours over two days and the whole of our conversation was recorded on HD video at Brent Sumner's studio in Santa Barbara. What came out was what historians would call an "excellent primary source". What I heard was a remarkable story told by an honorable and humble man.

Even after all the years that have passed, Bill has an amazing memory for dates, places, people and names. For his own reasons he memorized an incredibly detailed record of his life. As I probed for memories, emotions, background details and stories, more would come pouring out.

The hours of Bill's last debriefing will one day be edited and produced into a documentary film. Some will remain as a priceless record for genealogists to come. Some will help tell the story of the American Air Force in Europe. And some will help us understand who we were as a people in 1944, and after the war.

I scratched notes as we talked, questions to ask that would illuminate the man and the record. As the son of a WWII veteran, I probed for insights into the man who raised his children after the war. And as the product of the modern era, I looked for reasons to label his actions in ways I could understand and relate to my own contemporary understanding. What I found went beyond those meanings to the truth I sensed he was telling about himself, about his war and about how it had affected him.

I won't relate all of his adventures here. They're exciting alright, but the deeper message moved me more.

Several times I asked him about his feelings. About his duty, about the missions, about bailing out of a dying B-17 near the Swiss border. He answered honestly each time. But at one point he began to talk about fear. He said he was afraid on every mission. But what he was most afraid of was failing. He was most afraid of letting down the men who depended on him to do his job. And in that emotion was a key to what I've heard so many times. "I'm not a hero. I was just doing the best I could to do my job. There were a lot of other guys over there doing the same thing."

Nothing special. Just a guy doing his job.

On a day in the summer of 1944 over Germany that job got pretty tough. In five minutes, flack bursts turned the aluminum hull of the "Strictly From Hunger" into a sieve. Off target, leaking gas and with engines dying, Bill found his bomb sight blown to pieces, he snuffed smoldering electrical wiring with his fingers and realized that a bit of red hot shrapnel had pierced through his shoulder.

The ball turret gunner came forward, cut open Bill's flight suit, gave him a shot of morphine and bandaged his wound. Then, because his right arm was numb, the gunner strapped Bill's parachute upside down on him so he could pull the cord with his left arm. Bill exited the plane from the forward escape hatch and he fell as far as he could before pulling the ripcord. The whole crew got out. Half didn't survive on the ground.

Just a guy doing his job.

Modern people are so complicated. We look so deep for answers and examine every detail. A difficult time called for simpler answers.

In the POW camp, Bill said, "You got to tell your horror story once. Then nobody wanted to hear it anymore. Everbody had one. You got to tell yours once."

This week Bill got to tell it again. In the studio we asked him to please tell it all. Because we all need to hear it.


Anonymous said...

My dad was one of 4 survivors of this 9 member crew. They were all such brave men and certainly have a story to tell!!!!! Sandi Hughes MckInley

Maureen McFadden said...

Hey John
Here's the 9 minute piece done on "The BomberBoys" by TVSB for the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Museum