Saturday, October 11, 2008

My father

My father, George Washington Bamberger, passed away last night. He had just passed his 93rd birthday a week and a half ago and had been living basically bound to his bed since my mother died of Alzheimer's a year and a half ago. But he had lived such a valuable life. His own father who had been a doctor in Chicago and had died during the Great Depression while treating patients who never could pay him. So my dad never was able to go to college but he was of that generation that just went to work to support themselves and then, the day after Pearl Harbor headed to recruitment offices to volunteer.

My dad was a navigator for air transport planes in the 13th Air Force in the Southern Pacific during WWII. In late 1943 he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the first awarded to the 13th Air Force for his service one stormy night. At that time we were preparing to attack and isolate the great Japanese air base at Rabaul on New Britain Island which was the key to our invasion of Bougainville and MacArthur's plan to invade the Admiralty Islands. The distance from our base in the Solomons was too great for fighter support and so it was necessary to have a base closer to Rabaul. The solution was a tiny island, Stirling, in the Treasury Islands, close enough to Rabaul to be in fighter range, where we built an airstrip.

One night the marines wanted to get a squadron of 15 fighter planes from Guadalcanal to the Stirling air base as soon as possible to prepare for attacks on Rabaul, but the weather was too poor for navigating to this tiny island. One mistake and they'd stray into the range of Rabaul's air force. The marine major asked if there was anyone in my dad's group who was familiar enough with the area that could navigate the way to this little air strip in the Pacific. My dad volunteered to do this. He said that the ceiling was about 500 feet with the winds whipping furiously. He didn't have any navigation aids: no celestial, radio, landmarks, weather forecast, or visibility to help him. He led the squadron over open ocean telling the pilot 20 or 30 times to keep adjusting the course as the wind was moving the planes off course. Basically, he remembers that he was making guesstimates on speed and distance traveled in the total dark where a mistake would mean the death of everyone on every plane in the squadron. But either through his skill or luck, they flew directly to the base in the Treasury Islands and all landed safely. His colonel recommended later him for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

To give you an idea of my dad's modesty about this, I just found out about 10 years ago about this story and many other of his stories from WWII when he started writing up his reminiscences of the war to share with us and his grandchildren.

He came back from the war and he and my mother raised us four children. He worked in marketing and advertising in St. Louis, Chicago, and southern Florida. He was involved in campaigns such as launching Mr. Clean and Head and Shoulders. As an account executive for some brand of nylon stockings he gave Raquel Welch one of her first modeling jobs for an ad that would show just her legs. But apparently, many of the account guys found that it was necessary to stop by the photo shoot that day.

From my father I inherited my interest in history. Although he had never attended college, he was extremely well-read in history, particularly military history. Up until his last days he was reading history books and still missing my mother even though she hadn't been able to share his memories for the past few years of her life. Perhaps now they can be together and share memories of lives well lived.