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Chester County Press

'I didn't feel fear too often'

11/20/2013 03:40PM ● By Acl

Hailstone was awarded the Purple Heart and several other recognitions for his service.

There were 16 million Americans who served as members of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Statistics released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that less than two million of them are still alive, and that these veterans are dying at a rate of 600 a day. A short biography of 89-year-old Bob Hailstone of Landenberg, written by Gene Manuel -- a friend of Hailstone's -- recently reached the Chester County Press. Manuel's biography, written in Hailstone's voice, tells acts of bravery and heroism, in fighter planes high over Europe. In honor of the vanishing heroes -- those that helped preserve our country and our way of life 70 years ago -- we recently met with Hailstone and his wife Jean, if for no other reason than to document this man's story and shine what light we can on a life lived in quiet dignity.  

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Five months shy of his 90th birthday, Bob Hailstone spends the majority of his days tending to the many fruit trees that sprout up on his six acres that border the White Clay Creek Preserve in Landenberg. The house he shares with Jean, his wife of 68 years, and their dog Ike, is filled with the trinkets common to those who have lived a rich and happy life -- family photos of his four children and many grandchildren, that line walls and take up cabinet space.   

Perhaps the only reminder that he once served as a tail gunner during World War II 69 years ago is a color illustration of a United States B-26 bomber plane, which he rode while engaging in gunfire with Nazi airships ten thousand feet above the ground in France and Switzerland in 1944 and 1945. There were moments, he said, when a direct hit on the aircraft would be a merciful act, given the stress of the missions, and the wear and tear on his 19-year-old body who spent the last of his teenage years in the very back of a fighter plane. 

There is one more thing that brings him back to the war.

"My hands, they always seem to be cold," Hailstone said. He looked down at his fingers. They recalled for him the four-foot-high confines of his world war workplace, where the nature of his task forced its windows to be raised in order for him to fire the two machine guns, all in the whiplash-sharp winds that rose over 100 miles per hour in temperatures that sometimes drifted to 50 below zero. 

"I wanted to serve earlier, but I was too young when the war started in 1941," said Hailstone, whose father was a Marine. "I had three older brothers serving, one in Washington, D.C., one in the Navy in the Pacific, and the third in Hawaii."

Hailstone's visions of grandeur in war, no doubt heightened by what he was seeing in the newsreels and in the newspapers, almost never happened. While at Camp Pickett in Virginia for basic training, he was assigned to the medical corps, where he worked with a dental surgeon. I didn't get into the war for this, he told the surgeon, who told Hailstone that the only divisions that had openings were the parachute corps or the Air Force. He was assigned to the Army Air Force in its armament program. He attended gunnery school, was shipped to Shreveport, La., and was assigned as a tail gunner. He was stationed in the rear of the plane to operate a machine gun and fight off attacks from enemy aircraft.

After leaving Virginia, Hailstone became a member of the 1st Tactical Air Force in Dijon, France, assigned to the 17th Bomb Group, 34th Bomb Squadron. The unit was to support the southern front near the Alps in Switzerland, against the onslaught of the Nazi invasion through Europe. On Dec. 29, 1944, Hailstone climbed into a B-26 Bomber and embarked on a mission to the Nazi barracks at Kaiserlautern, which had already been hit on Jan. 7, Aug. 11 and Sept. 29 of that year. During the battle, flak from the enemy was heavy, and Lt. Vern Engesath, the pilot, was hit in the head and died. The plane was taken over by the co-pilot, who managed to get it back to the base. 

"It was a bitterly cold day in Dijon, and when we got to the target, we knew that only the lead ship was the one carrying the bombs," Hailstone said. "When the resulting flak from the hit rose up, the plane was ambushed, but we managed to get out alive."  

Letters to his family were kept to a minimum. He thought that if he wrote a lot of letters, he would get a lot back, and he didn't want to spend his time writing. His life was all about the missions he saw posted on the board, and there were new targets every day. The only thing he knew about the Nazis and Adolph Hitler and Emperor Hirohito was what he managed to read in the newspapers, or what was broadcast on the radio. 

"I didn't feel fear very often, because I was so taken up with the job and watching for fighters, and at that age, I didn't have much in the way of fear. I was 19 years old, maybe 20," he said. 

On Feb. 25, 1945, Hailstone volunteered for a mission to bomb the ammunition depot at Siegelsbach in Germany. He sat in the rear of one of the 50 U.S. airships that descended on the depot and suddenly, after he heard the call "Bombs away!", a tremendous explosion lifted the entire plane he was riding in.

In the next moments, the plane emergency landed on the deck of the nearby ship. As he began to make his way off the plane to hop aboard a single-engine plane, Hailstone heard words he will never forget.  

"Somebody said, 'Look at the wall of fire,'" he said, "and when I looked up to see, I was hit with shrapnel from the blast. That spun me around so that I was now facing the front of the aircraft."

Hailstone absorbed injuries to his buttocks, his left hip, his left elbow, his right ankle and his spine. From the back end of the plane, he rolled his helmet to the medics to let them know he was injured. Soon, he was transported to the ship's dispensary, where the surgeon recommended that Hailstone be transferred to a hospital in nearby Dijon. He had a cast on one ankle, had no feeling in one leg. Eventually, he was sent to a hospital ship in Scotland.

On convalescent leave, Hailstone came home. He first landed in New York City, where he and other veterans were given a heroes welcome. He was then sent to Kennedy General Hospital in Tennessee, and then to a convalescent hospital near Lake Champlain in upstate New York. On leave from the hospital, he returned home to his parents in Moosic. 

One day, he went to the corner drug store to buy cigarettes, and behind the counter he saw the prettiest girl he'd ever seen. He took his brother-in-law Gil, who'd just been discharged from the Coast Guard, back to the store a few days later. Gil convinced him to ask the girl out. Sixty-eight years and four children later, they're still together.

"All I remember of him was that wore the ugliest green tweed suit I'd ever seen, and that he seemed like a nice guy," Jean said.

The United States declared its victory in the European Theater on May 8, 1945. On Aug. 6 and 9, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which led to the surrender of the Japanese on Sept. 2, aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. Until the day that victory was declared in Japan, Hailstone was planning to return to war. He wanted to fly B-29s in the Pacific.  

"I just liked to fly," he said. "The war was on, and it was just a case of doing what we could do in order to bring the war to an end. If it meant flying up to Japan, I was willing to do it." 

On Sept. 14, Hailstone received his honorable discharge, and for his service, he was awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with Cluster, the Good Conduct Medal, and African and Middle Eastern Theater medals. In total, Hailstone went on 15 missions, and only four of them were assigned.  For the remaining 11, he volunteered. 

When he came home to Pennsylvania, he began work at a silk factory in Scranton, earning $20 a week. He later took a job as a salesman at a furniture store in Scranton, then accepted a job at the DuPont Company in Wilmington, where he stayed until his retirement in 1982.  

"I'm a veteran myself and always have been enthusiastic about World War II," said Gene Manuel, who recently interviewed Hailstone for a short biography. The idea to interview Hailstone came originally from Manuel's service as a gunner and assembly machinist of nuclear warheads, while in Germany from 1960 to 1962.

"I'd been interested in knowing more about Germany's part in the war, from my time there," Manuel said. "When I found out that Bob was a tail gunner, I thought that he should receive some glory for his service."

Through their association with the Newark Baptist Church, Manuel and Hailstone have known each other for 20 years. 

"His story wasn't something he really wanted to share," Manuel said. "He comes from a time when people felt it was their duty to serve the country, and he's told me many times that if he had to do it all over again, he would.

"A lot of things have changed since then," he added. "I don't think we have the morals and the values that we had in those days. It hurts me when I go to a ballgame and people don't stand up during 'The National Anthem' or take their hats off. Bob's is a generation that we're quickly losing."

The peaches, apples and grapes that Hailstone grows need attention during the growing season, and he's constantly on a quest to outsmart the varmints who threaten to eat his crop before he does. There's always firewood to cut and brush to clear, just as there are children and grandchildren to visit. His daughter, Lois, lives with her family in the house next door; son Jimmy is over in Marshalton, daughter Roberta lives in Bear; and Julie, their youngest, lives in Maryland.   

"He takes care of me," said Jean. "When I can't hear, he's my interpreter, and I'm not walking that great these days, so he's my legs. He truly is one of the Greatest Generation. They don't come any better than him. He's a great dad, a great husband, a great farmer. I would like to recycle our life, and get 68 more years with him."

For nearly 60 minutes, Hailstone spoke quietly during the interview. His answers to questions often came with a shrug, and whenever any mention of  heroism was brought up, he became one more defender of perhaps the greatest mystery of the Greatest Generation, which still, almost 70 years since after victory was declared in Europe and the Pacific, remains largely unsolved. At a time when social media has perpetuated an entire generation of voyeurs; when we can tell people everything about our lives in the push of a button, people like Hailstone -- who can truly brag about accomplishment -- have chosen not to do so.     

"I've just never had much to say," Hailstone said. "It was gone, over with. I felt that I didn't want to live in yesterday. I just thought I wanted to stay with today and tomorrow."

Hailstone said he is the last surviving member of his crew. The information hung over the conversation like a final sentence does in a novel. From somewhere in the house, a clock chimed, indicating that a new hour had begun. 

Veterans Day may have passed, but recognition of our nation's veterans should not be confined to just one day. In a series scheduled to periodically publish throughout the next year, the Chester County Press will profile some of our area's war veterans. If you know a veteran you think has a story to tell, let us know.  E-mail a brief bio to [email protected].