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Homecoming 2/6 Marines, Fox Company February 19, 2011

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I’m pleased to reprint the account below by Elaine Swierszcz Gaither, recounting her son’s recent return from Afghanistan (with permission):

HOMECOMING 2/6 MARINES, FOX COMPANY, January 4, 2011

To understand the ending of the story, I have to begin at the beginning.  In June, our family made a marathon round-trip to Camp LeJeune, NC to bid farewell to our son Josh, a Lance Corporal with the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, who was deploying to Afghanistan.  We arrived a scant 90 minutes before departure, barely enough time to hug him one last time, tell him how proud we were of him, to reassure him (and ourselves) that he would be back before too long.  I think it was the first time I truly realized how scared he was, how terrified I was.  As hard as it was to say goodbye to him, it was almost harder to see the Marines saying goodbye to their children, their pregnant wives, the babies who would be celebrating their first Christmas without their dad.  One Marine dad sat on the ground and played one last time with his young son. The families stood in the parking lot as the buses pulled out, waving until they were out of sight. And then a new family formed…a family of those left behind. We hugged, we cried, we gave words of encouragement and strength, we exchanged names, email addresses, and phone numbers.  After a bit we were able to tear ourselves away and head home.

As the months crept by we heard infrequently from our Marines, but as soon as one of us did, the word was passed. It didn’t matter that they were in different companies, different parts of Marjah, different jobs. One of our own was heard from, and we celebrated. Facebook became a lifeline for us. Like all families, we mourned each combat loss, celebrated each new member of the 2/6 family added by birth, consoled those whose Marine was injured, shared news about travels and illness.  Life went on here in the States, and the family formed in that parking lot was there for support.

In November we were given tentative arrival dates. Each company was assigned a three to five day window; Fox Company was due January 4 – 7. Excitement began to build, a flurry of information about travel arrangements and hotels was exchanged, welcome home banners ordered, and the countdown began. The days dragged on, the holidays came and went without too much celebration. On January 2, we got our 48 hour confirmed notice; Fox Company was due to arrive onboard Camp LeJeune Tuesday, 4  January at 1930 hours.  It was time to head back to North Carolina.  It was time to welcome our Marine home.   I think that Monday was 100 hours long! The students in my classes kept asking me what was wrong…I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t concentrate…I now have a better understanding of ADHD!

We left home at five in the morning on the fourth, seven hours later we were at the hotel in Jacksonville. We headed over to the base mid-afternoon; I had seven cases of Girl Scout Cookies and a huge carton of donated candy to deliver for the reception. We grabbed something to eat at the Commissary, found the rest of our family and friends who had made the trip, and headed over to the Field House. It was time to meet all those wonderful people I had met via the internet, and to say hello again to those I had met in June.  Welcome Home signs hung from the bleachers, and the excitement and anticipation was almost palpable.  Little ones played on the gym floor, wives clustered together, parents found each other and chatted, other Marines came in, many of them wounded, and waited with us for word that Fox Company was on the ground at Cherry Point, and enroute back to LeJeune.  Around 6, cell phones began to ring, word began to spread as more and more of the Marines were calling their wives, their dads, moms, girlfriends…they were on the ground and headed back. Except they were still a good 90 minutes away, and they would first have to go to the Armory to turn in their serialized gear and weapons. The Marines would then march from the Armory to the Field House. The excitement continued to build and the wait became more and more unbearable.

Finally, after hours of waiting, we heard they were at the Armory and then the announcement we were waiting for was made. If quite could be loud, it was. A silence fell over the Field House as the moments of waiting drew to a close.  But it was a loud silence…maybe it was all the excited breathing, maybe it was the pounding of all our hearts, maybe it was the sound of joy. The doors swung open and in single file Fox Company began to march in. The roar of the crowd, the applause, all suddenly faded as I glimpsed Joshua coming through the door. I remember saying to someone the next day that it was like giving birth as he emerged into the Field House. I remember bursting into tears. I remember jumping up and down and whispering his name.  As the Marines continued to come through the door, I again became aware of the noise, but I could not take my eyes from Josh. As the last Marine entered and stood in formation, the Company Commander (I think) made some brief remarks (I think it had something to do with the mission) and then, I swear, he dismissed the company. I bolted for Josh only to be stopped, because they had not been dismissed. Instead, all the members of Fox gathered around their leader, and they toasted the Marines who were not going to be coming home. Each of them popped open a beer they had been handed just before coming in to the Field House, and drank in memory of their fallen brothers. If there had been a dry eye in that building up until that point, there wasn’t any longer.

The Marines were then dismissed, and I took off again. I got to Josh first, followed by other members of the family, and then his friends. I could not stop touching him. After Josh checked in to his new quarters, and I realized that none of the “civvies” we brought him would fit (he said they had nothing else to do but work out), we went out to dinner…it was, by now, 11pm.  At the restaurant, following a Marine tradition, the family presented the now Corporal Gaither with his new NCO Ceremonial Sword. Eventually we found our way back to the hotel and ended what had been a very long, very emotional day.

Almost three weeks later, I find myself still moved to tears by different things. We had delayed fully enjoying the secular aspect of Christmas until Josh began leave. I ordered a Welcome Home Cake with the Marine Corps logo on it. When I went to pick it up, I placed the cake in the bottom of the cart and went about shopping. One man passed me by and said “Semper Fi”. I was too stunned to respond. Another man stopped and asked about the cake. I explained and he said “tell your son thank you. Not many are willing to make that sacrifice so I can live in this wonderful country, and enjoy what we have here. And thank you for giving your son to us.” Then, as I was leaving the store, the guy who checks your cart and receipt asked me if my son had just gotten out of the Marines. I again explained that he had just returned from Afghanistan. The man reached over, hugged me and said “tell him a Vietnam Veteran says I’m glad he made it back and thank you.” After thanking him, I left the store in tears. I hide my tears from Josh when he offers up a short recounting of what he’s been through, what he’s seen. He has talked about bullets hitting the ground near his feet, about a buddy hit in the neck, a child who was shot. He talks about how they killed an animal purchased from a local farmer so the Marines could have something fresh to eat, how they couldn’t drink the water, how the children begged for food. He mentions the school that the Marines built and opened and how the girls wouldn’t go in to it, he talks about the irrigation ditches they had to jump over, how their feet were always wet. And he pulls out of his belongings a pile of small stuffed animals that people sent, and that he kept them to remind him of what he’d done, where he’d been, and how great it was that strangers remembered them.

Our journey with the Marine Corps will probably end in June, unless Josh decides to re-enlist. For many reasons I think it would be a good thing for him to stay in, but I know that would, most likely, mean another combat deployment. I don’t know if I want to go through that again, I do know I will miss being part of a unique family. Semper Fi.

By Elaine Swierszcz  Gaither

****

I’m so glad that Josh and his colleagues are “watching our six”! Thank you for sharing this story, Elaine.

2010 in review January 3, 2011

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The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 21,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 5 fully loaded ships.

 

In 2010, there were 17 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 99 posts. There were 22 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 16mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was February 2nd with 598 views. The most popular post that day was The President’s Take on NASA’s Future: Mission to Nowhere.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com, twitter.com, home.comcast.net, and stumbleupon.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for earth, panzer, p-47, space shuttle, and itokawa.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

The President’s Take on NASA’s Future: Mission to Nowhere February 2010
22 comments

2

In the Thunderbolt on D-Day — a Hell Hawks! Excerpt in Air Force Times June 2009

3

An in-depth look at “Planetology” on “The Space Show” December 2008
1 comment

4

Where’s the Vision? – Letter from Carpenter, Cernan, Duke, Buckbee February 2010
5 comments

5

William Farrell’s “Thunderbolt Patriot” December 2008
2 comments

 

Thank you to all my visitors in 2010, and best wishes for a Happy and Successful 2011!

Tom Jones

http://www.AstronautTomJones.com

 

Astronaut Speaker Tom Jones — Appearances Summer 2009 June 24, 2009

Posted by skywalking1 in History, Space, Uncategorized.
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Here are a few upcoming events where I’ll be signing Planetology, Hell Hawks!, and other books:

Tom Jones speaks at the Maryland Science Center, June 2009 (APL)

Tom Jones speaks at the Maryland Science Center, June 2009 (APL)

For more details about a speaking event with astronaut Tom Jones, contact his speakers bureau, or visit www.AstronautTomJones.com

Why We Built the Space Station April 2, 2009

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Check out this new film from United Space Alliance. A beautiful view of our foothold in space, discovering a better life on Earth.

STS-119 drank in this view as they departed the Space Station, March 25, 2009 (NASA)

STS-119 drank in this view as they departed the Space Station, March 25, 2009 (NASA)

Here, the departing STS-119 crew looks back at the nearly complete ISS. Compare it to the view I had in 2001. (read about how we built the ISS in “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir“)

My STS-98 crew said good-bye to the Station, with new lab Destiny, on Feb. 16, 2001. (NASA)

My STS-98 crew said good-bye to the Station, with new lab Destiny, on Feb. 16, 2001. (NASA)

And the Space Station is just a stepping stone…to the Moon, the asteroids, and Mars!

www.AstronautTomJones.com

Going Live with Orion at NASA JSC April 2, 2009

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I appeared on Fox News Channel this morning, April 2, 2009, on America’s Newsroom, to discuss the new Orion crew exploration vehicle. Host Bill Hemmer conducted the inteview with me in Bldg. 9, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Watch the 5-minute segment here.

The Orion mockup in Bldg. 9 in Houston is used for crew seat arrangement tests, installation of proposed instrument panels and avionics, and fit checks of cargo container designs. Other mockups of the Orion crew module are involved in water handling and recovery tests (next week at the Cape), the Ares I-X flight test launch from Pad 39B in late summer, and in the upcoming pad abort tests at White Sands Missile Range, NM.

Orion is the shuttle’s replacement. It’s time to get on with building and flying it. We will miss the shuttle. But it can’t go to deep space. America needs Orion to continue to lead in space exploration.

www.AstronautTomJones.com

Orion crew module mockup at Naval Surface Warfare Center near Washington, DC, on April 1, 2009 (NASA)

Orion crew module mockup at Naval Surface Warfare Center near Washington, DC, on April 1, 2009 (NASA)

The Voice of Quentin C. Aanenson December 31, 2008

Posted by skywalking1 in History, Uncategorized.
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Quent Aanenson narrates "A Fighter Pilot's Story" (from his web site)

Quent Aanenson narrates "A Fighter Pilot's Story" (from his web site)

Quentin C. Aanenson, in Tribute

By Thomas D. Jones

Quentin C. Aanenson, WWII fighter pilot and understated witness to the physical and psychic wounds of that war, earned national recognition fifteen years ago, when his self-written video documentary A Fighter Pilot’s Story aired on public television. Aanenson, who died on December 28, 2008 at the age of 87, was that fighter pilot of the title, surely one of the most reflective American warriors of the Second World War.

Aanenson was born and raised in Luverne, Minnesota, but in recent decades was a life insurance executive and resident of Bethesda, Maryland. He set out in the early 1990s to make for his family a record of his combat experiences flying the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber in 1944-45, supporting Eisenhower’s GIs as they advanced from Normandy’s beaches all the way into the heart of Germany.

He fought a very dangerous war, dive-bombing and strafing the German army from low altitude. Aanenson was over the D-Day invasion beaches in June 1944, and he directed air strikes as a forward air controller through the American crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. His frank observations of how the brutality of war affected his own life during and after combat offered today’s Americans some of the most revealing insights into what “the Greatest Generation” experienced in World War II.

Aanenson’s video combined his own photographs with images and film garnered from the National Archives, woven together with his memories and excerpts from his letters home. He wrote to one particular girl: Jacqueline Greer, a secretary he had met at the airfield in Baton Rouge where he trained in the powerful Republic P-47. Jackie was his confidant, and his letters home to her, and her replies, formed the narrative backbone of the moving A Fighter Pilot’s Story. The love Aanenson expressed to her and the support Jackie lent him in those letters proved a welcome island of tenderness in the swirl of combat that surrounded him for nine months.

Word of Aanenson’s powerful story soon spread beyond his family and friends and led to a 1993 broadcast on Maryland public television. A Fighter Pilot’s Story went on to air nationally, adding to the historical tribute being paid to America’s WWII veterans to mark the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

Aanenson’s introspection was rare among fighter pilots, men of few words, selected not for their self-awareness but for aggressiveness in the air. They typically let their record in combat do the talking. Quentin Aanenson was an exception. Co-author June English and I included one of his letters home to Jackie in our 1998 book for young people, chronicling the nation’s military history. His words, telling her what he was going through, how the deaths of close friends affected him, were direct even as they tried to spare her the horrors he saw every day from this Thunderbolt. Aanenson’s letter helped us bring home to today’s young Americans what it meant to be a citizen-soldier in World War II.

Flying with the 391st Fighter Squadron of the 366th Fighter Group, Aanenson saw much of death and destruction as the Allies pushed the German army across France and penetrated Hitler’s Reich. Attacking rail yards in Rouen, France in July 1944, his Thunderbolt took a direct hit from a deadly German 88mm antiaircraft shell. The fuse failed to explode; he flew the battered plane back to base. On August 3, German flak over Vire again caught his plane, damaging his controls and setting his cockpit afire. Battle damage had jammed his canopy; he couldn’t bail out. Trapped, Aanenson determined not to burn alive in the cockpit: he dove his plane, “looking like a comet,” straight toward the ground. But the steep, high-speed plunge extinguished the fire, and the 23-year-old pilot somehow got the Thunderbolt lined up with his nearby runway. He put the barely controllable P-47 down at 170 mph, but a blown tire caused the damaged landing gear to collapse, spinning the big fighter around. The impact tore loose his shoulder harness and cracked his skull against the gunsight. Two ground crewmen pulled him from the smoking wreckage, unconscious but alive.

Ninety minutes later, burns bandaged but still suffering from a concussion (which caused blinding headaches for years after), Aanenson managed to stand in front of his mangled fighter for a Picture Post photographer. The image captured a young man, wounded, weary–yet determined to do the job he was assigned until victory was won.

How did he climb into a cockpit to face death again and again? “It changed from patriotism to fighting for my buddies and the guys on the front lines,” he told me in June 2006 in an interview for a new book about the Thunderbolt men.

Assigned in the winter of 1945 to direct air strikes from an observer’s post on the front lines, Aanenson lived and fought with the GIs he had helped so often from the air. On Feb. 23, near Duren, Germany, an enemy shell exploded in his post in the great hall of a ruined castle, spraying him with bits of what had once been a soldier’s body. He calmly brushed off the gore and got back on the radio, vectoring more Thunderbolts onto the target.

After surviving 75 combat missions, Aanenson rotated home in March 1945, and a month later married his sweetheart, Jackie. Their marriage, forged in the harrowing separation experienced by so many wartime couples, thrived for 63 years.

Producer Ken Burns featured the Aanensons’ story in his epic 2007 documentary The War. Thrust into that devastating conflict, Quentin Aanenson faced its horrors again and again, and fought determinedly to bring his country victory. Ninety of his fellow pilots from his 366th Fighter Group didn’t make it home. He closed A Fighter Pilot’s Story with these words:

Only rarely, now, in my dreams or nightmares, do I revert to those days of death and despair that took place so long ago. I see the faces of my buddies who were killed. I see them as they were ‑‑ while those of us who survived grow old ‑‑ they will be forever young. I will always remember them ‑‑ and I will always wonder how it was that I escaped their fate.

Aanenson’s powerful postwar testimony reminds us of that sacrifice, freely offered up by so many to guarantee the liberty we enjoy today. With Quentin Aanenson’s fellow airmen, and grateful Americans everywhere, I mourn his passing, even as we remember his eloquence and courage.

Thomas D. Jones, pilot and veteran shuttle astronaut, is the author (with Robert F. Dorr) of Hell Hawks! (Zenith, 2008) the true story of a band of Thunderbolt brothers who fought in the air alongside Quentin C. Aanenson.

December 28, 2009

Night Flight September 9, 2008

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Tom with Sky Walking editor John Ross on an earlier Diamond flight

Tom with Sky Walking editor John Ross on an earlier Diamond flight

Last night was a beautiful September evening, with thin high clouds and mild breezes. Needing to practice night landings for future instrument flying, I took off in the Diamond DA-40 from Leesburg Airport just at sundown. I could just glimpse the fields and farms below me as I headed west from Leesburg, over Purcellville, and on to the dark mass of the Blue Ridge. With just a few lights glinting off the Shendandoah River, I got in two landings and an ILS approach at Winchester, then dropped in at Martinsburg to touch-and-go alongside the hulking C-5 Galaxies lining the parking ramp. My landings were actually more gentle than my last round in the daytime!

I finally returned to Leesburg on a GPS approach just after 9 p.m. local, settling onto the brilliantly outlined runway and taxiing in to a quiet airport. I was the last pilot to tie down my plane and head back to the parking lot. The flight was a perfect end to a nearly perfect late summer day.

Although I was usually traveling no faster than 110 knots, the flight reminded me of the many night flights over West Texas I enjoyed in the back seat of a NASA T-38. I can only contrast my exhilarating mission last evening with what the P-47 Thunderbolt pilots of the Hell Hawks experienced every time they strapped on a P-47.

In the air with a Fortress September 4, 2008

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I was up flying out of Leesburg, VA, on Sat. Aug. 30, during the Leesburg Airport (KJYO) Open House. In the traffic pattern with me, while I was practicing Cessna 172 touch-and-go’s–was the Experimental Aircraft Association’s B-17 Flying Fortress, Aluminum Overcast. What a sight, and what a pleasure, to share the sky with such a classic airplane. On the ground I had a chance to see the -17up close, too. Salutes to all Eighth Air Force (and other Command) B-17 crewmen, for flying this great aircraft in combat.

This was the first time this “old” bomber pilot (B-52, 1978-83) had shared the local sky with such a beautiful B-17.

Hell Hawks! interview posted September 4, 2008

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Last Sunday’s (Aug. 31) Hell Hawks! radio interview on the John Batchelor show, broadcast from Los Angeles, is now posted on my web site and at Batchelor’s podcast page. Col. Dave Harmon tells the story of his miraculous survival from a direct hit on his main fuel tank by a dead German gunner. I added the overall context for this 14-minute story about the Hell Hawks! Thanks to John Batchelor for featuring this important story and gripping new book.

“Hell Hawks!” reunion featured P-47 Thunderbolt four-ship September 2, 2008

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The Hell Hawks (365th Fighter Group) reunited in Ann Arbor from Aug. 7-10. About 15 pilots and ground crewmen attended, and took in the Thunder Over Michigan air show on Aug. 9. This video features the rare sight of four Thunderbolts in formation, producing sounds and images that many of the vets had not seen since 1945. While the Thunderbolts were roaring overhead, I was signing copies of Hell Hawks! and passing them on to some of the Hell Hawks fighter pilots (Bob Hagan, Ed Lopez, and Mike Cannon) who were kind enough to add their signatures.

You can find some great photos from the P-47s’ appearance at Thunder Over Michigan at Bill Scheuerman’s site.

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