Farm boy to flyboy—one of the ‘greatest generation’
By Jean Torkelson
For a young man coming of age in the small town of Ravenwood, Mo., in the fall of 1942, there was only one thing to do.
“When war broke out, everybody took the viewpoint that you had an obligation to serve your country,” said 88-year-old Harry Fryar, who survived long odds to reach this Veterans Day week of 2012. “All of us local boys were patriotic, and enlisted in the service.”
For Fryar, just out of high school, enlistment would take him to the heart of World War II’s air war over Europe. He was a farm boy turned flyboy, an 18-year-old country kid transformed into a tail gunner and crammed into the ball turret of a B-24 bomber. Locked into place in a fetal position, strapped in a harness, manning two submachine guns, he was unable to move or get out, even when the plane next to him exploded, or his own plane took a direct hit and he was doused with hydraulic fuel.
Not that getting out would have changed anything—he wasn’t issued a parachute.
His job was known as a suicide mission, and he flew 50 of them.
“I’ve thought about it every day, because I lost a buddy almost every day,” Fryar recalled recently. “We had 21 crews in my squadron and out of those 21 crews, two crews—I was in one of them—finished the 50 missions. The others were all shot down, bailed out or captured.”
The Missouri farm kid had to grow up fast. In an unpublished memoir, “Harry’s War,” which he compiled from his own wartime diary, Fryar speaks the language of the plainspoken American hero—do your duty, get the job done. No complaining—except maybe about the “stinko weather” and getting frostbite at 20,000 feet.
In short, do courageous things, in a quiet way.
“I am now officially a combat man,” Fryar recalls in “Harry’s War.” “I didn’t know I could sweat so much at 30 degrees below zero.”
In the middle of a heavy flak attack, “I just turned my turret and crossed my fingers. … I believe both the Germans and the Americans were shooting at us.”
Thank God, his mother didn’t know.
Actually, she probably did.
“I wrote my mother consistently day after day when I was overseas,” Fryar said. His folks were appalled when their only son announced he was joining the Army Air Corps—the precursor of the Air Force—but Fryar was adamant. His father had suffered brutally as an infantryman fighting in Germany and France in World War I.
In a roster of dicey choices, Fryar figured air war trumped ground war.
So he enlisted at age 18. Until then, his only job away from home was a brief stint working in a Denver warehouse. A few months later, he was recoiling from the aftershocks of a plane exploding at his wingtip.
“That was a little scary,” he said.
On the ground, wartime had its perks. One of his squadron’s operations officers was Jimmy Stewart, ace pilot, quiet hero, and courageous man, only incidentally a famous Hollywood actor.
“Everybody had a lot of respect for the man,” Fryar said.
Coming home was sweet, too. Fryar would enjoy a long, varied career in corporate management. He met Ann Diehl, his beloved wife, and they raised a family of five. One of his sons, Tom, became a priest, and today is Moderator of the Curia in the Archdiocese of Denver.
For a Lutheran country boy—to be the father of a Catholic priest? Before he converted, those odds had to seem as long as surviving 50 suicide missions. But looking back, what seemed impossible then, was just God taking his time.
“My theory is that God has a plan for all of us,” Fryar said, “and in my case, it must have been to bring this farm boy back and let him come home to raise a family and give the Church a priest.”
He also has lasting thoughts on war, and love of country.
“I think people of my generation made a contribution to freedom that the younger generation overlooked and took for granted,” he said. “It’s kind of sad when you stop to think about it—all the wars since, and no recognition for them. I don’t think we needed the Vietnam War, or the Afghanistan War, or the war in Iraq. Those were a matter of politics. But World War II was a matter of our survival, and for freedom.”
Jean Torkelson: 203-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister