Airmen today stand on giants' shoulders: World War II veteran visits Vandenberg

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Richard Thackston visits the P-40 display here on Nov. 30.  Mr. Thackton was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in World War II, and flew more than 30 missions over Europe.  During his visit to Vandenberg, he received a U.S. presidential letter of appreciation.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Richard Thackston visits the P-40 display here on Nov. 30. Mr. Thackton was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in World War II, and flew more than 30 missions over Europe. During his visit to Vandenberg, he received a U.S. presidential letter of appreciation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Richard Thackston receives a U.S. predsidential letter of appreciation in the Pacific Coast Club on Nov. 30.  Mr. Thackton was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in World War II, and flew more than 30 missions over Europe.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Richard Thackston receives a U.S. presidential letter of appreciation in the Pacific Coast Club on Nov. 30. Mr. Thackton was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in World War II, and flew more than 30 missions over Europe. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Richard Thackston recognizes names of Medal of Honor recipients at the Missile Heritage memorial here on Nov. 30.  Mr. Thackton was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in World War II, and flew more than 30 missions over Europe.  He visitied Vandenberg to receive a U.S. presidential letter of appreciation.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Richard Thackston recognizes names of Medal of Honor recipients at the Missile Heritage memorial here on Nov. 30. Mr. Thackton was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot in World War II, and flew more than 30 missions over Europe. He visitied Vandenberg to receive a U.S. presidential letter of appreciation. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Ashley Reed)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- At 17 years old, Richard Thackston started his training as a pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress on the verge of the American entrance into World War II.

"A lot of us told them we were 18 so we could get in," he said.

Eager to serve his country, while at the same time fulfill his dream to be a pilot, Mr. Thackston enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941. He left his small town Webster Groves, Mo., volunteered for flight school and took his training assignment in Santa Ana, Calif. More than 65 years later, he returned to California, this time to receive Presidential recognition for this service.

"If today's Airmen have seen far, it's because we have stood on the shoulders of men like you," 30th Space Wing Commander Col. Steve Tanous said to Mr. Thackston moments before presenting him with a letter of appreciation signed by President Bush.

The letter thanked Mr. Thackston for serving more than 30 missions in Eastern Europe, including the aerial bombings of Cologne, Germany.

"I remember the Cologne Cathedral," Mr. Thackston said. "We were told not to hit the church, just fly around it and avoid hitting it as much as we could. It's still standing."

Present day luxuries like the global positioning system or the Airborne Warning and Control System were non-existent, so he flew his ship until the lead craft sent a smoke bomb signal telling them they would hit the target in two minutes. Then he turned the ship over to the navigator and bombardier, who flew to the target, opened the bomb bays and dropped the bombs. They never had a mechanical failure that made them abort a mission.

"Although, sometimes we had to kick the bombs out," he said.

Mr. Thackston flew in squadrons of B-17s and B-25's with numbers ranging from 20 to 90, in the same battalion as famous Airmen like James Stewart and Clark Gable. He and his wingmen dealt with the bitter cold at 30,000 feet and the frequent electrical shocks from the heated suits as they braved enemy fighters and exploding flack.

"There was an awful lot of flack and the enemy fighters were strong. Good pilots," he said. "Every trip we made we had shots. I had one shot hit me in the back. I didn't want to tell anybody about it. We lost engines, we'd come home on two engines. We lost a lot of planes, over half. It was a sight to see. You come in on one wing, one wheel landing. Pull up the wheel at the last minute and land on the belly. We got it back patched up and we took off again."

The war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, but Mr. Thackston's missions did not.

"I remember after the war, we flew over France, boarded up our bomb bays and carried French prisoners back to France," he said.

During his tour of Vandenberg, the World War II veteran reminded those he met at Vandenberg to continue to remain professional Airmen at all ranks, as he learned about Vandenberg's launch mission and how launches for the Western Range enhance capabilities used by war-fighters today. His dedication to the United States in World War II could be seen as a prime example for today's Airmen who stand on the shoulders of giants.