Living for more than 36,000 days is quite a feat. Ten decades can produce a lot of stories to relate. Richard Bushong has memories.
What follows is an account of his experiences, which were nothing less than riveting.
Dick was born in St. Marys, Ohio, on March 21, 1923.
His childhood gave a slight heads up for what was to come.
Fascinated by the infancy of aviation, he signed up for a cadet program that would produce four candidates out of the many who attended.
Dick was one of the four elites. In April of 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He was 19 years old. After stints at several training camps, he shipped off to Europe aboard the converted Queen Elizabeth. Disembarking in Scotland, he was assigned to the 390th Bomb Group based in Framlingham, England.
The war was on for young Bushong.
His first assignment was a bomb run with a B-17. Dick missed it due to illness. After a week in sick bay, he returned to his barracks, finding only empty bunks. His assigned plane had been shot down.
This would not be the last encounter with lady luck perched on his shoulder. On Dec. 30, 1943, he flew his initial mission, the bombing of a German chemical plant.
War became a stark reality with his third mission; 152 bombers set out, accompanied by fighter groups. Lousy weather produced a callback, but Dick's plane and others did not get the message.
"The fighters peeled back and we, uninformed, kept going," Dick recalled.
Sixty U.S. bombers were shot down. Dick said, "I was lucky."
These bomb runs were highly successful in disrupting the German war machine. They were hazardous flights, as the slower B-17s had to avoid German fighters and ground attacks.
Bushong would command his own aircraft and with a crew of nine, fly 28 missions. Normally, 25 missions was the limit; reason prevailed that number was pushing the envelope.
It was common to return to base with a damaged aircraft.
"One of my fuselages took so many hits the maintenance crew had to stop patching with different colors because the plane looked spotted," Dick said.
At the advanced age of 21, Dick Bushong piloted the last of his 28 missions. His mission was to take out an aircraft plant in Augsburg, Germany. This flight proved to be his most dangerous.
"We did not encounter any fighters going in but we had heavy flak," he said.
"I usually flew Geronimo, but it was being repaired. The assigned B-17 was named Belle o' the Brawl. Going to target, we lost three bombers."
The run had been rough going. The return was worse. Much worse.
A large storm caused the Belle o' the Brawl to change course. The flight around the storm brought the B-17 directly over a German base.
"They were pretty good shots," Dick said.
The plane took several hits. A few rendered the Belle severely damaged.
"Our ball turret gunner (on the belly of the plane) reported seeing oil leaks," Dick continued.
The leaks became gushes. This and other damage resulted in the loss of two engines. Dick nursed the wounded plane back to England. The peril did not end yet for the mission. The runway to be used was short, too short.
Dick manipulated the aircraft to a muddy field. His eyes lit up when he relived the experience.
"Thank God for good old sticky soft English mud."
Two weeks later, the Belle o' the Brawl was shot down. Bushong's luck still held.
Dick would continue his service through two more wars. In Korea, he piloted a B-25. "Much easier to fly and a lot quieter."
He served as chief of maintenance in Vietnam. In 1970, he was assigned to the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Da Nang.
"We were attacked on my first night there."
Dick would be trained in the Philippines for fighter jets. He recalled, "The survival training was rough. Boy, did they have a lot of snakes."
Col. Bushong retired from the Air Force in 1974, after 32 years of service.
Among the many medals awarded him are the Distinguished Flying Cross and France's prestigious Legion of Honor. He flew an astounding 43 varieties of military aircraft, ranging in speed from zero (hovering helicopter) to 1,500 mph in an F-4 (Vietnam).
After the Air Force, Dick worked in real estate, based in Santa Barbara, California.
His firm was purchased by Merrill Lynch. In 1987, he and his wife, Tina, moved to Green Valley. Tina passed in 2004.
Among his many activities, he serves as a docent for the special display of the 390th Bomber Group at Pima Air Museum.
"I stay active," Dick exclaimed. "My younger friend Nancy keeps me vital. I've been lucky."
Nancy is 95.
Eighty years ago, a pilot barely old enough to shave climbed into a cockpit, surveyed his crew, fired up four engines and barreled down a runway in a 75-foot, 30-ton war machine. While airborne, he had a few hours to wonder if he would ever return.
Many would not. Where do we find such men?
Winston Churchill, when discussing the exploits of flyers who saved England, put it this way: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Happy birthday, Dick. It was an honor to sit with you, a true reminder of the Greatest Generation.
Where, indeed, do we find such men.