SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — Twenty-five B-24 Liberators were lost during his last mission during World War II.
His airplane had been among those that went down when his crew had to ditch their plane over the North Sea. Luckily, he was rescued from the waters by an English air-sea rescue ship.
Dale VanBlair sat and told me about his experiences during the war and beyond in a busy restaurant on his 93rd birthday.
Children brought him birthday cards and a seemingly endless stream of service members and civilians walked up to thank him for his service.
“It feels good to know the town would take the time to do this for me,” VanBlair said. “It feels good to be appreciated.”
Over and over again I heard people tell him how grateful they were for his service, for his generation’s service — and I couldn’t have agreed more.
My grandfather served during World War II in the same aircraft as VanBlair, the B-24. Like VanBlair, he had also been a tailgunner and survived after his aircraft was shot down while fighting the axis powers during the war.
Unlike VanBlair, my grandfather was not rescued until after the war was over. He was held in a German prisoner-of-war camp for 18 months and was taken on a death march as the war ended.
Listening to VanBlair recount his stories made me feel as if I was speaking to my grandfather, who died when my father was young. I could not think of the words to tell VanBlair how overwhelmed and appreciative I was to be able to speak to him.
I soaked up every bit of what VanBlair, a pillar in the community of Belleville, had to say.
He told me about his favorite military memories. First he joked that his favorite memory was getting out, but then he got serious and said that he truly enjoyed the camaraderie and the family he found in his fellow crew members.
“I enjoyed the fellowship I had with my crew,” he said. “And I liked flying, except when they shot at us.”
VanBlair had a sense of humor through the entire conversation. He joked about his service, and about his life.
He also had a serious side, as he explained to me how hard it was for him when he transitioned from being a G.I., to being a civilian.
“I grew up during the great depression, so I sought a teaching degree and then taught for 33 years,” he said. “I wanted job security, and I knew I’d always have a job.”
VanBlair taught English at Belleville West High School for the last 17 years of his teaching career and lived in the Belleville area since 1956.
While we discussed his life after the war, VanBlair told me about his wife of 53 years, Mary, who died in 2002.
“I still miss her every single day,” he said, with tears in his eyes and a gleaming wedding band on his left ring finger.
Speaking in a muted tone he told me about his favorite memories of his wife Mary, of which he had many, but his favorite was when they were discussing the possibility of taking a vacation.
“I thought we could bring friends along for the trip,” he recalled. “But she looked at me and said, ‘We don’t need friends, I like being with you.’”
Later during our conversation, I realized how lucky I was to be able to speak to a World War II veteran. He lived through one of the worst conflicts the world has ever seen, and experienced the horrors of war.
It’s been 69 years since Victory in Europe day, when the war ended on the European front. VanBlair is still willing to share his stories with anyone who inquires. He was kind, and explained things I did not understand.
Wrapping up our conversation, I walked VanBlair to his car. He thanked me for talking to him and emotions overwhelmed me. Tears welled up in my eyes as I thanked him for his courageous service and for sharing his memories with me.
As he left, all I could think about was my grandfather, and how I never had the opportunity to ask him the questions. I count myself lucky because I got to speak with a true American hero on his 93rd birthday.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Dale!