LAYTON — When retired Lt. Col Oscar Fitzhenry, former commander of the Scootin’ Thunder, B-24 Liberator in the 72nd Bomb Squadron during World War II, stood up to speak recently during an Air Force Association meeting at MacCool’s Public House restaurant in Layton, he expressed his amazement at the standing-room-only crowd.
Retired Col. Don Hickman wasn’t surprised to see so many people turn out for the event. “It is priceless to have the chance to honor a member of the greatest generation, because there are not many of them left. It is an experience of a lifetime to hear from his experience fighting in a war where we didn’t have air superiority and people were dying on a regular basis,” Hickman said.
Ninety-four-year-old Fitzhenry, from South Carolina, was in town for his annual ski trip to Snowbasin, with the help of an adaptive sled with skis since having trouble with his knees a few years back.
Prior to attending the event at MacCool’s Public House in the evening, he was barreling down the mountain on his sled, painted just for him with his Scootin’ Thunder logo on the back, reminiscent of the plane he flew during WWII.
Fitzhenry’s plane is the same one flown in the movie “Unbroken,” recently released to movie theaters nationwide, though Fitzhenry has no plan to watch the movie, saying his own memories are vivid enough from the devastation he witnessed during 1943-44 in the Pacific Theater as a member of the 72nd Bomb Squadron, 5th Bomb Group, 13th Air Force. He completed 64 combat missions and remained in the Air Force for 20 years.
Fitzhenry spoke of seeing families shot at point-blank range, fellow airmen captured and starved to death, and planes next to him shot down.
One experience he shared was in Guadalcanal in 1943 when 18 B-24s and 40 fighters were sent to attack in bad weather. Only five airplanes showed up at the rendezvous point, one of them Fitzhenry’s plane. They began clearing the area to prepare for dropping a bomb on a ship in the harbor when 15 Japanese fighters began attacking them.
One pilot was shot down, Fitzhenry said, but he was recovered and survived the war. Recalling the treacherous mission, getting attacked repeatedly for over an hour, Fitzhenry said the reason they all survived was because of teamwork.
“The most important thing in life, business or combat is teamwork. Teamwork of trust, dedication and preparation were extremely important in combat,” Fitzhenry said. “It is the same way in our families or business. Whatever you are involved in, there needs to be that trust that builds up a team in our lives.”
Fitzhenry said he had some close calls during war. One time while being attacked by Japanese Zeroes, he saw a bomb coming straight for his plane. Fitzhenry started giving instructions to his co-pilot, but just as quickly noticed smoke coming from the wing of the plane below him in the formation.
“We both could not believe that he had missed us, but watching the nose going up of the plane below us, as it then stalled with the parachutes coming out as the plane hit the water was the most gut-wrenching experience that I can remember,” Fitzhenry said.
“However, the crew working together with their machine guns defending us and keeping our wonderful country as our founders wanted it is also what I remember.”