JIM DODSON: Well-Traveled WWII Jacket Shows Up
Three weeks ago, just days before his 86th birthday, Bob Gieryn received a peculiar phone call from a stranger in Massachusetts.
"He identified himself and explained he lived in Leominster, Mass.," Gieryn relates. "He wanted to know if I was R.L. Gieryn. I confirmed that I was, and he asked what the initials stood for. So I told him. Then he wanted to know if I'd been a pilot with the 398th Bomb Group out of England during the Second World War. I admitted I was the same fellow, and then he read off a serial number -- my old serial number."
By this point in the conversation, Bob Gieryn admits, he was a little concerned that the unknown caller knew so much about him.
"Truthfully," he says, "I wondered where things might be leading, so I asked him why he wanted to know these things."
"I have your military jacket with your name and serial number sewn into it," the man pleasantly informed him.
It took Gieryn a moment for this to sink in. The last time he'd seen his uniform jacket -- a short-waisted "Eisenhower" jacket, a style popular with American military personnel toward the closing day of the war -- was sometime in the late 1950s or early '60s, shortly before his wife, Sandy, donated his military uniforms to a charity in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"All I could think was, 'How on earth did my old Eisenhower jacket to wind up in Massachusetts?'" says Bob. "I also asked him if I might have it back."
The caller apologized and explained that he was a serious collector of military memorabilia. He didn't wish to part with the jacket -- merely document its original owner, presumably increasing its value as an artifact of the war.
"I can do the next-best thing, though," the collector told him. "I'll send you some pictures of it."
"That would be nice," Bob Gieryn told him. "I'd sure like to see it again."
Not long afterward, the photos showed up. The green wool Eisenhower jacket looks immaculate on its tailor's dummy. The air medals and service ribbons and flight wings are still attached.
"I was amazed how good it looked, what great condition it appeared to be in," Bob admits, a touch wistfully. "Considering how far it's been, over the years, I'll bet it could tell some tales."
At a time when popular interest in World War II has enjoyed a renaissance because of a host of recent books and films on the subject -- even as the so-called Greatest Generation that fought the "last good war" is beginning to fade away -- just seeing his old "Ike jacket" again revived memories Bob hadn't thought about, he admits, in years if not decades.
Typical of his breed, though, veterans of that war rarely give up their stories without gentle prodding or at least something -- perhaps the sight of a beloved old jacket -- stirring their banked fires.
As I sat with Bob and Sandy Gieryn one rainy afternoon at their pretty Midland Place home, I explained how I had to coax my own father to Britain in order to learn about the life-changing things he experienced there and in France after D-Day, some of which later went into a book I wrote about our final golf journey.
My dad, as it happens, served in the same Eighth Army Air Corps as Bob Gieryn. He was a top-ranked pilot trained at Chanute Field in Chicago to fly a troop glider into Normandy but was mysteriously transferred to supervising parachute packing for the Invasion just weeks before Operation Overlord took place -- a job shift that irked the blazes out of him but most likely saved his life and permits me to be here today.
Two days after D-Day, he was sent in to put up downed telephone lines and wound up running a prisoner of war camp in liberated France -- none of which he had ever talked about until I had him on the scene of those places and the memories came flooding back. It was only after he returned stateside that he learned how my mom, a young war bride working for an admiral in Annapolis, had pulled strings to have her husband transferred to parachute-packing duty. The mortality rate among D-Day glider pilots was about 80 percent.
"I can imagine why that bothered him," Bob Gieryn reflected after I'd told him and Sandy that story. "We were all just doing the job we were trained to do. You didn't think about the risks. You just lived day to day and did your job."
Enlisted in 1942
Bob Gieryn was born in Boston but grew up in Detroit, where his father worked for Fisher Body as a tool-and-die man. After high school, he found a job at Cadillac that helped him earn enough money to attend two years of college at the University of Detroit.
In July 1942, he went downtown and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. That next January, he got called up and sent for flight training at a succession of camps in Chicago, North Dakota, and Roswell, N.M. After earning his commission and being sent to Tampa, Fla., to meet up with his assigned crew, Bob went on to Savannah to pick up his B-17. Around his birthday, Jan. 29, 1945, Gieryn and his nine-man crew headed for Europe.
The 398th Bomb Group was headquartered at Nuthamstead, England, not far from the dreaming spires of Cambridge. During the dangerous closing days of the war, Bob and his crew made 20 bombing runs over Germany, grueling 10-hour runs over key industrial military targets at Berlin, Bremen and Pilsen.
"They gave us a candy bar and a pack of gum," Bob said. "You didn't leave your seat the entire time. There were no toilets on board. We were on oxygen the whole time. The planes had no heat. Beneath our sheepskin jackets, we wore a Mae West inflatable life preserver, a flak jacket. Over the target, we put on a steel helmet."
A typical bomb run lasted 20 minutes as the German defenses filled the sky around them with exploding flak. Bob lost a co-pilot on one of his early runs.
"On another, our supercharger went out and caused us to lose power to keep in formation," Bob remembered. "But I made the decision to fly on alone and try and pick up another formation over the target. When we reached the target, preparing to drop our load, I looked up and realized we were right under a formation -- and they were letting their bombs go. They probably missed us by a matter of a few yards. I ordered our guys to drop everything we had and banked out of there fast."
In March that year, during a three-day pass to London, Bob and his navigator, Ken Andrews, stopped into a Regent Street shop called Bailey and Weather-ill and bought Eisenhower jackets. "They were very popular with the guys," Bob recalls with a smile. "The rumor was they'd been designed by General Eisenhower's girlfriend."
Wearing their smart new jackets, which were actually cut-down versions of a standard American military coat and probably cost around four or five English pounds, Gieryn and his navigator saw all the sights of London -- Picadilly Square, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament.
"The city was pretty torn up then," Bob says. "But you had to admire what those people had survived. You were reminded why we were fighting."
Gieryn didn't get to know the other pilots in his Nissan hut at Nuthamstead very well.
"They came and went," he says. "One day there would be an empty bed where a pilot had failed to return from a mission. The next day, that bed was filled. You didn't ask a lot of questions."
Bob Gieryn was wearing his Ike jacket when the European war ended that June. He was also wearing it when he flew back Stateside to be retrained in South Dakota on a B-29 and sent to the Japanese theater.
Before he could finish that training, the war was suddenly over.
He returned to Michigan and enrolled at the University of Michigan to finish his studies, then went to work as an accountant for the Pontiac Motor Co. One afternoon in 1949, his brother Richard and his girlfriend Joyce introduced Bob to Joyce's baby sister, Sandy. She worked for Ford Motor Co.
They went to a Detroit Tigers game at Crosby Field.
"I don't remember who won," Bob says with a smile.
After marrying Sandy in 1950, Bob set about having a family and building a nice life. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl, and the family followed Bob's career to Montana and eventually to Cincinnati.
"Every year," remembers Sandy, "I used to open up Bob's old military foot locker and clean and repack everything in it. That finally became such a chore that one day around 1960, I phoned up the St. Vincent DePaul Society and gave the locker to them."
Hopes for Return
This was the last Bob Gieryn saw of his beloved Eisenhower campaign jacket until his birthday three weeks ago.
Bob and Sandy still receive "Flak News," the monthly newsletter of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association.
Every day in America, it's estimated, a thousand veterans of World War II pass away. According to the January newsletter, 1,347 members of the 398th have died since the end of the war.
Like many of their contemporaries, Bob and Sandy are in the process of downsizing their lives. Last summer, they began dividing family heirlooms, including the last of Bob's war memorabilia, between their two middle-aged children,
"Seeing my old jacket again kind of reminds me of when I was a boy in Detroit," Bob mused as he walked me to his door after our chat about the war. "I was in love with flying model airplanes in those days. This one time, I built a plane and sent it up, and it got caught in the thermals and flew all the way across Detroit and even crossed the river, coming down in a farmer's field in Windsor."
"How did you know that?" I asked him, standing at his door.
"Because my name was on the plane and the farmer phoned me to tell me that he'd found it. I went over and got it. The plane was in perfect condition."
"Maybe that collector will do the same thing with your old Eisenhower jacket," I said.
Bob Gieryn thought for a moment and smiled.
"I suppose it could happen," he allowed. "My daughter, Suni, is planning to try and convince him to let us have it. But I'm not sure he'll agree. "
Bob thought for a moment more and added: "Whatever happens, it was nice to see my old Eisenhower jacket again. " Then he smiled gently. "I never believed it was really designed by his girl friend -- if he indeed had one. That might have been just something the fellows said to make the story more colorful."
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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