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These are exciting times in the world of sports. As baseball heads toward its World Series climax, and football starts at the pro, college and high school levels, there are great games and great performances out there waiting to happen. In some cases, sports media types groping for the proper dose of hyperbole might refer to players who have a fantastic game as “heroes.”
But they will be wrong. Athletes are out there to play their hardest and do their best and help their teams win games and championships, but they are not heroes. Never were, never will be.
John McCain, who died after a too-brief struggle against brain cancer, was properly given a hero’s celebration and funeral, and it was richly deserved. He was, indeed, a hero. He flew fighter bombers in Vietnam, and his wing was shot off his plane, sending it plummeting to earth while he bailed out and parachuted, only to be captured and tortured for much of his five years in a prison camp.
When he had the chance to be released, he refused, unless his fellow prisoners could be released as well. He stayed, and continued to be tortured. When he came home, he couldn’t raise his broken but untreated arm high enough to salute, and he walked with a permanent limp, as he patrolled the halls of the U.S. Senate, representing Arizona. He was considered a maverick because he always insisted on doing things the right way, as he saw it, without bowing to the pressures of his Republican partymates.
He truly was a hero, but there are more. I’m going to describe another one, today, and he was named Roger Rand. He never held office or ran for office, he never was declared a hero. He was just a warm, wonderful man who worked for a living, volunteered with less-fortunate citizens, and survived the death of his long-ailing wife, Dorothy.
I met Roger when I was invited to several senior citizen fitness class gatherings by the members of a group my wife, Joan, had instructed at the Shoreview YMCA when I was still at the Minneapolis Tribune. We got to be friends, then good friends, and I enjoyed every moment I could talk to Roger, long before he met his second wife, also named Dorothy. We stayed in distant contact after I moved back home to Duluth, and he and his wife bought a second home, a condo in Florida for the winters.
The last time I talked to Roger was when I interviewed him and prompted him to tell his story a few years ago, when I conducted “The John Gilbert Show” on KDAL radio in Duluth. I never talked to him again, so I didn’t know of some health problems he encountered, ultimately sapping his life of the quiet precision with which he lived it. He died a month ago, at age 94, and Joan and I drove down for the ceremony.
He didn’t get a hero’s ceremony, just a small ceremony at a funeral place in White Bear, before being buried in Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. I say he deserved more. I say he deserved a medal, maybe more. Perhaps the Congressional Medal of Honor. But I have been unable to rally any politicians to the cause.
Roger loved cars, and he enjoyed talking to me about the new vehicles I would test drive for my auto column. We went golfing on numerous occasions. I would thrash around, trading great shots for lousy ones, while Roger always was steady and consistent, hitting the ball down the middle and rarely joining me for my nature hikes deep into the rough.
In one of our talks, I learned that he had been in World War II. He wasn’t too anxious to talk about it, but we had become close friends, and he finally allowed me to extract the incredible details.
Remember now, John McCain was on his 23rd mission flying in Vietnam when he was shot down. We go back to an earlier time and an earlier war for Roger Rand. We had gotten into World War II because of Pearl Harbor, in 1941, and joined the British and, of all people, the Russians in trying to halt the takeover of the world by Nazi Germany shortly thereafter. Roger Rand forced his way into the military, joining the Army Air Corps in Chicago on February 21, 1943.
“They were hurting for pilots, and I was 19,” he told me. “It was weird, because I had never been off the ground, but I went out to California as a cadet, and worked on a B-17 assembly line at Long Beach.”
Roger also went through pre-pre-flight training at Lubbock, Texas, then pre-flight training at Santa Ana, Calif. He went on through pilot training, and received his pilot wings on Feb. 8, 1944. He was informed that he would be going to New Mexico to train to be a pilot.
“I said, ‘You mean co-pilot?’ And they said, no, pilot,” Roger told me. He was a fast study and advanced from learning how to fly a B-17 4-engine bomber to practicing high-altitude bombing runs at a base in Florida.
“Then it dawned on me,” he said. “I started wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”
He was sent to Savannah, Ga., where he and his fellow novice pilots found 12 brand new B-17s. Next thing he knew, he was flying one of those B-17s to Goose Bay, Labrador, then Iceland, then to Wales - 12 guys with a navigator, he called it. While they added extra armor in the cockpit, Roger and his compatriots went by train to the East Coast of Great Britain, assigned to the 95th bomber group.
“They had 48 planes, and they’d fly out in a 36-plane formation, with the remaining 12 staying back,” Roger recounted. “In October of 1944, I flew my first mission, and I was still only 20. Next thing I see is a formation of 36 planes, not farther apart than the width of your house. You didn’t find out who was in the formation until early in the morning. I was named Deputy Leader, and flew on the right wing of the Leader. If something happened to the Colonel, I would have to lead.
“It was cool being a pilot. I had eight other guys in the plane, most of them 25 to 27 and married. An unfortunate part of the whole thing was that we’d see guys get hit by ground anti-aircraft fire. They could tell our altitude, speed and heading, and send up anti-aircraft shells that would explode and you had no choice but to fly through the flak.
“It was very stressful, and I had trouble sleeping the night before a mission,” Roger recalled. “In the back of our minds, we weren’t going to make it through the next mission. That was the only way we could make it, to decide we probably couldn’t make it, so let’s go.”
Roger and his crew flew three missions in four days one time, mostly hitting bridges to keep the large German army from advancing. Other times they hit factories or fuel depots. In that scenario, Roger had becme a First Lieutenant on November 7, 1944 and finally turned 21 on December 26, shortly before he finished his 22nd mission. The longest, he recalled, was 9 hours and 45 minutes.
John McCain was on his 23rd mission when he was shot down two decades later. On January 10, 1945, Roger and his crew took off for their mission No. 23. The B-17s took off at 30-second intervals. Roger was flying on the right wing of the Leader.
“We were supposed to go to Koln [Cologne], where we probably wouldn’t be able to see the target because of heavy rain,” Roger recounted. “But they had railroad yards, gas and oil refineries, and various targets. We were getting near the target when we got hit, flying at 26,000 feet.
“I got a series of shocks to my nervous system, and I was stunned,” he said. “Our oxygen was out, and both left engines stoppedI looked out on my left, and saw a huge fire, and there was a hole where half of the gas tank should be. The hand-operated aileron controls were gone, and I immediately ordered the whole crew to bail out. When I said everybody out, I didn’t know the intercom had been knocked out, too.
“I started to dive, to get us away from the Leader, then try to level out and assess the damage. I found that when I stood on the right rudder with both feet, it brought up the left wing just enough to stay stable, but we were losing altitude fast.
“When I took both feet off the rudder, the plane started to roll to the left, and if I stayed in the cockpit, I could keep it stable enough for the guys to bail out. I realized I had no choice but to keep both feet on the rudder, and go down with the plane, because if I didn’t, nobody would have gotten out. I couldn’t believe I could hold it steady from 23,000 feet to 11,000 feet.”
It was in that moment that a miracle occured in Roger Rand’s life. The fire had spread, as he knew it would, and the plane exploded, literally right underneath his seat.
“When it blew up, it blew the top off the cockpit, and the hole was just big enough. The force of the explosion blew me right up and out that hole. I pulled the ripcord on my parachute, and watched the plane go down under me.”
Similarly, the explosion blew the gunner out of a small door near his position, and the navigator was also blown out an opening, and though he was unconscious, his ripcord caught on a shattered fragment of the plane and when he was blown out, the ripcord was pulled. He came to in his parachute.
“I saw three parachutes,” Roger explained, “and I should have seen six. We all fell within about two miles of each other, near the German city of Gravensbroich. We were lucky, because German civilians tore some apart. I was conscious, but my left ankle was cracked and I couldn’t put any weight on it. We were captured by 15 Hitler Youth members and taken to their clubhouse. I remember seeing a Luger pistol, and they were curious about the U.S. and New York City, and wanted to talk to us about that.
“Our ball-turret gunner talked first, then they brought in the navigator, who was Jewish, but he could speak German, and we passed him off as Serbian. The German army came soon, and they marched us off to prison camp. I kept my boot on extra tight around my broken ankle for support.”
He kept the boot on as a virtual cast for three months, when the war came to an end, and it was the Russian army that first overran the prisoner of war camp Stalag 3A with tanks, and when the guards took off, it was another two weeks before the U.S. military showed up. Roger had lost 25 pounds in his three months of confinement.
“They took us to a camp at LeHavre, France, and we got on a boat for home,” Roger said.
His story was riveting. And I told Roger he should have a medal of valor, and perhaps the Medal of Honor. Roger scoffed at such an idea, an he was never politically motivated, or even aggressive enough to investigate.
“But Roger,” I said. “Think about this: The only reason you escaped from that plane was because you tried not to.”
We’re talking about a true hero, here.
And now we can turn back to sports.