Interview of Eugene Meehan by Colleen Meehan (2004)
A few days before interviewing my grandfather, Eugene Meehan, on his experience in World War II, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind speaking to me about it. His memory is in the process of fading fast, so I gave him a little heads-up before conducting the actual interview. I sent him the basic questions I wanted to ask and then we discussed them over the phone.
Interviewee: Eugene Meehan, Ball Turret Gunner on a B24, World War II
Q: Where were you in the war?
A: I was stationed in a small down called Manduria in southern Italy.
Q: How long were you there?
A: Well, it worked out to be about 6 months, from February until August, 1944.
Q: Is there anything specific that you remember that was unique about WWII?
A: Compared to some of the other wars, where there was debate about whether or not we should go to war, in WWII everyone was 100% patriotic and very proud to service their country. It was a great feeling being a part of it.
Q: I have a poem that I would like to read to you, just to get your reaction to it. It’s called “The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner”…do you mind if I read it?
A: No, no, go ahead.
[I read him the poem a few times before I asked him any questions…]
That would have been my worst nightmare…My plane was fortunate enough because the Almighty was watching over us, you can’t ask for more. He was definitely watching over us….You just had to make sure to say your prayers.
Q: Did the war have a drastic effect on you in any psychological or spiritual ways?
A: We just all knew that each mission was dangerous and it could very well be our last and we were grateful to the Almighty for our safe return home. I’ve always been spiritual, I think it just made me even more so.
Q: What was it like overseas, what was your average day like?
A: Well, for six months we got up every morning, probably between 4:30 or 5 AM. We’d eat breakfast and then all gather into this locked area, which was a pretty small room. All the combat crews assembled inside this tiny room and after everyone was in, they locked the doors and would pull up a huge covering that was over the wall hiding a map of where our next mission was going to be. So, basically, where we were going to be flying to drop the bombs. The map showed all kinds of details, everything you’d need to know about the enemy like anti-aircraft, that is air defenses the enemy has. The map showed you the number of enemy fighters…anything you wanted to know about the area. And there was always a red ribbon that started at our air base and lead to the country and target where we were going to drop our bombs.
Q: Any missions in particular that stands out in your mind?
A: Oh sure…well of all the missions me and my crew flew, our mission to the Ploesti Oil fields in Rumania is probably the most memorable. We earned the Silver Star when we finished that mission, and boy was that a big deal. But it was definitely one of our more dangerous missions. It was a huge target and it was heavily defended with enemy fighters on the ground and in the air, and anti-aircraft rockets. We knew we were headed for trouble, but we had no choice. This mission lasted about 7 or 8 hours from the time we took off until we touch down on base again and we flew at an altitude of about 19,000 to probably 23,000 feet when we dropped the bombs. It was part of standard procedure to wear oxygen masks after you hit 9,000 feet, so when you see that in movies and things, it was something we really did have to do….(gets a little side-tracked and forgets where he is going with the story)…Oh right, well we completed that mission and we got back to base safely, thank God, and then we were awarded the Silver Medal, such a great honor.
Q: What exactly is the Silver Star for? What does it represent?
A: Oh, well if you got it, you earned the right to be buried at Arlington cemetery which is a great honor. And you get it when you act bravely, unselfishly, you know. If you do something, like complete a dangerous mission like my crew and I did, that was seen as brave and unselfish because you are putting your own life at risk. But that is what it was all about, serving your country unselfishly.
Q: I have a short story that I would like to read a few passages from to you. It’s called “Speaking of Courage” and it is based on a story from the Vietnam War, but I think you might be able to relate…
[I read him a few passages…]
A: It’s really sad. I think there are men that come out of every war like that. It’s a shame though, it really can change a person. I’m just lucky enough to have been able to talk about everything if I needed to.
Q: So do you think experiences like that, like losing friends, have to do with people changing and becoming different people after war?
A: Oh yeah, definitely, it can really take a toll on a person. I was lucky enough to have never had any mental damage that some vets can have, you know, in any war.
Q: What would you want other people to know about war?
A: Well, it’s a hell of an experience, that’s for sure. You know, a lot of it was…well, it could get pretty rough. Being a part of a war takes a toll on you no matter what your position is. Physically and emotionally, it was very hard to see our bombers being shot down with anti-aircraft fire and going down in flames. All we could really do is just pray for them…and then wonder who would be coming back to base.
Q: When you get together with people that you had your experience with, what sorts of
stories do you share? Is there anything you don’t talk about?
A: Most of the time we would recall the missions we flew, you know, the different places and targets, the enemy fighter cover, and anti-aircraft barrages. I always like to recall the time I had an audience with Pope Pius XII and he touched my hand. That is always good to remember. But there are some sad memories we talk about, mostly just “close calls”.
Q: Did you ever struggle with ethical questions, like whether decisions you were making were right or wrong?
A: No, never. We did what we had to do for our country, there was never anything we did that was downright (he uses air quotes) “unethical”. We had to bomb a lot of places and you know, it wasn’t a good thing because people were dying, but it was what we had to do.
Q: Is there anything specific you can recall about Manduria, like the people there or anything?
A: The people in Manduria were very poor, dirt poor. But they sure were grateful for our presence there.
Q: Why were they so grateful?
A: We just helped them out as much as we could, just treated the people with respect. We became very friendly with them. It made us feel better too, knowing we were making their lives a little easier.
Q: Did you ever experience combat?
A: Oh yeah, we were required by the military to fly 50 missions for our tour. Once those were up, we were sent back home. It took about 6 months.
Q: Did you ever have any experiences with the enemy that was non-combative?
A: You know what…I didn’t. The only real contact I had was seeing some POW’s…prisoners of war.
Q: While you were in the plane or anywhere, were you ever wounded?
A: No, thank God I was really lucky, because there were a lot of planes that didn’t make it, I had the Lord looking out for me, that’s for sure.
Q: Was there a process of readjustment after returning home from war?
A: Yes, somewhat. Mainly just in learning how to adjust to civilian life after life in the military.
Q: Did your experience resemble portrayals of war on TV, in film, or in literature?
A: Yes, very much so. Many books I’ve read along with movies have portrayed the war very well… There was one though that was awful, what was it called? About WWII…the Pearl Harbor bombing?
Q: Um, Pearl Harbor??
A: Ha, yeah, that was it…there goes my memory! (jokingly) That was a bad one!
Q: Have your ideas of war changed over the years, and if so, how?
A: Well after the September 11 terrorist attacks, my feelings were, well, reinforced concerning the question of a just war.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: It just made me think that you really have to protect yourself, your country. I don’t like war, and wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have it? But unfortunately, there are times like after September 11, where you have to fight back.
Q: So do you think World War II was on the same level of justness as the War in Iraq?
A: Well WWII was much more mapped out and organized than all that is going on in Iraq, I think. It seems like there is just a lot of chaos going on in Iraq, but the need to go over and fight was obviously there, so yes.
“We all knew that each mission was dangerous and it could very well be our last, and we were grateful to the Almighty for our safe return to base.” These words are spoken by my grandfather, Eugene Meehan, a World War Two veteran, who felt the war was just and who had total faith that the Lord would bring him home safely. Pop was the Ball Turret Gunner on a B24 plane with a crew of 10 men in Manchuria, a town in the southern part of Italy. He was overseas for approximately 6 months, from February until August of 1944, and served his country well, ultimately earning himself a Silver Star, along with many other honorary medals. It was fascinating for me to be able to talk to him and really get his view of the war, he was more than willing to discuss it with me and teach me. He described for me a typical day in the life of Pop while he was in Manduria.
“The crew awakened at about 4:30 AM and after breakfast we (his crew) went into a locked area where all the combat crews were assembled. After everyone was in the room and the doors were locked, a covering was drawn back and a huge map of the country we were going to bomb was revealed. This map showed all the details as to the enemy’s anti-aircraft, the number of enemy fighters, and so forth. A red ribbon started at the air base leading to the country and target for that mission.” This is how Pop lived his life for six months until his 50 missions were completed during World War II.The first topic that came up during my interview was the fact that Pop had served in the Air Force as a Ball Turret Gunner. I read him the poem by Randall Jarrell “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” to see what sort of reaction he would have, if any, and to see if the words might jog his memory of some specific emotions he felt while in that tiny space. I wanted him to really think about the poem so I read it to him a few times before I asked any questions; but before I could ask anything he said, “That would have been my worst nightmare.” He was a little shaken up by the poem and repeatedly made comments about “the Lord Almighty watching us”. This reaction brought a lot of realism to this five sentence long poem. I understood the scariness that its words carried and really how awful it would be to experience death in that way.
After having critiqued and analyzed many pieces of war literature from World War II, it was easy to relate to and understand Pop’s stories and answers to my questions. One specific story that he told of his experience sounded as though it was coming straight out of one of Tim O’Brien’s short stories. It involved being awarded the Silver Star. Even though Pop’s experience was from WWII and Tim O’Brien wrote about Vietnam, his story clarified the way in which a Silver Start can be obtained. This is a short, summarized version of the story that Pop shared with me.
“One of the most dreaded targets was the Ploesti Oil Fields in Rumania. These fields supplied a majority of oil needed for the enemy’s war effort. This target was heavily defended with enemy fighters and anti-aircraft rockets. Our plane flew at an altitude of between 19,000-23,000 feet. Once we reached 9,000 feet, we had to wear oxygen masks during the rest of the mission. Our mission was to just bomb the hell out of the fields. The mission lasted between 7 and 8 hours from take-off to landing. Anyhow, after the mission was completed, my whole crew and I were awarded the Silver Star.”
While Pop’s accomplishment for which he received this honor was different than the way Norman Bowker would have, it reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage”. The symbol of the Silver Star represents “unselfish, unwavering bravery”. The differences in the two stories show that there are many ways in which a person can act to obtain this medal. Pop was incredibly proud to receive the medal and the honor to be able to be buried at Arlington cemetery due to his completion of a difficult mission. “Speaking of Courage” depicts Norman as being obsessed with the fact that he did not obtain the Silver Star. The reason for this is that he would have gotten the medal if he had saved his fellow soldier’s life. When I told Pop about Norman Bowker’s story he felt bad for him, but not because he did not receive the medal, but because he had to cover up his sadness and frustration by complaining about not getting it. Pop expressed how regrettable it was that a lot of men were not as fortunate as he was to come out of the war feeling human because of the losses they experienced during war. However, this is not to say that he did not experience those losses as well. “Physically and emotionally, it was very hard to see our bombers being shot down with anti-aircraft fire and going down in flames. All we could do was pray for them and then wonder who would be coming back to base.”
A similarity between Pop and Tim O’Brien that I found was the way in which they both were able to go back to their normal ways of life with relative ease. The biggest issue was “learning to adjust to civilian life after life in the military”. Again, Pop brought up the concept of military men being desensitized and somewhat transformed when they return home from war, no matter which war it is. Just as O’Brien felt a little bit of guilt and genuine sorrow for not having experienced any abnormalities in his way of life after returning from Vietnam, Pop had that same sense of guilt because some of his close buddies experienced post-war problems, while he did not. Again, he gives thanks to God.
In many of the war stories we have read throughout this course there has been a presence of poverty. Particularly during the Vietnam War, we saw a lot of poverty stricken cities, homes, and families. In Manduria poverty was a real issue as well, but the people were extremely grateful for the presence of the American’s. When I questioned Pop about why he thought they were so grateful he said it was because of the respect that the American’s gave to the Mandurian people. This is very similar to some of the stories we hear, such as Tim O’Brien’s “Church”, where the soldier’s are good to the monks and respect them and in return earn their hospitality, gratitude, and respect.
Often times it is hard to find the ‘beauty’ in war but throughout the course we have discovered that there can be a silver lining to every horrific event. For Pop, the most horrific events were the “close calls” but the Lord was with him and kept him out of harms way. The silver lining he experienced after the war came when he was able to reminisce about “good times” with his military friends. His favorite memory was when he had an audience with Pope Pius XII and he touched his hand. Overall, he and his friends had liked to talk about all the different missions they flew, the different targets they hit, and all the support they had from the people back home.
Over the years, Pop’s memory has begun to fade and a lot of the questions he answered were filled in by either my grandmother or my father. Participating in WWII was a very important experience in his life and it is hard for him to admit that he is not able to recall every event in vivid detail as he used to. However, his view of war and what qualifies as a “just” war has remained the same throughout the years. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred about 58 years after Pop finished his tour in WWII.
When I asked him what his feelings were about the war he responded by saying, “My feelings were reinforced concerning the question of a just war”. He felt that WWII was a just war and he was proud to serve in it. Today, he is still a strong advocate in serving and protecting ones own country. While he is not happy that there is such a violent war going on, he understands first hand that “sometimes, you just need to fight back”. He emphasizes to me in the closing of the interview that “war is a hell of a time” but he still relies deeply on his faith today and knows that the Lord will help us to overcome the terribleness of war.