TALENT — The fact that Lewis A. "Bert" Hill was in a church didn't deter the World War II veteran from enthusiastically describing the buxom beauty known as "Moonbeam McSwine."
"Yeah, she was a good-looking girl," Hill, 91, said of the character from L'il Abner painted on the nose of the B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber. "She was a hillbilly girl with a short skirt — real good-looking.
"Trouble was, every time we took her out we would get some holes in us," added the Army Air Corps veteran.
With that, the five WWII veterans sitting in the pews at the Talent Bible Church burst into laughter.
From the air, land and sea, all five church members, including pastor Elliott Lovelace, 82, played a meaningful part in the war that ended 62 years ago.
Although their hairlines are in retreat and their shoulders sag after a lifelong battle against gravity, their minds and memories remain as sharp as bayonets. Gathered together for an interview, the Talent area residents talked about the hardships and the humor.
Army Air Corps veteran Lovelace recalled how he was aboard the Queen Mary for five days when it ferried some 18,000 American troops from the United States to England early in the war. During his first meal he bit into an egg that was rotten. He never ate another meal on the ship, surviving only on biscuits.
"Picky, picky," said a chuckling Hobart "Glen" Holcomb, 85, a B-17 pilot during the war.
"The food was real lousy — I lived on bread, water and coffee," added Thomas Roper, 85, an Army veteran of North Africa and Sicily.
Don Cameron, 82, a Navy veteran of the D-Day invasion, wasn't complaining about the grub.
"It was pretty good aboard ship," he offered.
"Better than our C-rations," Roper countered.
Despite the good-natured razzing, they listened attentively as each told his part in the war effort.
Hill was a sergeant who spent most of his time aloft as a tail gunner in a B-17 bomber. A native of Oklahoma, he retired after working as a lumber grader for more than 30 years in the Rogue Valley.
Drafted as an "old man" at age 26, he had never been in an airplane before donning a uniform.
"They called me a 'flewgy boo,' " Hill said of his tail gunner position. "That's a bird that flies backward because he isn't interested in where he's going."
He arrived in England on May 1, 1943, to join the 305th Bomb Group in Chelveston. From there, he would fly 25 missions by the end of September.
"I remember the mission we flew on the 4th of July, '43," he said. "We flew down into France and swung around to bomb some submarine pens. Our buddies in another B-17 got hit, knocked out one engine. They couldn't keep up."
From his perch in the rear of the plane, Hill could see the plane laboring along.
"I told my pilot over the intercom so we slowed down and the group moved ahead," he said. "The German planes — a whole bunch — lined up beside us and came at us about four abreast."
Normally, a bomber group of B-17s — 60 all told — has plenty of armament to fend off fighters, both Hill and Holcomb explained. But two planes cut off from the main group are sitting ducks, Hill observed.
"When they came at us, both tail gunners were firing while our armament man was stripping the guns up front and bringing the ammunition back to us," he said. "We burned up the barrels on our two .50 calibers. We were firing almost steady."
It was one of the missions in which "Moonbeam McSwine" barely made it back to base.
"The closest a bullet came to me was about an inch above in the glass that was supposed to be bullet-proof," Hill said, causing the other veterans to chuckle.
One month after Hill arrived at the 305th, Lt. Holcomb landed at the base in northern England.
"I came way back in the hills of West Virginia, practically out of civilization," said the retired Delta Air Lines pilot.
Like Hill, he would fly 25 missions during the war.
"And we were damaged on 24 of those missions," he said of antiaircraft flak and attacks by fighter planes.
"My most unhappy memory was seeing a plane leave the group because you knew a German fighter was out there waiting," he added. "I saw it eight, nine, 10 times. Every time the Germans got him."
On one mission in the fall of 1943 over Germany, Holcomb's B-17 was badly hit, forcing him to leave the safety of the formation.
"Here came three fighters," he said. "They hit single file with their fixed guns. I got on the intercom and told the gunners, 'Don't even think about shooting back. Just strap yourself in good and tight. You are about to have the roughest ride of your life.'
"I started throwing that plane all over the sky with all my strength," he added as his hands mimicked the wild maneuvers he described as a "snake dance." "It actually tore a gun loose that was mounted back there."
His unorthodox approach to avoid being shot down foiled the attacking fighter pilots who didn't fire a shot because they couldn't get a bead on the B-17.
"They thought, 'that crazy bastard,' and went over and jumped the other two B-17s," Holcomb said of two other badly damaged bombers. Both those bombers were shot down, he said.
However, one German fighter pilot wasn't ready to give up.
"This one guy says to himself, 'I'm going to get that sumbitch this time,' " Holcomb said. "So here I am taking the plane up and down again, all over the place. And our big B-17 goes right down where he is wanting to go. The gunner said he passed over our wing about 10 feet above us.
"They said he just made a couple of slow rolls and kept going," he added. "He never came back."
Lovelace, originally from Sacramento, arrived in England in October 1943 and worked as a machinist on the B-24 Liberator bombers with the 453rd Bomb Group. A slow-talking fellow named Jimmy Stewart was a flight officer at the base, Lovelace noted.
"All of us were sweating out D-Day, never knowing when it was going to happen," the former sergeant recalled. "All of a sudden we were called to work in the shop and worked for 36 hours without a break."
Their task on June 4-5, 1944, was to modify bomb shackles on the bombers which had developed a dangerous habit of hanging up, he said.
"After that, I stumbled off to bed," he said. "Next thing I knew I woke up to hear all these engines revving."
It was June 6 — the Normandy invasion was under way. His group would send up five missions that day, bombing just ahead of the Allied troops.
Down on Utah Beach on Normandy was Cameron, gunner's mate 3rd class aboard a Navy LCT — landing craft tank.
"We didn't know when D-Day was beginning until the night before," said the Minnesota native who is a retired mechanic. "We got on the beach early in the morning."
Germans were raking the beaches with gunfire, artillery shells and mortars.
"We ran back and forth between the ships and the beach," he said. "We were always worried we would get hit with all the shelling from the shore batteries. We were under fire for at least two weeks."
After securing Utah Beach, his LCT was deployed to Juno Beach, which the British forces were having problems securing.
Tech Sgt. Roper, drafted into the Army from his native Cleveland, was sent to Algiers in 1943 as a mechanic in the 5th Army.
"We got the honor of fixing up the trucks for the Sicily invasion," said the retired mechanic who recalled being strafed by German fighter planes in southern Sicily for his troubles.
"We were down there when my buddy and I got a call to get a broken-down, two-and-a-half-ton truck off the road," he said. "We got a big wrecker and went down the road."
But they couldn't find the broken-down truck. Finally, they were stopped by an impatient officer in the tank corps who came up behind them. The officer was dumbfounded the two mechanics were out ahead of his tanks, Roper said.
"He told us to get back where we belonged," he said. "I told him, 'Yes sir, we sure will.' "
The officer, he swears, was Gen. George Patton.
"He had the pearl-handle guns and everything," Roper said. "He told us to get out and we did. We never did find that truck."
But Roper, who was in Italy in 1945 when Germany surrendered, did find a young Italian woman named Louise in Florence. They've been married for 61 years now.
"All five of us are patriotic Americans from a special generation," Lovelace concluded. "It's not the country that it was in 1943, '42 and '41.
"Our country is so divided politically now," he added. "We have the liberals and conservatives and that's all there is.
"It's disappointing to us."
The aging veterans miss the unity that held the nation together during their war.
"But I would still fight for this country," Lovelace insisted.
To a man, his WWII brethren concurred.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.