Veterans Day: A time to honor our heroes
WORTHINGTON -- Today marks Veterans Day, the special day set aside to honor our veterans -- the men and women of the United States who sacrificed their time, and even their lives, so that future generations of Americans could live in the land of the free.
We do so today because of the brave.
This country has many heroes, spanning multiple wars. Our World War II heroes are in their mid-80s to mid-90s, followed by our Korean, Vietnam, Desert Shield and Desert Storm veterans, and our present-day Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, soldiers and active duty Guard.
Each one has a story to tell, and each one of them will say they were proud to serve their country.
Among them is Francis "Tubby" Meier of Worthington. Born and raised in this community, he now proudly dons the uniform of the Color Guard to march in parades, stand up for his fellow comrades during military burials and participate in school programs for Veterans Day.
He likes going into the schools the best.
The second oldest of four siblings, one could say that Tubby followed in his older brother's footsteps when he decided to join the Air Force back in 1952. Melvin had enlisted in 1949, and was stationed at France during the Korean War.
Tubby knew that his choices were to either enlist or be drafted, so he signed up with an Air Force recruiter who promised him he wouldn't have to report for duty until his name reached the top of the draft board's list.
At the time he was called to report to duty, the young man was working at a local meat market. He, along with fellow Worthington men Jim Wolff and Cornie Feenstra, were all told to report on the same day.
"Jim and I were high school buddies," said Tubby.
They traveled to the Twin Cities together to get their paperwork in order and then, with three days off before they had to report back, the trio hitchhiked home to Worthington for one final weekend with friends and family.
When Tubby arrived home, he found that his draft papers had arrived. The recruiter had been true to his word.
When the men returned to the Cities, the three boarded a train for San Antonio, Texas, and the Lackland Air Force Base for eight weeks of basic training. After their training was complete, the three were split up and went in all different directions.
Tubby was sent north -- to the Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colo. -- for aerial gunnery school. He spent about a year there, learning to be a gunner on a B-29 Super Fortress.
From there, Tubby returned to Texas -- this time to Randolph Air Force Base, where he was assigned to be part of an 11-member crew on a B-29. For the next six months, the crew learned to work together as a team, flying all sorts of training missions.
It was the first time Tubby had ever been inside an airplane.
"I thought it was great," he said with a smile. "We'd shoot a lot of touch-n-goes -- one day, 32 times."
Touch-n-goes were practice landings. They'd circle around the landing strip, come in and touch the wheels to the pavement, and then lift off again.
Once the team was deemed ready for action, Tubby said it was transferred to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. There, it was assigned to be sent to Japan.
"We got to Parks Air Force Base (in California) and the Korean War ended," he recalled. "They cancelled our flight to Japan, and we spent 42 days (at Parks AFB)."
When orders finally arrived, Tubby was sent to Louisiana, where he was trained to be an air refueling technician and boom operator.
"They modified the B-29 to become a tanker," he said. "They had no use for the bomber anymore, but there was a need for planes to refuel fighters in the air."
The B-29s were converted into KB-29s, aircraft that transported fuel and featured a 27-foot-long boom extending out from the tail gunner's position, with another 20-foot extension beyond that.
As Tubby wrapped up his training, the airmen were told they would be sent to England for an 18-month tour of duty. There, they would refuel fighter planes that performed practice missions.
"I really didn't have enough time on my enlistment to go to England, so I extended for a year," said Tubby. "They were short of boom operators."
In September 1955, he left the U.S. behind for Sculthorpe Airfield in England, for what would be a 16-month assignment.
"England was a point where we could reach different areas for flight refueling," he said. Fighter planes flew in all directions from there.
Tubby's job was to work in the old tail gunner position, using hydraulics to move the boom up and down, or from right to left, as the KB-29 refueled fighter planes in mid-air.
Planes flying hundreds of miles per hour in extremely close proximity, while trying to pass fuel from one plane to the other, sounds like a dangerous job, but Tubby said, "I enjoyed it."
"The B-29 was a little slow. You had to go in a bit of a descent to keep speed up for the fighter," he said.
The missions called for skilled pilots and an accurate boom operator.
"We'd refuel fighters right after take-off," Tubby said. "That's when they used most of their fuel."
By refueling them after take-off, he said the fighter was able to fly much longer distances.
Only three or four times during his assignment in England, Tubby and his pilot had to respond to a fighter plane that had run out of fuel and found a place to land. Those trips took him to Spain, Italy and France.
"Once, we flew over the ocean because a troop plane had been lost," Tubby recalled. "At 300 feet over the ocean, you'd be surprised how many times you thought you saw something."
No remnant of the troop plane was ever found.
After countless successful missions, Tubby reached the end of his tour and was sent back to the States in November 1956. His official discharge from the Air Force was on Nov. 29, 1956, from Manhattan Beach, N.Y.
With his service behind him, he traveled by train to the Twin Cities, and then took the bus home to Nobles County. He went to work and eventually married his wife, Vonda Lee; they raised two sons, Kenton and Curtis, in Worthington.
Today, Tubby is actively involved in both the VFW and the American Legion. He has been a member of the Color Guard for 10 years, was commander of the Legion for a year and can be found at the Elks Lodge nearly every week day, where he and his friends shoot pool or play cards.
"I always was very proud to be an Air Forceman and serve our country," he said. "I enjoyed it."