Old World War II movies attempted to capture the grit of serving on a bomber crew, but Hollywood glamor couldn’t capture its harsh reality.
Harry Generaux, 99, of Vancouver, knows this firsthand. He watched some of these films before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1942, a move that eventually placed him in the cockpit of a massive Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
“All I could think of was how glorious it was in the movies – the guys diving around,” he said. “You got over there, and you find out they shoot back at you. Then we got scared. Oh my gosh. It was scary.”
Generaux, who flew with the Eighth Air Force 398th Bombardment Group, piloted a fast four-engine heavy hitter — a model that dropped more bombs than any other American aircraft in the war. His squadron flew out of Nuthampstead, England, and soared in varied strategic formations above the clouds to protect themselves and attack enemy targets.
And it may never have happened. Originally, Generaux didn’t think he would fly.
Before Generaux joined the Air Corps, he was familiar with aircraft. The Ridgefield High School graduate served a brief stint as a riveter at a Seattle Boeing facility where he learned the ins and outs of airplane mechanics. It was work experience Generaux thought would secure him a similar position in the Air Corps, but he was offered a loftier prospect: go to flight training.
Becoming a pilot was traditionally reserved for college-educated applicants, Generaux said, but the U.S. was losing so many pilots during the war that they had to relax the prerequisites. He trained for nine months before being thrown into a territory with loud explosions and rainfalls of metal pieces, something common as the German air defense fired clusters of flak at the U.S. bombers.
The “Mighty Eighth” was the greatest U.S. air fleet in Nazi-occupied Europe. It sent thousands of four-engine bombers and around 1,000 fighters for a single mission – something that came at a great cost. The armada endured significant losses, as it suffered about half of the U.S. Army Air Force’s casualties, according to the U.S. Air Force.
Generaux said he was lucky to come back home after flying 36 missions.
His son Dave Generaux, 73, of Camas, said his father shared many accounts from moments during his service that were both ordinary and gripping, including getting shot at. What was more impressive, Dave Generaux said, was that his father was in his early 20s when he carried this huge responsibility. He kept his crew alive, active and in formation.
“He made it through,” Dave Generaux said. “That was quite the accomplishment.”
One of Dave Generaux’s favorite stories is one that Harry has often told to friends, family and journalists.
On Nov. 10, 1944, Harry Generaux departed England for an air raid over Cologne, Germany, his 19th mission. His group was briefed that there would be strong winds near the target, which became crucial knowledge later during their mission when enemy fire hit the B-17, disorienting them and furthering them from their formation.
As the damaged B-17’s fuel gauge dwindled closer to empty, Generaux knew there wouldn’t be enough gas to land in the south of England. So he turned back – without knowing where enemy lines were.
Then came his saving grace: a green flash.
Generaux followed the light, assuming it came from a signal from U.S. forces, and landed in a nearby airfield. The crew was greeted by Frenchmen who told them German soldiers had retreated from the area three days prior, but still were stationed nearby. Generaux realized if he had flown five minutes longer, his crew would have been directly over enemy lines and likely would have been killed.
In this moment of understanding, Generaux asked who flashed the green light, but no one declared that they did so. He chalks it up to the good graces of a higher authority.
During Generaux’s missions, he faced many close calls – all of which instilled an appreciation within him for every day he lived. On every mission, he made sure to place a Bible given to him from a World War I veteran in his jacket pocket.
“You tend to grow up pretty fast,” Generaux said. “And it draws you closer to God because you’re just about to get killed.”
The generation of WWII veterans is disappearing, as they near their 100th birthdays. About 167,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2022, with 4,000 living in Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“WWII and the people who were involved in the war are all going away,” Dave Generaux said. “There’s not a lot of them out there, but they still have these stories that can help someone.”
After serving as a pilot in the war, Generaux continued in the reserves until 1951 when he was summoned to active service for the Korean War, where he trained pilots domestically. Generaux’s love for flying never subsided, as he joined local air patrol rescue missions until transitioning to a career as a millwright, nor did his love for reflecting through storytelling.
Generaux recalled hearing about the surprise attacks in Pearl Harbor when he was 18 years old. He described how he and millions of other Americans coalesced around the historic event – a unity that he believes is under threat today.
“We’re separated and I hope it doesn’t take a disaster or war to put it back together,” Harry Generaux said. “That’s disastrous.”