Robert Plumlee : Memoir : Oct 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I had two mules by the time I was 18 — old Jake and Sara Jane. I learn to plow the rich black dirt fields of East Texas at 14. That’s when I learned “A farting mule can’t pull and a pulling mule can’t fart”. My dad taught me how to control blisters on my hands by pissing on them. Sure it stung, but my blistered hands became hard as leather. I married Mary Sue Mayfay when I was 15, but she left me for a rich man from Dallas who was twenty. He had a 48 Ford convertible and I still had my two mules, but that’s a long story. The biggest thing in my life in those days was the Texas State Fair at FairPark in Dallas.., and that too is a longer story.. a bit boring.

I’m Too Young to Be Shot

In 1943, during World War Two, Donald Smith and I were perhaps the youngest persons in history that were almost shot by a U.S. Army firing squad for being spies.  Donald was ten years old, and I was eight, nearly nine. 

The years of world war two, 1942 through 1945, were years of secrecy for America. The United States was at war on two fronts, Germany and Japan.  National security was a top priority.  Nearly everybody who talked funny or looked the least bit suspicious was suspected of being a Nazi spy or a Japanese infiltrator. All major cities in the United States held nightly air raid drills. Sometimes there were two a night. They were unpopular events.

  Patriotism’ ruled the day.  If you didn’t stop what you were doing, remove your hat, and put your hand over your heart when the American flag was being raised, you were thought to be a possible spy. 

Thousands of young patriotic men and boys stampeded to the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine recruiting offices to sign up for the war effort. Some young men who didn’t join in the stampede were drafted into service or went to work in the war plants making bombs, planes, and tanks.  Those men and women left at home became the backbone for building the war machines, the tanks, the aircraft, the jeeps, and the trucks. Young men and women day and night flew the fighters and bombers to overseas bases and still defending the homeland. The men left behind vigilantly guarded the homeland against all threats and spys.

  As the war raged in Europe and the South Pacific in the United States, propaganda posters appeared

everywhere. The old man in the poster with the beard and the red, white, and blue hat.’ was always pointing at you:  

“Uncle Sam Wants You! 

‘Loose Lips, Sinks Ships.’ 

‘Buy War Bonds!’ 

The reporter on News radio said there were ‘Japanese,’ and ‘German’ spies roaming around the countryside, wildly running loose, sabotaging everything, poisoning the water, blowing up dams.  There was no doubt the war years of 1943 through 1945 had a chilling and molding influence on two young boys eight and ten living in the United States. 

In 1943, Dallas Love Field was a top-secret military base. Lockheed Aircraft Company assembled the B-17 bomber known as the ‘Flying Fortress.’ Lockheed also assembled the P-38′ Lighting’ at the Love Field plant. The Japanese call the P-38, the South Pacific Killer.”.

 Security was tight all around the airport. M.P.’s, with guns, in Jeeps, patrolled the area. They were known to shoot anyone who was suspiciously loitering around or near the base. They would shoot first and ask questions later.

 Donald and I were playing on the runway, running up and down, on the runway, then off, playing “Chicken” with B-17 bombers as they attempted to land. We were trying to see how close we could get to the big airplanes before they touched down on the runways. 

Donald was first to notice a crippled B-17 making a slow- low- turn in an attempt to return to base. The bomber, with one engine out, its props in full feather. The engine, next to the failed engine, was trailing thick black smoke. It was on fire. The crippled bomber was attempting an emergency landing on runway 36, the same runway that we were playing on. 

Earlier that day, Donald and I rode our bicycles from home to the airport, which was three miles away. We hid our bikes in the weeds near the security fence, crawled under the fence past the patrolling M.P.’s onto the runway. As the big four-engine bombers made their landing approaches to Love Field, we stood at the edge of the active runway playing chicken with the airplanes. Sometimes we would run far out onto the runway, lay down, ‘spread eagle,’ and see how close the big bombers would come to us as they flew over. We waved gleefully and hollered at the flight crews as they passed overhead.

Once a brand new shiny U.S. Army B-17 bomber flew low and slow over us. Donald and I stood up as the big airplane approached. We were jumping, reaching out toward the big aircraft, trying to see how close we could get to it before it touched down on the concrete runway. It was a thrilling adventure to see the surprised faces of the pilots as we wave to them. Sometimes they waved back, and we would jump around, literally peeing our pants as we waved and pointed at the passing plane. 

 “He waved., Did You-See-That, Donald?… He waved back—the pilot and bombardier—they both waved back at us!”.  

The roar of the big bomber’s engines was deafening. We could almost touch the big planes as they passed overhead. 

 I believe it was that day on runway number 36, in 1943, during World War Two at Dallas Love Field, where I decided, when I grew up, I would become a commercial pilot, perhaps even a bomber pilot. 

However, on this particular August day, in the distance, Donald suddenly noticed a B-17 bomber making a low, slow turn, heading back to Love Field. It was flying low and slow. The aircraft, a B-17, was heading for our runway. The big plane had number one engine out—prop feathered— thick black smoke trailed from its number two engine. The engine was on fire. The B-17 was barely flying, struggling to stay in the air. It was way too low. The pilot was trying to make the runway on the other engines. We stood up watching the lumbering bomber., staring in disbelief. The big bomber came closer. It was way too low. Frozen in place with fear, we watched it fly towards us. Lower and lower it came. 

Donald suddenly screamed.

“Run!” “RUN! RUN! He’s going to crash on us.” 

We started running away from the runway. We were so engrossed in watching the big bomber struggling to land that we did not see the M.P.’s sneaking upon us. Donald saw them first and shouted, 

“Here comes the M.P.’s.”

We started to run toward the fence. We had to make it to our bicycles and the nearby weeds and bushes. We had to escape. The M.P.’s chased us off the runway just as the flaming B-17 landed right where we had been standing. 

Out of breath, we ran as we had never run in our lives. That’s when, in the distance, I saw another jeep full of more M.P.’s with red lights flashing, siren blaring, rapidly heading our way. Five more M.P.’s on foot had sneaked around behind us. They were closing in on us, fast. We had the make it to the hole in the fence and our bicycles. We had to outrun the M.P.’s. We knew if they caught us, we would be in deep trouble.

 “Here comes more M.P.’s from over there,” I shouted. 

We ran as fast as we could. We had to make it to the hole in the fence and our bicycles before they caught us. Exhausted, out of breath, we finally reached the fence. However, another two of M.P.’s were casually standing, waiting next to our bicycles, smiling—their hands on their pistols. 

 They grabbed us, loaded our bikes in the back of their jeep, and took us to a big building. As we entered, the building army soldiers gathered around us. Some were shaking their heads. They looked at us suspiciously as we came marching in front of the M.P.s’ into the building. 

Our luck dodging the M.P.’s had run out. They had caught us, and now we were in custody, being held by two large muscle-bound U.S. Army MP’s, a Sargent, and a Corporal. They sat us down on a wooden bench outside of an office and handcuffed us to a chair. They told us to stay put. We did. The taller of the two had his hand on his pistol, an army Colt .45. We sat there, afraid to move. We waited, the four of us, to see the Commanding Officer, the C.O., an Army Major. Silently we waited for the Major, the C.O., to decide our fate. 

Soon we were escorted into a big room where the commanding officer and several other officers were seated. They told us we were spies for the Germans. The Major would decide what to do with us. The senior M.P., who put our bicycles in the back of their jeep, told us it did not look good for us. 

  “You know they shoot spies in time of war. Major Myer doesn’t take chances with spies. He usually shoots them—right there on the spot.  That is when he catches them like we did you guys.” He smiled, then pointed the way to the C.O.’s office.

I looked around at the room and the adjacent hallway.

 “Buy War Bonds, and “Loose Lips Sinks Ships” posters were posted on walls and hanging everywhere. I remember a photograph of a tall, white-bearded, stern-looking old-man, wearing funny red, white, and blue pants. His picture was everywhere. It seemed he was always pointing directly at me as I moved about— staring at me! His eyes seemed to follow my every turn. The caption read, “Uncle Sam Wants You” His gaze, it seemed, was always staring directly at me. I could move to the left and then quickly to the right, but the bearded old-man still pointed straight at me. 

I looked over at one of the M.P.’s who was guarding us. He smiled, pointed his finger at me, and said, “Bang–Bang!” He scared me. Donald’s head, bowed in his arms, was crying. I could hear him sobbing, trying to catch his breath.

***  

In those war days, while hanging around Love Field, I learn a lot about aviation, flying, and the war. When the pilots were home on leave gathered around the Highland Park Pharmacy at Knox Street and Travis in north Dallas telling their war stories. I would slip unnoticed into their ranks. I was eagerly listening to their tales of daring deeds while flying high in the skies over Germany. These fearless men and their ‘hangar- flying’ stories intrigued me. It was perhaps those tall tales that influenced me in ways I have never known. 

Most of those young men had flown over us at Dallas Love Field. They were assigned to the Eighth Air Force and hurriedly shipped off to England, where they made hundreds of bombing runs into Germany. Some were shot down—lost in battle, KIA’s. They never returned home.

The Major entered the room.

“What were you boys doing on the runway?” He growled. “Don’t you know you almost caused that B-17 to crash… Thank God he made it down safely? The pilot called the tower. He was afraid he was going to hit you guys.” The Major turned away and looked at another officer, a Captain, then quickly turned back facing us. 

“Do you boys know this is wartime, and you boys were trespassing on government property?” The Major pointed toward Donald and then at me.

 “We shoot people for less than what you guys just did.”

Donald was the first to speak. He was crying.

“I’m sorry,” he said between sobs.

I awkwardly saluted the officer and then spoke. 

 “I’m eight,” I lied. I was only seven, almost eight. I pointed to Donald. 

“It’s his fault. He’s older.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said the Major, returning the salute. 

“We have to do what we have to do.” The Captain lowered his head and made the sign of the cross. 

The Major shouted, “Lieutenant!  Call these boy’s parents and let them know what happened to their children and why we had to shoot them.” 

The Major turned and stared at me. 

“Because they’re spies. 

You know what we do with spies.” He turned away again, turning his back on us.

 “It will be over quickly. You boys won’t feel too much pain. Captain! Take them out back to the firing squad. “

I started to cry. I bawled like a baby. I got down on my hands and knees and pleaded with the Captain. 

 “Please, SIR! Don’t shoot us! We’re not spies.”

Donald started singing the Star-Spangled Banner. “Oh, can… You see-Those stars…” Sob—Sob. “The stars and stripes…”. I would have sung with him, but I too didn’t know the words. 

“Take them away, Sargent. They make me sick.”

In handcuffs, they took us away, out behind the building where they stood us up against a brick wall and put blindfolds over our eyes. 

Then I heard my father’s voice.  

“What have you done, my boy!” 

The officer told my dad it would be over quickly. 

Dad was crying.

“I’m sorry to lose you, son, but it has to be done. We must win the war. Major. Do what you have to do. It’s for the good of the country.” 

And then I heard the loading of rifles…, then those dreaded words,

“Ready! Aim! Fire!” That’s the last I remembered hearing. I must have passed out.

  That night, after the M.P.’s had taken Donald, me, and our bicycles home in their jeep. My father was waiting on the porch. I got a real southern scolding. And then that night, I got the leather belt. It came out of the dreaded closet where it was hanging, where it was waiting for me. I knew the belt.  We had met a few times before.

 The first four slaps across my bare butt didn’t hurt much. The other four did. I promised my father I would never go back to Love Field, or play on the runways ever again. I never returned to the runways of Love Field until long after the war was over. 

      (II)

The years passed, and the runway memory of the B17 in distress soon faded. I became a commercial pilot in 1957. I eventually went to work for the U.S. Government as a pilot for various CIA companies known in those days as ‘front companies’—”cut-outs.’ or “spook companies.”

Soon I was attached to CIA’s Miami Station working within the top-secret JM/WAVE operations of the sixties. I was a CIA gunrunner in their covert Cuban operations with Task Force W and their TOP SECRET, Operation 40.

Then one day in 1961, shortly before the ‘Bay of Pigs’, I had to fly some CIA cargo into Dallas Love Field. I landed on the very same runway that the crippled bomber had used so many years before. 

While I was flying that landing approach into Love Field, I fondly recalled those earlier wartime memories playing on the runways. 

I made the turn, the final approach for runway 36. I could see myself back in time; my friend, Donald Smith, and that crippled B-17 bomber on fire— flying low and slow, heading straight for us and our runway. 

 I could still see the M.P.’s, their handcuffs, and the Major. And too, I could still hear the rifles being loaded and the Sargent shouting “Ready! Aim! Fire!”. Those words again echoed loudly in my brain as I flew towards runway 36 at Dallas Love Field. 

The aircraft radio startled me. It came alive with chatter. “…Zero six-seven X-ray. Air traffic control, you’re cleared to land on runway three six.” 

I lined up the DC-3 aircraft for the final approach to Love Field. Then on the far horizon, the runway where Donald and I had ‘played chicken’ with that B-17 bomber came into view.

I thought I saw two young boys from Texas playing on the runway. By the grace of God, I narrowly missed them. I watched them escaped. They ran away into the bushes and disappeared into my dream.