Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Captain William Bruce Overstreet, 1921-2013.

Children rarely concern themselves with the lives of adults. When you're a kid, the grown-ups around you seem to live in a kind of bubble where they don't exist except for when you see them. Remember the first time you saw a teacher outside of school? It was strange. Didn't your teacher just....live at school all the time or something?

It's no different with the adults in our families. So when Mom would pack up me and my brother and take us down to Roanoke to see our great Uncle Bill and great Aunt Nita, I never spent a moment thinking about the lives they led before knowing us. We would sit in their living room telling stories at Christmas, or see them at Aunt Melvene's cabin in Goshen, Virginia, or wander around Clifton Forge together, the small town in Virginia where Uncle Bill was raised. Bill was always there...usually seated in his favorite chair, with his pipe in hand, laughing and chatting.

But I didn't know he was a hero.

We bat around the word "hero" a lot. And don't get me wrong--people like teachers, firefighters, policemen, and heck, even the person who gives up a seat on the metro for a pregnant lady, are deserving of the title. But until this past weekend, I had no idea that my great Uncle Bill--the quiet man with the pipe and twinkle in his eye--was an honest to god war hero.

At the Greenbrier Air Show in 2012.

William Bruce Overstreet, Jr., born on April 10, 1921, passed away on Sunday afternoon, December 29, 2013.

"He served as a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Bill was a highly decorated combat veteran with the 357th Fighter Group.

After the war, he began his career in Roanoke as a CPA in his own practice. Bill was active in several charitable organizations, both locally and nationally. He was a member of The Businessmen’s Club and the Big Lick Breakfast Club, whose members will be honorary pallbearers at the grave. He will truly be remembered as an honorable and generous individual to his family and country. Bill was a native of Clifton Forge, the son of the late William B. and Gertrude Taylor Overstreet. He was also preceded in death by his wife, Nita Brackens Overstreet; and two sisters, Bernice Overstreet Meiselman, of Alexandria, and Melvene Overstreet Marks, of Rocky Mount, NC."

The above is from Bill's official obituary. But it's just the tip of the iceberg. "Highly decorated combat veteran?" Oh, honey. Let me fill you in.

Bill Overstreet flew over 100 combat missions as part of the 357th Fighter Group, a combat unit of the Army Air Forces during WWII.  Alongside Chuck Yeager and Bud Anderson, Uncle Bill flew a P-51C Mustang ("The Berlin Express") from a small airfield in Leiston, England to France the defend the skies of Paris from Nazi aircraft. He also flew missions to Germany, Eastern Europe, and Italy.

His war service sounds more like a movie: he was shot down/crashed several times, survived a broken oxygen line that caused him to pass out in the cockpit, and was even captured by the Germans and managed to escape.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation features Uncle Bill in its Wings Over Virginia Aviation Gallery with an exhibit called Flight Talk, that includes video of Bill discussing his more dramatic wartime moments. Regarding his capture and escape, he relates that he was placed in the back of a vehicle with two Nazi Stormtroopers in the front seat. A large wrench had been left in the back and he was able to hit the Nazis on the head and take the vehicle into the French countryside. He hid out in the woods surrounding a town until he was able to find a clergyman who could help him contact the French Resistance and get back to his base.

To hear Bill tell it, it was just another day at the office.

But his most memorable moment was in the Spring of 1944 when he pursued a German aircraft under the Eifell Tower during a dogfight.  According to the Roanoke Times, "Overstreet’s most famous flight came while in solo pursuit of a German Messerschmitt Bf 109G flying into Nazi-occupied Paris. He maneuvered his plane beneath the arches of the Eiffel Tower, re-igniting the spirit of the French Resistance troops on the ground." Bill's pursuit and destruction of the Nazi plane over Paris was a seminal moment for the French, and inspired a three day uprising in the Nazi-held city.

A painting of Bill's "The Berlin Express" flying under the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of a Nazi plane, by Len Krenzler.

 In the cockpit!

In December 2009, Bill was awarded the French Legion of Honor at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford County, Virginia by His Excellency Pierre Vimont, the Ambassador of France to the United States of America. It is the highest honor bestowed by the French nation and gave Bill the title of "Chevalier," or knight. At the ceremony, the Ambassador acknowledged Bill's many acts of bravery and stated that he and his fellow American soldiers helped liberate France from the Nazis and inspired the Resistance to carry on in the face of seemingly-impossible odds. Bill, always the most modest of men, accepted the award on behalf of his friend and comrade, Eddie Simpson, who died during the war fighting a group of Germans in order to give a group of French Resistance fighters an opportunity to escape.

I knew generally of Uncle Bill's war service when I was younger, but learned the details of his heroism in the last few years. Many of the stories I heard for the first time recently, when we traveled to Roanoke for his memorial service. His passing was difficult for everyone in our family, but especially for my Mom, who was very close to Uncle Bill. But the sadness of his passing was tempered with a need to celebrate his life, to shout his deeds from the hilltops for all to hear. He never would have spoken of his own achievements; to him, he was only one man doing his duty and it was others who showed true bravery.

The weekend in Roanoke was full of remembrances; we visited the Virginia Museum of Transportation along with one of Bill's dear friends to view and record his Flight Talk videos. There was a visitation on Friday afternoon and evening at Oakey's Roanoke Chapel with all of Bill's friends and family, and the chapel was full of people for a solid 4 hours. In my experience, these types of events are somber and depressing, but in Bill's case there were so many people with stories to share of his life that I was fascinated and proud rather than tearful.

I learned of Bill's charitable work with the Salvation Army and numerous other organizations. He visited local schools and spoke to kids about his wartime service and became close friends with many of the teachers, and the students themselves. It's rare to find a person of Bill's age that can connect with teenagers, but many of the students came to the visitation to pay their respects to a man whom they admired not only for what he had accomplished in his life, but for the way he could talk and interact with them. I also met people who knew Bill from his work as a CPA and after retirement, with his participation in accounting organizations, and The Businessmen's Club and The Big Lick Breakfast Club. He had more true friends than anyone I have ever known.

The internment and memorial service on Saturday were just the way he would have wanted them; beautiful, honest, and without pomp. We braved the frigid temperatures to see Bill's casket brought to the burial site and a flyover of P-51 Mustangs was the perfect tribute. The Memorial Service was held at the Second Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, and was led by the local minister and two of Bill's closest friends: his cousin John Adams (whom we all know as Buck) and his close friend, Pastor Jeff Clemens, a combat veteran of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. They each spoke eloquently of Bill's life, with Jeff focusing on Bill's military service and Buck telling of Bill's life with his family and wife, my great Aunt Nita. It was not a full service (there was no communion), but the readings, poems, and hymns were all appropriate and perfect. I will never sing America, the Beautiful again without thinking of Uncle Bill.

Our time in Roanoke ended with Bill's closest family and friends gathering for dinner in The Roanoker, his favorite restaurant. We shared more stories and learned about Bill, and in many cases, about each other. This was my extended family, and making connection with them is one of the things I will treasure most about the weekend. Emails, texts, and phone numbers were exchanged along with promises to see each other soon. Promises we will hopefully be able to keep.

I hope that this post will serve as a tribute to my great Uncle, the type of man who would never brag or acknowledge his accomplishments as anything more than a man doing his duty for family, country, and God. His story has been told and retold in the local and national news over the past few weeks; USA Today, NPR, and even CBS Sunday Morning have spoken of Bill Overstreet. But it is us, his family and friends, who must make sure that his story (and those of his comrades like Eddie Simpson) are never forgotten.

I hate to resort to cliche here at the end, but in Bill's case I can't think of anything else to say except: they don't make them like that anymore. He truly was part of the Greatest Generation and the world was a better place with him in it.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Nita.

 One last act of respect.

 Flyover of the P-51 Mustangs.

 A gift from the Salvation Army at the Memorial Service. The Salvation Army provided doughnuts to the servicemen during the war, so they sent a plate to the church for the reception.

The Roanoker printed up a really nice menu for the family dinner after the service.

 Mom and Uncle Bill.