Saturday, April 01, 2023

COLUMN: The Greatest Generation

Valley Press | November 9, 2022 12:00 AM

It’s a memory that will stay with me forever.

And I suspect it is a memory that has been repeated in households across the country, wherever a member of the Greatest Generation lived.

My Dad, Roger K. Bandel, my brother Bill and I were going through some boxes that had been on shelves in the garage for years.

I could see out of the corner of an eye my Dad’s eyes light up with that twinkle when he was onto something big.

He carefully reached into the box and slowly pulled out his “old Army jacket”, the dress jacket he wore during his time as a member of the new Army Air Corps, the branch of the armed forces that would become the U.S. Air Force.

His eyes were a sparkling glow as waves of distant memories swept over his face.

“What’s that, Dad?” I asked.

He said it was his service jacket from the Big One, as he called it. Double-U, Double-U II.

“And,” he said as he slipped his arms into the sleeves, “it still fits”.

Still fits could have been a symbol of the life and times of SSGT Roger K. Bandel, a kid from the hilled prairies of North Dakota, Hebron to be exact.

He was not a big guy as his three sons turned out to be, one of whom is me, Chuck Bandel. Roger was 5-10 and may have been, as we joked sometimes, 150 pounds soaking wet.

He was a Banty rooster of a guy, the kind you’d want on your side in a street fight.

He was also a fitting member of the Greatest Generation, the group of young men and women who almost all volunteered to travel across the planet to take on Hitler and his Legions who were creating Hell on Earth for so many.

They were called the Greatest Generation because of the scope of the times they lived through and the way they handled the situation.

Many had lived through the Great Depression where they learned to save every scrap of material and make the most of seemingly hopeless situations.

For Dad, it was a no brainer to enlist in the Air Corp, even though he had also received a draft notice. He wanted to do his part as quickly as he could.

Not to in any way take away anything from the thousands of young men and women who signed up for military duty in the days after 9-1-1, they were awesome, too. But this was the whole world on fire and the future was completely up in the air.

Until you talked with Dad.

Roger entered the Air Corps through basic training in Missouri as family members recalled. Heaven help the Germans my Grandma used to joke about her son going overseas to fight the enemy.

Growing up in a farm and ranch setting, he quickly developed a mechanical aptitude for making and fixing things. The “drill press” made of old pipe, an old electric motor and some tin cans soldered together and stood in the corner of the garage was testimony to his favorite phrase “that right there is why we won WWII”, his favorite response to what any hand made object might have been.

It was truly a testament to American ingenuity. As was the plastic bucket shop vacuum and many other what we would call today “re-purposed” stuff.

So putting Roger in mechanical school was a natural fit for him and the U.S. Army. He learned quickly and was soon sent overseas to his first war stop, a sprawling Air Base on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt.

He rose quickly through the ranks, as many did during war time, and was known for his mechanical abilities. He always spoke with a puffed out chest when recalling the times he and his crew were chosen to service General Eisenhower’s plane whenever it landed at the base.

Roger was known for getting planes back in the air and was about to be promoted to Second Lieutenant when an incident outlined his practical way of thinking.

An Air Corps Colonel and staff had arrived at the base during a busy time for repairs and service. Upon seeing some loose boxes in piles and a less tidy than he liked hangar the officer began berating Dad in front of his crew for his lack of discipline and sloppy work conditions.

“What the Hell do you want sir?” my Dad asked. “Do you want a Boy Scout camp or do you want planes in the air?”

It cost him a stripe and the promotion. The thread from the stripe still clings to the sleeve from which it was taken. It’s adjacent to the silver bell hanging from his jacket pocket, a “medal” he later admitted he was awarded for an unspecified number of times successfully sneaking into the underground catacombs of Rome and “borrowing” some wine without getting caught.

But this was a man who also served as a Navigator with the Air Lift Command whose planes had flown across “The Hump” as the Himalayan Mountains were known, on their way to re-supply the non-communist Chinese forces who were fighting the Japanese and communists.

He took on the war with a positive attitude and brought that mindset home with him. He returned to a time of major rebuilding and innovation going on across the country. Roads were being built, bridges constructed and new towns were springing up.

Roger went to work as an oil field wildcatter and followed the flow across the Dakotas and into Wyoming.

He would eventually buy a neighborhood grocery store in Billings and move with his wife, Mary Ann, and four children to Billings. He was, he said, following his dream of owning his own business and being his own boss.

He was mostly quiet about his Army days and died several years ago. I will never forget being in the limo riding ahead of his funeral procession to the grave site outside of Laurel. Cars in the convoy that day stretched back for miles.

They had come to pay tribute to a veteran who served his country. To a dedicated father and husband.

And they had come to say farewell to a member of the Greatest Generation.

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