McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Onan Hill wasn’t drafted into World War II. He volunteered.
Today at age 85, Hill, of McMinnville, Ore., is the only living member of his B-17 crew that flew bombing missions over Nazi Germany, targeting mostly oil refineries. He’s also part of what Tom Brokaw famously called “The Greatest Generation,” men and women who were kids during the Great Depression but as adults helped free Europe, turn back Japan and then came home to build modern America.
A member of Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Hill signed up for the military four months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, spurred on by a sense of patriotism.
“There were millions who did the same thing,” he told Baptist Press. “We felt that we needed to defend our country.”
This Sunday PBS will debut “The War,” a seven-part, 15-hour series about World War II from an American perspective, as told by the men and women who participated from 1941-1945 both at home and abroad. Six years in the making, it was directed and produced by Ken Burns, whose 1990 television series on the Civil War became the quintessential documentary on the war between the states.
But unlike that earlier classic, The War doesn’t interview authors or scholars. It has more of an intimate feel and focuses solely on World War II survivors, who today are dying at an estimated rate of 1,200-1,500 a day.
It may be one of the last remaining opportunities for the nation to pause and thank the World War II generation while they are still alive. It is being released 62 years after the war’s end and three years after the opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The documentary also comes as the National World War II Museum in New Orleans is raising funds for a $300 million expansion that will quadruple its size.
Hill, like nearly every other member of his generation, remains humble when talking about his service.
“By no stretch of the imagination do I consider myself a hero. I was trained to do a job, and I did that job,” Hill, who is not part of the PBS documentary, said. “I don’t consider myself — or do any of the rest of us, for that matter — as heroes, at all.”
But his stories might lead others to think otherwise. Trained as a navigator for the 15th Army Air Force based in Italy, Hill survived several close encounters with death. As a navigator his job was to help the pilot get from Point A to Point B, whether that was a runway or a bombing target. It was a specialized job, but with German fighter planes firing away, a dangerous one, too.
“I was one of the lucky ones that came back safely,” he said, adding that God “absolutely” protected him.
Hill’s B-17 crew often consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and three gunners in the top, waist and tail. When it was cloudy, Hill, as a navigator with radar training, dropped the bombs. The crew’s task was to destroy as many oil refineries as possible, putting Hitler and his military out of fuel.
When Hill heard his gunners at work, he knew his life was in danger.
“You were so busy during those times when somebody was firing after you that you didn’t get scared until afterwards,” he said. “There were times of anguish, absolutely.”
Hill flew 30 missions, with plenty of memories, such as:
— His very first mission, when he flew in the nose of the aircraft and had a birds-eye view of a dogfight.
“You look out and you see these airplanes with a wing shot off and they’re falling. Well, you realize that training is over and this is the real thing.”
— One of the times when two engines on his plane were shot out, leaving only two good engines on a slowly descending B-17 in the middle of the Alps.
“By the time [the pilot] got the plane so that it would fly on two engines, we were looking up at the Alps, and he flew out through the [mountain] passes and we got back to Italy and landed safely.”
— The time when he and the crew flew a night mission to Munich, Germany, and got surprised with a German fighter on their tail.
“I was flying with a pilot I did not even know, and he cocked that thing up on one wing and dove it into a cloud bank, which theoretically does no good if the plane that is attacking is guided by radar. But that’s what he did, and we lost him and we got back safely on that occasion, too.”
Hill, who forged lifelong friendships with his crew, got out of the military in 1946, went to college with the help of the G.I. Bill, and then taught high school English and math until retiring in 1982. He and his wife, Wanda, will celebrate their 60th anniversary next year.
The war, though, changed his life permanently. At one point early in the war, Nazi Germany occupied the majority of land in Western Europe and victory for the U.S. and the Allies was anything but certain. Hill, though, said he remained confident.
“I don’t recall anyone ever even considering or talking about the fact that we would lose the war,” he said. “There may have been some sentiment along that line, but I don’t recall it.
“They started it, and we intended to finish it.”
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press
“The War” will air on PBS Sept. 23-26 and Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at 8 p.m. Eastern. Each episode is between two and two-and-a-half hours long.