rick_fernAbout Rick School

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Who would have thought that a book I read in eighth grade would eventually change my life, my family's lives, and touch the lives of so many other people? When I began to research the story of Ten Horsepower, I had no idea how big a part of my life it would become.
My involvement with this project has seen many dreams come true. To meet the surviving members of the crew of Ten Horsepower. To stand on the main runway of Polebrook airfield where the plane took off for the last time. To walk the face of Denton Hill, where Ten Horsepower crashed, and there reflect on the men who gave their lives for the pilot. And to meet literally hundreds of people whom I now call friends. The story I read as a boy has become a rewarding chapter in my life as a man.
This book would not have been possible if it were not for my dear wife Fern, who after only eleven months of marriage said "yes" to my desire to research the story, and who (ten years later) is still saying "yes" while I spend our savings for the future on retelling of the past. The sacrifices Fern has made to help my dreams come true are endless. She has been with me all along the way, as we traveled thousands of miles during seven summer family vacations looking for answers. We passed many places of interest where she wanted to stop, but couldn't because our research schedule was so tight, and all the while, Fern just smiled. (Fern didn't smile as much the year she was pregnant. She felt too sick to travel but even then she kept going. I offered to turn around and go home, but she said no and was sick for 5,499 miles of our 5,500 mile trip. If that isn't support and encouragement, I don't know what is.) Even now that our children Luke, Rachel and Matthew are with us, we still travel to attend the annual 351st reunions. Fern, you are truly the best thing that has ever happened for me. This book would not exist if not for you. Thank you.
This book would not be what it is without the work Jeff Rogers put into it. Jeff started out to help me write a magazine article, and along the way found a deep respect and admiration for the crew of Ten Horsepower. Thanks Jeff, for all the long nights you put into rewriting parts of the story because I had found some new information.


 

rick

Summer of 1998
My first ride in a B-17 and I got to fly it!!
A lifelong dream come true for Rick.
Thanks God
(Photo by Jeff Rogers)


rogersAbout Jeff Rogers


I saw my first B-17 when I was eight years old. It was a model in a hobby shop. Dad saw my interest but didn't say anything. Sometime after that, when I was bored (and probably being a real nuisance), Dad surprised me with a plastic model kit. It was a Matchkit, and the aircraft was a Spitfire. The package was a flat piece of printed cardboard wrapped in the shape of a book of matches around a plastic bag with the model parts inside. I made a few gluey fingerprints here and there, and I had some parts left over, but when I was finished I had an airplane I was proud of. I had liked airplanes before I built the Spitfire, but the completion of that model marked a turning point in my life. My teen years saw dozens of model airplanes assembled and displayed in my room. Among these were several B-17s in various scales and paint schemes. I always thought the B-24 was impressive, but something about the B-17 kept my attention and interest.
All of the models kits came in brightly colored boxes with brief stories about the airplanes printed on the outside. The instructions had a few more details and line drawings to show how to paint the planes. At some point I began to buy aircraft photo books so I could build more detail into my models. Often a specific pilot would be mentioned, and the aircraft portrayed in the colors that man had flown under. I almost always put crewmen in my planes. I painted each crewman in his flight suit and parachute harness, Mae West and leather helmet, but I never really thought about the person I was representing with the tiny plastic figure. Always, my focus was on the machine, not the man.


In my early thirties I saw some of the World War II fighter pilots at the EAA Convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Pappy Boyington was there, and Francis Gabreski, Chuck Yaeger, Bob Hoover, and several of the former Flying Tiger pilots. Adolph Galland made an appearance one year, as did Dieter Hrabak and Guenther Rall. These men were in their late sixties and early seventies at the time. They had seen a lot of action in their day, but I did not recognize them as being anything special. Nor did I really know what they had been through. Around that same time I met Rick School. We discovered our common interest in World War II aircraft, only Rick's involvement had gone much deeper than mine. While I had learned all I could about the planes, Rick had learned all he could about the men who flew them. I had known Rick only a short while when I realized that I was beginning to learn about a side of the war I had never really considered.


The writing of Valor At Polebrook was a process of reading, sorting and re-creating that began in fall of 1991 and wasn't completed until about two weeks before the book went to press in April of 1998. Writing the book became an adventure, and a challenge, and somewhere along the way it turned into a history lesson and a chance to travel back in time.
Like Rick, I didn't really know what I was getting into when I agreed to work on the book. I started by listening to the micro-cassette tapes of Rick's interviews with Joe Rex, Tom Sowell, Russell Robinson, and Elzia Ledoux. I spent hours under my headset, playing a few sentences at a time, writing a few words, rewinding, playing again, writing again, rewinding, until I had pages and pages of transcripts. From Rick's description of the events, and the crewmen's recollections in the interviews, I sketched an outline of the story. I started a file on each of the crewmen and other members of the 351st BG who witnessed some aspect of the mission or the landing attempts. My approach to a complex project is always the same: Clear off a work space, lay the pieces on the table, and sort it all out to see what you're working with. Then, take the good pieces, put them back together, and show a few qualified people what you've built. If you've done it right, they'll tell you. If you haven't, they'll usually tell you that, too. So it was with the paper pieces that would eventually be arranged to explain how ten strangers came together to face death and survival at twenty-thousand feet.


Rick and I met every Tuesday night to compare notes and share ideas. It helped that we worked at the same company. We spent a lot of our lunch breaks going over transcripts and text sections. This was usually when Rick would show me more of the research data he was continually receiving. I never knew what he'd come up with next. After a while I just accepted that no paragraph or chapter would ever be completely finished until the book was in print. I'd take the new material home with me, look it over to see where it fit into the story outline, then key the words onto the computer screen. Many were the nights when I'd sit down to write at 8:30, only to look up twenty minutes later and discover it was after midnight. The effort was paying off, though, for each time I turned off the computer I had more of the story on paper.


Our first milestone was when EAA's Warbirds magazine ran a two-part version of the Ten Horsepower story in their March and April 1993 issues. By then we had a good selection of photos to add to the text. The story was well received. Air Classics magazine ran the same basic article later that year. These two publications resulted in Rick's receiving information from other people who either knew the crewmen or had witnessed some part of the landing attempts. I personally benefited from seeing the story in print, and in seeing firsthand how my aviation friends reacted to it. It's one thing to tell people you're writing a book. It's another altogether to hand them the pages and watch as they become absorbed in the story. It was a great confidence builder, and provided a strong incentive for me to keep going when there were many demands on my time and I was getting tired of the story.


As my stack of pages got thicker, Rick and his wife Fern proof-read every line I wrote. We'd talk about the parts that read well and other parts that didn't flow at all. I'd listen and take notes, and I must have gone through a box of red pens marking up the text that needed revision. But it was all part of the process. You have to remember that neither one of us had ever written a book before. We just figured that was how it was done and it seemed to be working for us. Once the articles came out we began to hear other people telling us that we were right. That was great encouragement from people we knew would be honest with us.


Each passing year brought more information and photos for the story. Rick usually told me how he obtained each piece of information, but it was all I could do to work the new data into sections I'd finished long before. I couldn't keep track of all the ways Rick unearthed more of the story. The most amazing find was when Rick received a box of items relating to Lt. Nelson. These had been among the few possessions recovered undamaged from the flooded basement of Diane Pavlik, Lt. Nelson's niece. Lt. Nelson is buried in the Rock Island National Military Cemetery, on the Mississippi river. During the flooding in spring of 1993, the river almost destroyed the diary kept by Mrs. Florence Nelson, and nearly denied us the information we needed to tell a crucial part of the story. Much of the diary was written into the book. It's typical of the personal perspective that brought these men to life for me as I came to know them through what they had written to their families and through what their families had written about them.


By January of 1997, Rick and I knew we were in the home stretch. The manuscript was essentially complete. We had been contacting publishers for about half a year in the hope that one would pick up our story and make things easy for us. Several publishers asked to see outlines and sample chapters. We felt sure that someone would see the unique nature of our story and the way we had told it, but no offers were forthcoming. Still, we were determined to get the book into print. In September we set the deadline of December 31. If we didn't have an agreement with a publisher by then, we would self publish. And that is what we ended up doing.
The few remaining airworthy B-17s attract attention wherever they show up. I have seen half a dozen different examples at Oshkosh, with four being the most I've seen together at one time. That was the year they flew The Missing Man formation for the airshow crowd. As the four aircraft approached, thousands of people turned as one and looked up in awe. I felt a powerful sense of amazement as the penetrating growl of sixteen Wright radial engines pounded my chest and shook my spine. "TAPS" began playing from the loudspeakers as the formation reached airshow center, and the crowd fell silent. Then, in a smooth and precise motion, the number three ship lifted its nose and climbed up and away from the others. At that moment the hair on the back of my neck stood up and, despite the 85 degree temperature, a cold chill engulfed me. I felt tears welling up in my eyes, and was not ashamed when they spilled over and ran down my cheeks.

My excitement at seeing four B-17s at once was replaced by a profound sadness. In that moment, I realized that I was a changed person. The Missing Man fly-by was not about the airplanes. It was about the people who flew in them. Through writing the story of the men of Ten Horsepower, I had been touched by their courage and devotion, their sacrifice and loss, and by the sorrow their families felt when they learned their boys would not be coming home. I had looked into the airplane, and found the men inside. And that is exactly what Rick School intended for all of us when he decided to tell the story.