66 years just flew away

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2011 - 11:17 AM

Warplane partners who hadn't seen each other since '44 reunited in Edina.

The last time they saw one another was late October 1944. Marine pilot Lloyd Flynn and his gunner mate Dan Williams said goodbye on Engebi Island in the South Pacific after eight months of flying missions together in a two-person warplane.

On Thursday, the two World War II vets saw each other for the first time since that farewell, this time outside Flynn's home in Edina.

"Captain, how are you?" said Williams as he stepped sprightly out of a vehicle, saluted and stretched out his hand, laughing.

Flynn was too choked up to say anything at first, and the two buddies, stooped with age, just hugged.

"I told Bruce it'd be emotional, and it is," Flynn finally choked out. "Son of a gun, how are you?"

Bruce is Williams' son, who instigated the visit and kept it a surprise until his father guessed two days ago why they might be driving across the country for no apparent reason toward Minnesota.

The two vets have been writing letters regularly since 2002, when Flynn learned Williams was living in Aberdeen, Wash.

8 months together in the air

On Thursday, the 88-year-olds wore red caps emblazoned with VMSB-151, standing for the Marine scout bomber that the 151st squadron flew in the Marshall Islands.

Some missions bombed Japanese gun emplacements and airfields on islands before Marine troops would invade.

Others provided air cover to Marines already on the ground, patrolled for Japanese submarines, and convoyed freighters and troop ships to rendezvous points.

The two worked every other day in the air for eight months, and became so close that Williams said he could almost predict what Flynn was thinking.

Williams, the gunner and radio operator on the bomber, said some pilots seemed a bit reckless, but Flynn was solid.

"I felt immediately he was completely competent," said Williams. "I never saw any indication that he came unglued over any minor, two-bit deal. There were no glitches, and no evidence of indecision."

Reading wind on the waves

As the two men settled into patio chairs in Flynn's back yard, the stories began flying about their stint together as 22-year-olds.

Flynn remembered trying to land his Douglas-made bomber on extremely short landing strips carved out of jungles, sometimes at night with only flare pots for lighting. He sometimes gauged wind behavior by sight as well as by instruments. "We read the wind off the waves," he said.

The two also talked about one time when they and three other bombers approached a target. Each plane had two 250-pound bombs and one 500-pound bomb. The ones aboard the Flynn-Williams aircraft failed to release electrically.

As the other planes waited, they had to circle back alone and release the bombs manually. Williams also wrote of the incident in his memoirs: "With only one plane coming down we knew the Japs would have everything they had trained on us, but that was the way it had to be."

Williams also recounted what was probably the duo's most important assignment: to carry a sealed 3-foot aluminum canister and drop it from their plane onto a destroyer escort vessel. The 5-inch diameter tube contained top-secret orders from Washington directing a huge armada of destroyers and aircraft carriers to invade Saipan.

The canister had to be delivered by airdrop directly to the admiral in charge, since the instructions were too sensitive to risk interception if transmitted by radio.

'So much respect'

When Williams' tour of duty ended in late 1944, the pair split up. Until early Thursday afternoon.

The two men plan to spend the next few days trading stories about fellow squadron members, viewing photos of when they flew together, and talking about what they did with their lives after the war.

Flynn, a Minneapolis native, spent much of his postwar career in the funeral services industry in the Twin Cities. He's lived in his Edina home for 53 years. For most of that time he rarely talked about the war. His wife now lives in a memory care center.

He said he talks about the military with a grandson, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also meets occasionally for lunch with a few other WWII vets in the area.

Williams settled in Washington state, worked in forestry and eventually owned a timber company. He is a widower.

Bruce Williams joked that he was happy to drive to Minnesota with his dad to meet Flynn, since he wouldn't have been born if Flynn hadn't been such an excellent pilot.

"I thank Lloyd for being such a damn good stick [pilot] and for bringing my dad home," he said.

Flynn's son Bob felt much the same way.

"We've just got so much respect for these guys," he said.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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