My Grandfather’s Eulogy

When I was in college and taking a weekend off at Grandma and Grandad’s house, my—to my mind—much deserved sleep was once rudely interrupted, not by my grandmother’s banging of kitchen pots and utensils as many of you know would have been par for the course, but by my grandfather…who threw open my door at some awful hour, shook my bed with his well-worn cowboy boots and announced in his booming voice, “c’mon boy, rise and shine, yur wastin’ daylight!” As you all know he was not one to be denied. He was ready for the lake, or for some project he was working on, and he thought it a crime that I should miss out just because I wanted to sleep.

That’s how his grandchildren remember him, isn’t it. Wearing those brown khaki shirts and pants and his working boots, his cigar—in earlier times—tucked snugly at the corner of his mouth, and he ready to do something. We remember the stories about him waterskiing on a lawn chair and slowly sinking into the water at a ride’s conclusion, tilting his head just so in order to keep his cigar dry. We remember that little shuffle he did when he was on to something good, and that mischievous twinkle in his eye that told us there was more to life than perhaps our parents—his own sons and daughters—might be letting on…and probably more than he ever let on to them!

We remember huge family Christmases and epic football games played on pristine grass, perfectly edged and mowed. We remember waterskiing behind him driving the boat and eating watermelon at the cabin near the lake. And we remember the stern but loving judgment on our actions. The “well, let’s get that taken care of” when, for instance, he might pull you into the boat after breaking your nose on a ski and thinking that you just might have ruined your chances of being a pilot. We all remember him as a man who just got things done. He didn’t waste daylight.

I think that came from a place many of us just can’t quite comprehend. What we all know of him came years after the defining moment of his life…likely of an entire generation, and quite possibly the whole of a nation. He was proud of it, but didn’t necessarily think it deserved praise. He knew it was important but didn’t necessarily want it relived. It was his own memory and maybe he didn’t really think it needed to be shared.

Some of you were lucky enough to happen upon him in a talkative mood and in a place that might have reminded him of his days as a 21-yr old B-17 aircraft commander in the 8th Air Force over Europe in 1944 and ’45. You might have heard a few of his stories, but he didn’t share them often. Maybe I can try to explain why.

He trained all over California, at Douglas Field, AZ, Roswell, NM, and Sioux City, Iowa where when forced to counsel one of his men on breaking curfew was told by this gambling young man, “you know, Lt, those fences are to keep the cows out, not to keep the men in!” The same gambler later won enough money during a train ride to London to cover the whole crews’ expenses for a weekend of R and R. When you consider it, you recognize he was really just a kid, in charge of other kids, and about to enter the life-and-death contest of mortal combat in the skies of Europe. He and his crew, with names like Buck Bunney Barrett, Wolski, and Miller plied the skies over Germany, Belgium, France, and Czechoslovakia in B-17s named “Honey” and the “Fort Lansing Emancipator.” They were shot at and shot up many times but he only lost one man when a single round went through the oxygen system and the ball turret gunner died of a lack of oxygen at that high altitude. He forced his mechanic to remount the bomb racks numerous times until he realized the tail gunner was loading bricks in the back end and chucking them out over Germany from 30,000 feet!—just for the war effort. He landed away from the home field several times due to fuel or foul weather but always knew he was back at Ridgewell Army Airfield in the gentle hills of East Anglia, Great Britain at the sighting of the old church tower in the middle of town. He had to ditch his airplane in Belgium near the end of the war, was forced to leave one of his crew in the able care of a German doctor, and spent time avoiding capture. He once walked into the street and confronted a German officer some distance away. They stared each other down, neither reaching for their pistols, and eventually turned and walked away. He said he guessed that officer wasn’t issued any ammunition either! Some things in the military never change and figuring out the rationale of the supply system is a constant mystery. Though he told me much more than he would share even with my father, he didn’t talk much about the dirty business of war he knew all too well. A little over a decade ago, I finally figured out why.

On Feb 11th 1999, just south of Tallil, Iraq, the sky lit up in front of my airplane with the black and white bursts of anti-aircraft fire. It’s a salient moment in the life of man when he knows with certainty the ultimate consequences of war. It’s quite another when he realizes it is by his own hand those consequences occur.

Thirteen years ago today, February 24th, I came to understand both in a night lit only by the blasts of AAA and the eerie motion of tracers rising into the sky. I’m sure my grandfather hoped I would never know those things…indeed it is the lasting hope of all of those who have ever known war. It is certainly my hope for my own sons. He did not teach me those consequences, because he understood what I now know. The only way to understand the depth of war is to experience it for oneself. What I hope for you to understand is that he wasn’t holding back. He wasn’t closed off or withdrawn. He simply knew the futility of explaining something one can only truly know firsthand.

Although he told me once he understood the necessity of what he was charged to do, he was, I believe, a reluctant warrior. It was perhaps his generation’s—as Tom Brokaw would later label them, the Greatest Generation—it was his generation’s greatest gift. My grandfather was a member of a generation of reluctant warriors, who knowing war’s true cost, bequeathed to us the longest period of peace, stability, and prosperity the world has ever known. Nothing could have brought this concept into sharper focus than watching my grandfather walk across a stage at Sheppard Air Force Base, September 13th, 1991, and before pinning brand new pilot wings on my chest, stopping to shake the hand of a Luftwaffe colonel—a German officer and the 2nd in command of a USAF flying training wing. It was a poignant moment and the culmination of his success, and the success of all those he served with.

I’m a Colonel in the United States Air Force. H.B. Riza was a 1st Lt in the United States Army Air Forces…and as is now plainly obvious, rank alone has never shown the true measure of man. Anything I have ever done is simply dwarfed by his astounding achievement. I stand here as much in awe of him today as the day I first understood my relationship to him and the nature of his defining time.

He often spoke an old aviation maxim that says there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. Perhaps not, but there are old pilots who once were bold. He was one of them. And I think he would be proud to know that if this reluctant warrior achieves the same, it will have been two lives well-lived.

Thank you for honoring him, his service, and his family with your presence today. I am truly grateful.