Sons of Men - Tribute to American Heroes

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As the warbird made its final pass overhead Thursday, two men watched, one marveling and one wishing.

For Gregory Kenny, seeing his dad back in the saddle of a P-51 Mustang heightened the admiration inspired in childhood from faint scrapbook images of the World War II ace.

For Jerry Olson, the moment would have been sweeter only if his dad could have been there too, flanked by his favorite wingman -- just like old times.

Still, every so often, the stars align just right. The sons had neither met nor known of their dads' bond 64 years ago. And they might never have known if not for a confluence of coincidences.

With his dad approaching 85, Kenny reckoned revisiting his heroic past the perfect birthday gift. In March, he contacted Stallion 51 Corp., a Kissimmee group that provides flight training in vintage aircraft. He booked a $3,050 hour-long flight in a P-51, the aircraft in which Lt. Edward Kenny flew 85 missions during World War II with the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron.

"For me," said Kenny, 55, of Cincinnati, it meant "a chance to experience a bit of my dad's journey in life."

Olson's father's journey ended nine years ago, at age 81. A week ago, he got the notion to honor his dad by experiencing shades of being a 20-something dodging Messerschmitt Bf 109s on about 80 recon missions ahead of Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army.

He e-mailed Stallion 51 for information, noting that his dad, Lt. Elmer T. Olson, had flown with the 12th Tactical Recon Squadron.

Julia Mulcahy, Stallion 51's scheduling maven, noticed the coincidence and e-mailed Olson: Might his dad have known Edward Kenny, who soon would be flying with Stallion 51? Olson searched his dad's military mementos.

Search pays off

"When I first saw that e-mail, a light bulb went off," said Olson, 62, of Seabrook, Texas. "I said, 'I think I've seen that name in the [flight] logbook.' I immediately got the logbook and went through it, and I was just numb."

Did they know each other? And how.

From Dec. 27, 1944, to March 9, 1945, Olson flew all 18 of his missions with Kenny, including this February 1944 mission chronicled in Aerial Reconnaissance: The 10th Photo Recon Group in World War II:
  "The 12th TAC R dispatched eight missions to check rail traffic and marshaling yards behind Third Army's front, one flown by Lts. Elmer Olson and Edward Kenny, who found the yards quite active at Giessen, Fulda, and Hanau."

Olson knew he had to meet the man who had his dad's back on all those flights.

"From the Battle of the Bulge [onward], Edward was the only person he flew with," Olson said. "They're so few of these guys left, they're passing away so fast, and the circumstances, the coincidences that had to happen for us getting together. What are the odds?"

On Wednesday, Olson arrived in Kissimmee in his Cessna.

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'His dad all over again'

"When he climbed out of his airplane, I thought, 'My God -- here's his dad all over again,' " said Edward Kenny of Garden City, N.Y. For Olson, it was almost paternal.

"Edward has these same crystal-blue eyes that my dad had," Olson said. "I looked at that, you know, and [thought], 'Here he is looking back at me again.' "

On Thursday, Edward Kenny climbed into the converted dual cockpit of the "Crazy Horse" with Eric Huppert, a former Air Force pilot. Soon after, he was cleared for his 86th mission. This time, there would be no enemy airfields to skirt, no pitchforks from angry farmers to dodge, or another Focke-Wulf Fw 190 to force into a belly landing.

"It could come out as bragging," he said, "but I really felt that reconnaissance played a very significant role in the war, specifically for Patton's Third Army. He always knew what was five miles, 50 miles ahead of him -- the bridge was out, a road was not there, tanks were over here."

As the plane descended, two men united by their fathers' bond stood by, giddy. As Crazy Horse cantered in, Gregory waved. His dad raised his thumb high. "Woo-whee! You did it, Dad."

The aging ace unstrapped his helmet, got out and, as he had many times, briefed the ranks.

"That was awesome," he said, pumping his fist and swabbing tears. The only thing missing, he said, was the artillery. And his flying mate -- who has gone ahead to scout things out..

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Lieutenant Elmer T. Olson poses for his official squadron photograph sitting in the cockpit of a 12 TRS Mustang somewhere in Europe in the winter of 1944. Elmer’s is the classic story of the American heartland hero of the Second World War. Born to strong Scandanvian roots in Minnesota, he was a working man from a factory town, who, put down his tools, picked up a gun, joined the fight he didn’t start nor want and defeated the Master Race, saving the world from chaos and darkness. His, like his wingman Kenny’s, is the quintessential tale of the Greatest Generation.

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Elmer was born and grew up in Grand Meadow, Minnesota out on the windswept and icy plain of the heartland along the Iowa border. When Elmer Olson was born, there were only 1,200 hardy souls in Grand Meadow. Today there are less than 1,000. Back then, a young buck growing up in this small town knew all the beautiful girls in town by name. Elmer knew Virginia from childhood, dated her after high school in 1936 and married her in the hot summer of 1941. Six months later, the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor and their lives changed rapidly.

Elmer enlisted in the US Army in the fall of 1942 and was selected for pilot training. He wandered throughout the South during his pilot training - Souther Field in Americus, Georgia; Craig Field in Selma, Alabama; Thompsonville, Georgia and finally Key Field, Mississippi for advanced reconnaissance fighter training. Up until the mid 1990s, Key Field was still the home of a tactical reconnaissance fighter squadron - the 186th TRS of the Mississippi Air National Guard.

In the photo above, Elmer squats on the wing of his personal P-51 D Mustang “Ginny” which he named for his wife Virginia. He returned safely to Ginny’s arms in 1945. For a while he continued assembling sewing machines in Rockford, Illinois, then became an insurance salesman. By the late 1950s he was tired of the life of a salesman and took a job as a milkman.  He worked from 3 AM in the morning until 2 PM and then went golfing. He was happy.  Like so many of the veterans of that period, American and Canadian, Elmer’s fight for the liberation of Europe at the controls of the most exotic fighting machine of the day, lies in stark contrast to the peaceful, loving life he would lead afterwards. From fighter pilot to milkman. From Nurnberg to Rockford. From conquerer to golfer. From life to death and back to life. We all give thanks this Thanksgiving to men like Elmer and his wingman Ed.

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“Poor old Ginny-Ann” states Olson’s photo album caption. Elmer’s personal Mustang "Ginny” sits forelornly atop jacks after a belly landing at an Allied airfield. Her distinctive P-51 belly scoop had been sheared off. Landing accidents were common in these dangerous times. His wingman Ed Kenny damaged another Mustang (s/n 42-103358) in a landing accident in St Dizier, France in November, 1944.

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Elmer Olson, stands atop a hangar in Furth, Germany just after VE day.  Employing his best recon skills, honed from months of fighting, he scans the horizon for the greatest friend of American servicemen anywhere - Bob Hope. Along with Bob Hope came comedian and trombone playing Jerry Cologna whose handlebar mustache was almost as iconic as Hope’s nose. Elmer, Ed and the boys of the 12th had a little surprise in store for Hope and Cologna upon their arrival.

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Bob Hope and Jerry Cologna stand by to do a mock champagne launch of their freshly painted name-sake Mustang (S/N 42-103613) named Shovelnose and Handlebar in honour of the 10th PRG’s superstar guests. The aircraft honoured with this paint scheme was none other than Lt. Edward Kenny’s aircraft. As memorable as this moment was for men like Olson and Kenny, it was also the same for Hope who wrote about it in his 1945 book So This is Peace. In it he wrote:  "From Darmstadt we went to Furth, and did an hour or so of stuff for the HQ men of the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, a P-51 Mustang fighter squadron [sic]. The first thing I saw when I landed was a Mustang with me and Shovelsnoot [sic] painted across the nose. My attorneys are still trying to contact the pilot, Lt. E. J. Kenny. I'd have dealt with him myself, but he was a pretty big guy and I wanted to see Berlin with both eyes." The nose art of Shovelnose and Handlebar was so unique, that it is still available as a model-makers decal today.

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Olson (right) and Lt Miner of the 12th pose with a USAAF Spitfire IX.  During the summer of 1943 the 12th TACR pilots were on Detached Service with the Royal Air Force flying combat missions over Europe. In January 1944, the 12th was attached to the Ninth Air Force and began flying the Spitfire Mark Vs. This photo however, must be from later judging by the snow on the ground and the fact that Olson arrived in theatre after D-Day.  Just prior to D-Day the 12th as part of the 67th Tactical Photo Reconnaissance Group received a Presendential Ciation for the reconnaisance photo missions of the Normandy landing sites.

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A 12th TRS, 10 PRG Mustang overflies a captured airfield in Germany after the war. In the foreground, the hulk of a P-38 Lightning rests at the edge of the airfiled with 4 P-51 Mustangs on the flight line in the middle ground.

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Judgement at Nurnberg.
One of Elmer’s squadron mates in the 12th, Lt. R. K. Marple, shot this overhead of none other than Nurnberg’s Zepplinfeld Stadium where Hitler, Goebbels, Speer, Himmler and Hess and their army of robots, henchmen, thugs and brainwashed lined up to celebrate the ensuing darkness they would bring down on the world. Now instead of the rows of automatons, there are the rows of Allied ambulances, jeeps and half-tracks while bomb craters show the harvest of misery they reaped.

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This was the scene just 6 years before Marple’s photo was taken. The Master Race and its military might, theatrical threats, faux legends, oaths of evil intent - beaten back at great cost, but beaten back none the less - by a sewing machine factory worker from Minnesota - and many thousands like him.

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Pilots and officers of the 12th TRS at the end of the war. Kenny and Olson sit in the middle of the second row.
 

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The milk men, the ticket agents and the shoe salesmen line up proudly in May 1945 after having defeated the so-called Master Race. They came from all across America, learned the craft of war, shared hardship and danger, friendship and loss, and then returned to lives of extraordinary compassion and simplicity.  But for a time, they were the most powerful men on earth. Elmer Olson is 6th from the left in the front row. Ed Kenny is second from the left in the back row.

The 12th, along with the 15th and 162nd TAC Recon Squadrons made up the 10th Photo Recon Group. This group was critical to Patton's Third Army advances across Europe. As an indication of their value to Patton, part way through the war they were ordered to not attack anything unless they were attacked first. The photos, visual reconnaissance, identifying high value targets, and providing artillary targetting were so important to the Third Army, they didn't want to risk losing any of the pilots or planes.  As an example, Edward Kenny received the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission where he located an enemy railyard near Halle, Germany, and stayed over the target under heavy anti-aircraft fire, while directing allied attacks until the target was completely destroyed.
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Homeward bound, newly-promoted Captain Elmer Olson (3rd from left) leans against the rusting side of a troopship, anxious to see his beloved Ginny again.  

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