Quentin C. Aanenson, in Tribute
By Thomas D. Jones
Quentin C. Aanenson, WWII fighter pilot and understated witness to the physical and psychic wounds of that war, earned national recognition fifteen years ago, when his self-written video documentary A Fighter Pilot’s Story aired on public television. Aanenson, who died on December 28, 2008 at the age of 87, was that fighter pilot of the title, surely one of the most reflective American warriors of the Second World War.
Aanenson was born and raised in Luverne, Minnesota, but in recent decades was a life insurance executive and resident of Bethesda, Maryland. He set out in the early 1990s to make for his family a record of his combat experiences flying the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber in 1944-45, supporting Eisenhower’s GIs as they advanced from Normandy’s beaches all the way into the heart of Germany.
He fought a very dangerous war, dive-bombing and strafing the German army from low altitude. Aanenson was over the D-Day invasion beaches in June 1944, and he directed air strikes as a forward air controller through the American crossing of the Rhine in March 1945. His frank observations of how the brutality of war affected his own life during and after combat offered today’s Americans some of the most revealing insights into what “the Greatest Generation” experienced in World War II.
Aanenson’s video combined his own photographs with images and film garnered from the National Archives, woven together with his memories and excerpts from his letters home. He wrote to one particular girl: Jacqueline Greer, a secretary he had met at the airfield in Baton Rouge where he trained in the powerful Republic P-47. Jackie was his confidant, and his letters home to her, and her replies, formed the narrative backbone of the moving A Fighter Pilot’s Story. The love Aanenson expressed to her and the support Jackie lent him in those letters proved a welcome island of tenderness in the swirl of combat that surrounded him for nine months.
Word of Aanenson’s powerful story soon spread beyond his family and friends and led to a 1993 broadcast on Maryland public television. A Fighter Pilot’s Story went on to air nationally, adding to the historical tribute being paid to America’s WWII veterans to mark the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Aanenson’s introspection was rare among fighter pilots, men of few words, selected not for their self-awareness but for aggressiveness in the air. They typically let their record in combat do the talking. Quentin Aanenson was an exception. Co-author June English and I included one of his letters home to Jackie in our 1998 book for young people, chronicling the nation’s military history. His words, telling her what he was going through, how the deaths of close friends affected him, were direct even as they tried to spare her the horrors he saw every day from this Thunderbolt. Aanenson’s letter helped us bring home to today’s young Americans what it meant to be a citizen-soldier in World War II.
Flying with the 391st Fighter Squadron of the 366th Fighter Group, Aanenson saw much of death and destruction as the Allies pushed the German army across France and penetrated Hitler’s Reich. Attacking rail yards in Rouen, France in July 1944, his Thunderbolt took a direct hit from a deadly German 88mm antiaircraft shell. The fuse failed to explode; he flew the battered plane back to base. On August 3, German flak over Vire again caught his plane, damaging his controls and setting his cockpit afire. Battle damage had jammed his canopy; he couldn’t bail out. Trapped, Aanenson determined not to burn alive in the cockpit: he dove his plane, “looking like a comet,” straight toward the ground. But the steep, high-speed plunge extinguished the fire, and the 23-year-old pilot somehow got the Thunderbolt lined up with his nearby runway. He put the barely controllable P-47 down at 170 mph, but a blown tire caused the damaged landing gear to collapse, spinning the big fighter around. The impact tore loose his shoulder harness and cracked his skull against the gunsight. Two ground crewmen pulled him from the smoking wreckage, unconscious but alive.
Ninety minutes later, burns bandaged but still suffering from a concussion (which caused blinding headaches for years after), Aanenson managed to stand in front of his mangled fighter for a Picture Post photographer. The image captured a young man, wounded, weary–yet determined to do the job he was assigned until victory was won.
How did he climb into a cockpit to face death again and again? “It changed from patriotism to fighting for my buddies and the guys on the front lines,” he told me in June 2006 in an interview for a new book about the Thunderbolt men.
Assigned in the winter of 1945 to direct air strikes from an observer’s post on the front lines, Aanenson lived and fought with the GIs he had helped so often from the air. On Feb. 23, near Duren, Germany, an enemy shell exploded in his post in the great hall of a ruined castle, spraying him with bits of what had once been a soldier’s body. He calmly brushed off the gore and got back on the radio, vectoring more Thunderbolts onto the target.
After surviving 75 combat missions, Aanenson rotated home in March 1945, and a month later married his sweetheart, Jackie. Their marriage, forged in the harrowing separation experienced by so many wartime couples, thrived for 63 years.
Producer Ken Burns featured the Aanensons’ story in his epic 2007 documentary The War. Thrust into that devastating conflict, Quentin Aanenson faced its horrors again and again, and fought determinedly to bring his country victory. Ninety of his fellow pilots from his 366th Fighter Group didn’t make it home. He closed A Fighter Pilot’s Story with these words:
Only rarely, now, in my dreams or nightmares, do I revert to those days of death and despair that took place so long ago. I see the faces of my buddies who were killed. I see them as they were ‑‑ while those of us who survived grow old ‑‑ they will be forever young. I will always remember them ‑‑ and I will always wonder how it was that I escaped their fate.
Aanenson’s powerful postwar testimony reminds us of that sacrifice, freely offered up by so many to guarantee the liberty we enjoy today. With Quentin Aanenson’s fellow airmen, and grateful Americans everywhere, I mourn his passing, even as we remember his eloquence and courage.
Thomas D. Jones, pilot and veteran shuttle astronaut, is the author (with Robert F. Dorr) of Hell Hawks! (Zenith, 2008) the true story of a band of Thunderbolt brothers who fought in the air alongside Quentin C. Aanenson.
December 28, 2009