We have no shortage of heroes to honor on Veterans Day. So on this eleventh day of the eleventh month, I always think of the two greatest men I have known who served our country: My grandfathers.
Both of my grandfathers served their country in very different ways during World War II: My maternal grandfather in the Navy; my paternal grandfather at Lockheed.
My material grandfather was a dentist, who married a beauty queen and adopted two daughters. He worked his way through dental school at a candy shop.
The son of an Iowa farmer, he served as a corpsman on the USS Boxer during World War II. She was a brand new aircraft carrier built for the invasion of Japan.
Shortly before my grandfather’s 90th Birthday, he shared with us his life story. Below he discussed his service during World War II.
One day on duty in the sick bay, my grandfather treated the CAG. In their discussion, my grandfather expressed his desire to go for a flight off the USS Boxer. The CAG offered a flight to pick-up mail the next morning and for my grandfather to meet him on the flight deck at 0800.
My grandfather found himself helping in a late night surgery to save a sailor’s life. Since the surgery went past 0200, the medical team was allowed to sleep in. My grandfather missed his flight.
The CAG had a power failure on take off. He crashed in the ocean, body never recovered.
My paternal grandfather was Harold William Lowe Gilliland. People called him Gill. I called him Papa.
Papa was born in 1912, the son of the Sheriff in Ventura, California.
When my grandfather was 20 years old at Cal Poly, he served in what was an early version of the California Air National Guard. While working the flight line, he went to set the propeller on the training plane. The last pilot left the ignition engaged. As Papa set the propeller into position, the engine started and struck him.
Papa was cut into two uneven pieces. He described the experience to me when I was a boy: Knocked to the ground in a blur, seeing his left arm flaying around wildly.
The doctors did not expect him to live.
Harold William Lowe Gilliland recovered fully from what should have been a fatal injury. However, his dreams of being a pilot ended in the blur of a propeller blade.
Papa went on to become an aeronautical engineer. He was Amelia Earhart’s mechanic who specialized on the fuel system for her around the world flight. “Gill” was also given the honor of pushing the gangway to the side of the Lockheed Electra for Earhart.
Howard Hughes had a direct line to my grandfather’s house. Hughes’ phone calls in the middle of the night drove my grandmother crazy.
Papa met Orville Wright on Wright’s last flight. The pilots on the flight were Hughes and the president of TWA.
My grandfather was in charge of nighttime B-17 production at Burbank during World War II. Papa befriended the janitor at the Burbank B-17 factory.
I always found it impressive that the man who was on a first name basis with the president of Lockheed was a buddy with the young man who swept the floors.
The young janitor turned 18 and enlisted in the Army. He came back to the Burbank plant to show his pride in wearing his country’s uniform. He wanted to say good-bye to his friend before shipping out.
The guard at the front gate did not let the young soldier in the plant, because of the color of his skin.
The young soldier died liberating Europe.
My grandfather regretted not saying good-bye until the end of his life.
In 1985, Papa and I toured an old B-17 at the Oshkosh Airshow. There was an old pilot in the cockpit that engaged my grandfather in deep conversation about the Flying Fortress. The pilot asked my grandfather how he knew so much about the plane. My grandfather’s answer was very short: “I built them.”
I will never forget the pilot’s response: “Then thank you for getting me home.”
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
President Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
The United States is a great country because of the Americans who have made it great. My grandfathers were just two men in the long line of people who served their country to help make our nation great.
Many who did the fighting and dying never had the opportunity to go home; they never had a chance to enjoy a long life. We cannot forget those who never got to go home, whether they crashed in the sea or died liberating another country.
The United States will always have those who threaten our freedom and way of life. And we will always have those who take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. When you see one has served, or is serving, thank them.