The Memphis Belle rolled wings level at 1,000 feet above the ground over the "Initial Point," an irregular patch of red Piedmont clay amid the new green of spring, on our run-in line to the target. The late afternoon sun in our eyes reduced visibility to a mile and a half as we stared intently through the windshield, searching for memorized landmarks. The target was nine miles away and we were traversing a mile every 12 seconds, leaving no time to consult a map. Flying into the sun instead of coming out of it violated normal rules of engagement, but this was not a bombing run, nor was it World War II, and this Memphis Belle was not a B-17. It was an aviator's memorial salute in a B-1B bomber and the objective was to be seen clearly from the ground. Somewhere up ahead a crowd of grateful citizens had assembled in a cemetery behind a little country church in western North Carolina. They were there to honor an American hero. Thomas Ferebee, the Enola Gay bombardier who pickled off the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, ending World War II, was being laid to rest. The tension mounted as the miles streaked by under the drooping nose of the B-1, officially called the Lancer, driven by Major "Blinkie" Smithie of the Georgia Air National Guard. We had only one chance to get it right and there had already been a major adjustment. After we had taken off at the precise time needed to give us a few extra minutes for contingencies, the funeral director relayed a message by cell phone, forwarded to our cockpit en route, that our Time-over-Target needed to be moved up 18 minutes. That's not a problem for a sleek bomber with four powerful engines and wings that can be swept back 65 degrees in flight, making it look and perform much more like a rocket than the original World War II Memphis Belle. Blinkie advanced the throttles and we accelerated like a Harley Davidson. It was an extraordinary providence that put this writer in that cockpit on such a momentous occasion. I'm a fighter pilot from another era, a veteran of 268 combat missions in an F-100 in Vietnam. By the grace of God and generosity of the Georgia "Bones" (that's B-1 without the hyphen), I was getting an orientation flight in one of America's best peacekeepers. As bombers go, the Bone is just a big, fast, nimble fighter, complete with control stick between the legs. We were less than 30 seconds from the target now and recognition would have to be instantaneous. "Cunni" and "Buckit," our offensive and defensive systems officers, called out course corrections over the intercom from their battle stations filled with a dazzling array of electronics, all beyond the comprehension of old vets like Thomas Ferebee and me. Then, out of the haze, a meandering country road materialized with cars parked bumper-to-bumper, right on the nose. We passed over the mourners at a respectfully slow funeral pace-300 knots-with wings spread like a gliding goose. Then Blinkie tapped the afterburners, pulled the nose up, banked to the right, and that thoroughly modern Memphis Belle spiraled upward above our departed brother-in-arms as if our supersonic angel were transporting his soul to heaven. Invisible and insignificant as my role was, chills ran up my spine. It was over, but the world is still a dangerous place, and the citizen-soldiers of the Georgia Air National Guard had a critical mission to practice. We swept the wings back again and flew off on a simulated strike sortie. Blinkie and the boys put that beautiful Bone through its paces, and I experienced firsthand its amazing capabilities, a mighty comforting memory in the middle of the night. This Memorial Day, while gratefully acknowledging the enormous debt we owe heroes like Thomas Ferebee, thank God for the living ones as well. The price of freedom is patriots willing to die for God, duty, honor, and country; citizens willing to spend their free time as Reservists and National Guardsmen; and forthright political leadership willing to use these living, breathing national treasures prudently. America has always been blessed with courageous men in the first two categories who meet a demanding code of conduct. We would most honor them by holding our elected officials to the same standards. Pray that this year America might elect a leader who could say with authority and clear conscience, as Paul said to the Corinthians, "Imitate me." Editor's note: Thomas Ferebee (1919-2000) was buried near Mocksville, N.C., on March 24, 2000.
-J.D. Wetterling is the author of Son of Thunder, a historical novel based on his experiences as a fighter pilot in Vietnam