ALBANY – There was one thing Jewellee Kuenstler never figured out while talking with Ray Perry. How in the world did he get those pictures home?
The late father of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry served as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II. His letters home during the war and recollections are gathered in a new book called “Heavy Date Over Germany: The Life and Times of B-17 Tail Gunner Ray Perry.”
“(It) was just remarkable, he managed to take pictures while he was in the B-17 and get them home,” Kuenstler said. “That was very hard because if you tried to just mail them home, the censor would take them out.”
Yet Perry, who died April 27, 2017, somehow managed it. They appear throughout the book, some showing his view from the bomber’s “stinger,” others capturing a string of bombs falling from other aircraft as the flight of aircraft arrived at a target.
A first-hand account
Kuenstler is listed as the editor of the book, remarking that it’s really told in Perry’s voice through the letters that he wrote to his parents.
“He was a very faithful writer, like one or two every week, so he literally told his own story,” she said. “All I did was put them together.”
Interspersed with the letters is Kuenstler’s own research of what was happening in World War II and in Europe to provide context for the reader. Rick Perry wrote the forward for the book, and he joined Kuenstler on Tuesday afternoon at the Shackelford County Library. Also there to sign copies of the book were his sister Milla Perry Jones and their mother, Amelia.
“Has anybody told you about Heavy Date? It was the name of the plane,” Jones Perry said. “It was this girl … this blonde,girl painted on the front of the plane and she was ‘Heavy Date.’”
She said a painting of the airplane used to grace the office of Gov. Perry at the state Capitol.
“A lot of my peers and Rick’s peers, the kids didn’t know a thing about their parents in World War II,” she said. “I thought everybody did.
“The other guys that were on the plane with Daddy, Rick and I knew them. We knew them better than we knew some of our real family.”
Three dozen ‘dates’ with her
Perry flew 35 missions out of Horham, England, in Heavy Date.
“Thirty-five missions with the same pilot, most of the same crew,” Kuenstler said. “It was unheard of to go 35 with the same pilot, it was just amazing.”
For the first few missions, it didn’t seem nearly as bad as Perry had thought it would be. But then the harsh reality of war made itself readily apparent.
“I don’t remember being scared because I was so focused as we were being attacked,” he told Kuenstler. “But I saw my friend dead and when we had to pull him out of the ball turret. That was hard.”
Chuck Buda was the friend’s name and the loss was only made heavier because the young man’s 19th birthday. Buda’s death bothered Perry, perhaps because up to that point, the war had not felt as dangerous as it should have.
“It bothered him because on the fifth mission, he had said, if there’s no more to it than this, it’s a milk run,” Kuenstler said of Perry. “And Buda was killed on the next mission.”
The memory of the man stayed with Perry through his life. His wife remembered how Perry would contemplate traveling to rural Ohio, where Buda grew up.
“All the years we were married he kept wanting to go up there so bad, but he didn’t really have any idea whether his parents were still alive,” Amelia said.
Memories of a lifetime
Rick Perry said his dad never came right out and said, “This is what I did in the war.” But he didn’t avoid the subject, either.
Sometimes, family trips were planned to Colorado to visit surviving members of the Heavy Date crew, or they would come to Paint Creek in Haskell County, sit in the garage with a cold drink, and perhaps reminisce.
In the 1970s, Gov. Perry was C-130 pilot stationed at Dyess Air Force Base but would sometimes be assigned to duty in England near where his father flew out of during the war. Years later, in 2000, he took his parents back to England and Europe for his father to revisit those places as well.
“When I took Dad back to his old base, he had never been back and this was 56 years after,” Perry said. “This town was tiny; it had a church but it didn’t have a pub, that’s how small it was.
“If you got a town in England that doesn’t have a pub, it’s small.”
They flew over to Normandy and the governor recalled how his father was sitting in the American Cemetery there on Memorial Day when a B-17 flew over.
“That was the best trip I ever took with my dad,” Perry said. “To take him back and to walk those old haunts with him, to talk to him.
“It was just a magnificent trip to kind of tie together our brief careers in the Air Force.”
Kuenstler’s motive in putting this book together was pretty straight forward. She wanted to tell the story of the average soldier using Ray Perry’s experiences as an example.
“Like I say, he didn’t win the Medal of Honor, but he made sacrifices, he did these wonderful things,” she said. “This is the story of a thousand other soldiers that aren’t going to get their story told.”
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