Smith: Real heroes

Bill Hartshorn

Bill Hartshorn adjusted the throttle of his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter to keep his flight leader in sight. The two skimmed harrowingly close to the treetops of northern Holland and just below the low-hanging clouds. It was September 1944, and Army Air Corps fighters were assigned to provide air support for British and American paratroopers and glider forces that landed in and around the city of Arnhem the day before.

As Bill and his leader approached their target, a German airfield, dark clouds of exploding anti-aircraft shells surrounded them. Suddenly, a thunderous roar rocked his aircraft. He noted a huge hole in his right wing, only a few feet from his cockpit. Looking inside, he discovered the landing gear had extended. Instinctively, Bill broke away from his leader toward friendly lines. He knew he could not crash land with the gear extended as the aircraft would catastrophically summersault. His only option was to bail out.

Bill threw back the canopy, released the entangling seat harness and oxygen and electrical connections to his cockpit, and dove over the side toward the ground a few hundred feet below. He yanked his parachute "D" ring, and a few seconds later he was lying on his back in the middle of a road. He couldn't stand, because he hit his leg hard against the tail of his P-47 during egress. Within minutes, a U.S. Army ammunition truck arrived, and two friendly soldiers who watched him bail out ran to assist.

They cut his parachute from his harness, helped him into their truck, and dropped him at a nearby medical station. From there, Bill transferred to a succession of hospitals in France, England and the United States.

After a year, his badly broken leg healed, and he resumed his pre-war studies at Dartmouth College. While there he met Gloria, a lovely woman who has been by his side more than 70 years. They would raise three wonderful children and become active in their church and in their Signal Mountain community.

When I was young, I worshipped pilots like Bill Hartshorn. I read book after book about their brave exploits, built and flew models of their planes, attended the Air Force Academy, and flew fighters all around the world for 20 years. But meeting Bill helped awaken me from my boyhood dreams.

photo Roger Smith

"I'm no hero," he told me flatly. "Oh, I felt patriotic enough to want to help stop the Nazis and Japan, but I was motivated far more by flying high-performance fighters. It was a thrill for a young man. The real heroes were those soldiers on the ground." Then, he revealed a wisdom that can only come from 95 years of reflection on the truly important things in life.

When his daughters were young, they became deeply involved with their Christian faith. Bill realized, by comparison, he had only been going through the motions of Christianity - attending church and reading the Bible as he had done since childhood. He hadn't really appreciated a loving God who forgave his sins and offered eternal life. Once he did, he experienced a fulfillment and peace in life he never imagined possible. He no longer was a mere "man in the street," the metaphor his friend and Chattanooga minister Ben Haden often referenced. Bill was all in.

I recently visited Bill, with plans to write about a patriotic hero. But as so often happens, my plans were not God's plans. Instead of writing about Bill, a heroic legend (which this paper has done before), I was reminded what it means to be a humble man, faithful husband, loving father, good neighbor and sincere ambassador for Jesus Christ.

God bless you, Bill Hartshorn. Heroism and courage are displayed many ways, but none are so inspirational as the long life of men and women who live their faith every day.

Roger Smith, a frequent contributor to the Times Free Press, is the author of "American Spirit: The Story of American Individualism."