Friday, May 19, 2017

Austin to Big Bend and A Tribute To My Dad And The 381st B17 Bomb Group

After a great week with Adam and the grandkids, it was time to move on into all new territory for Rhonda and me.  A part of this leg of our travels was a visit to Pyote, TX, where my father and thousands of others got their basic training in preparation for their service in World War II.  I had heard stories of this little town "In The Middle Of Nowhere, TX" all my life and would finally have a chance to at least stand on the grounds and experience just a little of what my father experienced and shared with me so often.  About 15 years ago, I attended one of my Dad's annual Air Force reunions with the 381st B17 Bomb Group and it is one of the most special times we ever shared together. I will save our visit to Pyote, TX for the end of this blog and I hope you will at least take the time to read that.

We decided to take the Highway 90 route out of San Antonio rather than I-10 and I am glad we did - it was beautiful.  The terrain changes very quickly heading west and so does the plant life.

Typical scenery below for hundreds of miles.  

Crossing the Pecos River.

And the closer Highway 90 got to the border, the more we saw of the Border Patrol.  We went through several of their vehicle check stations during this 3-day leg of the trip.  The only questions we were ever asked were "Are you US citizens?" and "Is anyone traveling inside the RVwith you?"  In any event, the sight of all the border patrol activity gives a sense of reality to all that you see in the news regarding the illegal immigrant and illegal drug problems.

We had planned to stop in Del Rio but decided to continue on to an area with several popular and scenic towns close together - Alpine, Marathon, Marfa, and Ft. Davis.

There are two major attractions in Ft. Davis and we did both of them.  Ft. Davis is named as such because there was a real fort there back in the day.  Apparently, the HWY 90 route was the main route for those pioneers and gold rush folks heading west and Ft. Davis was established to provide protection for them.  Not to diminish the significance and importance of any fort, it was similar to many others we have seen and we have decided to take "forts" in general off of our to-see-and-do list. But the rock formations around it were beautiful and representative of lots of the scenery in that area. Museums and cemeteries are coming off the list also, unless it's something very unique that interests us.  We are primarily interested now in the lay of the land and landscape attractions.

McDonald Observatory is the other main attraction in Ft. Davis.  It is owned and operated by The University of Texas and is a big deal, sits atop hills at an elevation of 6700 feet, and is located there primarily due to the remoteness of the area and minimal man-made light to interfere with their star/moon/planet/galaxy gazing and research.  Here are a couple of the larger telescopes - pretty impressive.

And the inside of the first one above.  It's a big telescope, folks.

 However, even with these attractions, Ft. Davis (population 1200) is not on my favorites list for sure.  I got pulled over by the Sheriff for not using my blinker for two turns in a row and then got stopped by the TX Highway Patrol for speeding when leaving town. (Even Rhonda agrees I was not speeding - just going from 55 to 70 mph where the signs were literally right next to each other.) The Sheriff just gave me a verbal warning but the HP actually wrote one.  But no tickets and that's a good thing.  

And to close on Ft. Davis with a very cool thing, we saw our first road runner there.  Apparently, they are common in this area.  Our RV Park back at Alpine had a crossing sign and depiction of one by one of the buildings.

Here's the real thing in the parking lot of the observatory.  Pretty cool.

Big Bend and the Rio Grande are definitely the highlight of this area.  The scenery is just beautiful.

  It was about a 90-mile ride from our RV Park in Alpine and we were expecting an "oasis" of some sort at the town of Turlingua as you approach the Rio Grande River.  Not sure why we expected that, just did.  However, this is the typical housing there amidst nothing but rock, rock, more rock, and dust.  We felt like we were in a very poor third-world country.

A cemetery in town.

But as you continue westbound along the Rio Grande, things get better again.  Here's our first view  of the Rio Grande (up close and personal, as in Rhonda put her feet in it) at the town of Lajitas - USA on the left and Mexico on the right.  

Here are some of the more panoramic views further west as you get into some of the river gorge areas.  You will note not much water in the Rio Grande.  This is the dry season but nevertheless, one of the overlook guides said 95% of the river's water is now used by the ever-increasing population and farmland in the basin.  

Impressive rock formations.

And teepees at one of the overlook areas.

It was a long day along the Rio Grande and we decided to treat ourselves to a wonderful meal at The Holland House hotel in Alpine that our son Adam had recommended.  It's an upscale remodeled hotel from the past, nicely done, and great food.  The lobby and courtyard dining area below. 

There were several impressive murals in Alpine also.  Here's our favorite.

And now, Pyote, TX.

My Dad and two of his brothers all left home at the same time to join the military and support the WWII effort.  One went to the Navy, another one and Dad went to the Air Force (his third brother and the baby in the family came along much later and joined the Army).  Springs Mills is/was a big deal in my hometown of Lancaster, SC and all 3 brothers had worked there.  I did too for 2 summers while in high school.  I was a "gofer" - go fer this, go fer that, go fer something else.  This picture is from "The Springs Bulletin" recognizing the 3 McManus brothers.

Dad was assigned to the 381st B17 Bomb Group and they were initially sent to Pyote, TX for training.  Dad began training to be a ball-turret gunner and later ruptured an eardrum in a pressure chamber and was unable to continue in that role.  I only saw my father cry three times in his life and when he shared this story with me was one of those.  He said it was the most disappointing day of his life. However, he continued with the group and served in various clerk roles throughout their deployment. The bomb group was an Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress unit in England, stationed at RAF Ridgewell. It flew 296 combat missions, with its last mission being flown on 25 April 1945.  

Here are some photos of Dad at Pyote.  While he was disappointed losing the gunner role, he said one of the big pluses of being a clerk on the base was that he had his own jeep!

I heard stories about Pyote, TX all of my life and got to meet many of the men in those stories when I attended one his Air Force reunions with him in Savannah, GA.  It was two days I will always remember.  The camaraderie these men shared was very special.  One man in particular that Dad had tremendous respect for was Colonel Shackley - I got to have breakfast with Colonel Shackley and hear more stories from him.  I have always wanted to visit Pyote, TX and we were 78 miles away in Alpine. 

I remember Dad saying that "about the only thing going on in the town of Pyote was an occasional train passing by the entrance to the base."  Not much has changed, population 114.  The train tracks are across the street from this sign.

The only remaining evidence of the base that you can stand on today is the original entrance.  The base was nicknamed Rattlesnake Bomber Base because of all the rattlesnake dens that were unearthed during construction.  Here is the entrance today and a picture I found on the internet from back in the day for comparison.

You'll notice Interstate 20 in the background today.  I am glad they at least left the main entrance for history's sake!  An historical marker and plaque are on site documenting that history.

"In remembrance of those who served in the 381st Bomb Group (H) B17."  

If you cross the interstate, you can see a remnant of the main hangar in the distance by the runways which are grown over now.  The land is fenced in farmland and inaccessible to the public.

Here are a couple of aerial shots I found on the internet.  The entrance shown earlier is close to the I20 symbol below.

And here is the layout of the base back in the day.

So, it was a very special time for me and Rhonda - been wanting to do that for many years.  As previously noted, the 381st was deactivated in 1945.  Here's a picture of me and Dad 9 years later - I was one year old.

Over twelve thousand B-17s were built by Boeing. Thirty-five hundred were shot down over Europe. All but a handful have been consigned to the wrecking yard. A few are still flying today. Two hundred and ten thousand airmen flew over Europe. Twenty-six thousand never returned.  Dad lived a blessed life, 3 weeks shy of 82, so many others were denied that.  As noted in the plaque previously :

   "Dedicated to the honor of those who valiantly served and gallantly died in defense of the free world, against tyranny and oppression, so that we all may live in peace and freedom with dignity."

Love you, Dad.  Rest in peace. 

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