History in my backyard, remembered by L.E. Taylor
BACK IN MY EARLY YEARS as a freelance advertising artist, I became acquainted with a motley assortment of lads who’d been, as the saying went, “overseas” during The War. One of those fellows was a Brit by the name of David Lawrence. “Dy-vid” I called him, after the way he himself pronounced his own given name. Somehow, in 1962, “Dive” had found himself adrift in the Detroit advertising mix.
He was a competent freelance copywriter assigned to the company I worked for in-house, and we hit it off. Probably because we were both outsiders and (I dare say), maybe a bit brighter than most of our peers.
After a few collaborations, I learned that Dave Lawrence was ten years older than I, and more tested. In fact, a lot more-so: When I was in high school, for example, Dave had been a young pilot flying supplies to starving civilians in the Berlin Airlift over the Russian post-war blockade. Day and night, non-stop, for nearly a year, volunteer Allied airmen flew all manner of heavy aircraft into and out-of the beleaguered city.
Dave told me he was merely a flight sergeant then, and not a “lef-tenant.” He’d had only a few hours of flight training in the Royal Air Force before his first combat mission. Of course, the war was over in 1945, but the Cold War was hot on its heels. These were perilous times for all of us. Before long, the Korean War would gobble up thousands more young Americans, and I was draft-deferred, learning to march and field strip an M-1 in an ROTC unit of a small Midwest college.
By the end of The War, however, Dave was flying big, lumbering Lancaster bombers in the RAF. When the Berlin crisis came in 1948, he found himself in the cockpit of another cumbersome truck, a USAF B-24 Liberator, a fearsome product of American inventiveness, born in the prairie just west of my hometown in Michigan.
The B-24 was more than a big airplane, it was an airship. Dave told me the Liberator was a barely aerodynamic brute that required athletic strength to wrestle it about the skies. He was not boasting – he was complaining. Dave’s terse cockney opinion bore modest witness to the valor of airmen, American and British, who went aloft in the face of ferocious enemies.
This episode was brought to mind recently when I received an old publicity film issued by the Ford Motor Company for World War II theater viewing. I recalled those wartime days when the nation’s first no-stoplight “freeway” was carved through the center of Old Detroit, and extended westward for another thirty miles to the magnificent war plant at Willow Run.
This single Michigan facility enclosed 3.5 million square feet, and the production line was over a mile long. But those are just specs. For a more revealing snapshot of mid-century history as it roared over our Heartland, click here:
The Willow Run plant and air field are still visible from the former freeway, now Inter State Highway 94, Detroit to Chicago. And back.
Aircraft still dot the skies over farm land and neighborhoods in a steady monotony of takeoffs and landings. In the shimmering heat of August, in white blizzards blowing horizontal out of steel skies, men and women in the thousands still team up to work overlapping day-night shifts. After all, there’s a war to be won.
It’s all still there. But only in boyhood memories.