I’ll save you the squinting - there are 133 bombs painted on her nose. Eventually, two more would be added for a career total of 135 combat missions. To put those figures into perspective, on average, a B-24 was expected to last only 65 missions.
I wasn’t able to figure out precisely how many different crews took Miss America for her hellish rides but I’ll guess at 10. A hundred guys, of which Howard Jensen was merely one.
Howard was a Flight Engineer, an on-board doctor, tasked with making sure the engines, electronics, hydraulics and fuel worked the way they were intended. Or, if you’re a child of the 70s like me, he was “Scotty” on Star Trek.
“Ah’can’t give’ya aneh’more power cahptun!”
But today, Howard is just shy of 90, works out at his gym four-five days a week, treats his wife of 60+ years like a best-buddy (which she is) and remains, at heart, a Flight Engineer.
Typically, there'd be a story here about Howard as a young man in combat. But for some reason, the following seems like the the right one to post. Maybe, maybe not - you decide.
A couple weeks ago, Howard needed a ride some place and circumstances presented themselves that he had a choice of vehicles - a Minivan or (cough cough) a Sports Car. Now, there’s something about “old people” that seems to bring out the Mother in everyone. In a blink, a team of concerned individuals decided that the best car for “Sweet Howard” was the Minivan. Of course! Minivans require little (if any) effort and are far easier than anything (cough cough) you know (cough cough)...
But some smart-ass in the room decided to put the choice to Sweet Old Howard and ask him - “Hey. What do you want the ride in?”
“A minivan?” Howard smiled politely. Then he grit his teeth. “No.”
Gasp. That would mean he would have sit down low. And it would be loud. And he’d need help getting up. And he might not be able to…
"I want the red car."
We burned rubber in the parking lot. “I like this.” he said, scanning the gauges, watching the gears, listening to the engine...later, he told me that he'd spent time researching my car, learning what he could - power curves, compression, reliability... he remains a Flight Engineer, I guess.
I’ve learned a thing about aging. Time is a powerful refinery - people tend to become more of what they already are. It surprises me how often I meet someone in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and think, “I bet they’ll be a blast at 103!” or, unfortunately, “Poor grandkids.”
Back to Miss America. Again, the average B-24 lasted about 65 missions. By then, time, tide and The Nazis were expected to have beaten the old bomber down. But Miss America not only hit the the goal, she doubled it.
So, that begs the question, “Why?” According to Howard, Miss America's success was a bit of luck and a lot of conscientious performance on the part of the many different crews. Something about her inspired her crew to hand her off to the next with the kind of pride that improves the odds for long life.
"I couldn't be a pilot but I still wanted airplanes, so I became a Gunner and a Flight Engineer. It isn't so much about getting what you want as it is being the best at what you can."
Not having interviewed any other of Miss America’s crews, I can only speculate on their motivations. But I’ve decided they had to have been a lot like Howard - Men who believed their task was worth doing well regardless of the odds.
I think it was Ray Mitchell who told me that there were guys who decided to die before they died. Subconsciously at least, and sure enough, it seemed that they did. And then, there are guys who decide they're going to live before they've lived (make sense?) - like Howard.
“Howard? You really should ride in the Minivan."