24 December, 2021

Profile 158: "Mammy Yocum" - Boeing B-29 Superfortress, 468th BG, 792nd BS as crewed by Malen Powell


Have a look at my B-29 sketch above.

Now, close your eyes and try to imagine what it really looked like...

Did you notice the nose art?

* break break *


My lifestyle requires that I 'hit the gym' every day.  Without the gym, I'd be a 300lb potato; working out is the only way I know to achieve any kind of physical fitness in my line of work.  But the essential practice is boring.  And solitary.  I'm not alone in this sentiment.  

Thus, it stands to reason that - social species as we are - there are a group of us that meet in the facility's dry and steam saunas.  Once the notion of being around naked, ugly, sweaty men in their pinnacle of "ick," (wrapping up in towels does not help much) is blocked out,  the conversations that follow make the place fascinating.

A scene from the sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond."
I do not recommend doing internet searches with the words:
"Old men in sauna."


As a twenty+ year gym member, most of the people there know me as "the guy who does war stuff."  I'm seen as a subject-matter expert on aviation, military, politics — an odd irony in that I'm simply a repository of other people's activity.  I know nothing other than what I learn from interviewing other people.  I'm just an observer.  Of history.  I tend to keep my eye's shut in the steam room (and observe with my ears).


Years ago, one of the 'steam room guys' and I got to know each other well enough to recognize each other through the hissing steam —at the time, he was in his 80s and did his swimming/sauna routine about the same time I did my weights; our schedules in the Steam Room coincided.  

We exchanged pleasantries —"Hey."  "Hey."   and "How's it going?"  "Good, you?" But judging from his lack of direct interaction with the steady exchange of other Steam Room Acolytes, I recognized him to be an Observer, too.  

Having participated in a few WWII memorial events, I got to be a pretty-good judge of age and figured him to be about 85.  Backed with a heavy interest in all-things-WWII, I decided to ask the obvious.  But, I'd learned that The Greatest Generation weren't always best approached from the front.  Sometimes, an oblique approach was better. 

In my minds-eye, I remember the moment like this — three in the steam room, the steady hiss of hot fog, the sharp scent of eucalyptus oil and weird acoustics that come from wet ceramic tile and the odd splat of sweaty feet.

Can you picture that?

Ok.  Anyway...

"Did you happen to go overseas in the '40s?"

"Yes," was his reply.

"Really.  Where?"

"North Africa."  Through the steam, I could see his posture hadn't changed and sat hunched, looking at the floor as men tend to do in places like this.  

(Ssssssss...splat, cough, sssssss...)

That was the roundabout-answer to the question I REALLY wanted to ask, "I see you're WWII age.  Did you serve in combat?" (For those of you who are history-challenged, North Africa was not much of tourist destination in the 1940s.)

A few seconds passed and I decided to ask another.  "Anywhere else?"

(Ssssssss...splat, cough, sssssss...)

In a flash, he stood up straight, and without making eye contact, announced to the doorway in a stern voice, "Italy!  And two Purple Hearts if it means anything to you!" And he fairly bolted to the door, obviously uncomfortable with something and obviously DONE with the Steam Room.

Poking around stories of the past is my work, but when it pokes back, I don't always know how to react.  This time, I felt horrible.

So did the other, silent dude, sitting in the mist in the corner... awkward?  Indeed.


As this old guy splatted his way out of the sauna, one hand holding his towel tight, the other strong arming the door, I noticed two ancient scars on his back.  One about nine inches long across his shoulder and the other wrapped around his ribs, perhaps equally as long.  Jagged, thick — these were not the marks of a surgeon but of the butchery of mortal combat. 

Again, I felt horrible.  And it took another year before we got back to pleasantries —"Hey."  "Hey."   and "How's it going?"  "Good, you?" 

Until, one day, the conversation eased back into his combat service and this time, he seemed more interested in talking about his wartime life — "One day, we'll have to get together.  I'll tell you all about it.  All of it."  

The day never came — like everyone on earth, he died.  And like everyone on earth, he died with a story still locked away... and I was left with the sparse framework of Operation Torch, the Invasion of Italy and sobering memory of two ugly scars slashed onto the skin of an old man.

Ok, so this post is supposed to be about B-29s.

Have a look again.

My finished B-29!
© Me.

Did you notice the nose art?   You can BARELY see it.  But getting that bit right took 50% of the time required to render, "Mammy Yocum," the B-29 crewed by gunner SSgt Malen Powell, 792nd Bombardment Squadron, among the first to use the airplane in the historic bombing of mainland Japan in 1944-45.

The piece was created to represent the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) Society at Malen's 100th birthday party to be held on 11 December in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Powell was awarded the honor for his actions over a mission over Japan — in the packed formation, he identified a stick of bombs plummeting from another B-29 as on a collision course with his crew's own B-29 and helped the pilot make lightning-quick course changes to just-barely miss a sure-fire collision.  

This is a photo of bombs leaving the bomb bay of a 792 BS B-29.
I can only imagine what Malen saw...


DFCs aren't handed out like cookies.  And they're no mere 'at'a boy!' awards.  Gads, I wanted to know more about exactly what happened that day... and of course, what happened every other day in Mallen's life (which I found out was fairly stiched together with deeds of community service, profound Christian faith and friendship to many.  

Unfortunately, Malen contracted pneumonia in early December and his ill-health forced the decision to postpone his birthday party for...

"Six months?!" I said aloud, reading the notice.  


Anyway, back to the nose art.  Of all the B-29s he'd crewed, Malen wanted "Mammy Yocum"* to represent his service.  Now, as long as I have good photographic references, I'm pretty amped with nose-art challenges.  But in the case of "Mammy Yocum," I was less-so as only two (kinda) crappy references remained. 

The two lousy photos I had and my cobbled-up scrawl trying to simulate what "Mammy Yocum" would have looked like on the B-29 that Malen crewed.

You don't want to know what it took to figure out what color Mammy's clothes were and you certainly don't want to know how many iterations it took of sketching the iconic character on paper to get my head around how I could draw someone else's vision through someone ELSE'S minds-eye...

But!  The presses were fired up, proofs made, signed, numbered and readied for the party where Malen would be reunited with his airplane to a crowd of VIPs...

...when on 19 December, I opened my email to find a short note from Malen's daughter, "I'm sorry.  I'm trying to contact everyone.  He passed this morning..."


Life is terminal, I get that.  As much as we try to fool ourselves, there's a Higher Order that prevails, plucking every one of us from the time continuum.  Play by the rules, break them all or pick your ratio in-between — the end is the same.

I was really hoping Malen would have his moment, though.

However, in my brief interaction with Malen prior to his passing, he did get a chance to answer a few of my questions (thank you, DeAnna Powell for the help!)


Me: If there was painting of your plane made, would Mammy be in color?

Malen: It seems like she was.

Me: Do you remember if the colors matched the comic strip?

Malen: I just remember seeing her with her fists up like this (motions) ready to fight.  Tom Young said that she was the "fighting-est" old girl in the army.

Me: How many bombs would you want on your plane?

Malen: Well, there would be 19 bombs and 4 camels... 

My artwork showing a nifty effect I use with clear "varnish"
Notice the 100 (for Birthday), the five camels (for times flown over 'the hump')
and 35 bombs for Malen's combat total.

Later, we got around to questions of more substance.

Me:  Did WWII change you in any way?

Malen:  I don't think it changed me.  I was the same as before I joined.  We had a job to do,  we went over and did it. 

Me:  So then describe your WWII service...

Malen:  I am proud of what we did.  I saved my crew.  I've been thinking about the movie"Saving Private Ryan". In the movie the gov't heard of four brothers that were killed.  They sent a troop in to get the last surviving brother.  The leader said to pvt Ryan, we are here to get you out. The gov't doesn't want all of the brothers killed in combat.  Pvt Ryan looked at the leader and said, " Do you see that guy there, that guy there, that guy there,  they are all my brothers and I'm not leaving them". The feeling,  you've got friends here and there, but if you were in combat, your feelings for each other would be different.  There is a story of friends 50 feet apart.  One was shot,  and the other defied death to bring his friend out to get medical attention.  There's a bond between people who are in combat.  I'll use Martin as an example. We were in combat together. He was probably the best friend I've ever had.  When I lost him,  man, that hurt.  If it was the marines,  army, navy, it would be different, but when we were together,  there was no distinction between us.  Captain Barber was my Good friend. We went to the shows together a few times. When we were sitting around together there was no distinction between us.  

Me:  If you could do anything differently in your life, what would it be and why?

Malen:   That's a hard question.  I don't know what I'd do differently.  The only thing I can think of would be to go college on the GI bill. 

Me:  Are you particularly proud of any accomplishment you did?

Malen:  I took flying lessons to be a commercial pilot.  I would have been proud to be a pilot.  I'm proud of my military service.  Two different times I saved my crew from death.  I was on the last mission that stopped WWII. I'm very proud of that.  

Me:  When you go back into your memories of a B-29 mission, what do they comprise?

Malen: I made 34 bombing missions. Half of those missions I don't remember dropping the bombs. I remember the important missions.  On the Mukden Manchurian mission we (almost) to have froze to death. It was 65 below zero, and we didn't take our coats. After about 25 minutes from dropping our bombs, we crossed the Great Wall of China. On a different flight from Pakistan,  we flew over the Taj Mahal.  

Me:  Any advice you'd give a total stranger?  Like me?

Malen:  I'm not sure.  I'm not sure...

And the interview was stopped to pick up another day.  Which of course, won't happen.

I just scribbled this. That's my Challenge Coin though.  Appropriate enough for today.


That this post is the last of 2021 seems fitting as  I'm tired from interviewing old guys and drawing their airplanes.

And tired of watching generations grow up in mind-tight capsules that can't learn from the past.

Tired too of shouted words and plugged ears.

And tired of seeing old people walk through the door of life, wisdom unshared, scars at their backs while the rest of us wonder what the hell just happened.

Blue Skies, Malen.  I hear there's a place especially prepared for folk like you... 

*Mammy Yocum was the tough-talking Matriarch of Dogpatch, USA of the then-famous comic strip, "Lil'Abner."