In his bestseller, The Greatest Generation, NBC Anchorman Tom Brokaw wrote about the men and women who grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II and made unbelievable sacrifices during their lives. Most of us have known a World War II veteran but sadly their numbers are dwindling. My family lived across the street from one such veteran. After his military and civilian service was complete, he continued to serve as friend, mentor, neighbor and grandfather to our children. He just observed his 93rd birthday and I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t attempt to tell just a little of Lieutenant Daniel J. Healey’s story.
Lieutenant Healey enlisted in the U. S. Army on August 11, 1942, on his 17th birthday. The Army required Dan to return to his home and obtain signatures from both of his parents stating that they did indeed give permission for a 17-year-old to enter into service of his country. After indoctrination and physicals, Dan was shipped off from his home in New Jersey to Army indoctrination/basic training. At the end of “basic” each of the new soldiers was tested to determine their Army specialty; infantry, gunnery, artillery, cook, radio operator, etc. Private Dan Healey was shipped off to Madison, Wisc. to attend Army radio school. Dan commented, “At the end of radio school, rumors were everywhere, especially the stories that a private graduating from radio school would be promoted to Private First Class.” Like many things in the Army, these rumors turned out to be untrue. By chance, one of the soldiers in Dan’s squadron suggested, “Healey you should take the test as an Aviation Cadet.” Dan had always wanted to be a pilot so he walked into the colonel’s office and asked permission to take the aviation cadet test. Testing was time consuming and very rigorous, but Dan finished with a score high enough to allow him to attend aviation cadet training. Aviation training or “Preflight” was conducted in Santa Ana, Calif. Once completed, Dan was to be commissioned an Army second lieutenant and sent to follow-up training as a pilot, navigator or bombardier.
Dan immersed himself in Army aviation basic training. Exactly one year later, on his 18th birthday, Dan was officially commissioned Second Lieutenant Dan Healey. Out of the hundreds of graduating cadets, Dan was among 15 graduates who had scored 90% or above on all tests, written exams and oral assessments, and was considered an honor graduate. Dan recalled, “At the end of the ceremony, a senior officer said, ‘Healey march these guys down to the personnel building.’” Dan admitted he’d never led any kind of platoon before, but the 15 honor graduates marched to yet another non-descript Army building where they were informed by an officer that the 15 honor graduates would be allowed to pick their assignments. Being first in line, the major asked the new Second Lieutenant Healey what he’d like to do. Dan had always wanted to be a pilot, but instead answered, “Major, what do you need?” Without looking up the major replied, “I’m critically short of bombardiers.” Dan responded, “Well, you’ve got one here.” Dan was off to bombing school in Roswell, New Mexico.
For five months, Healey attended classroom training and flew in the front of a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan. (Older civilian pilots know this classic aircraft as a Beech-18.)
Each airplane carried several 100-pound sand bombs with a shotgun shell activated explosive so that each bomb drop could be photographed and scored. Dan recalled that a scorer was located in a small shack outside the target’s concentric circles. (I asked if that is where the term “shack” or direct hit had originated. Dan said, “That must have been after my time. We were warned that there would be hell to pay if someone bombed the shack.”)
After completion of bombardier school, Dan was shipped to a base in Idaho where B-24 crews were being constituted. In 1942, Mountain Home Air Base in Idaho was still being built with its officially opening in August 1943. Dan and his pilot were the original crewmembers of the B-24 that would eventually be christened “Ruff-n-Reddy.”
Dan was shipped to the war zone in January 1944 and was promoted to First Lieutenant. Officially, Lieutenant Healey was with the Army Air Force’s 47th Wing, 450th Bomb Group, 720th Bombardment Squadron based in Manduria, Italy. Almost immediately upon his arrival in Italy, Dan began flying combat missions.
On July 15, 1944, Lieutenant Healey was aboard “Ruff-n-Reddy” and the target was the Ploesti oil fields. Prior to this raid, the Army Air Force had bombed Ploesti several times, each time suffering spectacular losses. In one previous raid, 54 of 178 bombers were destroyed and their 10-man crews killed or captured. Ploesti was rumored to be the most heavily fortified target, except possibly Berlin. In addition, the Luftwaffe was far from defeated. Approximately 200 German and Romanian fighters were based around Ploesti and consisted primarily of Me-109 and-110 fighter aircraft. It was into this gauntlet that Dan and crew flew their mission. Dan clearly remembered thinking, “This is my 34th mission. I’ve got to fly 50. There is no way I make it out alive.”
By this point in the war, the bomber group did have fighter escort. On that day’s raid, they were to be covered inbound and outbound by the fighter pilots from Ramitelli Airfield in Italy. History buffs will recognize this base as the home of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.
After dropping their bombs, Dan’s group suffered substantial losses. The number one aircraft, the group leader, took a direct hit and spiraled down with no parachutes to be seen. Dan’s B-24 took a serious hit from massive flak fusillade. The aircraft commander (pilot) was badly wounded, the top turret gunner was injured and Dan took a flak burst through the right shoulder and arm. As serious as the injuries were, more concerning at this point was the condition of “Ruff and Reddy.” The number one engine had been destroyed, and the B-24 fell out of formation and began to lose altitude. Almost immediately, Dan’s aircraft was pounced upon by German fighters. The “Ruff and Reddy” copilot had taken over and was fighting to maintain both altitude and control of the aircraft while attempting to fend off attacking fighters. As quickly as the B-24 was attacked, the attackers became the attacked when two P-51 Mustangs with those distinctive red tails arrived. The Messerschmitts had no desire to tangle with the Mustangs and were quickly driven off. The two pilots from Ramitelli escorted “Ruff-n-Reddy” to a suitable landing base where the copilot landed the big Liberator and the injured were taken to the hospital. Arriving at the hospital Dan remembered hearing one of his fellow crewmembers say, “Sure hope Healey doesn’t lose that arm.” Thankfully he did not.
After emergency treatment and his recovery had begun, Lieutenant Dan ask where the fighter pilots were based and if he could pay a courtesy call on them for “saving his bacon.” The doctor informed him that he wouldn’t have to go very far as both fighter pilots were in the same hospital. Apparently, on the return to base one of the P-51’s developed problems and was unable to lower his landing gear. The pilot made a near perfect gear-up landing, and after his wingman had landed, they borrowed a jeep to get back to their base. While driving and attempting a corner at high speed, the jeep turned over and both pilots were ejected resulting in broken bones.
The mission to Ploesti was to be Dan’s last. He was deemed medically unfit to fly combat and was sent to the “interior,” meaning back to the United States. Dan returned carrying his orders and his medical evaluations. Upon arrival, he presented his orders to his commanding officer and threw the medical evaluations into the trash. Dan went on to train new bombardiers until the end of the war.
After the war, Dan had a very successful business career and married the love of his life Geri. Dan and Geri had four children, two girls and two boys. Dan is now father, grandfather, and great grandfather. Dan worked with the Boy Scouts as a counselor to boys working on their Eagle. His latest membership is in the Hickory Veteran Air Group, open to all veterans, is based in Hickory, North Carolina, and has an impressive museum and aircraft collection. From across the street, Dan also selflessly served as grandfather for my daughters. Sadly, Geri passed away several years ago.
We can never forget the sacrifice the Greatest Generation made, and I will always be honored to know Lieutenant Dan Healey.