A talk with 88-year-old Howard Jackson lifts World War II from the history books and brings it to life.
The war is a fount of vivid memories as if it were a recent event for a man who served in his late teens as a flight officer, bombardier, navigator and armament officer on B-24 Liberators with the 454th bomber group, 739th squadron of the 15th U.S. Army Air Force in Italy.
Born in Cedarhurst in 1925, the grandson and son of real estate appraisers, after the war he carried on the family business in Lawrence — run by his dynamic mother Anne Longworth Jackson after his father died when he was 12 — and expanded it into a global enterprise that his sons continued to operate after his retirement. He also has taught the ins and outs of appraisals at the university level and written books about it.
Spry and sharp, he lives in Silver Beach with his wife Pamela, an interior decorator, in a house overlooking Crab Creek and Peconic Bay. His first wife, Veronica, with whom he raised five kids who spent their summers here, died of cancer in 1977.
He’s been a regular on Shelter Island since 1960. He was out doing appraisals for a major oil company with storage tanks in Greenport and Sag Harbor when he stopped by the Island to look around. Soon after, over the phone, he bought a place on Ram Island overlooking Coecles Harbor.
A neighbor who runs a hedge fund made an offer to buy it a few years ago, prompting the move to Silver Beach. “It’s quiet here,” Howard (known as “Dink”) said from his broad back deck. “Coecles Harbor in the summer was like a zoo.”
His and Pam’s life is all about family — three sons, two daughters, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, who visit regularly — and some travel. He’s fond of Aruba “because it’s always 83 degrees,” he said, while Florida is always beset by blasts of cold. On Shelter Island, he’s a member of the American Legion and is a regular speaker at the school about his wartime experiences.
Howard talks about his service with a crisp precision and clarity that that reflects a methodical, highly focused way of thinking and the IQ of 160 the Army told the surprised airman he possessed — one reason he was steered into intelligence work during the war.
“Understand that we would fly over a country that we never were in, over a city which we couldn’t pronounce the name, and we had an 8-by-10 photograph of an intersection to bomb a bridge or something, and you’re 5 miles up in the air, 30 degrees below zero, under oxygen, everyone yelling at you, you’re being shot at, and you’ve got to find this individual target. We never, ever bombed indiscriminately.
I don’t care what anybody says. If we couldn’t find the target, we swallowed the bombs.”
He tells of one flight he made aboard one of seven bombers sent to Vienna to knock out flak guns and clear the way for a flight of 500 aircraft with 20 bombs each that would follow within 15 minutes.
“We went in three groups,” Howard explained. “The first group was the boss and his aircraft. He radioed us that he couldn’t locate the target and he ordered us to abandon the target and get the hell out of there — at which point the Germans made a terrible mistake; they shot at me. And I saw the burst and I ordered our aircraft, and we did a bomb run, and we bombed what I thought was the target.
“Then when I landed, I got hell for breaking formation and not following the boss and all that sort of thing. Then the strike photos came in and I had hit the target right on the button so I got a battlefield commission and a medal.”
He flew 23 special intelligence missions and about 20 regular missions. He’s been hit by flak. He’s seen fellow airmen killed and wounded and bombers collide. After the war, he had nightmares for years. Today he makes a distinction between terror and fear. “I lecture kids when I speak at the schools about how fear is healthy; it makes you alert,” he said. “To say you were not frightened when you’ve got 800 88-milimeter [expletive] flak guns shooting at you. Every one is aimed at me, personally. That’s the way you feel.”
Terror, he is quoted saying in a 2001 book called “The Bomber War,” is “anxiety, dreams, rationalization of excuses not to fly, headaches, loose bowels, shaking and silence.”
How did these men, and boys, climb into their aircraft for each mission and head off to their targets and the certainty of enemy fighters and flak?
“You just do it,” he said. “You’re trained. I can’t explain it. That’s one of the reasons for discipline and why you have to have good officers, not yelling and screaming like in the movies. That doesn’t happen.”
That reminded him of a story.
“You know Curtis LeMay. He was the boss man. Well he was our wing commander and I was on this one particular bloody mission. I got hit, and it broke in my [oxygen] mask and the blood came all over my uniform and it froze. When we landed, it defrosted or whatever the wording is.
“And I‘m carrying my frigging [not the word he used] stuff that I have to take off the aircraft. And this officer comes up. He was clean. He didn’t smell; he had a necktie on. And he came up and he said I was a disgrace to the uniform. And I looked at him like [he was] an [expletive]. I’ve been 40 below zero, I’ve been shot and I’m struggling … And this officer said, ‘I went to your tent and it’s generally disorderly and I wrote it up.’ And I said, ‘Well I got up at 1:30 in the morning, we don’t have any electricity, [expletive].’ So this guy said, ‘Well you’re going to have to report to the wing commander because I sent it directly to him.’
“Going to wing is like going to a cathedral. LeMay was a beast of a guy and his clerk was a full colonel. So I didn’t change, I left all the crap on and everything. And I went up to the place and this colonel says, ‘Jack, what are you doing here?’ I said ‘I’m here to see General Disorderly and I handed him the sheet and he says ‘Oh, [expletive]’…
“He knocks on the door and goes into LeMay and I hear all this screaming. The colonel comes out and says ‘the general will see you now.’ And I said ‘Well, he’s going to shoot me.’ And he really was a burly guy.
“He’s in behind his desk and he stands up and I kind of tense for a second. And he runs after me and he puts his arms around me and says, ‘What do you want to me to do that son of a b—?’”
The point: The officer who’d rebuked him “wasn’t a flyer,” Howard explained.
“We got one half a helmet of water a day” for washing. “No electricity and no heat. And it’s winter in Italy and it’s mud and ice.” Add to that having to get up at 1 a.m. and go fly lethal missions.
LeMay understood. Howard Jackson, one of the few men left who still understands, will be 89 on February 1.