It took months and covered continents.
Beginning in southern Italy, the voyage moved through Egypt, North Africa, Newfoundland, Connecticut, Texas, through eight more states until the long homecoming ended at the front door of a house in the Nassau County town of Hewlett.
Seventy years ago this month, Howard Jackson, 90, was one of more than seven million members of the Armed Forces serving abroad who started their journeys home to America when Germany surrendered, followed a few months later by Japan. World War II was over.
More than 405,000 never came home.
In May 1945, Mr. Jackson was 20 years old, living in a large tent set in olive groves next to a small airfield where his 15th U.S. Army Air Force squadron was stationed outside the town of Foggia.
They all knew something was up when a scheduled morning flight was cancelled. “That never happened,” Mr. Jackson said last week in the front room of his house overlooking Crab Creek where he lives with his wife Pamela.
Soon word came that the war in Europe was over. “No one celebrated,” he remembered. “There was relief, but there was a feeling of sadness.”
He was bunking alone then in the large tent because three buddies he had shared quarters with had either been declared dead or missing in action. A memory he keeps is when two servicemen would come into the tent and quietly, quickly and efficiently pack up all the personal belongings of one of his mates and take them away. That was the final, silent signal they weren’t coming back.
Instead of throwing a party when the announcement was broadcast that the war was over, the airmen organized a softball game that morning. “We played for 12 hours straight,” Mr. Jackson said. “We played until we dropped.”
Young in years, Mr. Jackson was a combat veteran at the war’s end who would, all told, rack up 40 missions as a bombardier and on intelligence flights. He has a Purple Heart for wounds to his right hand — permanently fixed in a grip — and his right leg from shrapnel during an operation over Ravensburg, Germany.
Hundreds of German anti-aircraft batteries were firing nonstop throughout that mission and “every single one of them was trying to kill me, personally,” he said with a smile, describing the experience of flying through a blizzard of exploding flak.
“I can’t go to fireworks shows,” he said. “I just can’t go.”
Nightmares, however, which plagued him for 30 years after the war, are long gone, as well as night sweats and waking up trembling. Five times he went to hospitals after coming awake in fragile shape, but each time he was dismissed because his symptoms had disappeared.
“We didn’t have a name for it then,” he said. “There was no such thing as PTSD. It was deemed cowardice. You weren’t allowed to be afraid, which is nonsense.”
Within a few days of the surrender, Mr. Jackson and his crew in Foggia unanimously decided to continue their service and go to the Pacific theater of war to help in the effort to defeat Imperial Japan. After the proper paperwork made its way through the bureaucracy, they flew on assignment to Cairo, where they waited for further orders. When news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached them that August, Mr. Jackson knew they were going home.
But it wouldn’t be as easy to get back to Hewlett as the young airman thought.
There were extensive stopovers in Morocco, Algeria, the Azores Islands and Gander, Newfoundland before finally reaching the states for a short stopover at Bradley Field in Connecticut. Just across Long Island Sound was home. But almost immediately Mr. Jackson received orders to fly to Midland, Texas, where he was assigned to a training program, schooling enlistees as bombardiers. A few months later, he was given leave.
He hit the road, thumb out, and hitchhiked across the country. “It wasn’t bad,” he remembered, with rides coming fairly easily.
Close to a week later, “I got to the city and to Penn Station and got a train,” Mr. Jackson said, to take him the last 20 miles to Hewlett.
The final distance he made on foot, walking home from the station and up to the front door. His mother answered.
Widowed for eight years, she had three other sons in addition to Howard, two who were also in uniform.
Overcome at the sight of her 20-year-old boy standing in her doorway, “she was crying,” Mr. Jackson said.
He was in one piece, finally home.