I grew up in suburban Nashville, but my parents, grandparents, and great-great-great grandparents settled and farmed the land northwest of Nashville, up along the Kentucky border. My mother was born on the banks of the Tennessee River, close to the ruins of Fort Henry, and she grew up in Dover, on the banks of the Cumberland, a stone’s throw from Fort Donelson, Grant’s (and the Union Army’s) first major victory over the Confederates. Fort Donelson is where U.S. Grant got his nickname “Unconditional Surrender” at the expense of 12,000-15,000 Confederate soldiers who became POWs for the rest of the war.

My father and his people lived fifteen miles or so to the east, between Dover and Clarksville, in a farming community called Jordan Springs (Jordan was pronounced like “burden” with a “J”). When Tennessee joined the Confederacy, the men of Jordan Springs who were old enough to enlist, traveled by mule—or by foot—to Clarksville to enlist in the 14th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry. The 14th Tennessee was organized in May of 1861 and immediately received orders to transfer to the Virginia theater, where they served with bravery and distinction in virtually every major battle and campaign conducted by Robert E. Lee. Their tenacity, however, came at a high price; of the nearly 1,000 officers and enlisted men that served with the 14th, only 40 were still alive after Appomattox. They lost more than half of their men at Gettysburg alone.

Times were hard for the area during the war. My dad’s grandmother was a baby during the Civil War, and in the cold winter following Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson, Union soldiers forced their way into her parents’ cabin during their march from Dover to Nashville. One of them, however, felt sorry for the screaming baby and asked if she could be moved closer to the fire to keep her warm.

And, because of the decimation of the 14th Tennessee, the hard times continued for that part of the state after the war and for years to come. There were only a handful of Confederate vets to advise my grandfather as he left Jordan Springs for France and World War I, and even less—if any—to share wartime stories around the community store’s woodstove with my dad and his cousins, who were born in the ’20s.

That morning in December of 1941 had started off just like any other Sunday in Jordan Springs. My dad had gone to church with his family and had taken off to the woods after the service to hunt rabbits with his friend John. He had no way of knowing that in a few short years he’d be trading his rifle for M2 Browning machine guns in the rear turret of a B24 in the South Pacific, and he’d be shooting at much larger prey, and they’d be shooting back. (Here's the link to song about Jordan Springs: http://www.southernreader.com/JordanSpringsIntro.mp3)

That afternoon, when he and John came in from the fields, there were cars, trucks and tractors surrounding his family’s house. Electricity still hadn’t found its way to Jordan Springs and my grandparents had one of the few radios in the community—it was powered by a truck battery. On Saturday nights, the friends and kinfolks usually came over to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, but people gathering around the old radio on a Sunday afternoon was cause for alarm—in this case, they were gathered to listen FDR’s solemn announcement about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Just like the previous generations of Jordan Springs boys when war came, my dad caught a ride to Clarksville and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He scored high enough on his entry exam to qualify for the Army Air Corps and was sent to gunnery school in Florida to learn how to be a tail gunner. He was eventually sent to Walla Walla, Washington, where he met his future crewmates, as well as his pilot, Lt. Jasper Skinner. The last name was the only thing the two had in common; Lt. Skinner had been raised across the country from Jordan Springs on a farm in Nebraska, and he was short and stocky, whereas my dad was tall and lanky. The crew called my dad “Little Skinner” and Jasper “Big Skinner.”

My sister and I were born in the happy post-war years of the 1950s, but it seemed the war loomed constantly in the background like a big storm cloud that had just passed. All of my friends’ fathers had served in the war and all of the deacons in our little church had served. It seemed like a grand and glorious party that everyone still acknowledged, but wouldn’t talk about. Here’s the sad irony: we all tended to take the war and the sacrifices of our parents’ generation for granted.

When I was about ten, my dad showed me his squadron’s “yearbook.” In the front of the book, there was a picture of Major Stanley Robeck and an inscription attributed to him. When I first saw his picture, I figured Major Robeck was just another guy who didn’t come back from the war. The full story, however, is a little bit more revealing. My dad’s pilot, Jasper Skinner, had named his crew (and plane) “Jasper’s Jokers.” The nose art on their plane was a clown busting out through the fuselage of the B24. His plane and squadron were part of the famous “Jolly Rogers.” The logo on the tail was a pirate skull and crossbones, only the bones had been replaced by bombs (this logo was also on the cover of my dad’s yearbook). At ten, I thought the logo on the back was very cool, but I was a little embarrassed by the clown on the front. One of my friends’s fathers had flown in a plane with nose art depicting a sexy woman chasing a little Japanese fellow with a hatchet; I thought that was so much cooler than flying with the nose art of a clown jumping out of the side of the plane. It would be years before I would truly appreciate the twisted irony of the happy little clown punching his way out of a war plane armed to the teeth with ten .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns and loaded down with 8000 pounds of bombs.

After my dad passed away in 1997, I started working on a tribute to him, his crew, his squadron, bomb group, and for that matter, my parents' entire “greatest” generation. The project would soon take the shape of a concept album about my dad’s wartime experiences, called “Jolly Roger Tailgunner.” (Here's the link to the website: http://www.equilt.com/JRTailgunner1.html). Going through his papers, I found some information about his “Jolly Roger” crew, including Jasper Skinner’s phone number in Nebraska. I called Jasper and introduced myself over the phone and told him about the project.

Over the next four years, Jasper became the “technical advisor” and sounding board for “Jolly Roger Tailgunner.” He also provided photos of the crew and the plane, along with reflections of that time in the Philippines. During one conversation, I mentioned that Dad had seen one of the planes from their squadron shot down right in front of him. He had said that he knew the guys on the plane, and saw their faces as the plane went down. “Yes,” Jasper replied, “that was Stan Robeck’s plane.” He then filled in the blanks.

On March 2, 1945, they were flying a raid over Formosa, and the squadron leader was Major Robeck. After the first pass over the target, Major Robeck’s plane took a flak hit and he radioed back to Jasper that they were going to drop out of formation and bring up the rear so as to not slow down the other planes. “Jasper’s Jokers” were currently in that slot, so when Robeck’s plane pulled back, Jasper relinquished the rear to the major. As soon as the major’s plane pulled up into formation, it took a direct hit in the bomb bay and went down in flames. “Thirty seconds earlier,” Jasper said, “we had been in that exact position.” It’s not exactly an “It’s a Wonderful Life” kind of event, but had that switch not occurred at the point it did, there would have been someone else telling you this story, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what exactly would be occupying the SouthernReader.com domain. One of the songs on my CD, "Big Blue Battlefield" chronicles the event (here's the link to hear the song: http://www.southernreader.com/BigBlueBattlefield.mp3)

I knew Jasper’s voice and handwriting had steadily been declining the last few years, but I was still surprised when he passed away at the first of this year; he had always seemed bigger than life. We had hours and hours of conversation since that first phone call in 1998, and I was grateful to be able to stay in touch with one of America’s greatest. He loved “Jolly Roger Tailgunner” and appreciated the way Jordan Springs was woven into my dad’s story. Jordan Springs could just as easily have been his farm in Nebraska, he told me.

As for Jordan Springs, ironically, it no longer existed when my dad returned from the war; the government had bought up the entire farming community and built Camp Campbell, now called Fort Campbell, it’s home to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. In his longtime career with the Air Force, Jasper flew into Fort Campbell on numerous occasions.

A few years ago Jasper sent me a story that he had written called “The ‘Almost Last’ Mission,” which detailed another close encounter with disaster that Jasper’s Jokers had experienced. We’re publishing it in this issue of Southern Reader. I feel like I owe it to Jasper and to my dad and to all of the soldiers, from Jordan Springs to Lincoln, Nebraska, to keep their memories and their stories alive. So, here’s to you, Dad; here’s to you, Jasper; and here’s to you, Jolly Rogers; thanks...for everything.

David Ray Skinner

©Copyright 2011 Bridgital/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.XXXXxXXXXXXXX