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Lansing’s lucky, very unlucky experience at war

Made or posted on Mar 23, 2020

This is my first (amateur) video project longer than a half-hour, Experience at War: Lansing Joralemon. The account is based largely on interviews with my friend Lansing, an Army Air Corps flyer in World War II. Lansing survives in 2021 as a sharp and irreverent 100-year-old retiree.

Three officers of my parents’ generation fought in Normandy and beyond

Adapted from a post on my Facebook page, Feb. 15, 2020

The subject of this video, Lansing Joralemon, is one of three men of his generation who I’ve known, or known about, who risked their lives in Normandy to defeat the Nazis.

For a postwar-Boomer like me, knowing the war stories of three survivors of the Allied forces’ massive invasion of northwestern France wasn’t really unlikely: Between June 6 and August 21, 1944, the Allies landed more than 2 million fighters in northeastern France.

All told, 16 million served in the U.S. military during WW2. For a rough comparison, that’s about one-third of the country’s 1940 male population, ages 20-40. (That’s a very rough comparison: Of course, the military also included many older, younger and female individuals, and didn’t include many males not drafted for various reasons.)

1940s photos of young Liebenow, Smith and Joralemon

Two are late fathers of my friends Susan Liebenow and Richard Smith — Navy skipper William F. “Bud” Liebenow and Army aviator Richard E. “Dick” Smith. The third is my friend Lansing Joralemon, the navigator on an Army Air Corps bomber. Later generations owe them a lot for their service.

map of Normandy coast
All three came to the European campaign through Normandy during June and July 1944. Illustration based on an Army map treasured by Dick Smith.

Lt. Cmdr. Liebenow, from Virginia, captained a fast, wooden PT boat along the French beaches on June 6, 1944 — preparing for the landings, fishing out doused sailors and later slipping Resistance fighters into Europe at night. He had earned the assignment as a torpedo-boat skipper in the South Pacific — who notably plucked the crew of the sunken PT-109 and skipper John F. Kennedy off an island behind Japanese lines.

Lt. Smith, from Iowa, and Lt. Joralemon, from Chicago, took part in aviation’s vastly expanded role in the war.

Before WW2, when Dick Smith began training in ROTC at Iowa State U, he was taught artillery technology of the previous world war — horses still pulled the big guns on wheels. But when Smith flew into action in France, soon after D-Day, his role was to spot enemy targets from a low-flying, two-person Piper Cub and sending geo-coordinates by radio to gunners below.

Smith’s division seized Cherbourg and Strasbourg and pushed into Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, while other Allied units liberated Paris. On V-E Day, his unit switched from fighting Germany to occupying it. Smith began to study Japanese for expected duty in the Pacific.

Lt. Joralemon was also aloft over Normandy in the days after D-Day — as navigator of a B-17 bomber flying from an English airfield. A few months later, however, Lansing’s aviation career was cut short when his plane was downed by a German fighter, as he recounts in my video.

I do notice that these these three men were neither average nor random. They were officers who did well in school, and they enlisted before they would be drafted. In Lansing’s bomber crew, it was the officers up front who survived, not the gunners in the back. And as an officer, he rated a higher grade of POW camp operated by the German air force.

Meanwhile, States-side, the fathers of two other Boomers I know — Mita Schaffer and Gil Thompson — had roles in another consequential part of the war effort.

Robert Schaffer and Maj. Alberto Thompson, both chemists, joined the country’s Manhattan Project, developing nuclear weaponry in secretive, isolated “atomic cities” — Schaffer in Los Alamos, N.M., and Thompson in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Both men went on to distinguished federal careers in science.

According to Schaffer family lore, dad accidentally dropped a container holding the world’s plutonium supply. This non-event, if it actually occurred, went without public notice.

See also

When Bud Liebenow was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in August 2018, the Washington Post‘s history column, Retropolis, retold how his PT boat rescued JFK and PT-109’s crew.