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Legends of the air: Honoring a warrior

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Honoring those who fought before us and selflessly offered up the ultimate sacrifice for God and country isn't necessarily a rare event; it's often a reflex for those in uniform. The following circumstances, however, presented an extraordinary situation which led the 391st Fighter Squadron to reach back to Gunfighter glories of WWII and remember greatness.

Late in November 2008 as I returned from a combat sortie in Afghanistan and sat down to read my e-mail, I came across one in particular that caught my attention. This heart-wrenching message told of the unfortunate medical condition of one of our WWII Bold Tiger brethren, Quentin C. Aanenson. The author of the e-mail was retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Porter, a nephew of Mr. Aanenson, who described his uncle's current battle with a form of terminal cancer. Although I immediately established communication with Colonel Porter and offered our heartfelt sympathy for his uncle's ailing state, that night I stared at the ceiling of my plywood B-Hut wondering what more we, as a deployed fighter squadron on the other side of the world, could do to assist the family through this trying time. What I found the next day after researching the life of Mr. Aanenson was nothing short of amazing, and I proceeded to share his story with everyone in the squadron.

Mr. Aanenson began his fascinating life in a rural southwestern Minnesota farm town. After he heard a calling to move out west in 1941, he attended the University of Washington and worked for Boeing to help pay for school. The attack on Pearl Harbor soon followed his move to Seattle and inspired Mr. Aanenson to enlist into the United States Army Air Corps in 1942. After successfully completing flight training in May 1944, he joined the 391st FS, 366th Fighter Group, and set off to fly in some of the most dangerous skies this world has ever seen.

Mr. Aanenson's weapon of choice during the war was the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt. This warhorse was extremely well built for the fighter-bomber role, and when the crew chiefs and ammo troops loaded its eight machine guns with .50 caliber rounds, its belly shackles with 500 pound bombs, and its wings with M-8 high velocity rockets, it was nothing short of lethal. One of the most sobering facts of Mr. Aanenson's combat career, in the eyes of an aviator, was that his first combat sortie was June 4, 1944, and his second was June 6, or more commonly referred to as D-day.

Mr. Aanenson's superior airmanship forged his path forward in the war, as he quickly amassed tens of confirmed kills in the air and employed his P-47 against tanks, bridges and German troops on the ground -- all over a span of 75 combat sorties. He received direct hits from anti-aircraft artillery and flak on more than 20 missions and narrowly survived two severely damaged aircraft by piloting them to emergency crash landings.

One mission he recalled from WWII hit home with all of us in Afghanistan. We were generations apart from him and fighting a completely different war, yet our close air support, or CAS, sorties shared many similarities with the air-to-ground support role he spoke of flying the P-47. On this specific sortie, Mr. Aanenson received a distressed radio call to assist American troops under attack by a closing tank. He assessed the situation and conveyed that the tank was in such close proximity to the friendly troops that his .50 caliber rounds posed the same threat to them as they did to the tank; something we referred to as a "danger close" scenario in the present day area of responsibility.

The ground commander quickly informed Mr. Aanenson that if he didn't attack the enemy immediately, they would all be "just as dead" from the tank. He managed to achieve a clean kill on the German tank with his P-47, and all American troops survived the incident. The most amazing part of this story emerged after the war as he was telling this story to his new neighbor after returning home, the neighbor quickly cut him off, finished the story and thanked him profusely for saving his life that day.

As you read this, you should keep in mind that this was a young man asked to grow up quickly in the fury and fog of a war the Allies weren't sure they could win. He was forced to witness so many squadron mates die by the way of enemy fire that he simply stopped getting to know any of the new pilots. He nearly died several times himself, and was lucky enough to escape his time in the cockpit with only a dislocated shoulder, three cracked ribs and a violent concussion when his skull smashed into the gun sight on a crash landing.

At a young age, he had to accept the inherent burden of killing men so that others may live. He admits that for years following the war, he was haunted by vivid nightmares and that his trigger hand physically could not support the weight of a coffee mug. Mr. Aanenson's greatest attribute, however, would undoubtedly be his warrior spirit to never stop bringing the fight to the enemy. Despite the injuries and battle damage he sustained during his time in combat, he was able to grow stronger through his experiences and never stop fighting ... he was truly a warrior, and the epitome of the fighter group we all know today as the Gunfighters.

After learning of his outstanding combat career and his current fight against cancer, our squadron decided to honor this past combat warrior with actions from a modern combat zone. We prepared an American flag and flew it on F-15E Strike Eagle combat sorties continuously for days during our round the clock CAS operations. This flag flew in his honor on missions saving hundreds of American and Coalition lives, employed modern global positioning system and laser guided versions of the 500 pound bombs he carried on the belly strap of the P-47, and performed "danger close" strafe day and night in the mountains of Afghanistan. This flag flew more than 100 combat hours with nearly every aviator in the squadron that once was his, and it signified Mr. Aanenson as an honorary 391st EFS aircrew over the skies of Afghanistan. Next, we prepared a squadron lithograph signed by the entire 2008-2009 deployed Bold Tiger family to further show our support for his accomplishments. Lastly we sent these items with the same squadron coin that is carried by every Bold Tiger today, to symbolize Mr. Aanenson's never-ending connection to the 391st FS and the Gunfighters of today.

These three items found themselves, just in time for Christmas, in the possession of Mr. Aanenson's family, who then immediately gathered around to present and honor him with the gifts from his former fighter squadron. We received instant feedback from the family. He was extremely proud to see what was laid out before him, and hopefully it was able to free his mind from the pain he was regrettably enduring. Sadly, three days later, on Dec. 28, 2008, Quentin C. Aanenson lost his battle with cancer in his home in Bethesda, Md. He left this world surrounded by those who loved him, and knowing he had the full support of his former squadron whom he now inspires. He will now forever live in the hearts and minds of the Gunfighter family, as a truly selfless WWII warrior.

"Dear Bold Tigers,
God bless you. The thoughtfulness of your actions on behalf of Quentin C. Aanenson shows that members of the 391EFS have the heart and character to match their courage and dedication. You are all heroes - I salute you."
LTC Steve Porter (USA Ret.)

Mr. Aanenson's military awards and decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal with nine oak leaf clusters. He was later made commander of the Legion of Honor. He also achieved acclaim for his widely televised 1994 documentary that he wrote, produced and narrated himself, "A Fighter Pilot's Story." Back on this side of the world, Mr Aanenson's hometown in Minnesota has also honored him by renaming their airport after him.

God speed to Mr Aanenson ... a true inspiration to the warriors of today.