George Cahill was a man on a mission fixed to the skies.
He volunteered for World War II at the earliest possible age the military would accept: 17 1 ⁄ 2 . Both parents signed off, and he headed to gunnery school in Las Vegas.
George met his crew and plane in Lincoln, Neb. They flew to Newfoundland and then Iceland and England. There, his mission would be most daring.
George flew on a B-17 with the Eighth Air Force. He was a togglier for the “Flying Fortress.” The togglier sat perilously inside the cramped nosecone of the plane and armed and released the bombs with a bombardier, wedged into a tiny spot between two 50-caliber machine guns.
One day in September 2015, after having known George for several years, I pushed him to describe what his wartime experience in that aircraft was like. He wasn’t surrendering much. I got only a few short sentences.
“Nothing but plastic between me and the atmosphere,” he told me of his vulnerability while bombing Nazi targets.
I asked if the plastic could stop enemy bullets.
“Oh, hell no!” he scoffed. “Bullets go right through it, and you hope it goes out the other side.” Out the other side of the plane — hopefully not the other side of the togglier and his crewmates.
George flew 28 combat missions. I asked if he had any “close calls.” He shot me a shocked look, with another, “Oh, hell!”
This time, the “Oh, hell” meant “Oh, hell yes,” though he didn’t elaborate.
I later learned that once George and his crew of 10 were so shot up with holes that they had to do an emergency landing with only one of four engines still operating. As the plane coasted into a landing, the final engine stopped.
That was what George’s experiences were like.
My friend Earl Tilford, an Air Force veteran and military historian, tells me that “more B-17 crewmen were killed in World War II than U.S. Marines. In 1943-1944, attrition rates were near 90 percent for 25-mission tour.”
For a visual, if you’ve seen the frightening opening scene of the film “Unbroken,” about World War II bombardier and Olympian Louis Zamperini, that’s what George lived.
“Oh, hell.” That’s about right.
But during our get-together in September 2015, George wasn’t there to tell me about his time in WWII. He had another mission that day. He showed me around Flag Plaza in downtown Pittsburgh. George was founder and president of the National Flag Foundation. It was his creation, his pride, his joy, and it’s one of the most underappreciated assets in Pittsburgh. George was aptly named Pittsburgh’s Man of the Year in 1975.
This truly great patriot who knew everything about flags wanted all Americans to know all about their flag. That was a lifelong mission.
George Cahill served this region and the country so well for so many years. The old togglier passed away July 2 at age 92.
You can honor veterans like George by remembering what they did for their country during the war and beyond. And for George Cahill in particular, honor him and the country and the flag he loved by visiting Flag Plaza at 1275 Bedford Ave. Take your kids. Take your grandkids. Take your classrooms.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of
The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.