September 23, 2013

‘Nerves of steel’

Whitfield County native remembered for common sense military service

Misty Watson

— Like many veterans, Harold Babb wasn’t one to talk about his military career.

“He was very laid back and nonchalant,” said his great nephew, Andy Babb. “You had to drag stuff out of him. He would rather talk about you.”

It wasn’t until Andy Babb began researching his family history that he even found out that Harold Babb, a Whitfield County native who died in 1984, had been awarded several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star and the Air Medal, for his time in the service.

Recently Andy Babb, who lives in Whitfield County, ran across something new about his great uncle. Harold Babb is mentioned in a book, “The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot’s Story,” by Dennis Okerstrom.

The book follows the story of American pilot Lt. Lee Lamar, who flew the B-24’s final mission with another pilot. It also tells of the planes used in World War II, as well as the pilots who flew Bottoms Up, one of which was Col. Babb. There’s a picture of Col. Babb in the plane in the book. He was not the pilot when it went down.

“They were tough planes, and fast,” said Col. Babb’s nephew Mike Babb, who is chairman of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners. “They would not ditch well. The book says they were so hard to fly, the pilot would fly 15 minutes and then the co-pilot would fly 15 minutes.”

All pilots who flew the B-24s seemed to have similar experiences, including Col. Babb, Mike Babb said.

“I never thought of the weight of them with the bombs full of fuel, or the danger of not getting to the target, not to mention the resistance they encountered from the enemy,” he said. “My uncle grew up and went to school during the Depression. I think it toughed people up for World War II. It made the country what it was during that time.”

Col. Babb went to Berry High School and Berry College. He entered the Air Force, which was then part of the Army, in 1938. He was stationed in Italy during World War II, and at 31 was considered to be an old pilot, Mike Babb said. Most everyone else was 22 or younger, he said.

Col. Babb was a temporary commander in 1944. The book states that people liked him, but everyone knew he was not permanent, Mike Babb said.

“Commanders were West Point graduates,” he said. “They took those over Berry graduates.”

Andy Babb isn’t surprised the book mentions how well-liked his great uncle was because he was able to connect with people on their level, and he showed people he cared.

“He was generous,” Andy Babb said. “Everywhere he went he was like the host. He liked to entertain. He was a likable leader.”

Col. Babb had a practical approach to his time in World War II. Asked about his achievements and recognitions, he responded that he had simply used common sense, Mike Babb said.

A newspaper article about Col. Babb’s involvement in the Ploesti Raid — an attack on oil refineries in 1943 — shows him describing it as “just a normal day” even though it resulted in him being awarded an Oak Leaf for his Distinguished Flying Cross.

“Our bomb wing couldn’t make a visual run on any target in the Nazi oil center because of the heavy smoke that covered the city, so we sent a recon ship down under the smoke and clouds and he radioed the conditions of the few oil refineries left,” Col. Babb is quoted in the article. “I chose one refinery that hadn’t felt the full brunt of our heavy bombers and was relatively clear of smoke, then led the formation through the enemy anti-aircraft fire and wiped the target out with our bombs.”

Many times Col. Babb was the lead plane in the missions, Andy Babb said.

“If you’re the lead plane of a 100-group mission, you had hundreds of lives on your hands at any given time,” he said. “He had nerves of steel.”

There were times they flew so low under the smoke that cornstalks were stuck to the plane when they landed, Andy Babb said.

The number of missions pilots had to fly in World War II changed over time. For Col. Babb, he had to fly 35 before he could leave Europe and the war.

Col. Babb flew other planes as well. The family has several photos of him in front of Bottoms Up.

“I’ve always known about his adventures,” Mike Babb said. “The plane itself and this photo (of two rows of men in front of the plane) are ingrained in my youth.”

Col. Babb served in the military for 30 years. He was stationed as a base commander in Korea after the Korean War and spent time near the Panama Canal.

Following his military service, Col. Babb received a master’s degree and taught math and science at Tidewater Community College in Portsmouth, Va., from 1969 to 1983. He died of pancreatic cancer and is buried in Mill Creek Cemetery.