David Haston, 1915-2011

I regret that I have lacked occasion to post in this blog for the past two months, and I apologize accordingly to the Growler’s subscribers and occasional visitors. During that time my attention was focused elsewhere, following the death of my father-in-law on the 9th of May.

David Haston was the father of my wife Diane. In the hours following his death, Diane’s sister and I, with the help of the undertaker, wrote this obituary that appeared in the Indianapolis Star and its subsidiary, the Noblesville Ledger:

David P. Haston 95, died May 9, 2011, in Indianapolis. He was born November 25, 1915, in Broad Ripple and was a retired building contractor. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and resided most of his life on West 116th Street in Carmel.

He was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret Langolf Haston. He is survived by his daughters, Diane Carter, Indianapolis, and Janet Haston, Phoenix; grandson, Timothy Dunker; granddaughters Tara Nelson and Selene Carter; and 4 great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be held Friday, May 13 at Leppert Mortuary, Smith Carmel Chapel, from Noon until the time of service at 2:00 p.m. Burial to follow in Arcadia Cemetery. Share online condolences at: www.leppertmortuary.com

At the same time, we composed a more detailed account of his life, which is currently shown, along with a photograph of him in military uniform, taken most probably in 1945, on this Leppert Mortuary link, and which is reproduced here:

David Haston, known to everybody as “Dave,” was a general contractor who helped his father build barns when he was a young man, and who spent most of his working career building houses and doing remodeling. He was a master craftsman who taught carpentry and mechanical skills to several nephews and young men from the Carmel area who worked for him at different times.

He was a good-natured, hard-working man who always seemed to look on the positive side of things, and who helped his neighbors and served his home community in a number of ways. Among his lifelong interests were Indiana basketball, airplanes – especially the B-17 Flying Fortress – and the American Wild West.

He was born in Broad Ripple on November 25, 1915, to William Harvey and Alice Moody Carr Haston. Shortly after his birth the family moved to West 116th Street in Clay Township, Hamilton County.

He was the youngest of three boys; there were three sisters and a half-sister. After graduating from Carmel High School in 1934 he followed his father into the contracting business.

He attended Purdue University in 1939-40, intending to major in Diesel engineering, but on October 10, 1941, at the age of 24, two months before Pearl Harbor, he joined the Army Air Corps. He trained as an aircraft mechanic and was assigned to a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortresses stationed first in Hawaii and then in the New Hebrides. He and his unit received three bronze stars for the Midway and Solomon Islands campaigns.

He returned to the U.S. with the rank of sergeant and finished out the war at Alexandria, Louisiana, where he trained B-17 crews and served as a crew chief and flight-engineer instructor. On Valentine’s Day, 1944, he married Margaret Langolf of Indianapolis. Their first child, Barbara Diane, was born in Louisiana. . . .

In peacetime he returned to the Carmel area and re-entered the contracting business. His second child [was named] Janet Elaine. . . . In 1955 he and Margaret built a ranch-style house at the SW corner of Township Line Road and West 116th Street, where they would reside for the remainder of their lives. He and Margaret were married for 55 years. She died in May of 1999.

David served for 20 years on the Carmel Library Board. He also served on the Carmel High School Board, and the Carmel Board of Zoning Appeals.

He was a serious fan of Indiana basketball and during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s traveled up and down the state in order to attend numerous boys’ high-school games. For many years he coached Little League Basketball teams in Carmel. Among his young players were Billy Shepherd and David Shepherd, who later starred for Carmel High School and played at college and professional levels.

After the war he took flying lessons, obtained his pilot’s license, and flew private planes for the next twenty-five years, beginning with a Piper Cub, and moving on up to series of twin-engine aircraft owned jointly with other area pilots.

He had a lifelong interest in cowboys, gunslingers, Native Americans, and the American Wild West. His piloting enabled him to take many trips to places like Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona, in order to visit historic sites. Sometimes he took Margaret on those flights, sometimes he took the two girls, and sometimes he was accompanied by friends from the Carmel area.

He kept working as a builder until he was 75. During his retirement years he took up the game of golf, and devoted to his playing the same patience and exactitude he had shown in so many other areas during his long and productive life.

Putting together an appropriate tribute immediately following a death in the family is not always easy to do. What was thought to be “common knowledge” sometimes turns out to be inaccurate, and certain kinds of official information often prove to be unavailable on short notice. We did the best we could, but in the mortuary tribute I was not satisfied with our summary of Dave Haston’s service during the Second World War.

As it developed, pinning down the nature and whereabouts of that service was a task more difficult than it initially appeared.

In the late 1930s, Dave Haston, like other of my friends and family members of that period, including Bill Hackett and Harry Wolf, had been concerned about an impending world conflict, and had joined the military well before the U.S. became involved. Once in the Army Air Corps, Dave was assigned to a bombing unit that flew the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, and shortly after Pearl Harbor he began his lifelong fascination with that memorable aircraft.

Those who were involved with B-17s form a special fraternity, one to which they belong for the rest of their lives. When I first met Dave Haston back in the mid-1970s, and began spending a few Thanksgivings and Christmases with him and his wife Margaret, the lore and legends of the B-17 were never far from the conversation.

In looking back on those years, I realize that I have acquired a layman’s appreciation of the B-17. I have been privileged to speak with a number of persons who actually flew the aircraft or were closely involved with it. Gerald Polsley, of Muncie, Indiana, was the first B-17 aviator I remember meeting, back in the mid-1960s.

In 1981 at Bread Loaf I spoke with the American poet Howard Nemerov, who had flown a variety of British and American combat aircraft in the European theater, and who was familiar with the B-17 and its capabilities. Later, in Indianapolis, I talked with actor Barney Kates, who had been a B-17 tail-gunner during the European campaign.

Russel Settle1, for more than half a century the proprietor of Indianapolis’s most literary neighborhood tavern, the Red Key, (go here and here) had flown as a co-pilot on a B-17 over Germany. His plane had been shot down, but Russel survived and was interned in Germany until the end of the war.

There were others, over the years. I have met B-17 veterans sitting next to me while traveling on commercial planes, while on poetry-reading tours, in a variety of taverns and bars, and under many other circumstances.  But the individuals I have named stand out in my mind. They seldom spoke at length about what they had seen and experienced during the war. But they spoke with authority.

Nor did they disparage other types of aircraft. My father-in-law had limited experience with the B-24 Liberator, but he praised it highly, and said that in comparison with the B-17 it had a greater range and could carry a heavier bomb load. He would add, parenthetically, that the B-24 was less maneuverable and more difficult to fly.

Invariably, too, he would point out that the interior of a B-17 aloft was a very cold place to be, and was pressurized only in certain sections of the aircraft, whereas the larger B-29 had a pressurized cabin throughout its length and breadth.

His unit, though quite important and subsequently quite historic, was not involved with the larger B-29 bomber. (Coincidentally, my own father, Robert Carter, who was a Seabee in the South Pacific, helped to build the great B-29 airfield on Tinian Island in the Marianas, and had an extremely remote but still significant connection with the Enola Gay, the “Little Boy,” and the bombing of Hiroshima. But that’s another story – although if you are curious, here is a poem of mine that touches on that subject.)

Dave Haston served as a mechanic with his unit in the South Pacific and stateside as a flight instructor. Here’s a more detailed account of his B-17 years, as given on page 89 of the commemorative volume, 11th Bomb Group (H), published in 1996 in Paducah, Kentucky, by Turner Publishing Company.

He enlisted in the Air Corps, Oct. 10, 1941. He finished the A & E School at Keesler Field, Biloxi, MS, in April 1942. He was then sent to the Hawaiian Islands on the USS Tasker H. Bliss2 and assigned to the 26th BS, 7th AF. On July 20, 1942, he was sent to the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific, on the USS Tyler3. In March 1943, he was sent back to Hawaii, Bellows Field4, near Winamelo, on the USS Maricopias5.  The last of March 1943, he was sent back to the States on the USS Pueblo6, a confiscated German ship.

He was then assigned, after a 15-day furlough, to Alexandria AFB, Alexandria, LA. While there, he served as a mechanic, crew chief and a flight engineer instructor on B-17s, for a year and a half, then taught hydraulics on B-17s for six months, while at Alexandria. In July 1945 he was sent to Barksdale Field, Shreveport, LA. On September 28 he was discharged with the rank of SGT.

He received the American Defense Ribbon, Dec. 19, 1944; Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon with three Bronze Stars; and the Good Conduct Ribbon, Jan. 23, 1943.

Those three bronze stars are worth mentioning in detail. They were attached to the Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon he received for his part in the Battle of Midway, which took place between 4 and 7 June in 1942, and which was, at least according to Wikipedia, “widely regarded as the most important naval battle of the Pacific Campaign of World War II.”  Wikipedia also reports that “military historian John Keegan has called it “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

I asked Dave about his part in that encounter, and it turned out he had never set foot on Midway Island, after which the battle was named. His unit had only weeks earlier arrived in Hawaii, and when the Japanese fleet approached Midway and the U.S. forces attacked, B-17s from Dave’s Oahu-based unit were thrown into the fray.

He was a mechanic, neither trained nor expected to fly bombing missions, but he and his fellow ground crewman kept the B-17s flying and refueled throughout that three-day ordeal. The bronze stars were awarded to the entire unit, then, and each airman accordingly received three.

Much more could be said, and I remember many additional things he told me. One of his anecdotes, about a B-17 pilot in Europe, I turned into a poem, “Wing Walker,” which can be accessed here. Dave was not a pilot, and he did not fly in combat, but he was on many flights around and about in the Pacific theater during the war. Several of his comments about flying, and specifically about flying over the ocean, have stayed with me, and have consoled me during difficult times.

In the ensuing sixty-five years, too, a great deal of controversy has arisen about many of the subjects I have touched on here. The ethics and the efficacy of strategic bombing have come into question, and the very nature and purpose of warfare continue to be debated, deplored, and defended.

I am aware of these controversies and I respect those who take different positions. But I am not interested in debating whether World War II was in fact “the good war,” or whether its participants were part of “the greatest generation.” They did what they felt compelled to do. You cannot change what happened, and to attempt to rewrite history, or to condemn it on the basis of present-day values and assumptions, is an exercise in futility, if not also vanity.

This blog entry is not meant to stir up discussion of such matters. It is intended to pay tribute to an American everyman, David Haston, from Carmel, Indiana, who, during his own era some seventy years ago, when he was in his twenties, chose to serve his country in the manner I have described here.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Notes

1. Russ Settle’s eccentricities and grouchiness were legendary, but he was really a pussycat, as his many fans attest. One of the Red Key’s regular customers back in the late 50s and early 60s was Frances Farmer, the 1930s screen diva and (much later) Indianapolis TV legend.  Russ told me once that she would come in every weekday evening after her local afternoon TV show (she introduced old movies) and sit at a corner table and he would serve her the usual, which was a vodka and tonic.

One bit of trivia that Settle’s hagiographers seem to have overlooked concerns the Red Key’s exterior neon sign, of which Russ was quite proud.  Few who enter the Red Key even today realize that the four notes on the musical staff illuminated on the sign comprise the opening phrase of “How Dry I Am.”

2. The USS Tasker H. Bliss “made five Pacific Ocean voyages for the Army before being routed on to Baltimore, Maryland, where she arrived on 15 August 1942.”  Subsequently assigned to the European theater, and “operating in dangerous waters on 12 November 1942, she was sunk after being struck by a German submarine’s torpedo at Fedala Bay, Morocco.”

3.  During the American Civil War the USS Tyler was a commercial paddlewheel steamboat converted by the U. S. Navy to a gunboat; it participated in the siege of Vicksburg. Dave Haston may have been transported to the New Hebrides in a vessel that contained “Tyler” as part of a longer name, but I have not been able to establish what Navy ship that might have been. At least one other World War II veteran, Floyd Pippett, seems to claim online that he, too, was transported on a ship of that era named, at least in part, the USS Tyler.

4.  The community near which Bellows Field, now Bellows Air Force Station, is located, is properly spelled “Waimenolo.”

5. The book 11th Bomb Group (H) assembled histories and reminiscences of surviving B-17 veterans who were relying on memories that were then close to fifty years in the past.  Most likely this was not a ship called the USS Maricopias, but in fact the USS Maricopa County.  The latter, however, was not commissioned until 9 September 1944, and thus Dave Haston could not have returned to Hawaii on a vessel of that name in March of 1943. I have not been able to explain this discrepancy in his account.

6.  The USS Pueblo (PF-13) a Tacoma-class frigate, was the second ship of the U. S. Navy to be named for Pueblo, Colorado. It should not be confused with the third USS Pueblo (AGER-2), an American  technical research ship which was boarded and captured by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on January 23, 1968, in what is known as the Pueblo incident.

The second USS Pueblo (PF-13) was commissioned 27 May 1944 but was confined to the Western Sea Frontier, which does not include Hawaii. Nor was that USS Pueblo a “confiscated German ship,” as Dave Haston told the editors of 11th Bomb Group (H) – a detail they failed to check. Finally, if Haston returned to the states in March of 1943, this was over a year before the second Pueblo was in operation. Again, Haston’s memory after fifty years seems to have been faulty, although it is still possible that he may have been taken back to the states in the spring of 1943 on a ship that had “Pueblo” as part of its name.

It remains a mystery why Dave Haston introduced probable errors and likely inaccuracies in his published account of his travels in the Pacific. His service awards and the three bronze stars, however, are confirmed and attested to by his Honorable Discharge 212516, dated 24 September 1945, a copy of which I have before me as I write.

There remain in his daughters’ possession and that of his grandson, Tim Dunker, who will shortly be entering the U.S. Marine Corps, certain personal letters sent back by David Haston to his mother, father, and wife-to-be during the years 1941 to 1945. It is conceivable that examination of these letters may help to explain the uncertainty concerning the names of some of these transport ships.

 

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