Saltwater Portrait

The life of Tom Creekmore

March 6, 2013

Where do you begin to tell the story of Tom Creekmore's life?

Sitting at his Long Neck kitchen table, Tom peels back the endless layers of his interesting life that still has chapters remaining. He celebrated his 89th birthday on Dec. 7, 2012.

He shook the hands of Civil War veterans at Gettysburg, flew bombing missions over Nazi Germany, worked for 40 years in the aviation industry, saw President Franklin Roosevelt, fostered a friendship with the captain of the famous Memphis Belle and helped in a little-known rescue mission to fly out more than 6,000 American and British POWs following the war.

And there is much more to Tom's life. Refusing to remain idle in retirement, he took up duck carving, colonial-period re-enacting, singing and making benches out of bed frames he buys at thrift stores. As the last remaining member of his World War II B-17 crew, he reached out on the internet and found some of the crew's relatives and sends them a monthly newsletter detailing activities and missions the crew completed.

He's outlived two wives, but still maintains a social spark with his lady friend, Rita D'Ascenzo.

Tom retired in 1981 and moved to the Cape Region 10 years ago to be a beachcomber, he says. He and his family had grown attached to the area after taking many vacations at the beach.

Meeting Civil War veterans

Tom, born in Portsmouth, Va., in 1923, was a child of the Great Depression. His father lost a successful real estate business in Norfolk and then the family home, forcing a move to a beach cottage near Virginia Beach.

“We were so poor, you just can't believe it,” he said. “None of the boys who went to school had shoes.”

To make a game of it, the school principal started a contest – with the prize of a silver dollar – to see which boy would be the last one to remain barefoot. “I went to Dec. 1 and won the contest,” Tom said. “My mother took me out to buy a pair of sneakers.”

His family's lot improved in the late 1930s when he was 13 years old and his family moved to the Washington, D.C., area.

During this time period, young Tom visited a hallowed battlefield site that left an indelible impression on him. He visited Gettysburg, Pa., with his uncle Raymond Creekmore in July 1938, the 75th anniversary of the one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War.

During the visit, he shook hands with some of the last-remaining Civil War veterans and saw President Roosevelt light the eternal flame at the battlefield. His uncle, who was a Baltimore Evening Sun sketch artist, was on assignment to capture the event.

To this day, Tom goes out of his way to shake young people's hands to pass on the history. “They hopefully can say one day they shook the hand of a World War II veteran who shook the hands of Civil War veterans,” he said.

The war years

After graduating from high school in Arlington, Va., he was the first employee hired to work in the new headquarters of the Pennsylvania Central Airline at the newly constructed National Airport near Washington, now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The name was changed to Capital after World War II and the airline eventually merged with United Airlines. Tom started working in the accounting department and worked his way up to middle management.

His airline career was put on hold when he was drafted in January 1943, a year after marrying his childhood sweetheart. He had a brother serving in the Pacific Theater and another in the European Theater, and his uncle joined the Army Air Force and was sent all over the world to sketch pilots, crews and planes.

After a few months of training with the 3rd Army Tank Corps, Tom realized it was not for him and he volunteered for the Army Air Corps. By the end of 1943 he passed the required tests and was assigned as a radio operator to an eight-man, B-17 “Flying Fortress” crew for additional training as a member of 305th Bomb Group in the 365th Bomb Squadron as part of the 8th Army Air Force. After more training, he was shipped out with his crew in early 1945 to Chelveston, Northamptonshire, England.

Over a 40-day period, his crew on The Joker flew 19 bombing missions, taking part with more than 1,300 bombers and more than 700 fighters in one of the largest day-light raids of the war. It was during that March 18 raid over Germany that German Me262s – the first war-time jets – were sent out to attack American planes.

Tom said 17 of his crew's 19 missions were over Germany with one mission to bomb German facilities in France and one mission in Holland. Each mission lasted an average of about six hours with the crew spending most of that time wearing oxygen masks due to the high altitude.

In March 1945 , he said, the 8th Army Air Force dropped 73,000 tons of bombs during 28,000 sorties; 138 bombers – B-17s and B-24s – were lost.

In the 305th Bomb Group, more than 750 crew members were killed, more than 900 were captured and countless were wounded.

The 305th Bomb Squadron was comprised of four squads with 48 B-17s. Tom said that on any given day, three of the four squads were prepared to fly. In a highly choreographed feat, squadrons would combine daily to create large formations of more than 1,000 planes flying above the English Channel.

He said getting into the war late, his bombing crew had an advantage earlier crews did not have: P-51 fighter planes as escorts. “I could sit in my radio room and look out the window above my head and see four P-51s on top of us. It gave me a great feeling to know they were there,” he said.

Even so, his crew suffered a close call on March 23, 1945, during their only low-altitude mission in the war. As they flew over Germany, a 20mm shell torn through the plane's wing ripping out all of his radio equipment. “No one got hit, but I counted at least 80 holes caused by shrapnel in my radio room,” he said.

A historic rescue mission

After the war was over, Creekmore's crew was part of a historic mission of 200 B-17 planes from 10 bases that rescued more than 6,000 American and English POWs housed at Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany. Creekmore said the Russians had liberated the camp and were playing politics as the Allies started slicing up Germany. “They gave us three days to come and get our men,” he said.

Creekmore said roads and railroads were destroyed so the only option available was to fly the men out. “And I think the Russians thought it would be impossible,” he said.

During Operation Revival from May 13-15, U.S. airmen were flown out to Le Havre, France, and all Royal Air Force POWs were returned to England. Creekmore said each B-17 could carry up to 30 men. “I'll remember that more than any of our missions; it meant so much to me,” he said.

After the war

Tom said he was fortunate enough to be shipped home at war's end. The rest of his crew remained overseas to conduct aerial mapping missions. To get home, he joined 5,000 infantry troops on the Queen Mary. “I was prepared for a hard crossing of 10 days on a Liberty Ship, but instead made the crossing in five days,” he said.

During the crossing, he received a mimeographed copy of a newsletter containing a letter from President Harry Truman congratulating members of the 35th Infantry “Santa Fe” Division; Truman was a captain in the division during World War I. Creekmore later donated the newsletter to the museum on the Queen Mary docked in Long Beach, Calif.

After the war, 21-year-old Creekmore returned to family life and work at the airline. “In all the years I worked for the airline, I never actually worked at an airport,” he said with a smile.

Due to airline consolidations, he lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago for a few years but eventually returned to the Washington, D.C. area.

He and his wife had three children while living in Arlington, and he has nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. His son, Tom Jr., served as a Navy helicopter pilot during the Vietnam era and one of his grandsons, Eric, was a U.S. Marine Corps F-18 pilot serving during the Gulf wars.

“My goal has been to work 40 years and be retired for 40 years,” he says. “I enjoy each day.”

Small sheet of paper with big memories

It's only a small sheet of paper, but it means so much more to Tom Creekmore. He kept that piece of paper with a song penciled on it in his wallet for 50 years following World War II. That paper serves as a reminder of a time period etched in his mind when he joined others of the Greatest Generation to stop the tide of German occupation in Europe.

Barely out of high school, Tom volunteered with the U.S. Army Air Forces and was assigned as a radio operator on a B-17 bomber crew stationed in Chelveston, England. During down time – to take his mind off the war – he listened to Armed Forces Radio. On one particular day, he was nearly lifted off his cot by a song that caught his ear, “There I've Said it Again,” sung by Vaughn Monroe.

“I thought it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard,” he said. It took him several days, but eventually he heard it enough to write down the words in a notebook he kept with him at all times.

After the war, he tore out the page from the notebook and put it in his wallet. He would take it out from time to time over the next 50 years and start singing. About 15 years ago, he had the paper laminated to preserve it.

His most recent performance took place Feb. 14 at Clear Space Theatre in Rehoboth Beach during a World War II-era stage door canteen show.

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