By Kim Howard
The plane was on fire.
High over enemy territory, surrounded by Allied bomber planes, American pilot J. Francis Angier had no control over the starboard engines.
German artillery had just hit the B-17 bomber. His crew could not extinguish the fire. The right wing suffered a gaping hole.
After hitting the “bail out” bell, Angier watched the third engine and right landing gear fall away from the plane. Debris struck the face of one sergeant as he bailed out.
Hoping the other nine crewmen had already jumped, Angier tried to steer the plane away from the rest of the squadron. He lost all control.
The plane exploded. Angier, 21, was knocked unconscious. His body began to plummet toward the ground.
That was Oct. 25, 1944. Now 83, Angier shares his war experiences through talks and his book, “Ready or Not: Into the Wild Blue.” The autobiography details how his early life experiences prepared him for, and helped him survive, his World War II service.
Angier is one of roughly 800 veterans living in Williston, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.
Nov. 11, this Saturday, is Veteran’s Day, a state and federal holiday honoring the men and women who have served the nation, in and out of combat. There are hundreds of stories about Williston veterans. Here are three.
Growing up on a farm in Hawaii, Ruth Dean had no intention of being the wife and mother she was expected to be.
“I wanted to see the world. I wanted to do things I had never done before,” Dean, 63, said.
College was her goal, but poverty was a barrier. In November 1961, at 18, Dean made a decision that would estrange her from her father for years: She joined the U.S. Women’s Army Corps. Thirty-one years later, she retired with the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Army National Guard.
Like 29 percent of Williston veterans, Dean served in the Vietnam War. She intercepted enemy radio communications and processed records as troops went to hospitals or were discharged.
After the war, Dean sought a civilian job in San Francisco, hoping that would put her on track to college. Not long after, she was in the Army reserves, and then on active duty again. In 1971 the Army National Guard, which did not enlist women until the late 1960s, asked her to become its national female recruiting coordinator.
For four years, Dean traveled the country speaking at universities and high schools, state fairs and women’s expos, boosting the Guard’s female force.
After moving to Williston in 1975, Dean joined the Vermont Army National Guard. Two years later, she became the first woman to attend the U.S. Army Sergeant Majors Academy, the highest military school for senior non-commissioned officers.
“I hated most of the time I was there,” the soft-spoken Dean said. “I was the only female.”
An outcast among her classmates, and kept at arm’s length by faculty who feared they’d be seen as favoring her, Dean persisted. She learned battlefield maneuverings and military planning she’d never personally witnessed since women were not allowed in combat. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her class of 335.
Eight years after graduation, Dean became the country’s first female Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army National Guard; she oversaw troops at the Camp Ethan Allen training site in Jericho.
“I really believe that I was qualified to have been promoted sooner,” Dean said, “but I think that most of the commanders were afraid…because they were not sure whether the men would accept that and follow a leader that was a female.”
Dean finally earned the college degree she had so desired, graduating from Trinity College. And she and her father reconciled.
“He finally admitted that he was very proud of me,” Dean said.
Though it was difficult for women to get beyond a certain rank, Dean said she watched women gain more acceptance in the Guard prior to her retirement in 1992.
“My legacy is my service to my country as a female,” Dean said. “As a woman, I did contribute as much to my country as any American could. I wasn’t in war, I didn’t fight, but I served.”
Talking about his trips to Oklahoma City, Mike Coates’ eyes light up. Every other year, the 74-year-old Korean War veteran travels to the Sooner State for a reunion with the 45th infantry division, also known as the Thunderbirds.
“Once you’ve been through a situation, a combat situation, there’s a camaraderie that sets in that’s something that’s never lost,” Coates said. It’s been over 50 years since he served with the Thunderbirds. “The loyalty to your unit, to your buddies, just never goes away.”
Coates joined the Army Reserve in 1951 while a college student. After his first year in college – “a lousy experience,” he says with a laugh – he joined the Army. It was an opportunity to travel and see things, he said.
Intensive infantry training and counter-intelligence school were his first tasks. Then, in the spring of 1952, he found himself in the Korean War doing infantry intelligence, setting up combat patrols, and doing reconnaissance work.
That spring, 50 percent of the men in his division were injured or killed, Coates said.
“Guys that I knew were gone,” he said quietly. “That was the hard part.”
After 13 months of service in Korea, Coates was a military police patrol sergeant in Illinois for a year. Not wanting police work as a career, he returned to Vermont and St. Michael’s College. He joined the National Guard, for which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry. He served three years in the 43rd division for the 172nd infantry.
Save the American flag hanging outside, a visitor to the Coates home would not necessarily know of his military experience until stepping into the finished basement. Rows of books – one shelf each for the Korean War and World War II, and for the Revolutionary and French and Indian Wars — reflect Coates’ avid study of war history.
“I’m so well aware of the sacrifice of the troops in the Revolution to make our country what it is,” he said. Americans have the freedoms they do, Coates said, because of soldiers’ service over the last 230 years.
The military has had a big impact on Coates, especially as a construction manager.
“I always learned the lessons I learned of taking care of my people,” he said. “You take care of the people that you’re responsible for. In turn, they’ll take care of you.”
Like Angier, about 22 percent of Williston veterans served in World War II. One of the many things that probably make Angier stand apart, however, is how he survived.
After the B-17 exploded and Angier began hurtling toward earth, he regained consciousness about two miles closer to the ground, he estimates in his book. He still had enough time to open the parachute. That saved his life. The impact from the speed at which he hit the ground, however, left him with injuries that affected him for his 47 years as a farmer in Addison, until now.
Today, outside his home in Chelsea Commons, flies a black flag that says “POW/MIA” and “You are not forgotten.”
Sitting in a burgundy-colored, leather rocking chair, with an American flag in the corner behind him, Angier does not focus on the seven months of unimaginable conditions he faced as a severely injured prisoner of war.
He talks instead of the three members of his crew he lost the day they were shot down.
Angier said Veterans Day is important to remind people of the cost of defending the country.
“I think people take it for granted too much today,” Angier said. “We have everything in this country. People die trying to get here. No one has risked their lives trying to go away from this country.”