Bill Patten

Bill Patten and his B-17 crew members. Patten is in the front row, far right. 


World War II Air Corps vet turns 102


Stoicism doesn’t fade with age. 

The Greatest Generation is more collectively similar than any other generation in American history. They’re just about all the same. Shared tragedy and hardship bring people together, and few people in this country have seen more hardship than those born between 1915 and 1925. Almost to a member, the greatest generation is stoic, humble, hardworking and more often than not very stubborn. 

They’re remained that way even now in the twilight of their existence, molded and cast in iron by their upbringing during the Great Depression and the world war that followed. It is not an exaggeration to say each remaining member of this generation is a national treasure. They’re the last of the best of us, and are the reason this country exists today. They saved the world. That’s a massive reputation for a generation to hold up, and if there was a shred of arrogance among them, it might have gone to their head — but there’s not. 

Bill Patten turned 102 years old last Sunday, and he epitomizes the collective mindset of his generation. 

Patten grew up in Kansas City. They were poor, just like everyone else. The Depression hit the family hard. Patten’s father was often times out of work and food was sometimes hard to come by. He remembers eating a lot of oatmeal. Yet, there’s no sorrow in his voice when he talks about growing up, no ‘woe is me’ selfishness. Patten talks about his childhood just like everyone else his age does, and summed it up with a phrase that may as well be the official motto of the greatest generation. 

“We got by,” he said. “We survived.” 

Patten was 23 years old in December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had recently received his degree in aeronautical engineering, so as the nation went to war he naturally gravitated toward flying. Patten enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 and eventually became a B-17 pilot. 

For anyone unfamiliar, B-17s were large, four engine bombers that specialized in daytime, high altitude bombing raids all over Europe during the war. They were big and slow, but tough. There are photos of B-17s that are nearly torn in half in the middle or missing large parts of their wings or tails landing safely after a mission. They were crewed by 10 men, four officers and six gunners, and it was Patten’s job to bring them all home in one piece. 

Patten was stationed in Italy for the duration of the war. While infantrymen and other combat troops endured almost constant misery, the lives of B-17 crew members were bi-polar. When they left the runway on each mission they entered one of the most dangerous arenas of the war, as full of terror and death as any ground combat. But if they survived, they returned to the relative safety of base where they slept on mattresses and ate hot meals. No other branch of the service witnessed war as close and personal while simultaneously living so far behind the frontlines. 

Patten endured all of this, and flew 34 combat missions into northern Italy and Germany in 1944-45. The death and fear he faced is unquestionable, but he talks about these missions like a plumber talks about fixing a sink. 

“I suppose I had some misgivings,” he said. “But we were just so doggone busy. We were flying in close formation and watching for whatever might be up there. There was a lot of distraction.” 

Patten’s Depression upbringing had made him tough above all else — able to endure anything the war threw at him and keep going. It was just a job, and he didn’t have time to think about anything else. 

Patten is gentle and soft spoken. He’s matter-of-fact in the way that only army officers are and speaks directly. You can see history in his eyes, but in general he looks much younger than he is. Just like the rest of his generation, he came home from the war and did the best he could to get on with his life. He raised a family and went on to a successful career in business. Today he has 17 great-grandchildren. There is profound joy in watching someone like him turn 102. His grit and resolve represent the best parts of humanity and he is a shining example of the generation we all owe so much to. 

A movie came out in 2004 called “Ike: Countdown to D-Day” starring Tom Selleck as Gen. Eisenhower in the lead up to the Normandy invasions. As the movie comes to a close, Ike stands alone in his headquarters and reflects on the bravery and selflessness of the men he just ordered into battle. His last words ring true of Patten and every other member of the Greatest Generation.

“We may never see their like again.”

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