CUMBERLAND – It’s been 68 years since Wilfrid E. Hebert, 91, returned home from World War II and he has spent much of that time coming to terms with his days as a B-17 crew member flying missions over Europe.
Hebert, an ex-POW and a resident of Flat Street, can tell you what helped him most through his troubled times and also about the things he still grapples with when holidays such as Memorial Day arrive.
“There are times when I have to go and be by myself, times when I can’t be with people,” Hebert said during a visit to the town’s Cumberland Monastery property off Diamond Hill Road on Friday.
Hebert was behind the installation of a granite monument to combat veterans of all wars there back in 2000 and still stops by from time to time to see its inscriptions — its dedication to the veterans “that fought, suffered and died so that America can be free,” and the poem he wrote for the soldiers who never came home.
The monument, he explained, is one of the best things he ever did to remember a group of his contemporaries that gave so much to their country.
It has also become a place to honor the latest group of soldiers defending America, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Hebert.
“I’m proud of this monument,” he said.
Hebert went off to war in October of 1942 and ended up as a flight engineer with the crew of a B-17 bomber in the 840th Squadron of the 483rd Bomber Group. A native of Lawrence, Mass., he had moved to Woonsocket in 1927 and attended Mount St. Charles Academy before he joined the service.
The first mission Hebert flew out of Stamperone, Italy, taught him the hard and lasting lessons of air combat. His flight of bombers was on a run to Vienna, Austria, when it ran into heavy flak from enemy guns below. Hebert’s plane took a hit and his pilot sent him down to check on the bombardier and navigator who were not responding on the intercom.
Both of the flyers had been killed instantly by the blast and the image of their lifeless bodies remains with Hebert today.
“When we landed, the blood just flowed out of that plane just as if you had a faucet open,” he said.
A check of the aircraft later showed it to be riddled with holes, large and small.
Hebert ran into trouble in the air again on a mission to attack a munitions factory in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on Oct. 23, 1944. His B-17, the Shadrack, took a hit in one of its four-engines and the 10-member crew made a bid to fly back to Italy on the remaining three engines. The plane lost additional engines along the way until just one was still running as the plane flew over Austria. When that engine gave out, Hebert and his fellow crew members bailed out. All survived and only the co-pilot was hurt when he broke his legs in the landing, Hebert said.
Hebert and other members of the crew were captured near Landeck, Austria, and held in prisoner war camps until the end of the war in spring of 1945. All of the crew members, including the injured co-pilot, survived and returned home.
Hebert said he attempted to put his war experiences behind him on his own for 45 years and then finally began to deal with them with other veterans like himself with the VA’s help.
“I started going to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic at the VA in 1990 and I can cope with it now better than I used to,” he said.
The key to the support at the VA was the involvement of other veterans facing the same issues, Hebert said. In his own group, he was able to talk with other former POWs and hear what they went through during their time in captivity.
“It takes a POW to help a POW,” he said.
The VA had counselors to help as well but at the time even they were still learning about PTSD.
“They had to learn about it from us,” Hebert said.
The Shadrack crashed into the Tashach Ferner Glacier in the Austrian Alps back during the war and its later discovery by an Austrian businessman, Wolfgang Deutsch of Innsbruck, resulted in Hebert making trips to Austria beginning in 2002 to meet Deutsch and see his collection of parts from the plane.
He also spent many years participating in reunions of the 483rd Bomb Group, serving as president before he gave up the gavel in 2005. Today he hasn’t been able to attend recent annual reunions but still stays in touch with the organization’s members.
While some try to honor veterans on the holidays of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Hebert said, he experienced the best tribute possible recently while walking into Davenport’s Restaurant on Mendon Road, wearing his Air Force cap.
A young man standing near the door saluted him when he walked in and the gesture took Hebert aback, prompting him to ask if the salute was to him.
“[The man] said, ‘Are you driving the red car with the POW license plate,’ and I said I was,” Hebert recalled. “He said, ‘Well I’m saluting you... you the ex-POW.’”
The young man was in fact himself a soldier just back from Afghanistan where he had lost his leg in an explosion that destroyed the vehicle in which he was riding with other members of his unit.
“I said, ‘I don’t know why you are saluting me, I should be saluting you,’” Hebert recalled.
The two talked a bit and Hebert walked away enriched from meeting the younger veteran. Before parting, Hebert said he left the soldier with the recommendation that he stop by and see his monument at the entrance of the Monastery in Cumberland.
“It was a very touching moment. Touching for him and touching for me,” Hebert said.