380th Bomb Group Association
Newsletter 32 ~ October 2007
AN A-2 FLIGHT JACKET STORY
by William E. Shek, Jr
My father, William Shek, after earning his pilot's wings, was assigned to the newly formed 380th Bomb Group and trained in the B-24 Liberator at Biggs Field, Texas. From there he eventually deployed with the initial group of B-24s to Northern Australia and Fenton in early 1943, in the 528th BS. He flew missions at Fenton from then until late 1944, when he returned to the U.S. After the war ended he left the service, flying for TWA for several years. He returned to the military when the U.S. Air Force was officially established in 1947, serving as a career Air Force officer and pilot, retiring in 1967 in South Carolina, then moving to Florida. In 1992 he and Mom relocated to Redding, California, where they remained until their passing in 2003.
Among the articles Dad kept from his WW2 service was his A-2 leather flight jacket, which he had worn throughout the war during his time in Fenton. I grew up with that jacket, sometimes wearing it as a kid, but mostly seeing it in a closet and regarding it with some awe. It had a leather name tag with his name and pilot's wings printed on it in silver, his 528th BS "Herky" patch on the left breast and a large 5th AF patch on the right breast.
As the years passed, I visited them many times in Florida, then in Redding. With each visit I noticed that the jacket was becoming more and more "distressed" and was slowly deteriorating. The cloth lining, the fabric waistband and cuffs were starting to rot, the stitching in the seams had parted in several places, and the leather was flaking and starting to crack a little. Then, in 1999, Dad read an ad from a collector in Southern California in the Retired Officers magazine, offering to buy original WW2 articles - especially flight clothing and gear - sight unseen and in any condition. Dad responded, payment was made, then he packed up the jacket and sent it off. That was that - the jacket was gone forever - or so I sadly thought.
After Mom and Dad passed away, I became very interested in finding out more about his time in Fenton and his B-24 "Dauntless Dottie". I wish I had possessed this interest while he was alive and had pried information and stories out of him, but now it was too late (vets, sons, daughters and grandchildren, please take note!). I had never really asked him much about his experiences in the war and he never volunteered any information willingly. He did not ever like to talk about the war. However, I had his collection of original photographs of aircraft, strikes, and scenes of Fenton that he had saved. I began doing research - mostly on the internet - and found a couple of excellent websites. One, of course, was the 380th BG Association site and the other was the "B-24 Best Web" site, which posts submitted photos of B-24 aircraft and crews and has an online forum where folks can post questions and information. I submitted several photos of "Dauntless Dottie" from Dad's collection, which were posted on that site along with my name and email as the photo contributor. I emailed Ted Williams at the 380th BG Association many times with questions and photos, which he kindly responded to with a wealth of information (I'm afraid that I pestered him unmercifully!). His generous help and information have been invaluable to me.
Over the years I had often wondered what became of the jacket, where it was, and if it still even existed. Then, in January, 2004, completely out of the blue, I received the following email from a gentleman in Dallas, Texas:
"Wow, what a small world! You don't know me but I have taken the liberty to drop you a line and just say hello. I collect WWII militaria and about 2 years ago I purchased a WWII US A-2 flight jacket that once belonged to your father! ....a wonderful example of a wartime A-2 with his leather name tag, a 5th AF patch, a blood chit on back and a large colorful chenille 528th patch of "Herky". I was fascinated with finding out about the original owner. I eventually found a great book on the 380th and read about his squadron's brave exploits on missions such as the Balikpapan raid. I was researching various military things today on the Internet and just came across the photo of Dauntless Dottie you posted on the B-24 site. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw your name at the bottom!"
Needless to say, his email completely took me by surprise - I also nearly fell out of my chair in disbelief! Of course I answered and we began corresponding about the jacket. I sent him some photos from Dad's collection showing him wearing the jacket. He told me that its condition was "pretty rough" when he bought it on eBay. He said that he had debated about it for some time, but finally decided to have the jacket conserved as much as possible, as he didn't feel it would survive without some help. He sent the jacket to a company in Scotland called "Aero Leather Clothing", which specialized in the sale and restoration of leather flight jackets. They replaced the fabric waistband, cuffs and lining with as close a match as possible, reinforced the seam stitching (through the original holes) and treated the leather to recondition and preserve it. They even returned the removed original lining with the jacket. This had all been done before he knew I existed. He sent me photos that Aero Leather had sent him of their restoration process of the jacket and of the restored jacket on display in his collection (which is extensive!). I totally agreed with his decision and the results. Aero Leather did a superb job. Without this conservation the jacket would eventually have literally fallen apart. He then generously offered to send the jacket back to me. I told him I truly felt that the jacket had been meant to come into his possession and that he should keep it, as I knew it would be valued and protected there.
In August, 2004, he again contacted me, saying that while looking through his own father's WW2 uniforms he had come to a decision which had been growing in the back of his mind for some time. He now strongly believed that the jacket should "go home" and wanted me to have it back. We reached an agreement and he shipped it to me. Now, incredibly, after a long, long journey my father's flight jacket had returned. When I actually touched it again it I felt that a circle had closed and something of my father's spirit had returned. I have since applied another leather conditioner to it and it looks 1000% better than when I last saw it in 1999.
However, something in the first email had puzzled me. He had said that the jacket had a "blood chit" on the back. I know that the jacket had NEVER had anything on the back and this bothered me a lot. For those not familiar with the term: A "blood chit" was a patch, of varying sizes, made of silk, cloth, or leather, which was usually sewn onto the outside or into the inside lining of a flight jacket. It usually had a Chinese flag, a US flag and a message written in Chinese on it. These were used by American flyers, mostly in the China-Burma theater, but in other theaters as well where Chinese was spoken. If a flyer was shot down, this patch was a "cashier's check" of sorts. The Chinese message on it identified the airman as an American flyer fighting the enemy and promised to pay a cash reward to whoever helped the flyer get back safely to allied forces. If the serviceman made it back with help from a local, the local could "cash" the check (or "chit"). Thus the name "blood chit". The Flying Tigers used them on their jackets. However, the 380th BG squadrons at Fenton and Long did not ever use these patches at all. The chit on Dad's jacket was made of leather and measured approximately 10"x 7". Evidently, somewhere along the line after Dad sold the jacket, someone added the patch on the back - probably trying to increase its value on eBay. I carefully removed the patch and found that, in addition to it being sewn on, several strips of adhesive had been applied (probably to hold the patch in place while sewing) - thus adding some injury to the insult.
I'm not superstitious, nor am I excessively spiritual, but this incredible chain of events has convinced me that some "higher" power meant for my father's A-2 to come back to me. I was extremely blessed and fortunate to get it back. I am eternally thankful to the collector in Dallas, not only for his care and devotion in preserving this flight jacket, but to his kindness in deciding that the jacket needed to return home (I sent the blood chit patch back to him for his collection). Also, I thank Aero Leather for their outstanding job of conservation.
I guess my plea to all of the 380th BG veterans (you are our living history after all - you were there!) and to their relatives is: Please, please save, record and conserve your collections, whether they are items of clothing, letters, records, medals, equipment, photos, or (and especially) your memories and stories - they are all irreplaceable. Once they are gone they are gone forever. We need to preserve and pass this priceless history down to future generations. While Dad's jacket is definitely NOT for sale ever again, I plan to eventually donate it and the photo collection to a museum (the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio, has already expressed an interest).
William E. Shek, Jr.
William Shek (Sr.)
Last updated: 12/05/2007 09:36 PM