Retired U.S. Army Col. John E. Horn learned a lot about his father, John H. Horn, from stories his grandmother would tell. He learned that his dad was fascinated about flying and dreamed of being a pilot from the time he was a very small child.
“That’s lore in the family,” said Horn. “He built a model airplane one time, rubber band powered. He could launch it from the front porch, and it was trimmed to fly all around the house and come back to him.”
His father would get to explore that fascination as a young adult, flying planes as a bombardier in Italy during World War II, as a member of the 376th Heavy Bombardment Group. “The airplane they flew was a B-24 Liberator,” said Horn. “The unit was equipped with the Liberators, so they decided to call themselves the Liberandos.”
Horn, who flew planes himself during a 12-month tour in Vietnam, wrote a book about his dad called, “Liberando: Reflections of a Reluctant Warrior.” It was published this year by Merriam Press of Hoosick Falls, New York.
Although he had written academic papers and articles for magazines and travel journals, Horn had never tackled a book. That all changed five years ago when a cousin from New York – where his father was born and raised – came through Nashville to visit Horn and his family. She brought with her a stack of letters.
“These letters were from my father to his mother, during the time he went through training in the Army Air Corps,” Horn said. “So I read through the letters and they were quite interesting. He was 22 or 23 years old at the time. The material was so rich, I just couldn’t bear to put it in a drawer and just bring it out every once in a while. So I decided I was going to write a book.”
Now hooked, Horn began digging further, uncovering some additional artifacts. He found a mission log book from WWII and his father’s onion skin list of missions he flew, which was very brief, simply noting the date, where they flew, and what the target was. He discovered a second onion skin that had been made by another man on his father’s crew, flight engineer Harvey Ulmer, which had more detail, but was very yellowed and fragile. He also read any books he could find about the 15th Air Force in Italy in World War II.
“I thought, I know what he was thinking when he went through training,” recalled Horn. “Of course I had heard a lot of stories about him when he was growing up, so I had those recollections. And I had a brief interview that my daughter, Lisa, who was a journalist for about seven or eight years, had conducted with my father in 1999. So I got all of this material together and I started crafting a story around it.”
Interestingly, much of the information that Horn gathered about his father’s flight missions – from the two onion skins and the log – were in disagreement. Those discrepancies led Horn to “a gigantic tome” from the library of the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama, which was an official listing of missions flown. “It also disagreed,” he laughed. “But when there was disagreement, I went with this official document.”
Through his research, Horn was surprised to learn about the brevity of his father’s service. His dad was only overseas from May until the end of October 1944. “Their tours were based on the number of missions they flew,” Horn explained. “It initially started at 25 missions, because they wanted pilots to fly enough missions where they had a 50 percent chance of surviving. Once they got past their 12th mission they were likely to not make it.”
Comparatively, Horn flew thousands of missions during his year-long tour in Vietnam. “The level of danger was much different,” Horn said. “When my father flew it was very dangerous almost every trip.”
For a relatively small segment of the armed forces in World War II, combat air crewman – pilots, co-pilots and enlisted crew members – represented 12 percent of all combat deaths in the Army; 10 percent of combat deaths among all the services. By the time Horn’s father was in combat, the number of maximum missions had grown from 25 to 35 and then to 50 missions. It took him less than four months to complete his 50; the remainder of the time was spent waiting to come home.
According to Horn, danger and daunting statistics aside, the letters revealed that his father had no ambivalence about flying or fighting for his country while he was in training. “Of course in training, you don’t really know what’s going to happen; you learn on the job,” said Horn. “You learn how to fly the airplane, you learn emergency procedures, and you learn thought processes in training. But until you actually go over there and do it – and I found this out in my own experience – you’re just a neophyte. You’re not really combat ready until you’ve been in combat.”
His father’s feelings changed once he was stationed in Italy and conducting actual missions. Although he relished the flying part and saw it as his duty to serve in the armed forces, Horn describes his dad as the opposite of a “gung-ho crusader.” In his father’s voice, Horn wrote, “Aggressiveness – prosecuting violence and killing – was not something to be proud of under any guise and was not in my nature. … My combat experience was not something I enjoyed talking about or reliving.”
From stories he was told, Horn believes his father was a “really a good kid.” He wasn’t the bestc student, but he did what his parents said, and never got in trouble. “He was raised in a Catholic family, and I think his faith really got him through the war,” Horn said. “There were a couple of times when he was kind of ‘on the rocks’ – they’d call it PTSD today – and his faith is really what brought him through.”
Horn inherited that strong sense of faith from his dad, and it influenced some of his choices and decisions during his own deployment.
When he went to Vietnam in 1969, the world had just discovered the atrocities of My Lai, a mass killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians, and other abuses, which were constantly highlighted in the press. “When I went to Vietnam, I decided that I did not want to be responsible for killing anybody that didn’t need to be killed, that was a non-combatant or a civilian,” said Horn. “I just didn’t think I could live with that. There were people over there that didn’t give that any thought. It’s not because they were malicious, or criminals, they just didn’t think about it. But my religion required me to address certain things like that.”
Today, Horn is an active parishioner at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. He is retired from his position as Director of Adult Studies at Aquinas College, which he held for seven years. Not one to sit still, Horn volunteers at Room in the Inn once a month and volunteers at the Catholic Pastoral Center twice a week, helping out in any way he can.
Inspired by his own perseverance to research, write and get “Liberando” published, he’s enthusiastic about working on a second book, possibly about three brothers who all trained together and then served in Italy at the same time during World War II, but whose lives led to three very different outcomes.
“Liberando” is available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Locally, there will be a book signing and short presentation at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at Parnassus Books in Green Hills.