Army Air Corps & Air Force Veteran of three wars
“Cec Byrd is a pilot. From my earliest memories I picture him in his orange flight suit and silver wings. At 80 years of age, he flew a plane from Harbor Springs to Newberry just to take me to lunch. I have vivid memories of him that span more than 50 years … But Cec Byrd was born 33 years before I came into his life. What a remarkable opportunity it is, then, to the meet the man I didn’t know through the stories in this book. … I know it is his fervent wish that we will read them and not just remember him, but understand the man he was through the events that transformed him forever.”
Jeri-Ann (Byrd) Sherry, daughter of Cecil Byrd
In a foreword to “Blue Skies,” a book of her father’s writings
By Beth Anne Piehl
Emmet County Director of Communications
For a farm boy who grew up running barefoot in bib overalls, and who never traveled much outside his rural Illinois community, Cecil “Cec” Byrd is still amazed at the path his life took as an Army Air Corps and US Air Force pilot, serving during three wars in the skies over multiple continents and spanning myriad missions.
“I never even learned how to drive a car before enlisting,” recalled Byrd, 89, of Petoskey. “And here I was, flying airplanes.”
Cec, as he’s known, was raised on farmland in Northern Illinois, 100 miles west of Chicago in a town named Polo. His parents were raised in the foothills of Tennessee; they moved to Illinois in 1914 looking for work. Cecil was born in 1922.
It was a quiet life, and one that led Byrd in search of greater adventure. To that end, World War II presented opportunities to young men like Byrd, who at age 18 enlisted in the Army Arr Corps.
He recalled a time in Montgomery, Ala., where he was sent for pre-flight training at age 19, anticipating what lay ahead.
“I lay on my cot actually feeling glad about World War II coming along to rescue me from my degradation. What a terrible thought, but I didn’t start the war and I welcomed the opportunity ahead of me,” Byrd wrote, in a voluminous memoir he has penned over the years, titled “In Search of Wings.”
It takes many, many pages indeed to tell the story of this farm boy-turned-aviator who flew during some of the greatest battles in U.S. history.
World War II erupted in 1939, and Byrd’s service began when he voluntarily enlisted in September 1940. Byrd began his military service working in Alabama and Mississippi in aircraft flight supply during the early years. He was home on leave in Polo when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Once the attack occurred, Byrd and his two brothers returned to their military units immediately.
In 1942, he applied for flight training and was selected to attend the Aviation Cadet Program. “I was thrilled to death when I was selected,” said Byrd.
While the program typically only accepted those with college credits, the number of those eligible dwindled as the war raged on. After passing a lengthy written exam, Byrd took to the sky. Training consisted of three phases, each aircraft a little more powerful than the one before. The last of the trainers was an AT6.
The training was rigorous and demanding. “There was lots of hazing and little sleep. Out of a class of 220 students, after three phases, there were 100 left,” Byrd recalled.
His reward for showing his mettle: “I was lucky enough to get my choice of aircraft: The P51- Mustang. It was the best fighter in the Army.”
In 1944, he joined the 339th Fighter group, which consisted of three fighter squadrons: the 503rd, the 504th and the 505th. Each squadron had about 25 P51 aircraft and 25 to 30 pilots when fully complimented, and they all participated in high-risk, difficult combat operations, “inflicting serious damage to the German war machine at considerable loss to our own numbers,” Byrd wrote, in his memoir.
On July 2, 1944, the first large group of 24 new replacement pilots arrived at Fowlmere Air Base, England – including Byrd. The men were split up evenly to each of the three squadrons; Byrd was assigned to the 505th.
The P51s served as machine gun strafers and skip bombers on ground targets as well as escort planes for U.S. bombers over Germany. Without escort the bombers were getting picked off by enemy fighter planes due to their level flight pattern that made for effective bombing runs but which left them vulnerable to attack.
The P51s were developed, among other things, to hold extra fuel – 550 gallons – allowing them to fly for 7 hours. “We could escort bombers all the way to their deep targets into Germany, and that saved a lot of lives,” Byrd said.
“At times there were as many as 500 P51s over Berlin, and 1,200 four-engine bombers. There were 10 men on board each bomber, Byrd continued. “There were so many at the same altitude-usually 25,000 to 28,000 feet making condensation trails that the German gunners could use to determine the bombers altitude.”
The battles in the sky prompted Byrd, looking back so many years later, to write a piece about the impact of the planes on the war effort.
“… There are many scars remaining in the land and in the preserved ruins throughout a major portion of the world. Those scars are there for all to see, to remind us of the devastation. There are no signs or scars or ruins remaining in the vast, empty skies above those battlegrounds. Nothing visible to remind us of the almost daily air battles raging overhead. Thousands of brave men and their machines fell to earth in a fiery death. Those great air battles remain only in the memories of an aging generation of airmen.”
Of the 24 replacement pilots who originally arrived that July day in 1944, just 7 remained unscathed – either not killed injured or taken Prisoner of War. Byrd was among those seven, and he served until May 1945 near the end of WW II in Europe — but it was not his last war.
After WWII, Byrd left the service and became an Illinois State police officer.
“I was a 1st Lieutenant in World War II, and when I got out I didn’t join the Reserves. My brother did, and he retained his rank. But unless you applied for Reserve duty, you lost your rank.”
When the Korean War (1950-53) flared, my brother was re-called. “I was ready to go, but I did not have to accept the recall. But I did. I regained my commission as a 1st Lt. and returned to active duty in the US Air Force.”, he said.
This time, Byrd remained stateside and trained aviation cadets and new fighter pilots for combat, at a base in Greenville, Miss.
By this time, Byrd was married to wife Verne (they’ve now been married for 61 years and have two children) son Jeffrey (retired U.S. Navy) and daughter Jeri-Ann (District Warden Michigan State Prison System). He applied and was selected, and he began training on F86 Sabre jets in Texas – his first time flying jet fighters.
In 1956, he was assigned to a Jet fighter squadron in Wiesbaden, Germany, and it was back to a war zone – this time, the mission was to intercept Russian attack planes attempting to invade Germany. By now, the Korean War had ended but Russia’s terrorist regime was a constant threat.
“These were all-weather interceptor planes. We flew the east-west border of East and West Germany. And it was a zero-zero runway most of the time – sometimes you could only see one set of runway lights, for takeoff or landing and that was it. We were always on alert and most of our scrambles were forced by the Russians . They liked to send their fighters to the East /West German border when they knew our weather was bad.,” Byrd said. “Other pilots also had to fly Cargo airplanes to supply parts of Berlin with food, because the Russians had occupied East Germany and built the (Berlin) Wall.”
Verne, Jeff and Jeri-Ann accompanied Byrd to Europe, where they lived at Hahn Air Force Base. After his European assignment ended in 1959, the family returned to the U.S. and Byrd was assigned to Kincheloe Air Force Base in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“There, I flew the new Delta Wing F-102 fighter. It was also an all-weather interceptor that flew north into Canada, to protect the U.S. from the Russians if they came over the North Pole,” Byrd said. “It was a thrill. I remember sitting in the cockpit on the first flight in the F-102 and realizing what a lucky guy I was to be alive and to be flying such beautiful aircraft.”
By this time, early fighting had begun in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). While still stationed at Kincheloe, Byrd was assigned to a one-year tour in Vietnam. He worked in operations – missions planning – and airborne command. “That means we occasionally set up shop in a C-47 Twin-engine Cargo plane. We made the cargo plane an airborne operations unit,” he explained. “At times, instead of working from the ground, we worked from the air.”
The C-47 was sometimes hit with small arms fire from the enemy on the ground below, though “no one ever got killed while I was on board,” Byrd recalled.
Vietnam was different than the other wars mentally, he explained. “You got the feeling there that you were not coming home. I had never felt that before. Before, I had at least a chance of fighting my way out in a fighter aircraft – I was somewhat in control,” Byrd said. “Not there. There we were flying at low altitude and slow speed.”
After his one year tour in Vietnam, in 1964, Byrd and his family returned to Kincheloe where he officially retired from the USAF in September 1967 at age 45, capping a career that can only be described as selfless service to his country in its most trying times of need. And that gratitude works both ways, according to Byrd.
“World War II was the thing that gave me my career, my life,” Byrd said.
In 1987, he and Verne moved to Petoskey. He quit flying just three years ago, at age 86. And in the late 1990s, he began meticulously recording his memories from his years in the service as a gift for his children and grandchildren.
It has helped him put the events in perspective to one another and the path his life ultimately took. “I think W W II in particular, of the three major wars since the 1940s, was the only one that made sense,” Byrd said. “Korea, perhaps it was worthwhile. In Vietnam? We did not have any business being there. I’ve always felt that way, even when I was there. I never thought I was going to make it home.
“World War II was necessary because of what Hitler and the Japanese were doing. They would’ve ruled the world, no doubt about it. But even early on in the war, I had no doubt we would overcome.”
As expected, the situations that Byrd found himself in, from World War II to flying over the Berlin Wall to piloting the airborne operations craft in Vietnam, were tense. There were moments during W W II before the pilots would leave the tarmac when they would pause for an extra minute or two to reflect before taking to the skies.
“What helped me was to know that I was not alone. I was with a bunch of other aircraft all around me. It was a brotherhood,” Byrd said. “It was tougher on the ground crews, because they’d have to wait seven hours to see who would make it back.”
The memories, the stories, the emotions are things Byrd wanted to make sure aren’t lost as generations passed. His memoir will help ensure that they are not.
Byrd writes: “It is for those of us who participated in these great battles in the air to record some of the stories about the men who survived and those special comrades who gave their lives that our children, grandchildren and all our posterity might live free.”
“The characters were so real, more than simple nonfiction. They were my father – and the people he knew and loved. … I was stricken with the realization that in December 1944 – when my 22-year-old father-to-be crash landed his P-51 Mustang in Fowlmere, England – my destiny and that of my brother Jeff, and our sons Jim and John and Jared hung in the balance as surely as his own. “Most compelling was the determination of this young pilot to persevere and to succeed despite overwhelming odds. He lived out his dream of flight, and in doing so, gained a bird’s eye perspective on the world and on life … He is the one character who will forever be my hero.” Jeri-Ann (Byrd) Sherry.