Pilot holds on to war's lessons

10 November 1944

Dear Mrs. Corliss,

It is with the deepest regret that I inform you that your son, Loren, is missing in action. Your son's plane failed to return from a bombing mission over a strongly defended enemy installation in the South Pacific....

—Sincerely yours,

A.C. Thomas

Major, Air Corps, commanding

In the comfort of our homes, we take many things for granted, including assumptions we sometimes have about people, prayer, politics, language and other matters that seem so essential.

But on this Memorial Day, 88-year-old Loren Corliss will have breakfast with his wife Evelyn, hang the flag on his front porch, say his prayers, and review once again the lessons learned after Nov. 7, 1944, when his B-24 bomber got shot to pieces over Cebu island in the Philippines.

Lesson No. 1: Freedom is not free.

A few minutes into the bombing run that day, enemy fighter planes — Japanese Zeros — fired a burst of 20-mm cannon shells into the wing of the B-24 flying next to the bomber Corliss was flying as co-pilot. Corliss and crew watched the other plane's wing fall off; the plane rolled over and fell, then exploded in the air.

None of the 10 men on that B-24 survived.

Lesson No. 2: War means terror.

Watching aviation fuel slosh around in the flight deck of a shot-up B-24 is terrifying. Corliss' gunners shot down several Zeros, but one Zero got close enough to fire a few shells into Corliss' wing. The wing tank ruptured, and fuel splashed all over the flight deck, terrifying them.

They flew out over the island of Mindanao, and parachute-jumped one at a time through the bomb bay doors.

Lesson No. 3: Ten thousand feet is a long way to fall.

And while you are falling, you are not thinking much about patriotism, duty, honor, the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence, and defending America.

Pretty much what you think about, Corliss said, is the same thing terrified warriors think about in every war: "And that's saving old No. 1 skin."

Lesson No. 4: Rain forests stink.

The rain forest on Mindanao is so thick with vines, snakes and leeches that sunlight does not penetrate to the ground, and not even Filipino tribes live there.

For a full day, the only way Corliss could move through the jungle was to hack through vines with every step. He had a knife; he had no food. Before he had taken off, someone had stolen the chocolate and crackers he'd stored in his parachute pack.

He was alone, and learned the true meaning of terror: "It is not having any other human beings around."

Lesson No. 5: Praying alone is not as good as praying with someone else.

Corliss, a devout Christian, did a lot of praying that first day, but it did nothing to relieve his terror and loneliness.

Lesson No. 6. Jesus was a comfort.

The day after he floated to Earth, he bumped into Jesus "Jesse" Valencino, a gunner from the B-24. Corliss was a Baptist white kid from southeast Kansas; men in those days paid more attention to differences between men, and Jesus Valencino was about as different from him as could be, a Catholic Texan of Mexican heritage. But after he found Jesus, Corliss felt much less alone and terrified; and Jesus, unlike Corliss, had little hunks of chocolate and crackers in his pack.

"I never felt such joy as when I found another human being."

Lesson No. 7 Religious differences are way overrated.

After Corliss and Valencino hooked up with another gunner, Norton Ligon, the three of them felt immensely less alone in the jungle, and they prayed together, almost joyfully.

"And let me tell you," Corliss said. "I was a Baptist, Jesus was a Catholic and Norton was Church of Christ, and none of that mattered one bit, the differences. We prayed together as one."

Lesson No. 8: Promises to God are not always kept.

As he fell from the sky, as he wandered alone, as he made his way through the jungle, Corliss promised God "that I'd never do anything wrong ever again."

"This promise, after I was rescued, I did not always keep."

Lesson No. 9: Leeches are disgusting.

Hundreds of them crawled all over the men every day, jabbed into their skin, and sucked blood.

Lesson No. 10: Sometimes you have to get naked.

The three men, horrified about the leeches, gladly stripped down and helped each other remove them. Several times.

Lesson No. 11: Hand signals are a workable language.

When the three lost and starving aviators wandered into a village of Filipinos a few days after their plane went down, all they had to do to make friends was fly a hand in the air signifying "airplane" then say "boom," and then show the hand airplane crashing. And then point to themselves and cup their hands upside-down like little floating parachutes.

The villagers understood everything the men said with their hands, and gladly took them in. They roasted a chicken with the feathers on; they offered monkey meat, which Corliss refused.

Lesson No. 12: Politics don't matter.

At least not in the jungle when you're terrified. Corliss, who intensely disliked President Franklin Roosevelt, had taken off on that bombing mission the day of the 1944 presidential election — and spent the next few weeks in the jungle not knowing (and not caring as much) whether Roosevelt or Thomas E. Dewey won.

Lesson No. 13: Human beings ought to matter to each other very much.

After 45 days, with the help of first the villagers, then the anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters, and then the air crew of an American Navy seaplane, Corliss and seven of his nine crew members were rescued; the other two were rescued a few weeks later.

Corliss later learned that his grieving parents were not notified of his survival until a month after he was rescued.

He has thought about what he learned in the jungle ever since.

Politics still matter to him, he said; he's a "rock-ribbed Republican" and a patriotic American who thinks America is so great "that I sometimes can't believe how discouraged some Americans sound today. No matter what our troubles, our country is so great that it's going to be all right."

But that time in the jungle changed him; when he criticizes other political beliefs nowadays, he does it gently. Because "the differences we have really don't matter so much."

He remembers how he and other Republicans in the B-24 crews used to mock Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, how Roosevelt with his funny-sounding accent could not properly pronounce the letter "R," even when saying the words "war," or "Eleanor."

"I hate wah," Corliss would say, in his mock-Roosevelt voice. "And Eleanah hates wah. And I hate Eleanah."

But in the jungle, differences and Roosevelt and politics and religion and even the ability to speak English or a native Filipino language did not matter.

All that mattered, he said, was the presence of every fellow aviator, every non-English-speaking Filipino, every Christian and non-Christian, every human being he met.

They picked leeches off him. They fed him. They comforted him and kept him from being terrified and alone.

They saved his life.

They taught him, with all their differences, to cherish us all.