“And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceedingly high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man” —Nephi 4:25
It was the worst possible weather—unclouded azure skies stretching high above the Ruhr Valley in northwestern Germany.
Another shell exploded, causing the B-24 bomber to shudder erratically as my grandpa gripped the yoke, trying to keep the plane steady under the barrage of German flak and anti-aircraft fire filling the sky with streaks of black smoke and flying shrapnel. Despite the layers of nylon and wool underwear covered by a flight suit wired with electric heating cords, my grandpa was bitterly cold as his plane descended over one of the heaviest defended areas in Nazi Germany, nearing his target.
The radio operator scrambled over the cat walk, placing his foot on the bomb-bay switch override to keep the doors open while the plane pitched and shook. A flak shell screamed through the open bomb-bay door, striking one of the 2,000-pound bombs before exploding, scarring the radio operator with shrapnel cuts, but he refused to budge from his position. Miraculously, the impact didn’t detonate the 8,000-pound bombload.
During the commotion, Mosher, the co-pilot, dropped his navigational dividers. As he bent over to pick up the instrument, a shell exploded along the plane’s front, tearing a hole three feet in diameter through the nose all the way to where Mosher had been sitting moments before. Northrup, the bombardier, scrambled to set his site as the plane approached its target.
The increasing barrage frightened Garza, the ball-turret gunner, who climbed from his position seconds before an exploding shell swept the whole ball turret away. Another anti-aircraft shell bounced off one of the four bombs in the plane’s gaping body. Shrapnel and flying bullets struck Garza, ripping at his arm until only a piece of skin and muscle this size of a thumb kept it attached to his body.
Finally, hundreds of bombers scattered across the sky dropped their loads, the falling bombs looking like silver rain. My grandpa pulled his plane upwards into the bright blue sky, staying with his squadron as someone tried to stem the blood gushing from Garza’s arm and the plane limped the 350-mile trip back to their base near Norwich, England.
At the base, Garza was rushed to the medical surgeons who reattached his arm, but he’d never fly again. Over 300 bullet holes mutilated the bomber and nearly severed one of the flight control cables. The plane was immediately deemed un-flyable, only good to be torn apart for spare parts.
“Several reasons existed to bring us down, but none of them succeeded, thank the Lord!” my grandpa wrote in an autobiography created for his family.
It wasn’t until after the war that my grandpa learned his mother, had lain awake that entire night, unable to sleep as she thought of her son, not knowing he was being shot at half a world away. Her thoughts drew her to her knees, where she prayed fervently for her son. After her desperate prayer, her mind finally settled down, allowing her to sleep. “Her prayer undoubtedly contributed to our survival,” my grandpa writes. In fact, he remembers feeling an odd sense of peace during the mission, knowing that all would be well.
But the events nonetheless left his crew unsettled and shaken. “We talked as a crew and asked the squadron commander if we could fly the next mission instead of waiting our turn,” my grandpa writes. The psychological torture of waiting and wondering would only frighten the crew more. Two days later, the crew was hurtling down the base’s 6,000-foot runway, clearing the pub at the pavement’s end by less than 50 feet as they took off to fly their seventh combat mission.
Every day during the war, my grandpa, Ronald S. Beckstrom—Beck to his crewmen—was keenly aware of the miracles that preserved his life, but unlike most of the men in his unit, my grandpa understood the source of those miracles and lived his life to keep the power of the Spirit with him always.
Surrounded by War
War was inescapable during my grandpa’s senior year of high school. Hitler had just violated his pact with the Soviet Union and the Japanese killed nearly 2,500 Americans in their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, plunging the United States with the rest of the world into a waging war. By the fall of 1942, my grandpa enlisted and was accepted as a cadet in the Army Air Corps.
Before even entering the war, my grandpa saved a life. Prior to leaving for his training, my grandpa worked at a masonry company. When a man’s foot slipped through a grill and into a cement mixer, slicing it off just above the ankle, my grandpa heard the man’s yells. Rushing to help, he remembered his years of Boy Scout training. “I immediately pulled off my belt and applied a tourniquet to stop the gushing flow of blood. Surprisingly, all other workers went for help, leaving me alone for 15 minutes to keep the tourniquet on and control the thrashing victim,” my grandpa writes. My grandpa had no doubt his involvement in Church campouts allowed him to act confidently to save another’s life. And the fortitude he showed in that emergency is one he would need to rely upon in the coming days.
While waiting for his first post, my grandpa received his patriarchal blessing. “In his blessing, he was promised that he would enjoy blessings of health and safety if he followed the Spirit,” his daughter Rolayne Hansen shares—a promise that became incredibly prophetic and profound during and long after his service as a pilot.
“The blessing said, ‘if you are called to defend the colors of your country . . . ‘” my grandpa writes. “Because I had already enlisted, I questioned the wording of my blessing, but as the months dragged by with no word from the government, I started to believe the blessing even more. For some unknown reason, I was not called into the service until February 15, 1943.”
His training took him all over the country from Kansas to Texas to California, advancing far more quickly than any of his instructors anticipated. During these times, my grandpa lost his first friends to the war as airplanes crashed or exploded during drills or test runs. One cadet even died from sheer exhaustion after being forced to do pushups until he fainted and then woken with a bucket of water only to be forced to do them again until he collapsed of a heart attack, and another suffered permanent paralysis as a result of hazing within the training camps.
Despite the losses and the exhaustion, however, my grandpa also experienced the exhilaration that comes with flying.
Wings of the Spirit
On January 7, 1944, at 19 years old, my grandpa got his wings. At the age many LDS young men and women prepare to serve a mission for their church, my grandfather flew 35 missions for his country in an aircraft poetically dubbed the B-24 Liberator. But the crews who first flew the 71,200-pound, flat-faced plane cynically—or maybe more realistically—dubbed it the “flying brick,” “the constipated lumberer,” and a “flying coffin” because of how difficult these hulking planes were to steer and the mechanical issues that made some of the initial air crafts burst into flames, lose their tails mid-flight, or easily have their wings broken off in combat. But the B-24 could also fly all day without refueling, allowing the allies to penetrate even deeper into enemy territory.
Arriving at the base of the 458th Bomb Group in Horsham St. Faith near Norwich, England, my grandpa already felt uneasy and out of place, having been given the room of a pilot who had died only hours before his arrival. The man’s belongings still decorated the room, visual proof to the fact that my grandpa had only a 50 percent chance of surviving the war. That statistic soon dropped to 40 percent during his months of service.
While most men drank, smoked, and swore in their spare time at the base, my grandpa would save the shot of whiskey he received after each flight in a bottle for his crew to enjoy at Christmas and give his ration of cigarettes away to the plane mechanic. He never wanted to do anything that might jeopardize his ability to feel the Spirit and the guidance of his Heavenly Father.
“One thing I've always remembered is how sad it made [Grandpa] to observe the reverence and supplications to God among his fellow soldiers prior to a mission, only to return safely and celebrate by partying and getting drunk, rather than return with that same reverence and gratitude,” his grandson Steve Hanson says.
“The word integrity comes to mind whenever I think of my dad,” his daughter Rolayne Hanson shares. “He showed absolute faith in following the Savior and living a righteous life. He was steadfast and immoveable.”
My grandpa’s uncommon ability to not only keep but follow the direction of the Spirit not only saved the lives of him and his crew on multiple occasions, it also saved the lives of nearly 100 men.
“On several missions, I was warned in times of danger,” my grandpa writes. “Flak usually bursts in a straight line of four. I noticed that when the tail gunner would call about flak at six o’clock behind the plane, I had a strange feeling and would skid the plan sideways. The remaining bursts would appears where we would have been. Sometimes I got the warning before the tail gunner would alert me. The crew always wanted to know how I was avoiding the flak.”
On one occasion, my grandpa was flying as a lead plane in a squadron on the right side of the group formation. When the entire group began turning left, my grandpa received a particularly powerful warning from the Spirit. Though it went against his training, he turned right, away from the group, his entire squadron following him.
Within moments, the sky to the left of his B-24 filled with curls of smoke, chunks of shrapnel, and clouds of flak so thick the sky looked like charcoal—a barrage his entire squadron would have been caught in had he not followed the Spirit. During debriefing at the base, the group commander estimated that my grandpa’s maneuver had saved nine crews—a total of 90 men. When asked how he had known to avoid the flak, all my grandpa could say was, “I had a feeling to move differently.” After that, the group commander told my grandpa to be sure to follow his feelings.