Among the childhood moments burned into Craig Willan’s memory, none are stronger than one that revolves around D-Day — June 6, 1944.
Walking home after a neighborhood fish fry in his hometown of Rapid City, S.D., Willan, now 60, noticed that his dad, World War II veteran Bill Willan, was uncharacteristically quiet. As usual, Bill Willan had spent part of the evening talking privately with fellow 8th Air Force veteran Eddie Brodsky.
Something Brodsky said that night decades ago had deeply disturbed the normally unflappable Bill Willan.
“I asked him,‘What’s wrong?’ ” Craig Willan said. “Dad said, ‘At night, Eddie still hears his men screaming in the wreckage.’ ”
Brodsky was the pilot of a B-24 Liberator that was part of a May 11, 1944, mission to bomb a Nazi rail yard in France in preparation for D-Day. The seed planted in Craig Willan’s mind during that walk home bloomed this year into a 15-minute video memorializing Brodsky, his crew and the “Mighty” 8th Air Force.
The release of Pay Any Price was timed for Friday, the 70th anniversary of the Allied assault on Normandy that ultimately led to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. Its premiere is, appropriately, at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Piedmont, S.D.
Hatches wouldn’t open
Brodsky’s plane was so crippled by anti-aircraft fire before reaching the target that the bomb bay doors wouldn’t open and an engine caught fire. The landing gear also failed, and the pilot was forced to make a belly landing in a cornfield.
All hands survived the crash, but the damage warped the crew hatches and none could be opened. Brodsky, his co-pilot, Capt. John Roberts, and one of two navigators, 1st Lt. Lee Johnson, escaped by kicking out the cockpit’s Plexiglas windscreens. The three men fruitlessly tried to extinguish the fire by throwing dirt on it. They were forced back by the heat and helplessly listened to their seven crewmates scream as the flames consumed them.
Craig Willan’s father was a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress who, like Brodsky, beat the 76 percent chance against surviving the requisite number of missions in the 8th Air Force to return home. About 26,000 airmen in the 8th did not — more than the number of Marines who died in World War II combat.
Bill Willan didn’t have Brodsky’s nightmarish memory, but he always wanted to go back to Europe to find the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. He wanted to pay tribute to the men whose screams haunted Brodsky until his death in 1969, Craig Willan said.
“Dad wanted to go to Normandy all his life to find the graves of his aircrew,” said Willan, himself a pilot who has built six airplanes. “He never did. He died in 1996.”
Life had dealt a better hand to Willan, an engineer whose career focused on testing airplanes. He said he landed a great job in 1977 with Bell Helicopter, from which he later retired.
“Who I am today is because of Bell Helicopter,” he said. “They gave me an interview trip, gave me a job offer, but most of all they gave me a chance.”
Now the president of Omega Research Inc., based at Propwash Airport near Justin, Willan traveled to Normandy a little more than a year ago to cross that item off his dad’s bucket list.
He found four of the crewmen’s graves among the 11,000 white monuments, decorated them with American flags, 8th Air Force patches and Air Force wings, and played a recording of the Air Force song on his iPhone. The scene became highly emotional.
“I had an old guy come up to me wearing bib overalls and a John Deere cap,” Willan said. “He took his cap off and had tears in his eyes.”
It was a profound event in Willan’s life, and he realized while looking at the graves that “when you step back, you don’t see the inscriptions of their names. That stuck with me.”
Even though the heroes were buried in hallowed ground where care and respect are perpetual, it was hard to separate them, to understand that each was a real person.
“My dad was a real person,” Willan said. “Eddie was a real person. All of those guys who got killed were real people.”
That’s when Willan decided to make a film about Brodsky’s crew and its sacrifice. The title came from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, but Willan thought it was perfect for his message: that such people become heroes because they’re willing to Pay Any Price.
“The film is to show that these people had real names, real faces, real hometowns,” Willan said. “They had moms and dads, sweethearts, dreams and they not only died young, they died a very horrible death. I want people who see the film to realize that the Mighty 8th Air Force paid an out-of-proportion price.”