Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Allyson E.T. Conroy and Petty Officer 2nd Class Henry Dunphy.
Every year on the last Monday of May we remember as a nation. We pay tribute to those who were courageous enough to sacrifice in the name of freedom. We honor the risks these heroes endured for the sake of our future and our way of life. This particular Memorial Day had a very significant meaning for one Coast Guard member.
“Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have served in combat. Those like my dad and the men and women who serve today, who sacrifice so much. Some of them giving the ultimate gift to their country,” said Cmdr. Kevin Bruen, who has spent six years in the Navy as part of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and now serves in the Coast Guard.
Bruen’s father, Staff Sgt. James P. Bruen, enlisted in the Army Air Corps Dec. 26, 1941. He went on to serve in the European Theater as a tail gunner aboard a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” where he flew in 33 missions over France and Germany from 1944 to 1945. His son recalls hearing stories of his father flying for “eight to 12 hours round trip, being cramped in the tail-gunner’s spot freezing to death, cut off from the rest of the aircrew” and being shot at. During one mission a piece of flack lodged itself in one of the engines. This is the artifact that now adorns the younger Bruen’s desk.
“Fortunately it didn’t hit a fuel line or I probably wouldn’t be here. I show it to my boys and tell them, too, the importance of that piece of metal,” Bruen said.
Yesterday, Bruen was given a rare opportunity to take a flight in one of these war relics. The organizers for the Wings Over Gillespie Air Show offered a seat aboard a restored B-17 bomber to veterans of all five services. Bruen was more than happy to represent the Coast Guard, and his father, during that flight.
“One cannot understand what combat is unless you have been through it,” Bruen said. “I was honored to participate in this flight to have a modicum sense of what my father went through, what these other servicemembers may have gone through serving their country.”
Bruen was able to represent his father and the Coast Guard aboard a 30-minute flight in a B-17 along with seven other servicemembers and veterans.
Following World War II the Coast Guard took note of the success of the B-17s, and their potential in peacetime missions. The Coast Guard was able to acquire from the Army Air Corps 18 planes that were converted to PB-1Gs. A lifeboat was slung underneath the fuselage that would be dropped to mariners in distress providing a very important search and rescue aid, something that is still done today with C-130s. The PB-1Gs were also used for the International Ice Patrol as well as for aerial mapping purposes.
The Coast Guard has held an important role in aviation by helping the Wright Brothers with their initial flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. The service has also held an important role in naval aviation for the past 100 years. Coast Guard Lt. Elmer Stone pioneered using airplanes for search and rescue in 1915 and participated in the Navy’s first successful transatlantic flight in 1919 as a pilot and navigator.
Coast Guard pilots flew missions alongside their fellow Department of Defense servicemembers in the Vietnam War, and today Coast Guard aviation has a large role in homeland defense by tracking and identifying would-be drug and human smugglers along the borders. All of this while maintaining the other missions the Coast Guard is responsible for.
As the nation remembers fallen heroes across history from all services, one son was able to take a special moment and remember his father’s service while representing his own. Sixty-six years after his father’s final flight, Cmdr. Kevin Bruen was able to take a short ride in a plane like the one his father flew in during World War II.