What comes to mind at the name of Tom Landry? Dallas Cowboys coach? Super Bowl winner? B-17 Flying Fortress copilot? All of the above?
Landry was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas in 1942 when his family received word that his older brother Robert was dead. Lieutenant Landry’s plane had gone down in the freezing waters of the Atlantic near Iceland. His B-17 had exploded, no remains were found, and the family buried an empty casket containing duplicate tog tags.
Tom enlisted in the Army Air Force reserves, ready to follow in his brother’s footsteps. He was called up in February, 1944. As one of the youngest B-17 copilots, he arrived in England that autumn aboard the Queen Mary. He was assigned to the 493rd Bombardment Group in Debach, England.
By that time, the German Luftwaffe had been pretty much destroyed. Landry and his crewmates didn’t have to worry about fighters as about flak from the ground guns. Tom’s first mission came on November 21, as part of a two thousand plane armada to destroy the Merseburg synthetic oil refineries. For the rest of his life he would remember the sky filled with exploding flak and the helpless feeling of flying into that angry black cloud.
Many of their missions took them to distant targets that stretched the bombers’ fuel supply. Tom Landry discussed two missions in his autobiography. Both featured high drama because they were low on fuel. Once, over the Netherlands, all four engines quit. They would have to bail out and risk capture or death. At the last moment, Tom pulled forward the fuel mixture control knob, and the engines roared to life. After a later flight to Czechoslovakia, they crash-landed in liberated France with their engines coughing on fumes.
Landry flew thirty missions before returning home. He left Texas as a young man with a narrow worldview, having never really been out of the Rio Grande Valley before graduating from high school. He returned to college and football with a much broader perspective. He had flown all over Europe in a B-17, faced down fear, and gained confidence in himself.
|Landry,wearing his trademark fedora, on the sidelines of a Cowboys football game.|
This member of the Greatest Generation was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor in 1993. After being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in May 1999, the coaching legend passed away on February 12, 2000.