Bob Masonheimer drives slightly above the speed limit along Voyager Parkway, his eyes locked on the road as his hands lightly grip the top of the steering wheel. His stops fail to feel like stops, the result of hundreds of hours of practice.
“Passenger comfort,” he says of his brake work. “I try to make it feel smooth, so you don’t feel anything.”
He is, for sure, one of the finest drivers in Colorado Springs. In September, he breezed through license renewal at the Motor Vehicle Department on Research Parkway and Union Boulevard.
Oh, forgot to tell you: Masonheimer turns 100 on Monday.
He remains in superb health with a big circle of friends. He enjoys the Broncos and, especially, the Rockies, watching nearly all the franchise’s 162 games each season. He reads mysteries. Most nights, he prepares a “serviceman’s special,” a martini with “a jigger of vodka, a splash of lemon juice” and sips it for an hour. Two or three times a month, he drives elderly friends to doctor’s appointments.
On this Saturday morning drive, Masonheimer journeys into his past. He talks of his marriage with late wife Maxine, a romance that blazed 73 years. Talks of his perilous years as a World War II bomber pilot in the Pacific. Talks of years as a United Airlines pilot, where he perfected his smooth braking.
He believes in keeping emotions under control. During dangerous WWII missions that lasted more than 12 hours, his crewmates marveled at his focus and refusal to surrender to fear. Under threat of enemy fire or drastic turbulence, Masonheimer remained serene.
Ernie Gudridge served as bombardier on the B-24 Liberator that flew under Masonheimer’s guidance in the 26th Bomber Squadron.
“Such control,” Gudridge, 97, says from his Florida condo. “Such courage. He used his talents to the utmost, and I swear he would get everybody on that crew to be better than they thought they could be.”
Gudridge keeps in touch with Masonheimer. Always has. Always will.
“I love Bob Masonheimer,” he says.
But on this winter morning, Masonheimer turns off his trademark control. Before he steps into his spotless white car, he sits beside a long table at his home at Liberty Heights, a retirement community. He remembers seeing explosions in the distance and realizing the Japanese had shot down, and killed, his flying comrades. He remembers holding back all sign of fear, despite plentiful reason to be overwhelmed with terror.
“No fear,” he says. “There was a concern, all the time. I don’t remember being scared, or full of fear, but I was always aware this mission might be our last.”
He stops while talking about those terrifying moments from the past, moments he successfully struggled to suppress the dread.
“I had no emotions at all in battle, but,” he says.
A long pause.
“Now it breaks me up.”
A few minutes later, Masonheimer is behind the wheel. On a sunny, brisk morning in Colorado Springs, his mind returns to the Pacific and those WWII flights.
“Some people can talk about things from the service and never have emotions at all,” he says.
His voice is steady. His eyes on the road.
“Well, I have emotions,” he says.
• • •
During a California morning on Dec. 7, 1941, Masonheimer was installing a gas-powered Stewart-Warner heater in his 1938 DeSoto while Maxine sat in the front seat, listening to the radio. She bolted out of the car.
“The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” she said.
“Where’s Pearl Harbor?” Masonheimer asked.
Two weeks later, Masonheimer volunteered to serve, the beginning of his tour of a fresh world. He spent the war years on raids, usually with 11 other bomber planes, with specific Japanese targets. A manufacturing plant. Railroad tracks. A collection of Japanese bombers.
He saw, when flying at low altitude, porpoises frolicking in the water and flying fish, which seemed to follow the route of his flight. He dodged massive black-and-white frigatebirds, with 7-foot wingspans, that soared blissfully through the skies, paying no attention to his bomber. He developed close friendships that linger to this day. Joy, even in wartime, always was there.
But, always, danger, too.
In the final stretch of a bombing raid in 1944, Masonheimer was flying the third plane when he saw two explosions light up the sky. He realized the first two planes had been shot down. He instantly realized: no survivors.
“Years ago,” he says, “a friend asked, ‘Did you consider turning around and flying home?’”
He shakes his head.
“It never occurred to me,” he says. “I never gave it a thought. When I thought about it later, I found myself shaken because I wasn’t shaken.”
On a later mission, he was flying on a pitch-black night when, suddenly, Japanese searchlights found his plane and soothing darkness transformed to life-threatening light. Remaining in searchlights meant death. His plane carried bombs along with his crew.
“I performed massive acrobatics in the air,” he says. “And got rid of the searchlights. It seemed like hours, but it was only minutes.”
An hour later, Masonheimer was told his tail gunner shot down a pursuing Japanese night fighter. The youthful tail gunner, on one of his first missions, bravely saved the crew. The next morning, the heroic marksman was cleaning his guns and shot off two fingers. He never flew again.
In July 1944, with the war nearing its end, Masonheimer returned home to his native California, where Maxine waited. His tour over, he would never fly another combat mission.
He flew across the Pacific to a base near San Francisco, a few miles from Maxine’s apartment in Berkeley. He considered calling her to tell her he soon would return home. Instead, he chose to surprise her. It had been 18 harrowing months, filled with the shadow of death, since he had seen her.
While he was overseas, she sent him a vinyl record. On one side, she played the piano to the tune of the Massenet waltz “Aragonaise.” On the flip side, she recorded a highly personal message to the man she adored.
He listened to the record only once. It was too overwhelming. As he listened to her voice, she was there, in a way, but she wasn’t there. Not really.
He took a taxi to Haste Street, where he knocked on Maxine’s apartment door. She was, after 18 months, really there.
“She cried,” he says.
For the only time in three hours of conversation, Masonheimer is weeping as he returns to that long-ago moment on Haste Street.
Safe from a war that would kill 60 million, Mr. Masonheimer silently and tightly and thankfully embraced Mrs. Masonheimer.