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Captain William Shek (of the 380th Bomb Group) and his A-2 Flight Jacket

380th Bomb Group - Flying CircusIn the course of our business we get to "meet" many fellow collectors and enthusiasts from around the world. We are sometimes privileged to view special items from their collections, which become all the more interesting when they have a story attached. The following account is a classic example, relating to an original A-2 Flight Jacket issued to 1st Lieutenant William Shek. He joined the USAAF in 1941, having graduated from Syracuse University, New York - he immediately volunteered for flight training. In due course he was awarded his pilot's wings and was assigned to 528th Bomb Squadron of the newly formed 380th Bomb Group. He continued his training on B-24 Liberators at Biggs Field, Texas, then at Lowry Field, Denver, Colorado, before being deployed overseas.

William Shek's A2 Flight Jacket1st Lieutenant Shek's first overseas posting with the USAAF came in 1943 when he was deployed with the 380th Bomb Group to Northern Australia to deliver B-24 aircraft and to set up bases. He was stationed at Fenton Field, and during this time he was promoted to the rank of Captain. He piloted a B-24 Liberator which he had named "Dauntless Dottie" after his wife. During this time he flew in combat, taking part in bombing, strafing and reconnaissance missions against the Japanese forces throughout the South West Pacific. While based at Fenton, he was appointed Operations Officer; he had access to many reconnaissance and strike photographs along with photos of B-24 aircraft, crews, and general life on the base. He survived his tour of duty, having worn his A-2 on every operation; on completion he was rotated back to the US. Once back on home soil, Shek was assigned as an instructor on B-24's, later he moved onto the larger B-29. He then had the privilege of piloting the very first B-29 to be delivered to Great Britain, very shortly after the war ended.

What of his A-2 you ask? Like so many other USAAF aircrew of the period, Shek was issued with his flight jacket during training, it stayed with him, adorned with squadron patches and name tag, throughout his wartime career. Airmen had their superstitions and, while some carried a lucky rabbit's foot, others a medallion or charm, for Shek it was his trusty A-2 Flight Jacket. He wore it throughout his training and during every combat mission, far from home, in South East Asia; it continued to give sterling service on missions over the Japanese occupied islands of Java, Borneo, New Guinea and others. It accompanied him back to the States, where he became a career officer in the US Air Force. Shek finally retired as a Lieutenant Colonel to Florida, his A-2 still with him as a reminder of the good times, and the bad.

B-24 Liberator - "Dauntless Dottie"The Sheks subsequently moved again and settled in California where their son, Bill, noted the deteriorating condition of the jacket - the elements and the passage of time were finally taking their toll where the Japanese had failed. The fabric waistband, sleeve cuffs and rayon lining were literally rotting away. The leather itself was dry, faded and cracking, the seam stitching was parting in several places. Some time around 1999 William Shek read an advertisement, placed by an individual in Southern California, in a retired officers' magazine. He wanted to purchase vintage WWII flight apparel and equipment, regardless of condition. In view of the deteriorating state of his A-2, Shek decided to try and sell the jacket, so he answered the ad. A deal was reached and, no doubt with a sad heart, the jacket, which had guided him safely through so much, was packed up and mailed off - that was that! The jacket was gone for ever - or was it?

It is time for William's son, Bill Shek, to continue the story in his words: -


B-24 Liberator - "Dauntless Dottie" - Click for a bigger pictureIn early 2003, both of my parents unexpectedly passed away. I found that I wanted to know more about their wartime experiences. I suppose as happens with many children and their parents, I never asked them many questions about their past and experiences when I had the chance. I was stupid then and now it was too late.

However, the photo collection was still there, so I decided to do some Internet research into Dad's wartime unit and B-24 Liberator, "Dauntless Dottie", which he had named after my mother. I found a website dedicated to information about the units, crews, and missions of the 380th Bomb Group, and a couple of other websites with information and message boards about WW2 B-24 aircraft and crews. On one of these sites I posted several photos of "Dauntless Dottie", with Dad's name & unit, and my name and e-mail as contributor.

The crew of  B-24 Liberator - "Dauntless Dottie" - Click for a bigger pictureI had often wondered what became of the A-2. Suddenly, out of the blue, in January, 2004, I received an e-mail from a collector in Dallas, Texas. The following is a portion of his e-mail:

"Wow, what a small world! You don't know me but I have taken the liberty to drop you a line and just say hello. I collect WWII militaria and about 2 years ago I purchased a WW II US A-2 flight jacket that once belonged to your father! ....a wonderful example of a wartime A-2 with his leather name tag, a 5th AF patch, a blood chit on back and a large colorful chenille 528th patch of "Herky"*. I was fascinated with finding out about the original owner. I eventually found a great book on the 380th and read about his squadron's brave exploits on missions such as the Balikpapan raid. I was researching various military things today on the Internet and just came across the photo of Dauntless Dottie you posted on the B-24 site. I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw your name at the bottom!"

"Herky"*("Herky" was the nickname of the mascot of the 528th BS: a human clown-like airman character riding a bomb, which was prominently displayed on the 528th Squadron patch).

The crew of  B-24 Liberator - "Dauntless Dottie" - Click for a bigger pictureNeedless to say, this e-mail completely floored me - I couldn't believe it! I responded to his e-mail and we began corresponding about the jacket. I sent him photos from my father's collection, to give him some "history" of the A-2. He told me that its condition was pretty rough when he bought it on eBay. He had then debated for some time but had decided to have the jacket conserved as much as possible, as he didn't feel it would survive without some help. He sent it to a company in Scotland called Aero Leather Clothing. They replaced the fabric waistband, cuffs, and lining with as close a match as possible, reinforced the seam stitches (through the original stitch holes), and treated the leather. This was all done before he ever knew I existed. Aero Leather did a superb job. Without this conservation the jacket would eventually have literally fallen apart and into dust. He sent me photos of the restoration process at Aero Leather and of the jacket afterward in his collection. I totally agreed with his decision and the results. He then generously offered to send the jacket back to me. I told him I felt that the jacket had been meant to come into his possession and that he should keep it in his collection - I knew it would be valued and protected there.

Newspaper clipping re the crew of  B-24 Liberator - "Dauntless Dottie" - Click for a bigger picture
We didn't correspond for some time after that, both being busy with work.

In August, 2004, he contacted me again. He said that while looking through his own father's WW2 uniforms he had come to a decision which had been growing in the back of his mind for some time. He said he now believed very strongly that the jacket should "go home" and wanted me to have it back. We reached an agreement and he shipped it to me.

Now, incredibly, after a 5 year journey, my father's 62-plus year old flight jacket has returned home. When I actually touched it again, I felt that a circle had closed and something of my father's spirit had returned. Emotions?? You bet!

William Shek's A-2 Flight JacketSomething had puzzled me from the first e-mail I received from the collector in Texas. He had said that the jacket had a "blood chit" on the back when he purchased it on Abbey. Growing up with the jacket, I did not remember ever seeing anything on the back. The "chit" patch was made of layered, colored, sewn leather, with an American and Chinese flag and Chinese language message. Many versions of "blood chits", usually made of silk or fabric, but also of leather, were used by flight crews in WW2, both in Europe and in the western Pacific (China and Burma). Since the 380th BG did not fly missions to, or over, China or Burma, I wondered why they would wear a Chinese language patch. The populations of the island groups they flew to and over did not speak Chinese. I contacted an individual who had been stationed in Fenton with the 380th BG around the time my father left. He confirmed my suspicions, saying that the squadrons there had never used these (or any other types of) blood chits and had never had any on their crew jackets. The patch obviously had been added between the time it left my father's possession and reappeared on Ebay. I have removed it (and found it had been fastened on in 3 places with adhesive, in order to hold it in place for sewing - thus adding insult to injury). I have further treated the jacket with a recommended Pecard antique leather conditioner and it looks great - 100% and better than the last time I saw it in person!

I am not superstitious, nor am I overly "spiritual", but this incredible event, or, I should say, chain of events, has utterly convinced me that some "higher" power meant for my father's A-2 to come back to me. I am eternally thankful to the collector in Dallas for his care and devotion to preserving this piece of history, to Aero Leather Clothing for the conservation and to Geoff at Oldnautibits.com for his generous advice on the removal of the afore mentioned blood chit.

And, oh yes, just in case anyone is curious - my Father's A-2 is definitely NOT for sale!

Bill Shek
September 2004

Acknowledgements

With many thanks to Bill Shek for allowing us to share his story with the world, and also providing a range of original photographic images from his late Father's collection that have enabled us to bring this feature to life.

Thanks also to the 380th Bomb Group Association for permitting us to use the "Flying Circus" image at the top-right of this page - they use it on their website and on the cover of their Quarterly Newsletter. The original version was drawn by S/Sgt Francis R. (Johnny) Johnston as a picture plaque for a wall hanging. S/Sgt Johnston was Armorer/Tail Gunner on the Crew of Lt John Baptist, who flew with the 531st Squadron of the 380th Bomb Group .

The post-restoration pictures of William Shek's A-2 confirm Aero Leather Clothing's skills - we commend their informative web site www.aeroleatherclothing.com to all those with any interest in vintage flight jackets.

Finally, Pecard Antique Leather Dressing is simply the best treatment for the conservation and maintenance of vintage leather flying jackets and ancillary equipment. Pecard can be contacted in the US via their website www.pecard.com . The European Distributor of Pecard Antique Leather Dressing, can be found at www.antiqueleatherdressing.co.uk

Geoff Pringle
October 2004


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