Brian Hamilton: Veteran of three wars, Roy Crain realized his dream to fly |

Brian Hamilton: Veteran of three wars, Roy Crain realized his dream to fly

Roy Crain, 91, is a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. His life's dream was to fly, which was captured in a book compiled by his son-in-law and presented to him on his 90th birthday.

God How You Loved Your Airplanes

God how you loved your airplanes

Those silver streaks of wind

Back in your training with the double wing

You’ve me there again

You would tell me how you flew it upside down

Hanging from that leather strap, head toward the ground

Scared you to death and thrilled you through

Just like the little boy you were telling it to

Soaring, sweeping always keeping above

Those trapped on the ground

Climbing, falling, banking stalling

No engines not a sound

Then cranking it up and laugh on your way down

God how you loved your airplanes

Like bullets through the air

Hot jet engines scald the night

Against the sky somewhere

Pointing to the heavens as you shoot into the clouds

Squint your eyes as you break through where most men aren’t allowed

Scared you to death and thrilled you through

Just like the growining boy you were telling it to

Then I remember you

Coming home from war

And saying that you wouldn’t be

Flying anymore

You saw what could be done

By machines and men

And you had to gather up what was left

Of too many friend ... But God how you loved

your airplanes

And freedom found in flight

A brief dash down the runway

Then quickly out of sight

A dream fulfilled from way back when

And no more need to return again

Scared you to death and thrilled you through

Just like the grown man you were telling it to

Soaring, sweeping, always keeping above

Those trapped on the ground

Climbing, falling, banking, stalling

No engines, not a sound

God how you loved your airplanes

— Tom Crain, son of Roy Crain

Peering above the metal frame of his glasses, his eyes brighten and his smile spreads below the strands of silver sneaking out from beneath his hat, as his fingernail taps the book’s hard cover.

“ … but that, of course, is another story,” he said. “I’m full of stories.”

At 91 years old, Roy Crain has a lot of stories to share; it’s as obvious as the hat atop his head and the book he holds in his hands below. That hat itself is worth thousands of words beyond those declaring him “WW II – KOREA – VIETNAM VETERAN”.

The book, “The Greatest Generation — with Wings!”, is filled cover to cover with the story of his life, and the dream that directed it ever since a trip to the Oakland airport ignited the imagination and stirred the spirit of a boy who built model airplanes and daydreamed about pilots like Charles Lindbergh and “Wrong Way” Corrigan.

“I wanted to fly,” Roy said. “It was the dream of my life.”

Though he wrote the stories, Roy was a bit surprised to learn he was the author of an actual book. His son-in-law, Glenn, had discovered some of the pieces Roy had penned while working on his father-in-law’s computer. Having known Glenn, who also came from a military family, since the young man was 14 years old, Roy didn’t think much of it when his son-in-law asked to copy some of those stories.

But he sure did think a lot of it on his 90th birthday, when he was presented with a hard-bound edition of the book, bearing his own name on the byline.

Turning through the pages, readers join Roy on a journey that takes us from his family’s migration to California during the height of the Gold Rush, his 1924 birth in Alameda and family life that followed through the Great Depression, his first work in the shipyards alongside his dad and eventually the advent of World War II, followed by war in Korea and Vietnam.

It was in February of 1945 that the fresh-faced, 20-year-old young man featured on the cover of the book had graduated flight school and was set to begin B-17 training, after learning that fighter pilots were no longer as much in demand as bombers in Europe. And soon thereafter, as he was prepared to head to the South Pacific, he learned the war would end and he would not see combat.

“There was a sense of disappointment,” he said. “I wanted to do my part. I wanted to go so badly. You’re so well-trained. You’ve prepared to do it. I’m sure there was a sense of relief, but I was disappointed I was going to miss it.”

Roy realized his desire to fulfill the duty of flying in combat time during Korea, which interrupted his Bay Area life as a “happy civilian” as he and his wife, “Billie” — with whom he fell in love at first sight — had started a family that would eventually grow to five children, Tom, Kathleen, Jim, Kevin and Rick. Once being informed of his return to active duty via a Western Union message, he was carrying troops on a C-46 in Korea. And his military career continued into Southeast Asia in 1968-69, when he flew in Vietnam.

Roy said got his first chance at flying a jet airplane while stationed in Japan in the early ’50s, after a former flight school classmate had arrived there as the new major. Over drinks at the club, his friend agreed to get him “checked out” to fly a jet at 10 a.m. the next morning.

“He had a terrible hangover, but he had promised me — and I wasn’t letting him off the hook,” Roy said.

The two took to the cockpit of a training plane for the F-80 and just a few hours later, Roy would be off for his first flight aboard the real thing.

“He said, ‘OK, you’re checked out.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’” Roy said.. “He told me, ‘Do you want to fly a jet airplane or not?’ … As I taxied out there, I thought to myself ‘What the hell is the matter with you?’ I’ll tell you this: If there was ever an airplane that flew a man, that was me on that day.”

As he spoke of the speed and the smooth flight, and what a drastic difference flying a jet was over prop airplanes, he seemed taken back in time.

“There was no vibration, everything was smooth,” he said. “Even though you’re doing 250 or 260 mph, as opposed to the 150 to 160 mph in a plane, you don’t have as much of a sense of speed because with the prop airplane there is a lot of noise, a lot of vibration.”

Roy wonders whether the stories he shared in his book would be of interest to the public. If so, he’ll consider adding another chapter or two. But there’s no doubt they’ll long be valued by members of his family, who will have a written history of his service and commitment to his country.

They’ll also no doubt remember the many more stories that he hasn’t published, such as how as a newly licensed real estate agent — one who would later own three local real estate offices — he answered an ad to sell property at a place called Lake Wildwood, before it was developed.

“There was no lake, no golf course and no clubhouse,” he said. “I felt like I was promising people these things without knowing if they’d ever come about.”

Nearly 45 years ago, on the way home to Sacramento, a co-worker encouraged him to head down Highway 49 and check out a development known as “Lake of the Pines,” which had been built by the same company, and might offer the new realtor some reassurance.

“I fell in love right there,” he said. “I moved up and bought a house in Lake of the Pines, and I’ve lived (in Nevada County) ever since. I’ve always said, ‘This is the end of the rainbow.’”

Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him at or 530-477-4249.

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