Summer Reading 2015: Biography Takes Admiring Look at Popular Governor
Young Brendan Byrne served with distinction as navigation pilot in Europe during World War II – and honed his leadership skills
New Jersey’s 47th governor, Brendan Byrne, got the full biographical treatment this past fall with the release of Donald Linky’s book, “New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne: The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought.” Linky served in the Byrne administration — which spanned 1974 to 1982 — as counsel to the governor and director of Byrne’s office of policy and planning.
When the biography came out, Byrne, 90, toldit was “pretty good” and reminded him “of some things I had forgotten about.” Asked for an example, his answer was as Byrne-ian as one might expect. “I forget,” he said. The excerpt below comes from Chapter 2, titled “I Was Lucky,” which describes how Byrne joined the Army Air Force as a navigation pilot during World War II and his time in active service.
In addition to Blechhammer, Brendan’s missions included bombing runs on Athens, Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest, and Munich, as well as one mission to support the advance of ground forces in southern France. The mission to Athens, he recalled, “at first made us afraid that we might damage the classic temples and the other ruins, but when we were briefed I realized that we would be bombing targets on the outskirts of the city.” The attacks on the other cities usually targeted railroad marshaling yards, seeking to destroy locomotives, freight cars, tracks, and other infrastructure. “Compared to Blechhammer,” Brendan said, “we thought the runs on the cities were a lot easier since we didn’t face as much flak.” On the missions to Vienna and Budapest, with the Danube River flowing through both cities, the crews would sing, to the melody of the Blue Danube waltz, “we’re on our way to bomb Vienna, boom- boom, boom- boom!” Commenting on the songs, jokes, and banter that often punctuated their bombing runs, Brendan later said: “You were under such pressure. We just did anything to ease the tension, to take our minds off what was going on.”
As the November 1944 election approached, Brendan was still only 20 years old -- old enough to fight but not yet old enough to vote. He badly wanted to vote for President Roosevelt, whom he and his family so admired. He nearly fulfilled his wish when he persuaded one of his buddies, who had an absentee ballot but didn’t care much about politics, to let him fill in the ballot. But when his buddy “saw that I’d voted for Roosevelt, he tore up the ballot in disgust.”
Brendan was proud that, as his skill as a navigator became known, he was often chosen by crewmen to guide their last missions before completing their tours—a tradition that allowed airmen to select those in whom they had the most confidence to ensure a safe final mission. On one of these flights, Brendan’s plane lost two of its four engines after being hit by flak, forcing him to set a precise course over the Adriatic to get the bomber safely to base before it was out of fuel. After landing, the relieved crewman who had survived his tense final mission dramatically expressed his gratitude. “He stooped down,” Brendan recalled, “and literally kissed my boots.”
In December 1944, as Brendan was nearing the completion of his tour of duty, Hitler launched his last counteroffensive in what the Allies would label the Battle of the Bulge. “When we learned in Italy of the attack,” Brendan recalled years later, “I worried that those of us who were coming home would be ordered to stay longer in Europe.”61 But the initial success of the assault was blunted as Nazi tanks, trucks, and other vehicles rapidly ran short of fuel; out of gasoline, some German units abandoned their vehicles and surrendered—a victory that Brendan and the other bomber crewmen had helped secure through their destruction of the Nazi petroleum facilities.
Upon completion of his fifty-mission tour in January 1945, and eager to return home, Brendan turned down the Army’s offer of promotion to captain with higher pay if he agreed to fly only five more missions in Europe. After rejecting the potential promotion, he returned to the United States by ship on the U.S.S. West Point, after safely making it through the Strait of Gibraltar, a dangerous passage in which German submarines often targeted troop transports. In order to save space for provisions on the crowded ships, the troops were limited to two meals a day, a point that provoked much grumbling. On the way home, Brendan befriended a nurse who happened to be from Maplewood, only a few miles from his home in West Orange, who succeeded in sneaking him additional snacks to partly make up for the limited rations.
Making port in Boston, he and the other disembarking troops were treated to a steak dinner on their first night home.
As he waited in the long line, Brendan snuck out to seek a shop selling chocolates, later returning to reclaim his spot and rewarding those who had saved his place in line with samples from his haul of chocolates. From Boston, Brendan was ordered to Atlantic City, which had been largely taken over by the military as a center for housing and training troops embarking for Europe and, upon their return, as a way station for treating the wounded and reassigning returning soldiers to new posts throughout the country. With hundreds of other soldiers, Brendan stayed in the once-elegant Ritz Carleton, which, along with the city’s other hotels and attractions, was on a steady path to the decline that he would address some three decades later as governor.
Brendan’s initial orders were for him to be retrained in Texas as a bombardier, with the possibility of later being transferred for action in the Pacific. Along with other proud navigators, Brendan resented the directive to become a bombardier, considering it below their prior status. He and the others did their best to circumvent the Army’s plan when, given a written test on their skills for their new assignment, they deliberately chose the wrong answers: “If we got one right,” he recalled, “it was only because we didn’t know the answer.”
The atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and the war ended on September 2 when the Japanese formally surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur on board the U.S.S. Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. With the prospect of a raucous and drunken celebration by the soldiers on the night of the Japanese surrender, Brendan was ordered to temporary duty as a military policeman, with his superior officers assuming that
Byrne’s well-known abstinence from alcohol would serve him in good stead in monitoring the carousing. While the night passed without major incidents, Brendan proudly kept his “MP” arm band as a souvenir of his one night of service as a policeman.
Less than a week later, along with other soldiers who had seen the most combat, Brendan was discharged from active service, although he continued to serve in the Air Force Reserve after the war. Credited with an extraordinary fifty-one missions (with double credit for some of his thirty-five sorties due to their length), he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals, and ultimately promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
Brendan had entered the military as a 19-year-old somewhat unsure of his ability to measure up to his seniors in age and rank; he came out at age 21 confident not only in his abilities but also in his capacity for leadership. Like many of his fellow soldiers in what later would be called “the greatest generation,” after returning to civilian life Brendan rarely spoke of his experiences in the war. In contrast to many of his peers, he avoided joining veterans organizations where he felt conversations would understandably dwell on the past. “I just wanted to get on with my life,” he explained years after the war. “I had done what I was asked to do, but it was time to move on with my education and becoming a lawyer.” To the later chagrin of his political advisers, he also resisted highlighting his military service during his campaigns for public office.
His brother Frank, who had seen combat in the Pacific, also returned to West Orange for a family reunion. “It was just so good to be back home,” Brendan remembered, “and see lots of relatives, neighbors and friends.” The welcome home was dampened only when Brendan discovered that “while I was gone, my mother had thrown away my precious collection of movie programs.”