WASHINGTON — Robert Arand enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942 as an aviation cadet. He went to training in 1943 and by February 1945, he was headed to the Pacific — sleeping on the deck of a trawler for a monthlong journey from San Francisco to New Guinea.
Arand had flown B-25s in the United States, but flew more than 40 missions in B-24s overseas — from New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa. He flew the 22nd Bomb Group’s final bombing attack, a strike on the Kiangwan Airdrome in China. His last mission was a reconnaissance flight from Okinawa to Tokyo and back on Sept. 2, 1945, the day the Japanese signed the surrender in Tokyo Bay.
The last time he remembers wearing his leather bomber jacket was in San Francisco when he returned from the war in November 1945. He thinks his wife, a meticulous housekeeper, must have donated it to a charity organization in Cincinnati about 1950.
“I remember my wife asking if I was ever going to wear it again, and I said I didn’t think I would, except for a veterans’ parade,” he said.
More than 60 years later, John Dodds was at a Goodwill store in Washington with his daughter, a freshman at James Madison University in Virginia, when she called him over.
“Oh, Dad, I want to show you something,” she said.
It was a leather bomber jacket from World War II.
Dodds, assistant general counsel for the Air Force and a military history buff, has a replica. But this was the real deal. The leather was a little stiff, but the jacket was still in good shape. On the back was a bearded, red-headed man with a winged helmet, along with the words “Red Raiders” and “22nd Bomb Group.” The label inside had the model and order number. The lieutenant bars were in place on the shoulders.
The jacket even had a leather name tag sewed on the front: Robert G. Arand.
Dodds is an Air Force brat. He went through the Army ROTC program in college, served as an Army judge advocate general for four years and later served in the Air Force reserve long enough to retire. He also knows a thing or two about finding information about veterans: One of his pet projects is doing research on Austin Straubel, the WWII bomber pilot for whom the Green Bay, Wis., airport is named. He also helped a friend with research on the friend’s brother, who was shot down during the Vietnam War.
Dodds paid $17 for the jacket and emailed a friend. Within 24 hours, Dodds was on the phone with Arand.
The 90-year-old veteran told him about his time in the 22nd Bombardment Group — described on their webpage as “a hell-bent-for-leather organization of men.” The unit was the predecessor of today’s 22nd Operations Group at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas.
Arand remembered a commander with red hair, Col. Richard Robinson, whom the group was nicknamed after. He told Dodds about his five children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He told him he was born Dec. 7, 1922, and lives next door to one of his six brothers.
And Dodds decided that while he originally had hoped to keep the jacket, he knew he had to send it back to its original owner.
Arand told Stars and Stripes he isn’t sure how the jacket made its way to that Goodwill store in Washington, but he “would love to know.”
“I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want the jacket after all these years,” he said.
Arand gave his blue Air Force uniform to his grandson, who put it into a case. But he said he probably could fit into it today.
“I’m the same height and weight as I was in the service,” he said.
After the war, Arand said he stayed in the Air Force reserve and retired in 1982 as a major.
He had been going through his military records, putting them into a book for his grandchildren. He wrote to his congressman to get new medals, to replace ones lost during a long-ago “show and tell,” he said. His awards include the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the WWII victory medal, and an Air Medal with an oak leaf cluster.
Dodds said he was amazed to find a bomber jacket in such great shape and was delighted to be able to connect with Arand.
“I just could not believe it,” he said. “It’s all working out pretty well.”
And while Arand is looking forward to seeing if it still fits, he’s most interested in sharing it with his family.
“My children and grandchildren are anxious to see it.”