Hiram was born in Mississippi, but was a west Texas boy through-and-through, and enjoyed life immensely. His father, Harvey, had always been a successful businessman, yet had his thriving Chevrolet dealership wiped out after the great crash of ’29. After that, the family was never quite poor but definitely no longer wealthy, and Hiram was not going to college. On April 19, 1939, Hiram enlisted in the United States Army Cavalry and was posted to Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas. At that time, the cavalry was still horse-mounted, and Hiram became a pony soldier.
Riding in formation and washing horse butts was not exactly glamorous, but like most of the troops, Hiram had other duties. He was a clerk typist, and processed incoming correspondence. One day, he came across a notice of opportunities in the new Army Air Corps. Hiram intercepted the document, typed out a transfer request for himself and tossed the memo into the trash. Who needs competition?
Fast forward some months. Hiram is still a clerk typist, but living better with three sergeant stripes at an Air Corps post in California. Once again, a memo crosses his desk, this time announcing a new program, borne of wartime desperation. Known as the “Flying Sergeants”, the proposition was quite simple: we teach you to fly, and should you survive your missions, we make you an officer.
This offer— outrageous to any sane adult— struck a young man in his early twenties as perfectly reasonable. Hiram filled out a request for himself and once again tossed the notice in the trash. Two weeks later he was in Wisconsin, learning to fly.
In the beginning, the flight instructors were commercial pilots, most of whom had valuable experience flying in and out of undeveloped places in Latin America. They taught the new kids critical skills, for taking off and landing in short strips hacked out of jungles. Hiram was an eager student and learned well. Those skills would come in handy in China, Burma and India.
Hiram was one of the so-called “Hump Pilots”, flying gasoline, ammunition and sundry war materiel from India to China. They flew alone and unarmed, at first in C-47 and later C-46 aircraft. Gooney Birds, as they were known, were military versions of the DC-3 and had no armament. Typically filled with 55 gallon drums of aviation gasoline, a single shot from one of the many Japanese fighters prowling the area would bring one down in flames. Rare was the downed pilot who came out of a Burmese jungle or off a Himalayan mountain alive.
The crew was a pilot and a co-pilot. Navigation equipment consisted of a compass, a sextant and a radio. They used to say you did not need even this much on a clear day—you could simply follow the landscape, dotted with wrecks of previous flights of your late comrades. Casualties for hump pilots were among the highest anywhere.
One time, Hiram and his co-pilot found themselves returning to India from China without oxygen. Oxygen tanks were not normally needed at the altitudes they routinely used, so they simply did not bother to carry one for this jaunt. Over the Himalayas, Hiram emerged from clouds to find himself heading straight at a mountainside. As he narrowly escaped disaster and circled back, he saw another disaster looming: he was surrounded on three sides by mountains. He was beyond the point of no return— without enough fuel to return to the China base. Yet, the altitude of the surrounding mountains was higher than they could fly without oxygen. The plane could fly that high—barely—but at some point humans need forced oxygen in order to stay conscious and alive.
Not having much choice, he and his co-pilot circled and climbed until they had just enough room below them to scrape over the lowest mountaintop. Asked later how he managed to stay awake, he simply said he had the worst headache of his life, before or since.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is the father of courage.
Hiram survived this and other flights and got his commission. He returned home and married his sweetheart, Helen. After the war, he left the army briefly, to accept an offer to fly commercially for the new Chinese Flying Tiger airline. Mao Tse Tung’s communist revolution intervened, and the deal fell through. Facing unemployment, Hiram rejoined the Air Corps, but as a sergeant once again. Pilots were not in such demand after the end of hostilities. Married and with kids in tow, Hiram and Helen traveled. And traveled. And moved, time and again.
While Mao denied Hiram one opportunity, Stalin obliged with another. The Cold War emerged, and the Strategic Air Command was born. SAC was the “best of the best”, and needed skilled pilots. Hiram was recommissioned a First Lieutenant and was quickly promoted. In 1955, as a young Major, he took command of the 96th Bomb Squadron.
Nothing particularly surprising here, except a squadron commander was a Lieutenant Colonel’s job and Hiram was only a Major. Air Force regulations are strange at times. Rules prevented Hiram from being promoted in rank quite so fast, but command exceptions could be made, in this case with approval of the Commander-in-Chief. It was okay with Hiram, but stuck in the craw of the Lieutenant Colonels who outranked him, yet were commanded by him. The best of the best—that was SAC’s way.
Hiram’s career flourished. He became known within SAC as a stone-cold expert on aircraft maintenance and logistics. Life was good, but pressure was high. Eventually he was promoted to full Colonel, but not before a tour of duty in another Asian war— Vietnam. He spent a year in Thailand, managing logistics for round-the-clock bombing and refueling missions.
Hiram retired in 1973, having served in every rank from buck private to full Colonel. Not bad for a horse soldier from west Texas.
Browsing through his retirement papers recently, family members had the opportunity to review his SAC officer performance evaluations. The reviews were glowing, and often would have an unsolicited attachment from a commanding general or other senior officer, typically recounting outstanding performance and recommending early promotion. At first, the consistently glowing reports gave the impression SAC was an easy-grade outfit. But then one recalled the legendary and merciless culling of officers and termination of careers at the slightest sign of weakness. SAC life was anything but easy. Yet, Hiram was always promoted “below the zone”, meaning at the earliest possible opportunity. Again, not bad for a horse soldier from west Texas.
Hiram was tough, indeed. But his leathery persona was tempered with ebullient humour, compassion and understanding. Nevertheless, his bias was toward action and excellence. Even while he was joking— and his jokes were often outrageous and “in your face”—there was an underlying seriousness you could never miss.
I suspect that seriousness was borne of necessity. After all, the mission was to fly a minimally defended bomber into enemy territory, drop a hydrogen bomb many times more powerful than the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and return home. That just had to be a suicide mission. Nobody ever said as much, but they all knew. And they flew every day, sometimes on short notice, not knowing if today’s flight was a drill, or the real thing. Sometimes a no-notice mission would mean an absence from home and family for weeks or months, at some officially secret location in a foreign land. That sort of commitment took guts, and SAC pilots were not given to tolerating incompetence or indecision.
He would say, “Do something, even if it’s wrong. Do something.”
One might ponder that expression, and imagine it suggests it is okay to do the wrong thing. Eventually it occurs to you what he meant: “Do the right thing, but do it.” He always knew what was the right thing to do, and knew you knew it too. But you had to take action and assume responsibility. Do the right thing, but do it.
Hiram retired to the Sun Belt, among other retired Army and Air Force officers. Often, retired generals and colonels prefer to be addressed by rank. That struck Hiram as pretentious, and he insisted on being called simply “Hi” by everyone. His sense of humour helped him to mellow in retirement, and he continued to enjoy life immensely.
In later years, Hiram began to show signs of memory loss. It became clear he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or some similar form of dementia. Eventually he was moved to a specialized nursing facility in Omaha, near family. His sense of humour was infectious and endearing. Alzheimer’s is a cruel and merciless disease, and he eventually lost his ability to speak. Yet through it all, he managed to laugh, smile, poke and wink at everyone.
A few weeks ago, his eldest son Doug came for what was likely to be a final visit. Even voiceless, Hiram managed a lucidity not seen for months. He stared at vaguely familiar faces, struggling to recognize people of obvious importance. He giggled and joked with his grandchildren, petted puppies, played balloon toss and laughingly teased his youngest granddaughter with “keep away”. It was his last best day.
The next day Hiram began to sleep all day and night, not quite able to open his eyes even though he knew his loved ones were speaking to him. His eyelids would flutter, he would hum to his favourite hymns, but he could not wake up.
Two Sundays ago, his wife Helen was called to his bedside. He was struggling with his breathing, and it was clear the end was near. By nightfall, his breathing became easier, family flew in and gathered for the last time, but he was responsive to neither sound nor touch. Through the night he slept, breathing ever more quietly. At 5:30 AM, he slipped away in silence. And peace.
Arriving in the limousine to the cemetery, the family was momentarily shocked at the sight of the Air Force color guard. When you grow up in the military, such a sight can never fail to affect you. It is meant to do so.
The honor guard ceremony was perfect, and cathartic. The slow folding of the flag, with precise snaps of gloved hands along the cloth. The firing of 21 guns, three rounds of seven synchronous shots. Taps. Smell of cordite. The presentation of the flag and a handful of spent shells, and murmured heartfelt thanks for a lifetime of service from a grateful nation, on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief.
A slow final salute to the widow.
A perfect ceremony on a perfect day. Dad would have approved.
Hiram Monroe Snowden, Colonel, USAF (ret). May 12, 1920 – October 31, 2005