Donald Albert Birch
March 16, 1924 – October 21, 2018
A Narrative Reflecting an Interview about his Life
Don was born on 16 March 1924 and grew up in Bay City, Michigan. His father was Wallace E. Birch and his mother was Cecilia Mary (Poirier). His sister, Jean, was born in 1928. His wife, Sadie M. Halbert, grew up in Calvert and Hearne, Texas and graduated from Stephen F. Austin High School in Bryan, Texas in 1947. Sadie and Don met in Roswell, New Mexico living in the same apartment building. They married on 16 August 1952 and had four children: Richard and wife Diane, James and companion Michelle, Donna and David. Don went to St. James Parish School in Bay City. In the fourth grade, he and his girl friend sat on the back row and talked. The nun flunked both of them and they had to repeat the grade. During his senior year in high school, in 1943, along with 350 others he took the Air Corps Aviation Cadet entrance exam and made the second highest score. Forgoing the school graduation procedure, he enlisted and entered the U.S. Army Air Corps during May 1943.
Thus began his military career. His first assignment was "boot camp" at Shepherd Army Air Force base in Wichita Falls, Texas. Then he went to St. Louis, Missouri to a CTD (college training detachment) at Washington University. He logged ten hours flying time in Piper Cubs during this time. He then traveled to San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center (SAACC) by way of a train that was so old he thought maybe Abraham Lincoln had ridden in it because of the wicker seats and pot belly stove. After two days of sleeping on newspapers on the floor in a heavy wool overcoat, he arrived in San Antonio and went directly into the base hospital, along with many others, with a severe cold and sore throat. At the time he was an aviation student - just a fancy name for a buck private in the aviation program. On 7 December 1943 he became an aviation cadet in preflight training.
His next step was a civilian airport in Corsicana, Texas for primary flight training in PT-19s. He was washed out of pilot training and transferred to Bombardier training. After a month of preflight training at Sell Field, Louisiana, he arrived at Roswell Army Air Field in Roswell, New Mexico on the 4th of July 1944. The cadets lived in tarpaper shacks, two to a room. The class graduated and became bombardiers on 4 November 1944. Don became a Flight Officer. After two weeks leave, he reported to Lincoln AFB outside of Lincoln, Nebraska to the bomber crew pool, waiting to be assigned to a bomber crew on a B-24. Living conditions were so bad in the tarpaper shacks in the winter that Don moved into town and rented a room in the Kappa Sigma fraternity house for a dollar a day. During June 1945 he was finally assigned to a B-29 crew and sent to Biggs AFB near El Paso, Texas for two months of crew training. Next came two weeks of survival training on the way to Hamilton AFB outside of San Francisco, California.
Then it was off to Guam by way of Hawaii, Johnson Island, and Guadalcanal, just four hours after the cease fire ordered ending the war. The next day we took the mail plane, a C-46 to Tinian Island and the 58th Bomb Group. Tinian Island is about 11 miles by 4 miles wide and covered with sugar cane fields worked by Koreans brought by the Japanese. We were issued army cots and Arctic sleeping bags for our comfort. With the war over and nothing to do, we used our gas masks as scuba diving gear and experienced our first hurricane during September 1945. Birch got transferred to the 9th Bomb Group, 1st Bomb Squadron on the north end of the island. He remembers Capt. Johnson, squadron commander, and Capt. Pettit, group adjutant and Col. Dave Wade, Group commander. He asked for some kind of work and was made the Group Utilities Officer. His first project was to build two gates near the officer club and repair screen doors on the mess hall. He was in charge of 10 or 12 officers to build and construct all the crates and cases to move the entire 9th Bomb Group to Clark Field in the Philippines. He remembers cutting the electric power to the Group and then jumping into his Jeep and racing to the port just in time to get on the gang plank that was about to be raised to depart on a Kaiser-built cargo ship.
In the Philippines during 1946-1947, he was the Civil Engineer Squadron Shop Officer over five shops and a saw mill. He negotiated with the pigmy Negritos in the foot hills of Battan as to where he could harvest trees for lumber. He also oversaw the repair of the old (1902 built) family housing before the military families started to arrive.
He was discharged in March 1947 at Fort Sheridan, Illinois just north of Chicago. He returned to Bay City, Michigan to determine his future. His father drove a fuel/gas delivering truck and Don worked with him for five months. His uncle Shirley Birch ran a State Farm Insurance agency and wanted Don to take over the agency and sell insurance. Don decided to use the GI Bill and attend Aeronautical Engineering Inc, a now defunct tech college where he graduated with a B.S. degree in 1950 after two and a half years.
After graduation, Don applied for recall into the USAF as an aircraft maintenance officer. All AF Bombadiers had been released from active duty so they were subject to recall after the Korean War started during June 1950. Don was recalled in July 1950 and was sent to Mather AFB, California for retraining as a bombardier. Then on to MacDill AFB, Florida where he was made an instructor for four months before being assigned to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana and a B-29 crew.
After survival training in March 1951 he and his B-29 crew flew to Okinawa and joined the 19th Bomb Group. On their 38th mission over North Korea, they were shot down by two Russian MIG 15s. This was on 22 October 1951. Birch was hit in the mouth and received the Purple Heart. In those days it was "You bleed, you get it." After the attack the plane had two engines turning and two burning. Don took over as Navigator and guided them south to the island of Peng Yan Do. All twelve bailed out safely and were picked up by Air/Sea Reserve aircraft. An account of his experience appeared in Time Magazine but he insists that he got credit for things he didn't do. Late in December 1951 they flew home for 30 days of leave en route to Roswell AFB, New Mexico, arriving on 2 February 1952. Four months later he was sent to Ellington AFB to start Navigator training. Radar/Navigator training continued at Mather AFB, California. Don became an instructor and spent 5 years there. Three of the Birch children were born during this time. During 1956 Don developed an eye infection that destroyed his vision in one eye and removed him from flight status. Having to begin a new career, he transferred to Civil Engineering and during July 1957 was sent to Wright-Patterson AFB to begin training as a Civil Engineer officer. Upon completion of training in 1958 he was sent to Dreux AB in France. Sadie and the three children joined him five months later arriving October 1958. His total time in France went from 4 July 1958 to 8 July 1961 .Five months before his departure, he was notified that he would be promoted to major later on. His next assignment was to Headquarters Air Training Command (HQ ATC), Randolph AFB, Texas as a staff officer. During this tour of duty he got to pin on his Major leaves and was also awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for his work at Dreux AB. Two years later his fourth child was born and he was sent to Craig AFB, Alabama as the Base Civil Engineer. Two years later in 1965 he was sent to the 13th AF Headquarters at Clark AB in the Philippine Islands. His job there was the Executive Officer to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil Engineering. Sadie and the children stayed in San Antonio, Texas. He returned home in August 1966 and retired with 23 years of active service and the rank of Major.
His first civilian job was in Warren, Michigan with the Ling Temco Vought corporation developing the Lance missile for the Army. After 25 months he entered Civil Service at Selfridge AFB, Michigan as a design engineer in the base Civil Engineers office. Three years later when the base was closed as an active Air Force base, he transferred to HQ ATC at Randolph AFB, Texas as a program engineer. Don retired on 1 April 1989 with 18 years of civil service time giving him 41 years of federal service.
In retirement, Don kept up with his friends by organizing an ATC Lunch Bunch which met on the first or second Wednesday of each month at a restaurant of his choosing. Favorites included the Barn Door, Aw Dang, and Pompeii. He telephoned each month to confirm the location. Don also kept a record in a spiral notebook, listing the date, the restaurant, and who attended. Sometimes it was the spouses of deceased colleagues who continued to show up.
- Don is preceded in death by his beloved wife Sadie and son David. He is survived by his sons, Richard and James Birch; daughter, Donna Birch; numerous grandchildren, great grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild, and family members in Michigan.
- Visitation Sunday, October 28, 2018
- Graveside Service and Interment Monday, October 29, 2018
Donald Albert Birch
October 26, 2018
Don Birch was our wonderful and beloved uncle. He gave us support and comfort when our parents were ill. He was with us for their memorial services.
Don was a gracious host when we visited Texas. He always had an agenda of fun things for us to see and do. Each visit included a feast of Texas BBQ.
Don had an incredible memory of historical events, our family history, and a repertoire of jokes and one-liners.
Uncle Don, we will miss you! Many thanks for the time we spent with you!
Much love from,
Cliff & Paula Kegeler
Nancy & Jay Schaffer, Jennifer Schaffer & Dru Russell, Stacy & Scott Helmer
Carol Racine, David Racine, Kevin Racine, Carolyn Racine
Robert Birch, Deb, Austin
Mary Bullen Ramirez
October 23, 2018
May he rest in peace. My condolences to the family. Donald Birch was my former Father-in-law. He was a good man and happy my son and my grandsons got to know their grandfather and greatgranfather. He will be greatly missed by my boys. Prayers.