Doug Robinson: A WWII vet looks back, at last

Published: Sunday, Nov. 10 2013 6:40 p.m. MST

Don Snarr shows his old flight jacket as he talks on Oct. 21 about his life as a bomber pilot in WWII and completing 35 missions.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MURRAY — Don Snarr survived the 35 missions over Nazi-occupied Germany. He survived the engine flameouts and the bullet-riddled fuselage and the near miss with friendly bombs and experiences so traumatic that he dropped to his knees when his plane touched friendly ground again.

He survived all that; he just couldn’t talk about it. For decades, he wouldn’t go there. The kids could take his leather pilot’s jacket for show and tell, but it was all show with very little to tell, because the old man just wouldn’t discuss the things he did and saw in the war. He didn’t tell his wife, he didn’t tell his seven children, he didn’t tell his siblings or parents.

When he got back to the States and the family farm in Murray, he got on with his life, but it wasn’t easy. Maybe he could refuse to talk about it, but that didn’t mean he didn’t think about it. There he’d be, in the University of Utah library trying to study, and the horrors of the war — the bloody bodies, the crumpled airplanes, the flak from the anti-aircraft fire — would appear in his mind.

“It was very difficult to concentrate,” he recalls. “I was still reliving the bombing flights and being shot at.”

Nowadays this would be called post-traumatic stress disorder and he'd be sent to counseling; in those days, men just dealt with it in whatever way they could manage. For 45 years, Snarr kept it all inside. Then a former member of his B-24 crew, nose-gunner Jim Anderson, called from Wisconsin to arrange a visit. Anderson sat in Snarr’s living room and the floodgates opened as the men discussed the war for the first time, their wives hanging on every word.

“That was the first time I heard about the war,” says Snarr's wife, Jean.

“I didn’t want to burden (the family) with it,” says Don Snarr. “Some of the things we saw were not things I wanted to share.”

Snarr is 90 years old, Jean 87. They are salt of the earth. They have been married 62 years. They have seven children, 25 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren with three more on the way. For 53 years they have lived in the same house, which Don built with his own hands on land that was once part of the family farm, surrounded by fields of potatoes, sugar beets and alfalfa. It was still a farm when he built the house in 1959 to start his family, but the government raised their property taxes nine-fold in a single year.

“We tried, but we couldn’t pay the taxes, so we were forced to sell off to developers,” he says. He shakes his head at the memory.

Snarr took a degree in electrical engineering and worked for the railroads. In retirement, he fills his days with gardening and church work. He serves as president of a Mormon branch at a local care center. He serves weekly in the LDS Church’s Jordan River Temple. He looks back on a life of service that, in many ways, began with the war.

A graduate of Murray High, he was a student at the University of Utah when the war broke out. Medical and engineering students were given deferments, but by the end of 1942 he noted that America’s air corps was being badly beaten and felt a call to duty. He and three friends enlisted. He qualified to be a pilot and by the time he finished training, the war in Europe had reached a tipping point. He traveled to England by sea, his ship zigzagging the Atlantic to avoid German subs, and arrived in July 1944, a month after the D-Day invasion.

“That was when the fun started,” he says dryly.

A tour of duty consisted of 35 combat missions, at least in theory. “At the rate they were losing pilots, it was almost impossible to complete a tour of duty,” he says.

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