SALT LAKE CITY — Seventy years ago this January, Ray Matheny fell unconscious out of an exploding airplane, came to a couple of minutes later when his flapping parachute slapped him in the face, pulled the rip cord so hard it yanked his ribs out of their sockets, and crashed to Earth in an icy canal, where the Nazis picked him up and sent him to Stalag 17 as a prisoner of war.
To this day, Ray can’t believe how lucky he was.
Of 10 men riding that morning in the B-17 bomber during its strafing run over Kiel in northern Germany, he was one of just two who lived to tell the tale.
He’s still telling it, and he’ll tell it again today when he’s honored at the University of Utah’s annual Veterans Day Commemoration.
Each year since 1998, the U. of U. Center for Public Policy and Administration has selected 11 military veterans to be honored on the 11th day of November at 11 a.m. in observance of the World War I armistice signed at 11 a.m. on 11/11/1918.
This year a mixture of Vietnam, Korean, Iraq and World War II vets will be feted, including Matheny, a California native who has called Utah home for most of the past 50 years.
Ray, 88, and his wife, Deanne, live in Lindon, surrounded by photos of their children and grandchildren. They first came to Utah County in the '60s so Ray could enroll at BYU. After earning a degree in archaeology and moving on to the University of Oregon for a doctorate in anthropology, he returned to BYU and joined the archaeology faculty, where he gained world renown as a teacher and researcher.
But all that came after World War II, a fight he joined illegally (if you want to get picky about it).
In October 1942, Ray was just starting his senior year at John C. Fremont High School when he drove to Army headquarters in downtown Los Angeles to sign up. He was 17 years old.
But he rounded up and told the recruiters he was 18.
He was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Corps, flourished in aviation school, made the grade as a flight engineer, and before the year was out was assigned to a 10-man flight crew cleared for combat.
At Scott Field near St. Louis, the Army handed over a brand-new, just-off-the-assembly-line 35,000-pound B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber to the 10 men and gave them directions to an Allied air base in England.
But first they needed the flight engineer to sign for the $250,000 airplane.
That would be Ray.
“Can you imagine?” says Sgt. Matheny 70 years later. “I was 18 years old!”
The teenage airmen named their plane “Deacon’s Sinners” and lived a charmed life for eight straight missions, successfully hitting their targets in Europe and returning safe to England every time.
But on the ninth mission, to the Nazi naval stronghold of Kiel, a combination of flak guns from the ground and Messerschmitt fighter planes blew “Deacon’s Sinners” to bits.
Ray will never forget watching the plane’s fragments hitting the frozen German ground just before he did, nor will he forget the Austrian prison camp where he was incarcerated for 16 months, or the day he and his fellow POWs were liberated in May of 1945 by Patton’s Third Army.
Four years ago, he finally chronicled all his memories in a book he published about his war experiences called “Rite of Passage: A Teenager’s Chronicle of Combat and Captivity in Nazi Germany” (available on Amazon).
He won’t have time to detail every experience today at the U. — or at the talk he’s scheduled to deliver at the Provo Library Tuesday night at 7 — but there’s one message he says he definitely wants to get across every time he gets a chance to speak.
“I consider it my duty as a survivor to tell people that World War II was real, that the Holocaust was real, that all of it really happened,” he says. “The free world was at stake, and if it wasn’t for our country there’d be no freedom in the world.
“I want to remind all of us of that. We paid dearly for the freedom we have, and we need to never stop remembering that.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org