All I have are the memories: The story of a WWII veteran

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Davis
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

World War II veterans are living history, and at 98 years-old, one Keesler veteran is full of life.

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Mel Jenner, Army Air Forces radio operator and aerial gunner, recently visited the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he toured the museum and shared his story of courage and resilience.

In 1940, Jenner went to his local recruiting station to try his luck doing what hundreds before him had done.

“I lied to them when I went in,” said Jenner. “I told them I was 18 when I was really only 17.”

Jenner was accepted and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Jenner found himself in Biloxi, Mississippi, after completing a few weeks of basic training at the Army Air Forces’ newly designated training center.

In January 1941, Biloxi city officials had assembled a formal offer to invite the Army Corps to build a base to support WWII training needs.

The War Department activated Army Air Corps Station No. 8, Aviation Mechanics School, Biloxi, Mississippi, in June 1941. The base came to be known as Keesler Army Airfield, specializing in technical training to directly support growing aviation needs.

Jenner underwent extensive training to learn how to monitor radio frequencies and operate machine guns located in the rear of bomber aircraft for his specialty as a radio operator and aerial gunner.

Jenner’s time in training gave him a glimpse at his military future and  a chance meeting that changed his life forever.

He met his first wife, Joyce, who he describes as a “Biloxi belle”. She worked on the beach as a carhop girl, serving food to customers in drive up restaurants.

“I remember she stuck her head out of a doorway and took a good long look at me,” said Jenner. “I asked her what she was looking at, and she said, ‘Well, I wanted to see what I was getting a date with.’”

Jenner soon left Keesler Army Airfield and was sent to England for further training. He never forgot his Biloxi belle, and he and Joyce reconnected and were married when Jenner returned to Biloxi a few years later.

Jenner’s military career spanned most of World War II.  In 1943, he volunteered to become an aerial gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and flew 31 missions, including six to Berlin.

Jenner’s last B-17 mission was a photo reconnaissance mission over the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

“I remember what the shoreline looked like, boats everywhere,” said Jenner. “We could see our guys down there in the waves, but we didn’t know what happened to them.”

Jenner left the Army Air Corps in 1944 only to later re-enlist in the newly-formed, independent Air Force in 1947.

In 1949, he was sent to West Germany as a shop maintenance foreman for a Douglas C-54 Skymaster. There, he flew 25 Berlin Airlift missions as a flight engineer.

He also served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, retiring in 1968 after 26 years of service. Jenner recognizes the gravity of the events he lived through in his career.

“I’ve had so many people over the years ask me how I managed to come back alive. I tell them, ‘that’s a great question,’” said Jenner.

Jenner says that family and faith have gotten him through the years.

“I hope my great grandchildren can look and say, ‘that’s my grandpa’ and be proud of me,” said Jenner. “That’s all I want.”