Tale of an Ak-Sar-Ben Knight on Veterans Day

November 11, 2022 4:00 am

1944: A B-24 Liberator flying over the invasion Armada, heading towards the French coast. Omaha pilot Don Ashford was flying in a squadron of B-26 Martin Marauders during the D-Day invasion. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Brad Ashford, a former Nebraska legislator and member of Congress, wrote several columns for the Nebraska Examiner before his death in April of this year. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad’s essays with the Nebraska Examiner. Here is a note she sent us ahead of Veterans Day.

Brad wrote this in the summer of 1995 and sent it to columnist Mike Kelly at the Omaha World-Herald that fall. I do not believe it was published in its entirety. Brad’s sense of duty to and respect for his father and all those who serve this country led to his commitment to veterans’ care and sponsorship of the CHIP IN for Veterans Act of 2016, allowing for the first public-private partnerships to build veterans’ health care facilities. — Ann Ashford

Since my father’s death in 1977 I have kept his wartime diary in my desk drawer with other objects from my past; old check books, pen sets from birthdays far gone, tattered wallets and the like. I had taken the diary out periodically. I liked the way it looked and felt, pocket-sized in black leather with red edges to the lined pages. Though I had read the diary many times in the past, the passages were short and terse, revealing very little. The entry for May 12, 1944, was typical, “R.R. Bridge at Liege. Moderate flak. No losses. Bridge destroyed.”

My father, like so many other fathers of my generation, fought in World War II. He was a bomber pilot stationed near London through most of 1944. In fact, Don Ashford was a particularly valiant pilot. He flew over sixty missions over France and Germany in a B-26 bomber. The twin engine plane known as the Martin Marauder had been built at the Martin Bomber Plant on the site of the present-day Offutt Air Force Base. He named his plane the “Ak-Sar-Ben Knight” after the well-known civic organization and horse track. In fact there were two Ak-Sar-Ben Knights. Number 1 crash landed after a bombing raid over France and was replaced by another. My father was decorated for pulling two crew members from the burning wreckage of the first plane. He returned to Omaha a hero.

The crew of the Ak-Sar-Ben Knight, along with the dog that went with them. Don Ashford is pictured in back row, far right. (Courtesy of Ann Ashford)

I learned precious little from my father about his war time exploits. Instead he would relate lighthearted stories about a “secret mission” to Scotland for a case of scotch whiskey to replenish the squadron commander’s supply; or spending many hours in a Paris hotel bar with a German Luftwaffe Colonel whom he found drowning his sorrows in the period just before the Allied entered Paris. When I asked my father how he got into Paris while the Germans were still there, he replied, “by taxi.” No other explanation was offered.

This spring I decided to take my son John Paul and his friend to Paris. He was taking French in school and I thought age 15 would be an excellent age for him to experience another culture. As the time for the trip approached, however, I was drawn back to the diary. I knew that my father had flown on D-Day but knew little about the mission. The diary entry for June 6, 1944, read simply, “Gun positions on Cherbourg Peninsula. First ships over invasion coast. Heavy flak. One ship lost. Biggest show ever.” Though I had been to France on a couple of occasions I had never been to Normandy. Something was telling me not to miss it this trip.

The day we picked to go to Normandy was cold and foggy, much like the real thing as we were told by our guide. As we approached the invasion beaches I was overcome by an intense feeling of closeness to my father. I kept thinking that we were making a connection with a man my son never met. As the day progressed, those feelings grew more intense. At the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach a large map is carved on the memorial which marks the entrance to the Cemetery. The map depicts the positions of the air, naval, and land forces of the invasion force on the morning of June 6, 1944. A green arrow describes the advance of the 9th Air Corps which included the Ak-Sar-Ben Knight on the Cherbourg Peninsula, approximately 25 kilometers from the invasion beaches. The entry in the diary was beginning to come alive.

At the museum in Caen, the capital of southern Normandy, a film traced the rise of fascism in Germany and across Europe, the Nazi invasion of France, and finally the liberation of Europe. As if spliced into the film for our benefit, there appeared on the screen a squadron of B-26 Martin Marauders dropping their bombs on what the narrator described as the Cherbourg peninsula. Though I cannot claim to have seen the Ak-Sar-Ben Knight that day, the diary told me that it was in that group of planes somewhere.

As we left the theater I knew that something significant had occurred. My son would understand that the grandfather he never knew was in fact a real hero and I have the very real satisfaction of knowing that I had helped bring my father and my son together for a brief time.

My father returned from the war, finished college, married my mother, and went to work at our family business, The Nebraska Clothing Company. He ran the business until it closed in 1976, hanging on to the dream that retailing was not dead in downtown Omaha. He opened one of the first shops in the Old Market Passageway called D. Ashford’s, a men’s clothing store. He died soon after the store opened in November of 1977 at age 55, three years before the birth of his oldest grandson. He would be very proud to see what is happening in the Old Market today 18 years after his death, and prouder still of the 15 year old grandson whose life he touched on a foggy afternoon in Normandy.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.