By 1942, the effects of World War II were everywhere, even in towns as small and remote as Hanna.

News of the war was broadcast in movies and over the radio. Ralph Penman, then 18, remembered neighbor boys drafted as the military began building its forces.

He even helped rescue an airman who escaped a crashing plane headed for the West Coast.

The town’s postman rescued the plane’s pilot, but seven other men were lost in a blizzard in the open prairie between Elk Mountain and Hanna. Penman and three friends went out that night and found one of the airmen huddled in a parachute with a shattered elbow.

Five months later, after high school graduation, Penman decided it was time to enlist in the Air Corps.

He and his buddies drove to Cheyenne, passing the tests and most of their physicals. Near the end, a doctor looked in Penman’s ear and said he had a broken ear drum. Penman broke it in seventh grade, but it never bothered him.

Sorry, the doctor told him, he couldn’t help the Air Corps.

Penman and a couple of others went home dejected. They returned months later to try the Navy. The same thing happened.

About seven months later, Penman finally joined the Army. Maybe he couldn’t fly planes, but the Army told him he could shoot them down.

He joined the 555th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, a brand new unit created to help the Air Corps fight the aerial war.

Since the men were the first of the 555th, they created their own identity. They called themselves the Fat Man after a popular song called “Mr. Five by Five.”

“We were a bunch of teenagers and those were the days of the Big Bands in the 1940s,” Penman said.

The song’s character, Mr. Five by Five, was 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide and wore a tuxedo. He became the battalion’s insignia and slogan.

“We made up our own words to the tune, very silly words, but it stuck with us the whole time.”

Training sent Penman all over the U.S., whether crawling through swamps in Louisiana or sweating in the desert in Texas. In Louisiana, the men wondered if they were headed for the Pacific, but their Texas beach training proved the most useful.

“Pilots would fly their planes over the shoreline and pull a flag behind the plane,” he said.

“You were shooting at the flag.”

Months later, when the battalion reached Belgium, Penman knew why they’d trained to shoot those flags. German buzz bombs, he discovered, were very similar.

A buzz bomb was an unmanned drone loaded with explosives. It looked like a small rocket with a stubby tail, powered by a jet engine. It exploded automatically over its target and wreaked havoc on England.

“There wasn’t a pilot, so it flew a pretty straight course,” he said.

“But they were fast, so you had to set up and fire ahead of them and let it fly in front of you.”

Penman was a vertical gun pointer, working in a team of three with a range setter and horizontal gun pointer. The range setter estimated distance and fired automatically. The gun pointers tracked the planes or buzz bombs.

In more than a year of fighting, Penman shot down 15 planes and eight buzz bombs, all enemies. Another group in his battalion wasn’t so lucky.

An American P-51 swept down over Penman’s battalion one day, strafing the ground. The first time, no one shot back, knowing it was American and hoping the pilot would figure that the battalion was American, too.

The pilot circled and came down firing again. This time, men fired back. The plane caught on fire and the pilot parachuted out.

“They had to go get him in the field,” Penman said.

The pilot survived, and both the pilot and the shooters were reprimanded.

Despite a wife and newborn son at home, Penman couldn’t leave after the war. The Army sent the 555th to Belgium to check supply ships and help distribute food.

Life wasn’t as dangerous as it was during the war, and he and his buddies had a favorite bar where they gathered, similar to Hanna’s soda shop.

Except the bartender’s husband was a Nazi sympathizer.

Penman didn’t know until he realized two men had been following him. He asked around and found out they were the Belgian equivalent of the American Central Intelligence Agency. The officers hoped Penman and his buddies might know where the bartender’s husband was hiding.

Penman will always remember those men. He has a picture taken of him and a friend at a carnival game and in the background are the two secret agents.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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A Casper native, Christine Peterson started as a Star-Tribune intern in 2002. She has covered outdoor recreation, the environment and wildlife since 2010, and became managing editor in 2015. If not tracking bears or elk on assignment, she's chasing trout.

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