Robins airman has long family history in military

wcrenshaw@macon.comApril 24, 2014 

Tech Sgt. Jessica Fordham is the fourth generation in her family to serve in the military. She shows photos Thursday, from left, of her great-grandfather, grandfather and father. Fordham is stationed at Robins Air Force Base.

WAYNE CRENSHAW — wcrenshaw@macon.com

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- Tech Sgt. Jessica Fordham credits the Air Force with turning her life around, but there’s another reason why her service isn’t just a job to her.

She is the fourth generation in her family to serve in the military. Her grandfather and great-grandfather served in World War II, and her father is a Vietnam veteran. Her great-grandfather’s grandfather served in the Civil War.

Fordham is a sheet-metal technician in the 402nd Expeditionary Depot Maintenance Flight, a unique unit that travels the world repairing battle damaged aircraft. It’s a job she would love even if it weren’t for her family background, she said, but that gives it extra meaning.

“I don’t think that I would feel as deeply tied to it as I do now, because I know it’s part of my heritage,” she said. “If I didn’t have the family history, it would be maybe more of something that saved me than something I would continue on doing.”

She is now in her 12th year in the Air Force, with the past nine at Robins. Had it not been for her family history, she doesn’t know if she would have stayed with it early in her career. Now she plans to serve until she reaches retirement.

Her grandfather Charlie Sibert has the most compelling story among her ancestors. It’s one she didn’t know until after she joined the Air Force.

She has been close to her grandfather all of her life, but he never talked about his war service until a few years ago.

Until then, about all she knew was that he was in the Army Air Forces during World War II. But that all changed on the day she graduated from basic training, which her grandfather attended. She was taken aback when she heard her training instructor repeatedly calling him “sir.” That was not a word she had heard out of the instructor before.

“He was the highest-ranking person I was around, so it was a big deal to hear him calling someone ‘sir,’ ” she said.

But as it turned out, Sibert had told the instructor that he was a B-17 tail gunner, had been shot down and served 18 months as a POW.

That was all news to Fordham.

“I had no idea because he didn’t ever talk about it,” she said. “It was too hard for him. About a year later he started really opening up about it.”

What she then heard was a story that sounds like it could make a good war movie.

On his first and only mission, which was to bomb a ball-bearing factory in Germany, her grandfather’s plane came under heavy fire as it approached the target. The plane was so damaged that the crew really needed to bail out, but the pilot wanted to hit the target first, which they did. After that the bail-out order came.

Had it not been for a German fighter pilot showing some mercy, Fordham wouldn’t exist. As her grandfather was floating to the ground, the German fighter zeroed in on him, and Sibert thought he was a dead man. But as the plane approached, the pilot just gave him a salute and flew on.

He was immediately captured and spent 18 months in the notorious Stalag 17B prison camp. Now 90, he still suffers from health issues related to his capture, including post-traumatic stress disorder. He was also severely malnourished and talked of eating “sawdust sandwiches and rotten rutabaga soup.”

His story comes with a happy ending. After he was freed by American troops, he sent a telegram to Fordham’s grandmother asking her to meet him when he got back to the states and marry him.

“I believe she was dating someone when she got the telegram, but she came anyway,” Fordham said.

It wasn’t until about three years ago that she found out something interesting about her grandmother that she never knew. Fordham had long had an interest in Rosie the Riveter, which was the poster character for women who worked in military manufacturing during the war.

She was describing her job to her grandmother, which included telling her about a rivet gun and what it did. Her annoyed grandmother interrupted her.

“She said, ‘I know what a rivet gun is,’ ” Fordham said.

Turns out, her grandmother was a Rosie the Riveter, making aircraft parts in California.

Despite her family history, it wasn’t until Fordham started going down a wayward path in college that she first considered a military career. She was raised by her aunt, who had an anti-war bent, but her aunt was the person who suggested the military might straighten her out.

“I thought that was the best thing I had ever heard,” Fordham said.

Her husband, Bryan, is an aircraft mechanic at Robins Air Force Base, and that’s how they met.

He became interested in her family history and has done a good bit of research into it, especially her grandfather.

“That’s one of the things that attracted me to her,” he said. “You don’t see many women in the military, and when I met her I saw how dedicated she was to the Air Force.”

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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