Vets share stories at national memorial

WASHINGTON - Some stormed the beaches at Normandy. Others became America's first black military pilots and flew combat missions as part of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Comrades liberated German concentration camps, witnessing the horrors of the Nazis firsthand.

Sixty years later, World War II veterans told their stories Thursday on the National Mall as the country prepared to dedicate a memorial in their honor this weekend.

Bob "Punchy" Powell's military service began shortly after Dec. 7, 1941. He decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps moments after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Everybody was motivated by Pearl Harbor," Powell said. "Most all of us young men at that time felt like, 'We got to get into this thing."' He later would fly 87 combat missions and survive the crash-landing of his burning plane in a farmer's field in England.

It was June 5, 1944, that provided some of his most vivid war memories - the night before the D-Day invasion to free France from the Nazis.

Powell, now 83 and from Atlanta, remembers returning from a mission and mechanics telling him that his P-51 Mustang needed to be painted with alternating black and white stripes, to differentiate Allied planes from the German ones.

Later that night, as Powell and his buddies were hanging out at the bar in the officers club, a colonel came in and told them to stop drinking because "you have an early morning mission," he said.

"We realized that this was it," Powell said.

He was only 21 years at the time.

"I was just a kid out of the hills of West Virginia. I had never been on the other side of the mountain, and it made a man of us very quickly," said Powell.

Powell was one of dozens of veterans, including former senators and presidential candidates Bob Dole and George McGovern, to share their war stories as part of the Smithsonian Institution's "Tribute to a Generation."

The celebration kicked off five days of festivities. The highlight comes Saturday when the National World War II Memorial is dedicated at a ceremony attended by President Bush.

A parade saluting the veterans is planned for Monday.

Like Powell, Charles McGee found camaraderie and a sense of purpose in the armed forces. He became one of the military's famous black fliers, one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

But the segregation in the military was not the same as blacks faced in civilian life, McGee said.

"Life was pretty normal among ourselves. There were those who tried to institute the same segregation in the civilian arena that existed in America, but that didn't work because most of the folks that we had contact with treated us as individuals," McGee said.

McGee, 84, lives in Bethesda, Md. He flew 136 combat missions during the war.

Corbin B. Willis, Jr., of Sandy, Ore., also flew bombing missions. But on his 22nd mission for the Army Air Corps, his B-17 plane was hit by the Germans and caught fire, forcing all nine men aboard to strap on their parachutes and jump. They landed in a field below where four of them were killed and the others, including Willis, were caught by the Germans.

Willis would survive the interrogations that would follow and a 100-mile march through the snow from one German camp to another. But it was six months later when he was finally free that he returned home, only to have his heart broken. Most everyone had thought he had died, including his wife, who had remarried.

Now 81, he recalls with tears in his eyes: "The thing that keeps you alive is your faith in God and the fact that you have a wife to come back to. I could tolerate the prison camp. But the hardest thing I couldn't accept was her being gone."

Willis eventually found love again and remarried.

And all these years later, he said, there is no bitterness.


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