Veteran of three wars remembers those he served with

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 80th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs officer
Memorial Day is hard for Bill Peel. 

The memories of those he served with in World War II, Korea and Vietnam flooded back with each tear that welled up in his eyes. The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel recalled his fallen comrades from each pivotal war, and those with whom he marched across the frozen German countryside in early 1945 as a prisoner of war.

"Memorial Day is always hard, I guess, for almost any veteran who has been in combat," he said. "The hair on the back of my neck still stands up when the national anthem plays. It's just one of those things."

His service began Sept. 10, 1942, when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, at the age of 15 - without a high-school education, as many young men did at the time. Trained as a radio operator and gunner, Mr. Peel was assigned to a B-24 Liberator crew and was soon on his way to Italy, the staging ground for bombing raids on key targets in Germany and German-occupied territories.

The crew completed 27 successful missions, but they were well short of the magic number that would send them home.

"You had to fly 50 missions in World War II (to go home)," he said. "A lot of us didn't expect to make it."

The thought of not making it home became a reality June 26, 1944, when the B-24 crew was shot down near Vienna, Austria. The crew was captured shortly thereafter and taken to Stalag Luft 4 - a prison for American and British Airmen - in Poland near the Baltic Sea northeast of Berlin.

The hellish conditions he expected didn't  come until the Russian military was breaking through the front in the east. That's when the hardship of being a POW was multiplied.

"The worst thing that happened to us in that camp was when the Russian front collapsed," Mr. Peel recalled. "We started marching across Germany in January 1945."

The veteran of three wars said he weighed a strapping 180 pounds when he was captured in 1944. He was an emaciated 98 pounds when the "death march" of about 500 miles was complete. Mr. Peel said the prisoners had to endure exposure to the elements, very little food and widespread dysentery.

It wasn't until the spring of 1945 that the aircrews were liberated by the British 7th Armored Division, ending Mr. Peel's days of imprisonment.

Mr. Peel's military and flying career continued in 1949 when he became a helicopter pilot in the newly-created Air Force after completing high school and his college education. The reality of war would again put him in harm' s way during the Korean War as he flew pilot pick-up missions to retrieve downed pilots in enemy territory and carried patients to MASH units from the front.

On one particular day, Mr. Peel said, he was asked to go out again after already flying several missions. He said he knew it was going to be dark soon, and the H-5 Dragonfly was not equipped with lights for night flying. But he took the mission because it meant getting injured soldiers to a hospital.

He recalled that as he was trying to find his way back in the darkness, some soldiers on the ground realized he was trying to find a place to set down, all the while enemy forces were moving closer.  To light the landing area from him, the soldiers turned on their Jeep lights.

As he took off the next morning, he was shot down not far from friendly forces. He said the infantrymen got him and the patients out of the aircraft.

"The patients I had didn't receive any additional injuries," he said. "That was a miracle from that mission."

Mr. Peel continued his wartime service when he was sent to help set up a pilot training program in South Vietnam.

The war-tested veteran said he misses his days of flying, but it was obvious during this interview that his moments of silence weren't of reflection on his flying days or the number of aircraft he managed to get in the air during his career. Nor was it of the close calls he had in the skies over Europe and Korea.

"I get teared up when I talk about old friends that didn't make it, and some who have gone since then," he said, pausing for a moment, almost as if paying his own tribute to those men. "Being in the service as long as I was, and being in those three wars, I lost a lot of friends."