Just a few days before our country’s annual 4th of July festivities, I spent a few hours with a WWII fighter pilot by the name of Bob “Punchy” Powell. Mutual friends introduced us over lunch last fall, and we had the opportunity to meet again this spring at an EAA meeting. A wonderful storyteller, Bob shared with us some of his experiences as a young man suddenly thrust into battle against the Germans. Based in Bodney, England, the 352nd Fighter Group became known as the “Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney” (or just "Blue Nosers"), because of the blue painted cowling of their aircraft. He originally flew P-47 Thunderbolts, and later transitioned (in one day...) into P-51 Mustangs. The P-47 was a more robust aircraft, because of the way it was built, and because of it’s radial engine. But it had a limited range, and could only stay “on station” for a few minutes. The P-51 had much greater range, but a water cooled engine. One bullet through the radiator and you only had about three minutes before the engine seized.
Bob got his nickname in high school, when one of his classmates suggested he try out for the boxing team. A year later, he was the West Virginia Golden Gloves state boxing champion. After high school, he worked in the coal mines for a short time, and later attended West Virginia University. While attending WVU, the war broke out, and he and a classmate traveled to a testing center in Danville, Kentucky. He soon found himself on the way to flight training in California.
The cowling he holds in the photo above came from his P-51, which he had to crash land after a broken fuel-line fire developed shortly after take off. He put it down in a nearby field that had luckily been plowed by the farmer the day before. The soft earth cushioned the landing, and helped to smother the fire long enough for him to exit the aircraft, before it burned. The piece above is one of the few parts not consumed in the fire. His airplane was known as “The West “By Gawd” Virginian”. Cut to fit in a foot locker by his crew chief, he has never been photographed with it before.
Bob has written two books on the exploits of the 352nd, some extremely funny, and some terribly heartbreaking. He recounted the story of D-Day, when the group assembled for take-off the night of June 6th, 1944 at 2:30 am, in blackout conditions. In the darkness, one of the planes lined up incorrectly, and while taking off the pilot was instantly killed when he hit a new control tower that was under construction. The light from his fire allowed the other planes to safely get in the air. Bob flew a total of 16 hours on D-day, and had to be helped from the cockpit by his crew chief and armorer at day’s end, as his legs wouldn't support his weight.
His Atlanta basement is like a very small museum, in that there are artifacts and mementos here and there, complete with placards that denote its significance. One of the most intriguing was his “Pilot Log Book”. Detailed throughout are his missions, and brief entries about each. The inside back cover has his “Record in Combat”, complete with artwork. It also outlines his missions, sorties, and the number of combat hours. Originally set at two-hundred before a pilot could go home, it was upped to four-hundred, but with a catch. After 200 hours, one could go home for 30 days leave, but then be obligated for another 200 combat hours, or one could stay after the initial 200 hours was completed, fly another 100 hours, and then go home. Bob chose the latter, and returned home on Christmas Eve, 1944. He married 10 days later, and is still married 64 years later.
Bob doesn’t really consider himself a hero, just a survivor. Of all the things I learned last week, that’s probably about as good as it gets, when it comes to war. He has managed to forge a good life for himself and his family, and helped the world through a very difficult time. That’s hero enough for me.