WHEELERSBURG -- Almost 65 years have passed since those days when Boyd N. Adkins Jr. manned the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang, a long-range, single-seat fighter plane. He provided cover for the big, lumbering B-17s and B-24s on their bombing raids over Europe.
But time can’t erase the memories of the atrocities of war he experienced first-hand. Some are still so painful that he can’t talk about them without his voice cracking and his eyes watering up.
He served 10 months of combat in World War II and flew 69 missions in the P-51s over Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands while serving with the 359th Fighter Group, 368th Fighter Squadron, 8th Air Force.
He managed to bring down two German fighter planes and drove off others as they attacked the bombers, but there was little he could do to combat the blanket of anti-aircraft fire that filled the skyways and all too often found its targets.
“On one mission, 56 -- 56 -- of our bombers were shot down, in broad daylight…some trying to turn away after dropping their bombs…some exploding before they ever released their payload…” Adkins remembered, his voice trailing off.
Each of them carried a crew of 10 young American flyers. Some of them managed to parachute out, to an unknown fate, but many went down with their planes, never again to see the country they fought and died for.
Adkins, from West Virginia at the time, was called to duty in April 1943 and on Feb. 8, 1944 he had his wings.
“It normally takes two years to train a fighter pilot. They ran us through in 10 months,” he said.
In Tallahassee, Fla., he had 200 hours of flying time in the P-40s, the “Flying Tigers” John Wayne made famous in his movie by that name.
But once overseas with the 8th Air Force, he flew the P-51s exclusively.
Adkins was one of four Wheelersburg veterans of World War II on an Honor Flight Aug. 19 out of Huntington, W.Va., to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial. The memorial, which opened April 29, 2003, was built to honor the 16 million Americans who served in the armed services during the war and to the more than 400,000 who died, as well as to remember those who supported the war effort from home.
The one-day trip, using money from private donations, is free to World War II veterans or to terminally ill veterans from any of the wars America has fought in.
“It never cost us one dime,” Adkins said. “It was wonderful. Everybody treated us like heroes.”
The other three veterans making the trip with him were Jack Riggs, James D. Lawson Jr. and Kenneth D. Johnson. Michael Cottle, also of Wheelersburg, isn’t a veteran of the war but went along as a guardian.
“My job was to be there for the vets for any need they might have during the trip,” Cottle said. “It was a great honor for me to make this trip with the men and women who laid down their lives to make our country safe.”
Kenneth Johnson, in speaking of the visit to the memorial on the National Mall, said one of the things that most impressed him was the gold stars, each representing 100 American servicemen who died in the war.
“The second best thing I enjoyed the most was the Iwo Jima Memorial,” he said
Boarding the airplane for the trip, Johnson was shuffled momentarily aside because he has two metal knees.
“They scanned me with the metal detector and of course it went wild when it got to my knees,” he said. “I had to take my shoes off to have them checked. I can’t get down to tie my shoes too well. A lady, a perfect stranger, saw the trouble I was having, trying to retie them, and she came and put my shoes on and tied them for me. You can’t be treated any better than that.”
Johnson graduated from Wheelersburg High School in 1944 and went directly into
the recruiting office and enlisted in the Navy. He took his basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station and reported to a destroyer at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay.
“I was one of the replacements on that ship for 28 sailors who had been killed,” he said.
Mare Island built ships and submarines and repaired hundreds of damaged warships.
“There must have been 200 to 300 damaged destroyers lined up there. Most had had their whole superstructures knocked off. The Japanese suicide planes striking in the Pacific hit the upper decks of our ships when they could. I heard it was because they were trying to get the officers,” Johnson said.
He was a radioman on board the destroyer USS Ross.
“We were nearing Japan when they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima,” he said. “We spent three months in Tokyo Bay as part of the occupation forces. Then we headed home, and I can tell you the most beautiful sight I have ever seen was Puget Sound, Washington.”
“What impressed me the most,” Jack Riggs said,”was the 4,000-plus gold stars on a wall. Each one of them represented 100 Americans who died in the war. That brought tears to my eyes. I knew some who were represented there. And for a lot of them who came back, it was almost as bad as if they had been killed. Some of them, friends of mine, were shot all to pieces, and they had a hard time the rest of their lives.
“But it’s really wonderful that they’ve sponsored something like this and let the WW2 vets go for nothing. They have said they want to do it because we are getting old and they want us to see that memorial before they die, and we’re glad for the opportunity. One of these days there’ll be a reunion from which we will never have to leave each other again.”
Riggs was in a MYA camp in Chillicothe when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The camp, which provided vocational training for young people, kept participants in barracks at the site and paid them about $12 a month.
“We heard over the radio that Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, about Pearl Harbor being hit. We all looked at each other. We knew without speaking about it that we would be going off to war,” he said.
He turned 18 the following June 19 and the first draft of 18-year-olds was June 30. But it was February 1943 before he went into the service. He chose the Army Air Force. It was early in 1944 when he boarded a troop ship in Newport News, Va., and set sail for the Mediterranean Sea.
“We were 25 days in the crossing, then they wouldn’t let us enter the Med because it was hot with German submarines. We stayed in northern Africa for a while, then we got on another ship and I wound up stationed in Italy. I was in the ground crew in a B-24 outfit with the 464th Bomb Group,” Riggs said.
James Lawson said he hopes more and more World War II veterans get to make the trip to Washington to see the memorial.
“The people who took us were so courteous and kind and so thankful for what we had done,” he said.
Lawson was also in the Army Air Force, or “corps,” as it was referred to then. He took his basic training in Florida, went to Wisconsin for radio school, then back to Florida where he became a radar instructor.
“I stayed there for two years and then they shipped me out to Utah for overseas training,” he said. “I was on a train for Seattle, Washington, when Japan surrendered.”
Even though he missed the action in World War II, Lawson was recalled for the Korean War, where he saw plenty of action with the Army, on both sides of the 38th Parallel.
“North Korean Army forces overran us south of the 38th. We had to retreat and leave our vehicles,” he said. “But we regrouped, backed them up into the north, and started winning. I got to come home in December 1952.”
For information on how to apply for an Honor Flight, make a donation to support the program, or volunteer to assist veterans on the flight, visit www.freedomhonorflight.org on the Internet, or call Earl Morse, founder, at (937) 409-8387.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.