Puett Willcox Blown Out of Exploding B-24
In a World War II bombing mission over Austria in May 1944, Willcox's plane was blown in half by enemy fire. He found himself tangled in cables drifting toward the ground beneath the tail section of the plane. Somehow he managed to get out of the damaged tail section and eventually pulled his parachute.
Puett Willcox was taken prisoner.
Willcox lives at Buckner Westminster Place in Longview (Texas) now. The memory of his ordeal is as bright today as when it happened 72 years ago, on May 10, 1944, when Willcox's plane was hit in the right wing, causing it to split in half, catch fire and explode while he was still inside.
“Hanging on my 'chute, I saw my group turning. They were going home, and I said out loud, 'You guys are leaving me,'” Willcox recalled.
He landed amidst 30 German soldiers who stood on the ground waiting for Willcox to land, and he remembers them peppering his parachute with gunfire.
“When I saw them shooting at me I pulled my .45 out and took it apart in two pieces and threw it,” Willcox said."I knew I didn’t have enough ammo to fight. Lots and lots of bad things happened to me while I was a prisoner,” Willcox revealed.
Puett Willcox followed procedure after being captured by the Germans: He gave his name, rank and serial number.
When his captors asked whether he had a mother and a father, Willcox paused and wondered how to answer. Then he told them jokingly, "No Mutter, no Vater, no per diem." The "per diem" bit stymied the Germans, Willcox remembers, but his captors then gave him a beer. "I guess they felt sorry for me because I had no mother, no father," he said.
He says he went from about 160 pounds to 73. They had very little to eat each day. The end of the war saw chaos everywhere and PoWs were at the end of a long line of hungry people, added to which was the fact the Germans really hated American bomber crews.
“We were given dehydrated sauerkraut soup,” Willcox said, and only about a cup of it, "and maybe some bread if we were lucky."
During his year in captivity through a miserable winter, thousands of PoWs marched 700 of miles to other camps to escape the Russians. On the way they were beaten and stabbed with bayonets. If someone couldn’t keep up, a guard would take him aside.
Willcox said, “In a little while we’d hear a shot, and the guard would catch up.”
And the guard would be alone.
While still marching, the war ended and prisoners were told to keep going and they would be picked up. On the way, Willcox ran into a group of Germans with tanks, led by a General. One held a white flag.
“I’ll accept your surrender." Willcox says.
"Are you a General?", the German asked.
Willcox spat out "Kriegsgefangener (PoW), but I'm an American and you can surrender to me.”
At that point he took the General’s car and he and a buddy drove it to meet up with the British a few miles ahead.
He had entered Austria on a B-24’s tail section more than a year earlier, and now he was leaving it to reach freedom in a German staff car, leaving the General on the side of the road.
Puett Willcox also went on to serve as a tail gunner in Korea. While serving in the Korean War, Willcox flew more than 50 flights as a tail gunner. The sheer number of flights he embarked on, many of which spanned for 18 hours at a time, earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross award. His commander had put in a request for Willcox to receive the award, but the commander messed up the paperwork.
In a ceremony Tuesday, October 25 at 2 p.m. at Buckner Westminster Place in Longview, Texas, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler presented Willcox with seven medals — including a Purple Heart — five Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters, four Bronze Service Stars and a letter of appreciation from the Republic of Korea for his service, in addition to the medals and honors he previously was awarded.
During Tuesday's ceremony, Gohmert presented Willcox with a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol, while fellow members of American Legion Post 232 presented Willcox with the 2015 Legionnaire of the Year Award and a Certificate of Honor.
Thanks to the Longview News-Journal and KLTV