Former B-24 bomber pilot Bill Powell, 97, in Fort Collins. (Terry Frei )
When I visited 97-year old Bill Powell on Wednesday morning
in Fort Collins, the front of his hat bore the drawing of a B-24 bomber and its “Liberator” nickname. His interest
is more than that of an aviation enthusiast. As an Army Air Forces pilot during World War II, Powell flew the four-engine,
twin-tail bomber from the left-hand seat, commanding a crew of 10 others.
Later in the day, when I spoke with 93-year-old Philip Daily in his Brighton
home, Daily donned the generic “World War II veteran” hat that was sitting on his couch. (Actually, he put it
on because I asked him to, for a picture.) As a cramped tail gunner on a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” Daily’s
job was to fire from the back of the plane in the case of attack from fighters.
Different planes, different jobs, same cause.
When their planes were hit during bombing raids,
they managed to bail out and parachute to the ground, only to end up in separate German Stalag Luft prison camps. Daily went
through a horrible forced mass march of American POWs in the final days of the war in Europe. Powell was fortunate enough
to avoid that.
Former B-17 tail gunner Philip Daily, 93, at his home in Brighton. (Terry Frei )
Powell and Daily will be together Monday, when
they will be among five surviving Coloradan World War II veterans to receive the French Legion of Honor medal from the Los
Angeles-based French Consulate General at the Good Samaritan Retirement Village in Windsor.
The medal can go to veterans who served on French soil
during the war, fought off the coast, or flew missions on German targets in France.
Bill Powell was raised 30 miles west of Cleveland, in Elyria, Ohio. He
was attending Ohio Northern University when he enlisted in February 1942. He was called up late that year.
After flight training, he and his crew ended up
in Cerignola, Italy.
crew’s first nine missions, beginning in August 1944, were fairly uneventful. Three of them were supply missions to
Lyon, France, where Allied forces had captured the German-controlled airfield.
Then came No. 10, in October 1944. Powell’s B-24 was part of a tight,
four-plane formation on a huge mission.
“The mission was to bomb the railroad marshaling yards at Munich,” Powell said. “We came off
the bombing run and I turned the controls over to the co-pilot.”
Young Bill Powell as a B-24 pilot. (Courtesy Powell family.)
He stood up. That was typical strategy because of the strain on the pilot
during the bombing run.
looked out through the windshield and here came two 500-pound bombs from up above,” he said. “They hit the left
wing of the lead ship and I was flying right behind him.”
Powell’s guess is another plane’s bombs got hung up and released late at an inopportune
time and spot, essentially becoming “friendly fire.” Shrapnel from the struck lead ship tore into his plane. His
co-pilot was hit and killed immediately. Powell’s headrest was blown off. If he had stayed in his seat, he would have
been dead, too.
the controls. His control of the plane was marginal, and two engines were out.
“I felt the condition of the ship was such that we probably wouldn’t
make it back across the Alps,” he said. “So I gave the order to bail out. I hit the ground and turned around
and started to take my chute off and looked up and here was this German farmer holding a pistol on me. He motioned me to pack
up my chute and come with him.”
Powell ended up in a central interrogation station up in Frankfurt.
“I realized during the interrogation that
I had only been in the squadron six weeks and the Germans knew a hell of a lot more about the squadron than I did,”
stop was Stalag Luft I, on the Baltic Sea near Barth, in northern Germany. Conditions were Spartan, dirty and crowded. The
food — mostly potatoes, cabbage and turnips, cooked by the prisoners themselves — was awful, beyond occasional
Swiss Red Cross parcels. Yet the Germans essentially left the prisoners on their own outside roll calls. At the camps, Americans
were ingenious at coping, even playing football, softball and — improbably — ice hockey; staging concerts and
plays; publishing one-page newspapers; and using clandestine radios to follow the war news.
“The rest 0f the time, you stayed in your room, or walked
around the complex for exercise,” Powell said.
As Russian forces closed in from the east and American forces moved in from the west, plans
were formulated to force the prisoners to march under horrendous conditions to another camp. That’s what was going on
at other camps. But eventually, the German commandant and senior U.S. officer agreed the Germans simply would abandon the
camp, leaving the prisoners on their own.
The Russians arrived. The camp was liberated. Powell had been a POW for seven months.
After returning to the U.S., he got married, and
he and his wife, Norma Jean, soon heard of Japan’s surrender, ending the war.
He finished college at Ohio Northern and went to work for the Miami-Dade
County public works department in Florida. He eventually became director of public works for 10 years before his retirement.
Officials in 1986 named the final project of his tenure — the bridge linking Miami and Key Biscayne — the William
M. Powell Bridge.
daughter, Barbara Vowles, went to school at Colorado State University in the mid-1960s and remained in Fort Collins, so in
retirement Bill and Norma Jean bought a home in Fort Collins and went back and forth. Norma Jean passed away in 2003, and
Bill still lives in the house they had built.
Philip Daily during World War II. (Courtesy Daily family)
Young Philip Daily’s family lost its farm near Akron, Colo., in
the Great Depression and moved to Brush. Philip worked at grocery stores to help out the family and also hunted game and fished
to supply food.
mom would cook anything we brought home,” he said.
Daily ended up attending what now is the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, working
in the campus cafeteria and in a local store. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was called up in December 1943.
“They found that my vision
was no good, so I couldn’t be a pilot,” Daily said. “So I was sent to gunnery school at Las Vegas.”
As a staff sergeant and gunner,
he ended up on the B-17 crew stationed at Foggia, Italy. He was 19.
“In those days if you flew in the Balkans, you got credit for one mission,”
he said. “If you went north of the 38th parallel into Germany, you got credit for two missions.”
Daily’s 25th mission, on Oct. 12,
1944, was a run over railway marshaling areas in Bologna, Italy. The Germans had huge anti-aircraft artillery guns in place
on the ground.
that time, we hadn’t seen one (German) fighter because the war was tapering off,” he said. “It had never
bothered me seeing flak out there. But that day we got hit by anti-aircraft fire. When you looked out, three of the engines
were out and we were on one engine. We started going down.”
He made it out.
“When I got close to the ground, two guys were coming up the hill,” Daily said. “One
had a rifle and the other guy had a pistol. They had told us that it was possible the Resistance might pick us up. When I
hit the ground, I asked them, ‘Italians?’ They said, ‘No, Germans.'”
Soon, he was at Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow, Poland. He
was the 21st POW in a barracks with 20 beds, so he had to sleep on a table. The conditions were similar to those at other
Stalag Luft camps, including Bill Powell’s Stalag Luft I, with the prisoners trying to make the most of horrible potatoes.
“At least we ate,”
Daily said. “And that’s where I learned how to dance. We had a rec hall and one of the instructors from Arthur
Murray’s was there.”
On Feb. 6, 1945, the order came for about 6,000 POWs — Daily included — to leave the camp and march under
guard to the west, through often horrible weather and miserable conditions, including frequent violent treatment from the
German guards. POWs falling behind sometimes were shot. It came to be known as “The Winter March.” Many were ill.
“They broke us up into
groups of around 200,” Daily said. “We’d walk all day and then we’d go in a farmer’s barn at
night and sleep.”
covered 15 to 20 miles per day. In late March, the march ended near Hanover and the survivors were loaded on boxcars and taken
to Stalag Luft 2B for enlisted men, but Daily and the Stalag Luft IV men didn’t stay there long. They were sent out
on another march, going back over ground they already covered. They were near Hamburg when they awakened May 2, 1945. “Lo
and behold, the German guards were gone.” Daily said. “About a half-hour later, here come the British.”
The march spanned 86 days and
600 miles. About 1,300 American Airmen died.
Daily had severe dysentery and wasn’t able to eat solid food for many years after the war.
After attending the University of Colorado, Daily
settled in Denver with his wife, Jeanette, and became a salesman of various wares. He ended up in Brighton, owning Daily’s
Appliance Store until the early 2000s. Jeanette died in 2016.
Daily and Bill Powell both passed through the same transition camp for liberated American
POWs in France, dubbed “Lucky Strike.” They didn’t encounter each other there, but they’ve met before.
And Monday, they’ll receive the French Legion of Honor medal together.
“It kind of was over for about 20 years before it kind of started
to get recognition,” Powell said. “It’s always a little surprise when somebody says, ‘Hey, come on,
we’re going to give you a party.'”
Story on Greeley Tribune site
Philip Daily’s march after leaving Stalag Luft IV. (Courtesy Janet Adams.)