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.
The 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.
No. 10, in October 1944. Powell’s B-24 was part of a tight, four-plane formation on a huge mission.
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.
“I 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.”
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.
He grabbed 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,” Powell said.
The next 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.
His 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.
“My mom would cook anything we brought home,”
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.
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
“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.
“All 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.”
“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
They 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.
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.'”
Philip Daily’s march after leaving Stalag Luft IV. (Courtesy Janet Adams.)