A Veteran Pilot Finally Gets His Wings
On April 17, 2012, my uncle David Bishop was aboard a special flight for World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. The honorees were to visit the new World War II Memorial.
As they boarded the jet plane, Ed Cudd, one of David’s friends, spoke to the pilot. “Are you the fellow flying us to Washington?”
“Yes,” answered the captain.
“I brought my own pilot with me. He flew a bomber during the war,” said Ed, introducing David.
“Glad to meet you,” said the captain.
“Trouble is,” continued Ed, “he was shot down before he ever got his wings.”
Before he received the recognition, David was pressed into service.
Clare and I had supper with Uncle David and Aunt Ann on their wedding anniversary. I mentioned an article that appeared in the Spartanburg Magazine (Winter 2006), that Laura Perricone had written about Uncle David. Laura’s article was “Heroes Among Us.” Uncle David recounted the story of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
David Bishop was a nineteen-year-old student at Wofford College when he and some of his buddies enlisted in Air Force Reserve at Camp Croft in Spartanburg. He really had little desire to be a pilot. He decided it would be better to be in the air than on the ground during combat.
When he was called to active duty, he left Wofford, his family, and his girlfriend Ann, one of my dad’s younger sisters. He became a pilot of the B-17 bomber also known as the Flying Fortress. While stationed in Gulfport, Mississippi, David and his crew of nine men trained by making six-hour flights to and from Fort Worth, Texas. On a clear day in September 1944, he decided that if he had to fly for six hours, he might as well fly to Spartanburg.
David’s family lived near South Church Street. Flying the big bomber at two thousand feet, he circled the Bishop home twice, trying to get his family’s attention. He radioed the Spartanburg control tower and asked them to telephone his parents. On his next pass over the home, he could see his mother and his sister in the yard, waving towels. He then flew over the Neely home on Union Road as a way of impressing Aunt Ann. It worked.
The crew traveled back to Gulfport, arriving at their base within the six-hour time frame. If his superiors knew of his diversion, nothing was ever mentioned.
Soon thereafter David and his crew were sent to England. David was required to fly into combat as a copilot on five missions before he could serve as a pilot. He was placed with a pilot who had twenty-eight successful missions.
November 26, 1944, was a fateful day in the war. Germany sent 240 fighter planes aloft to attack the American bombers. The sky was filled with a black cloud of flak. More than one hundred American bombers were shot down, including David’s.
The engines of David’s plane were ablaze. Several members of the crew were killed immediately. Those still alive were ordered to bail out at twenty thousand feet. Parachuting at that height meant almost certain death. German fighter planes were known to fire at men floating to the ground in parachutes. With the bomber on fire, the men had no alternative. They had to jump.
Crew members are like family members. One of the crew was afraid, but David finally persuaded the young man to jump.
David had learned from a Royal Air Force instructor that positioning himself in a spread eagle after bailing would help stabilize the free fall. The instructor failed to tell him that both arms and both legs are to be spread into position at the same time.
After David jumped from the plane, he stuck out one arm and went into a spin. Once he straightened out, he decided to try the other arm. He started spinning in the opposite direction. Finally, David was reoriented.
He could see his plane burning on the ground. Realizing that he must be running out of time, he pulled the ripcord. Before he could look to see if the chute had opened, he had hit the ground. He made a perfect landing, but he had fallen nearly nineteen thousand feet before his chute opened.
On the ground, David immediately rolled up his chute. Within an hour, the German military had captured him. One of the soldiers pulled a switchblade knife on him and demanded his parachute. David refused to relinquish it, but of course, did so when he was processed at the prisoner of war camp.
Uncle David told me how the Germans treated prisoners of war. At times, they were on a starvation diet. At other times the prisoners lived on rutabagas.
As the war drew to a close, word came through secret avenues that the Germans intended to exterminate all of the prisoners of war. David’s colonel, also a prisoner, knew that if they left the camp, they would probably be executed. He made it clear to their German captors that he would not allow his men to leave the prison until the allies arrived.
The Russians got there first and were in control of the camp during the last two weeks of David’s imprisonment. That, too, was a difficult time. Finally, the prisoners were liberated. After his evacuation, David was able to return home.
Uncle David spoke of the importance of his faith during his internment. He said that he prayed when he parachuted from the plane and when he was falling from the sky. His prayer was one of gratitude, simple gratitude that God had been with him. David told how he had appreciated the worship services inside the prisoner of war camp. The chaplain, a prisoner from New Zealand, ministered to the captives. He brought messages based on scripture that had practical application for their lives in that moment.
I specifically asked Uncle David about how these experiences shaped his faith.
He explained, “I am not a very pious man, but I can tell you this. I have always known that God is with me.”
In April, when David traveled on the honor flight back home, something unusual happened. As the World War II veterans disembarked the plane at the Greenville-Spartanburg Jetport, the captain of the flight saluted David.
“It’s high time you had these,” he said, and he handed David his wings.Kirk H. Neely © November 2012