Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Evergreen Park, IL) Harry Felton Jr. was a P-47 & P-51 fighter pilot with the 5th Air Force during World War II and flew 112 missions. It was by sheer determination that this happened.
As a boy, Harry recalls “building model airplanes by the dozen.” Fascination with planes and flying influenced his decision to become a pilot. His interest still continues, yet remains the only pilot in his family. The oldest of three children, Harry’s mother was not happy when he announced he had joined the Army Air Corp. He signed the papers in October of 1942 while attending junior college and working at Western Electric.
Harry convinced his mother this was his only chance to become a pilot and he entered the Army Air Corp on New Year’s Day 1943. For the next few months, Harry traveled from Missouri to Kansas to Oklahoma and to Texas as he completed basic military training, and then Air Corp training consisting of primary, basic and advanced training required to become a pilot. During his basic military training in Missouri, so many men got sick that they fondly referred to Jefferson Barracks where he was stationed as Pneumonia Gulch.
Harry quickly became frustrated with the slowness and “hurry up and wait” approach used by the Army Air Corp. During his first year in the military, Harry and the other men he served with were anxious to learn how to fly and get overseas. After completing basic training, he recalls that they had so many men that the Army did not know what to do with them. At this point Harry was sent to Kansas State University in Manhattan Kansas to attend college. He remembers 2 rigorous months of attending classes until 9pm and also studying physics.
Finally, when his pilot training began, it consisted of a series of 60 hour sessions of flying. In El Reno, Oklahoma he flew single engine low wing planes as part of primary training. Next it was on to Enid, Oklahoma for his first solo flight.
Finally, he moved on to Texas for his advanced training. After graduation he went to Mitchell Field on Long Island, NY and anxiously awaited his assignment. He hoped to be assigned as a fighter pilot and he was not disappointed. He began flying P-47’s in preparation for going overseas. Thinking he was headed to the European campaign, his group was suddenly assigned to the West Coast. From California he took a four engine transport plane in route to Port Moresby, New Guinea. As they flew over the northern mountain range referred to as “The Hump” Harry thought to himself, now we are ready for combat.
The Army Air Corp had other plans, or maybe no plans, because Harry and his group of 50 pilots spent the next 4-5 months “sleeping in their tents, eating three meals a day, exercising on their own and not once touching a plane.” Kept totally in the dark, the pilots began to wonder why they were here. Finally, a top Ace pilot was assigned to their group. One day while the Ace and the group commander were speaking to the pilots, Harry shouted out “when are we going to start flying?” Harry is sure they heard him because within two weeks his group was back in the air flying P-47’s again.
There were 3-4 fighter groups in New Guinea and each began to get their combat assignments. By the end of 1943 Harry and his group were flying P-51’s on bomber escorts, fighter sweeps and strafing missions. According to Wikipedia, “Strafing is the military practice of attacking ground targets from low-flying aircraft using aircraft-mounted automatic weapons.” In all, Harry participated in 112 missions and his plane was only hit once. Harry recalls having “my girl’s name on the front of my plane.” He does not recall her name now but it was a long time ago. Next week Harry will celebrate his 95th birthday.
During the strafing missions, Harry and his fellow pilots swooped down on the Japanese fighters. He recalls the sight of bright red explosions meaning that they had hit their target. Although never in a “dogfight” Harry recalls his most memorable mission as one in the Philippines over the coast of China. They were not allowed to go into China, but knew the coast of China “fly route” like the back of their hand. Harry’s flight commander had to bail out and was picked up by a US Navy submarine. Unfortunately, the submarine was based in Guam and Harry’s flight commander was taken there. They never saw him again.
Another memorable time was in the Philippines, not a flying mission, but one where Harry recalls his unit “got caught with their pants down.” It was around dinner time and suddenly ten Japanese transports came flying in at about 1000 feet dropping paratroopers. Harry and his fellow pilots scrambled and suddenly became soldiers and not pilots. To protect themselves from an attack, they had to dig fox holes and surround their area with barbed wire that had tin cans attached to it. The only weapons the pilots had were a 45 pistol and the knife they always had strapped to their leg. Fortunately, they survived this surprise attack.
Harry stopped flying combat missions in May of 1945 when he was chosen to go back to Texas and test a new gunsight called the K-14. He was given 30 days leave as part of this assignment. Unknown to Harry, his father was trying to get him home, as Harry’s mother was extremely ill. She passed away while Harry was on leave. Harry continued on to his assignment in Texas, but the war ended when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945. Harry remained on active duty until November, 1945 when he was discharged. He continued to fly out of O’Hare airport during his 5 years in the Air Force Reserves.
Upon returning to Chicago, Harry returned to his job as an industrial engineer for Western Electric where he proudly says “we found ways to make it cheaper.” He remained there for 44 years during which time, he married his wife June and they had two daughters. He continued to fly small planes as a hobby.
Thank you Harry, for your determination to be a pilot and for your military service. Enjoy your honor flight!!!