MOUNT IDA – A childhood love for flying resulted in a unique story about how a young man from Iowa escaped from Switzerland after being shot down during World War II.
William Henry Jr.’s story began in Iowa during the Great Depression. His son John recalled how his Dad had talked about a plane ride that changed his life as a young boy. William’s first contact with airplanes came at a county fair when he was a boy. The story goes that he paid five dollars to ride in an old Ford tri-motor plane. The quick trip launched a lifelong love of flying for William. A talented athlete, William went to college in Iowa before joining the Army flight program. His son John stated that he had attempted to join the Navy first, but was a few hours of college credit short of making officer and flight school.
While William wanted to be a fighter pilot his training steered him toward multi-engine planes. He trained on the B-26 before moving to the B-24 bomber. His first wartime deployment was in Tunisia, from there he was stationed in Italy.
While serving in World War II William flew over 20 bombing missions. His 23rd bombing mission was to be his last thanks to damage to his airplane. John flips through his father’s flight logbook to the addendum page that records the events of July 20, 1944. It was on this day during his 23rd bombing mission his plane was shot down after flying a bombing mission over Germany. William had told his kids that they had always been told that if they were going to crash to try and aim for Switzerland. William received word from his crew after dropping their payload that they had three engines down. Remembering the advise he had received, William limped the plane on one engine into Switzerland. He piloted the plane as his crew escaped and then he parachuted to safety as well. Once on the ground William was taken captive by a farmer with a pitchfork and turned over to the authorities.
John’s favorite part of the story is what happens after his father is captured.
He recalls that while in Switzerland officers were treated very well. It quickly became obvious why they were instructed to aim for this very hospitable country. Prisoners of War were kept in hotel rooms where they were locked in at night. However, they were allowed to leave their rooms during the day for meals. They were also allowed two day passes to visit the Swiss countryside while they were detained.
John gingerly unfolded a Western Union telegram father, William, was allowed to send a to his parents just four days after his capture. John also carefully unfolded then read from a letter his father sent four days later to his family.
It would take a month for the U.S. military to contact his family to let them know William was officially listed as missing in action. His family was surprised to know of his whereabouts long before the U.S. military. A local paper even ran an article about the incident.
While the conditions were pleasant, William wasn’t happy being grounded and jumped at the opportunity to escape in September 1944. John shared how his father was approached by another officer about escaping. William took a two day pass where he got off the train in civilian clothes and hid until he could be snuck across the border into France. From France he made his way back to his base in Italy.
Unfortunately for William his capture brought an end to his bomber pilot days. He was sent home to Love Field in Dallas where he would become an instructor. William was awarded the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters for his valorous service in combat. The two oak leaf clusters signified that he had flown more than 20 combat missions.
While this was the end of his career as a bomber pilot it would lead to him meeting his wife Ruth. He met her in a cafeteria at Love Field early one morning. They have been married 73 years.
William flew for American Airlines before moving to Pencil Bluff in 2000.
William Henry, Jr. passed away August 22. He is survived by his wife, Ruth; sons William, Lee, and John Henry and a daughter Christine Spanbauer.