HERITAGE TO HORIZONS: Airman enlists in Army Air Corps, becomes pilot

Retired Col. Walter Douglass, World War II P-51 Mustang pilot, looks through a book of Stalag Luft III, a German prison camp where he was a POW. Douglass was shot down in 1944 and taken prisoner on D-Day. The book included drawings of the prison camp and photos that were smuggled out. (photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Zoellner)

Retired Col. Walter Douglass, World War II P-51 Mustang pilot, looks through a book of Stalag Luft III, a German prison camp where he was a POW. Douglass was shot down in 1944 and taken prisoner on D-Day. The book included drawings of the prison camp and photos that were smuggled out. (photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert Zoellner)

In this undated photo, retired Col. Walter Douglass stands in front of a P-51 Mustang.
Douglass was a P-51 pilot during his service in World War II. He was shot down on his 17th mission on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and taken prisoner. Douglass was a POW at Stalag Luft III, just months after the Great Escape happened at the same camp. (courtesy photo)

In this undated photo, retired Col. Walter Douglass stands in front of a P-51 Mustang. Douglass was a P-51 pilot during his service in World War II. He was shot down on his 17th mission on June 6, 1944, D-Day, and taken prisoner. Douglass was a POW at Stalag Luft III, just months after the Great Escape happened at the same camp. (courtesy photo)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. - -- In 1940, Woody Woodpecker made his big screen debut, the smooth-singing Smokey Robinson was born and the average cost of a gallon of gas was 18 cents. And 1940 was the same year that Walter Douglass enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

"I just graduated from high school and it looked like we were going to get in the war," said Douglass, a 30-year retired colonel. "I told my mother and father I wanted to join the Marine Corps. That didn't pan out right away, but I did go to Randolph Field, Texas, and enlisted in the Army Air Corps."

At that time, Douglass said, there were only about 180,000 people in the Army Air Corps. And if you did join the Air Corps you were enlisting. But he always knew he would fly. Even at the age of eight he wrote a paper for school about how he was going to be a pilot and fly. He also wrote he hoped that he wouldn't get shot down. But it would be nearly four years after he enlisted before he would get the opportunity to fly. At the time, he was a new recruit just out of basic training and looking for a job.

"We didn't even have a uniform," Douglass said. "We had black and white shoes and one pair of coveralls that said Air Corps on the back. We had to wash those everyday."

So, he became a control tower operator, went to radio school at Scott Field, Ill., and was then assigned to Luke in 1941.

While working in the control tower here he watched the graduating classes walk up on stage and get their wings.

"My aim had always been to fly," Douglass said. "As I watched the graduations I told myself 'Douglass, one of these days you're going to be right there and you're going to get your wings.'"

In January 1942, the Air Corps realized they needed more pilots, navigators and bombardiers. Douglass didn't have the two years of college needed to be eligible for the pilot program, but the Air Corps had waived the policy and offered
him the chance to take the required tests.

"They said if you can pass this test then we'll take you as an aviation cadet," he said. "So I took the test and I was one of only four on the base to pass. I'm not that smart, but I guess I did something right. "The smart ones became the navigators; they didn't like that, but indeed you had to be a pretty smart guy to be a navigator. Luckily I was selected to be a pilot."

Douglass said it had been a wild guess when he told himself he would get his wings at Luke but low and behold he was sent here for advanced training. When he crossed the stage to receive his wings, he looked up at the tower and said, "I told you so."

Douglass was then sent to Bartow, Fla., to learn how to fly the P-51 Mustang.

"I couldn't have asked for a better plane," he said. "Wow, I was thrilled. We learned flying, strafing, gunnery and everything."

After completing his training, Douglass was sent to England where he flew 17 missions. When escorting the bomber groups during long-range bombing missions, Douglass said the bomber crews were glad they were along for the ride.

"The bomber pilots sure were happy to see us when we took them to the target," he said. "They would call us 'little friend' and we would call them 'big friend.'"

On June 6, 1944, D-Day, he flew his 16th and 17th missions. The first was flying high cover near Cherbourg, France, at 18,000 to 20,000 feet to prevent anything from coming in high onto the beach. The second mission was low cover where his group got to go down and get into the battle. They spotted 17 Stuka dive bombers and went to work.

"There were 48 of us and we chased them all over the sky and shot down every one of them," Douglass said. "We had chased the Stukas down into south France. By that time everyone had scattered to go after their targets."

After the fighting was over, Douglass and his element leader started home. They were getting low on fuel and due
to the weather had to fly down low enough to find the channel of France. When they got low enough to see the ground they saw lots of tracers and antiaircraft fire directed at them and realized they were over Dunkirk, many, many miles North West of Omaha Beach.

"Dunkirk was where the Germans were thinking the invasion was supposed to be," Douglas said. "So they were waiting for somebody to shoot at. And it just so happened to be me. That's when I got shot down."

Douglass bailed out of his Mustang and landed in the small town of Saint Pol sur Mer. When he came to, a German soldier was standing over him.

"When I rose up," Douglass said, "he said to me, 'für ihr der Krieg ist hertig,' for you the war is over."

He was eventually transported to Stalag Luft III in Germany, the same prison camp where the "Great Escape" was
attempted March l, just months prior to him arriving. He stayed there until mid January 1945 and was then moved to
Nuremburg due to the Russians closing in.

"I was thinking man-oh-man, I don't like this knowing that they just might shoot us," Douglass said. But the Germans complied with the Geneva Convention very well, he said "They didn't feed us too well but at least there was no torture."

General Patton's advancing troops forced the Germans to move the prisoners again and during this move Douglass and
three other prisoners snuck away and hid in a farm. They were eventually captured again but told by the commandant the next morning to head south and he let them go. As Douglass and others were being transported back home
they stopped in a small town to clean up and get new uniforms.

They later found out that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Gen. Alfred Jodl were just a few miles away in Reams, France, signing the peace treaty for Europe. The date was May 7, 1945.

Since he was a prisoner of war, Douglass was not permitted to go back into combat, so he never flew the P-51 again. He retired April 30, 1971, as the assistant deputy chief of staff of Military Airlift Command at Scott AFB, Ill.

Douglas remembers four significant events that happened during his career. He was in the control tower here at Luke when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He participated in the D-Day invasion before he was shot down. He was only a few miles down the road from Reams, France when the peace treaty for Europe was signed and he was part of the flight crew on one of the presidential aircraft and listened by radio to President Lyndon B. Johnson swearing in after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Some moments in his career that he considers most important are the liberation of France and the promotions to captain and colonel.

"The war was over in Europe," Douglass said. "So they turned all the lights on and the French brought out all the wine they had been hiding and what a night we had."