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Stories of heroism lost with death of every U.S. veteran
Many of us who grew up hearing World War II stories would give anything to hear them again, now that the tellers are gone.
We lost another such national treasure Sunday with the death of Willis Jones, a B-17 co-pilot who spent 13 months in Stalag Luft 1 after being shot down on his 26th mission on April 13, 1944, targeting a U-boat engine factory in Augsburg, Germany.
Willis, still wearing his World War II uniform, was a fixture at Memorial Day ceremonies and proudly appeared in the Heritage Days parade 10 days ago.
Crippled by flak and finished off by a fighter, Jones' B-17 became uncontrollable and the pilot gave the bail-out signal.
"I reached under my seat for my parachute ... and accidentally grabbed the rip cord, which opened the chute inside the plane," he told Gazette reporter Judy Hamilton in 1988. "I can tell you that a chute opened in a confined area is quite a mess ... somehow I managed to get all the silk in my arms and to get it all through that little forward escape hatch in the nose area of the plane ... I soon found myself floating down with an armful of whiteness that I wasn't sure it was going to work as a parachute."
Arriving at Stalag Luft I, Willis found a tunnel was nearly completed and an escape was to be attempted that very day.
Before the men could make their escape, however, dirt stored above a false ceiling in the barracks caused the ceiling to collapse, alerting the guards who captured the escapees, two of whom were placed in solitary on bread and water.
Many more escapes were attempted, none were successful and the camp was liberated by Russians on May 1, 1945.
Willis' wife, Lucille, whom he married two years earlier, was relieved to learn he was a prisoner of war, and saw him awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters.
Willis' character carried on to the next generation; his son, Dr. Warren Jones, was credited with saving lives as he nursed his heavily damaged Huey helicopter back to the safety of a friendly base rather than crash-landing it in territory controlled by North Vietnamese regulars.
Fortunately, Gazette columnist Walt Sehnert as well as Judy Hamilton have written numerous stories about Willis and his son, but far too many stories of heroism are lost every time we lose an American veteran, from whatever war.
Let's make sure we take time to listen when they tell their stories -- and maybe take some notes while we're at it as well.
Only by telling their stories can future generations appreciate the freedom we enjoy in our nation.