Tag Archives: World War II

Honoring our history at Ramstein AB

By Maj. Tony Wickman
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

It isn’t every day, or even every week, that an Airman gets the opportunity to interact with living, breathing history. It’s even rarer when that history is part of a watershed moment that changed the face of the world.

At Ramstein Air Base, Germany, that is exactly what I was privileged to do. I got to interact with men who participated in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, as well as an aircraft that flew them.

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Freedom: A beautiful thing

by Senior Airman Mariah Tolbert
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

120606-F-XX000-010SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. — “I was pretty young with all this but I was probably, at first, more revengeful than I should have been. When the occasion arose, I did not give the Germans very much of a chance. I took it out on them. I may have been wrong but I guess I was very vengeful so I didn’t give them a break, but I overcame that,” explained retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harry Pawlik.

From concentration camp survivor to fighter pilot in the world’s greatest Air Force, Pawlik has turned what would be a horrific experience into a life that was unimaginable to him nearly 74 years ago.

Pawlik was born in Poland Dec. 19, 1929, but that is just the beginning of his story.

On Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the world was forever changed, and for Pawlik, who was nearly 10 years old, life became a whirlwind journey.

The 1939 invasion resulted in Pawlik being separated from his family, never to see them again or really remember them. He explained at some point during World War II, he suffered a head injury from a piece of shrapnel, resulting in some memory loss.

“When they took me on that train, that’s when I lost my family. Never to be seen again,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, the train was stopped and the SS took over. They took us to a concentration camp — to Mauthausen, in Austria.”

After being separated from his family, Pawlik was immediately placed into several slave labor and concentration camps. For the next five years, he moved around Europe, forced to work under extreme conditions.

120103-F-YC840-020“We weren’t treated very well and one of the big things I know is if it hadn’t been for the older people, (the younger ones) wouldn’t have survived,” Pawlik said. “They did everything they could to help and that’s one of the reasons I now admire and support anything similar to what I went through.”

Prisoners, including Pawlik, were denied open access to bathrooms, water and clothing, and lived off small rations of potatoes, cabbage and beef or bean soup. They were expected to work long, hard hours and if they got sick or couldn’t work, the prisoners were killed.

Pawlik reminisced about many things he witnessed in concentration camps.

“It was called the Todesstiege — the Staircase of Death,” he explained. “They had people six abreast carrying 40 to 50 pound granite slabs up the steps to build the fence. You can imagine, with the condition the prisoners were in, what it was like. Most of the people were killed on those steps. They didn’t even have a chance.”

In the winter of 1944, things took a turn for the better.

While held in a concentration camp near Belgium, he and other prisoners were freed by a contingent of Polish forces with General Patton’s 3rd Army and 11th Armored Division. From here, he connected with the 11th AD and learned to speak English from the soldiers.

“Of course being rescued by the American Army was a super thing,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be picked up. You can imagine there were many of us in the same boat, and I was one of the lucky ones who survived. I was treated well and given a new life to look forward to.”

In Dec. 1944, Pawlik got his first taste of combat when the 11th AD engaged the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge. By default, Pawlik became a 14-year-old American soldier, a Freedom Fighter, serving alongside U.S. forces.

He tells his friends and family that fighting against the Germans gave him an opportunity to rise up and fight those who took away his freedom, innocence and family.

“I realized we were on opposite sides,” he explained. “They were doing their job and I was doing my job. Of course, I didn’t agree with everything they did. But, that was their business.”

After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and several other conflicts, Pawlik moved to Vienna, Austria, with a friend who was assigned to the 505th Military Police. Here, Pawlik was an invaluable resource to the unit he worked with by serving as an interpreter for the International Patrol.

Pawlik soon made it known that he wanted to come to the United States.

“Europe was not for me,” he said. “It was devastated. I had no people left, no family, no anything. As soon as I learned things about America, I made plans and did everything I could to get there, and I had help.”

There were more than 2 million applicants wanting to come to the United States in the summer of 1947. However, with Pawlik’s connections and recommendations, he was moved to the head of the list and received approval from six different countries in less than two months.

At the age of 17, he arrived in New York Harbor nearly three months later with just two suitcases and $120 in his pocket.

“We pulled into New York Harbor at night,” he explained. “When we were getting in, I asked who was in charge if I could stay on deck and see the lights of New York. I took a rope and I tied myself to a pole on the deck so I wouldn’t be blown away. I saw the Statue of Liberty, the beautiful lady with that flame. It was quite a moment for me.”

After graduating Albemarle High School, N.C., in 1950, a local businessman named Chuck Daniels, paid for Pawlik’s first two years of college at the University of North Carolina.

During his time in college, Pawlik was selected as the Outstanding Junior Air Force ROTC Cadet in the Nation and received the General Hap Arnold Silver Medal. He was inducted into three honor societies, all on top of being a co-captain of the university’s soccer and wrestling teams and working several jobs.

After becoming a U.S. citizen in July 1953 and graduating University of North Carolina in 1954, Pawlik commissioned into the Air Force.

“I wanted to pay the country back for being so great and nice to me,” he said. “I didn’t have much money or education, and I wanted to start out making something of myself. And of course, they gave me a flying job, and I loved flying.”

Throughout his career, Pawlik flew T-28s, T-34s, T-33s, B-47, B-52s, F-105s and F-111 aircraft. Overall, he flew 101 missions over North Vietnam, 21 over Laos, and 33 other missions and was hit by enemy fire seven different times.

Pawlik says that his story is not about being a prisoner of war; it’s about his first taste of freedom after being held captive and what those experiences have done for him.

“I owe freedom and the chance for a new life to this great nation,” Pawlik explained. “Back then, the idea of freedom, to me, was a wonderful thing. It really was. And all these years later, it still is. Freedom is still just a beautiful thing.”

PHOTO 1: Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Harry Pawlik, center, and his team pose together after earning first place in a bombing competition in Upper Heyford, England, in 1975. Pawlik is a concentration camp survivor who joined the Air Force after gaining citizenship. (Courtesy photo)

PHOTO 2: U.S. Air Force retired Lt. Col. Harry Pawlik reviews a speech written in his honor at his home in Greenville, N.C., Jan. 3, 2013. Pawlik, a World War II concentration camp survivor, recalled several obstacles from the time he was captured by Nazi forces at the age of 10, to the day he graduated from the Naval War College during a recent interview. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aubrey White)

Doolittle Raiders: real superheroes

By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

Looking around the auditorium, legends fill the room. A Tuskegee Airman subtly takes his seat in the crowd, and Medal of Honor recipient George “Bud” Day arrives in his wheelchair. Hundreds have come to honor three men standing onstage – the Doolittle Raiders.

Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Lt. Col. Ed Saylor and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, all three Doolittle Raiders, received much recognition during their last official reunion, April 17-20, 2013, on the Northwest Florida coast. 

During this handful of days, thousands of people, young and old, came out to show their support.

Three Doolittle Raiders

The Doolittle Raiders started with 80 Airmen in their unit, but 71 years later, only four remain, the youngest being in his early 90s.

These Raiders did something extraordinary April 18, 1942 – they delivered the first blow to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Who won the World Series 71 years ago? For that matter, who won the Super Bowl a few years ago? Seventy-one years is a long time. Things that seem important in the moment, but are forgotten easily, rarely make for impactful moments to be written in the history books of our children and our children’s children. But an event whose impact can be lived today through a country’s freedom is something few can say they’ve been part of. 

The Doolittle Raiders can say this. All 80 of them. And America hasn’t forgotten it.

I can say this with confidence. For four days, the Raiders were treated like the heroes they are.  People lined walls by the hundreds, waiting in line up to two hours just to shake a Raider’s hand and to get an autograph. Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base Airmen filled auditoriums in hopes to ask these Raiders a question. 

The same question was asked throughout the week. What was going through your mind knowing you’re going to take off on a mission you may not return from?

Though the responses varied slightly, the message was consistent – their only thought the mission. The feeling of fright fell to the wayside, and they focused on their task at hand – send a message to Japan that we can hurt them at home.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Under the command of then Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, 80 men flew 16 aircraft off a carrier in the Pacific, dropping bombs on oil storage facilities, factory areas and military installations.

When news of the raid reached Americans, spirits rose through the roof. The raid was considered a huge psychological win.

Many things have changed during the past 71 years. Our freedom is not one of those things. 


Watching folks interact with the Raiders reminds me of how folks would react to meeting Superman. Children jump at the chance to take a picture with a Raider, prodding at Mom and Dad until they get their face time with one of the heroes. 

World War II veterans don their old but pristine uniforms. Cut in front of a lady who’s in line to get an autograph from a Raider, and your health is at risk – I learned this while maneuvering through the line to interview folks. Not good.

As an Airman, it’s heartwarming to see how those before me are treated. It hasn’t always been this way for those who have served. Pull aside any person wearing a “Vietnam” ball cap, and they’ll tell you that firsthand. However, first they will thank you for your service, since few have done the same to them.

Knowing that because of men like Cole, Saylor and Thatcher, I have an Air Force to serve in and freedom to enjoy … well to me … hero doesn’t do them justice. All 80 of them.

Aim high, Raiders. Fly, fight, win.

Watch the Doolittle Raiders reunion video on the Air Force’s BlueTube page on YouYube.

PHOTO: (top) From right, retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Staff Sgt. David Thatcher and Lt. Col. Ed Saylor, Doolittle Raiders, stand before the aircraft they used in World War II’s Doolittle Raid, April 20, 2013 at the Destin Airport. The men were attending their final reunion together, as they are only three of the four living Raiders. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri)
(bottom) David Thatcher, a staff sergeant during the Doolittle Raid, smiles with pride as he listens to a speaker talk about the Doolittle Raiders, April 20, 2013 in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. This was the final dinner of the Doolittle Raiders’ last reunion. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri)


“Belle:” An ageless beauty

By Tech. Sgt. Nick Kurtz
Defense Media Activity

Master Sgt J.T. Lock, Senior Airman Zach Lopez and I travelled to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to shoot some TV news stories at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. This piece is set in the restoration backshop, where a group made up almost entirely of volunteers is restoring what is perhaps the most famous plane in Air Force history.

This was an amazing trip and a fantastic learning experience for all of us. We wanted to try a different style of storytelling than we were used to, drawing inspiration from many of the wonderful videos we’ve seen on Vimeo. Two videos in particular that really inspired me for this piece were Coffer (by Lost & Found Films) and Shinya Kimura @ Chabott Engineering (by Henrik Hansen). Also, pretty much everything by the folks at California is a Place.

I hope you enjoy this piece, and I hope it sparks an interest for you in military history. I know working on it did for me. If you’d like to visit the Air Force Museum, you can take a virtual tour online at nationalmuseum.af.mil/virtualtour/index.asp


Video: As a retired aircraft mechanic, Roger has always loved airplanes. But he’s never met one like her. She’s a timeless symbol of World War II, and she’s come to him for help. She’s seen better days, and desperately needs his tender hands and passionate heart to help restore her to her former glory. This is the story of Roger Brigner, his love affair with “Belle,” and the lasting legacy their relationship will leave behind.

Our veterans, my heroes

By Col. George Farfour
90th Missile Wing vice commander

As we approach Nov. 11, Veterans Day, I am reminded more readily that those of us wearing the uniform have a special bond with those who have worn the uniform — our veterans. We share an identity that transcends any differences we may have. We unite in a duty to serve and sacrifice for our great nation, to ensure liberty and freedom continues to have a solid foundation in America as the beacon of hope for the world. I submit for your consideration the story below which occurred earlier in my career. Remembering this story helps frame for me, on a personal level, our obligation to our veterans. I hope it does for you as well.

After an uneventful visit to the base barber shop, I thought I would kill some time in what had promised to be an uneventful day. I decided to visit the clothing sales store — not to buy anything, but just to browse around.

Upon entering, I circled around toward the book section to see what was new. As I picked up a copy of some book, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an older gentleman, perhaps 70, struggling to pick out some merchandise. I paid closer attention and saw he was having trouble reading the tags.

Not wanting to appear patronizing, I just watched a while, not offering any assistance. As time progressed and he made no headway in his search, I felt something inside tell me to help. Maybe it was the small Purple Heart pin on his hat that motivated me, I really don’t know. Slowly, I moved toward him and asked if I could help him find something.

I was relieved when he turned and pleasantly said, “Yes, I can’t seem to find the American Defense Service Medal ribbon.” Immediately, I noticed a sheet of paper organized in lists in one hand and ribbons in the other. He was obviously reconstructing his old ribbons and medals for display or wear.

We worked through the list together, talking as we went. He told me how he was finally going to get all of his medals together and put them in a shadow box on the wall for his grandchildren. He had recently received word that he was awarded several medals and decorations from World War II that were forgotten as he was a medic assigned to another unit. The list outlined awards and decorations from World War II and Korea.

As we double checked the list, he explained what each attachment meant. “This arrowhead means an amphibious assault landing — went in on the first wave at Normandy. This Combat Infantryman’s Badge means I was in continuous combat with the enemy for 30 days in a row. We got this one and the Combat Medic’s Badge. This is a new one, the Prisoner of War Medal. Didn’t have that one when I was a POW. This one here, we all got for going to defend South Korea in 1950.”

He didn’t brag, he just stated matter-of-factly what they all meant.

In the course of our conversation, he learned I was an Air Force officer. From then on, he addressed me as “Sir.”

He acted glad that I’d helped, and was even more appreciative when I asked the clerk to run a copy of the “order of precedence” ribbon chart for him to take home. As he walked to the counter to pay for his ribbons and badges, I told him I was honored to help him. He replied, “Thank you, sir.” I thought it was odd for a man of 70 to be calling me sir, but I guess that’s just the type of man he is.

As I walked toward my car, my thoughts turned to the hundreds of injured soldiers he must have helped, the faces he must have looked into and reassured as bombs fell around them and bullets whizzed by, the helplessness he must have felt as he watched someone’s son, husband, father and brother die in his arms. The great exhilarations of battle, the fear of death he faced each day, all swirled in my head. Each time his country called, he was there, ready to do what had to be done. I owe him — we all owe him, and all those like him — for what we have today. This world is not perfect, but it is closer due to their sacrifice.

From the beaches of Normandy to the hills of Korea, he served his country with pride and, from the number of awards, with great distinction. There are many veterans out there with a similar story. Whether it is the jungles of New Guinea, the deserts of Africa, Kuwait or Iraq that their stories highlight, the frigid cold of a Korea or an Afghanistan winter or the rainy season in the Mekong Delta, they all have done this country a great service. When we think of war, we tend to think most often of the dead, but Veterans Day is a day to also remember all those who served their country. Gen. George S. Patton said it best in a post-World War II speech: “Everyone always talks about the heroic dead, well damn it, there’s a lot of heroic alive ones out there, too!”

We see those “heroic alive ones” every day. Perhaps it’s a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, a sticker on a car, a pin on a suit, a Purple Heart license plate, an American Legion shirt, or maybe it’s your dad, grandpa, brother, sister, uncle or just a close friend. If you see one of these “heroic alive ones,” go over and shake their hand just to say, “Thank you.” It’s a small gesture, but a meaningful one. Their greatest pleasure, or payoff so to speak, is the freedom we still have, due in large part to their sacrifice and example.

I met a hero. And though I haven’t been asked to do what he did, I’m ready, when my country needs me. Meeting him, seeing his example and accomplishments, strengthened my resolve and boosted my pride. Some people say there are no heroes left, our kids can’t look up to anyone. Well, I say they’re blind. Heroes are everywhere … you just have to look.

I met one in clothing sales.