On May 10, 1944, a 19-year-old ball turret gunner from Longview, Texas, sat in the rear of a B-24 aircraft, just 17 days away from his 20th birthday. He and nine other crewmen were flying out of Italy toward Austria, the last of 1,000 places in their squadron to leave the base. The young gunner, Puett Willcox, should have been afraid of what lay ahead, but instead he sat stunned, speechless as the aircraft quickly gained altitude. He had seen a vision, one that would shape the rest of his life.
“We were rolling down the runway, and there were four of us in the back of the airplane sitting up against the bulkhead. Ten feet behind us were two windows open. There wasn’t any glass in them, but there were machine guns sticking out of them. “Halfway down the runway, Jesus appeared about 10 feet away between these windows. I have a hard time describing this because it was so beautiful. His robe was a beautiful white. His eyes were so soothing. I don’t remember if they were green or red or blue or what, just soothing. And he said, ‘Something terrible is going to happen, but I’m going to take care of you.’ And it seemed time slowed way down. It seemed like this was 10 or 15 minutes, but it takes less than 10 or 15 seconds to get off the ground in those takeoff runs. And then he was gone.”
Six hours later, after 29 minutes of air combat, German fire slammed into Willcox’s aircraft at 28,000 feet. The plane split in half and exploded while he was still putting on his parachute, knocking him unconscious. Willcox woke up upside down, hanging off the wing of the plane, with control cables and ammunition tangled around his legs, spiraling toward the ground at hundreds of miles an hour. He was the last of his crew out of the aircraft. After several seconds of free falling, Willcox kicked loose, released his parachute and landed, only to be taken captive by German soldiers and declared a prisoner of war.
Willcox would remain a POW for 357 days.
Today, Willcox, now 92, is believed to be the last surviving World War II POW in East Texas. In October, Rep. Louie Gohmert honored Willcox for his service with a special medal presentation at Buckner Westminster Place, where Willcox is a resident. Willcox received nine different awards for service in WWII and the Korean War, including the Purple Heart and an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol in his honor.
Though visibly touched by the accolades, Willcox remains exceedingly humble, just a man who served because he needed to. Because he wanted to.
“My dad told me when I was young, ‘Son, you’re going to have a lot of bad things happen to you in your life, and you’re going to have a lot of good things,’” Willcox said. “‘Don’t dwell on the bad things. Forget them. Just remember the good things.’ So that’s the way I do.”
As a POW, Willcox lost 82 pounds. He lived on sauerkraut “soup,” buckets filled with water and dehydrated sauerkraut the men divided amongst themselves. The day the British Second Army liberated Willcox and his fellow prisoners, they were 90 days into a 700-mile death march toward Brussels. He’d seen hundreds of men die from starvation, cold, fatigue and brutality. Even so, Willcox was never afraid.
“I remembered Jesus’ eyes and his voice telling me he was going to take care of me,” Willcox said. “I never was frightened or scared the whole time. I’m still not and haven’t been since, frightened or scared of anything. The Lord is still taking care of me.”
Willcox didn’t harbor resentment against his captors either. He saw everyone as a child of God, regardless of the letters on their uniform. No matter how much horror he witnessed, no matter how much cruelty, he chose to forgive.
“I remember the Bible saying, ‘Love your enemy as yourself,’ or something like that,” Willcox said. “And to forgive your enemy, so that’s what I do. When they were treating me bad, I’d forgive them.”
When he finally returned home to Longview in June 1945, Willcox had only one thing on his mind: reuniting with his sweetheart, Dorris Jean Foster. She was working at the local Sears Roebuck at the time, so Willcox, wearing his uniform, took a cab to meet her there soon after arriving home.
“I got right up behind her, she turned around and almost passed out, but I caught her,” Willcox laughed. “We got her squared away and all these employees were looking over rails and watching everything.”
Four months later, on Oct. 14, 1945, they married at the preacher’s house behind Mobberly Baptist Church. They were married 63 years, three months and three days.
“But who’s counting?” smiled Willcox, his eyes still shining with mischief as he talked about his late bride. “We had a very, very loving life. We spent a lot of time separated because the Air Force and the jobs I had. She raised the kids and worked, usually at a jewelry counter or Sears Roebuck.”
After WWII, Willcox re-enlisted in the Air Force and served a total of 25 years. He and Jean had three children and six grandchildren. They moved back to Longview from California in 2004 to be closer to their youngest grandchildren. Today, Willcox shares his experiences freely.
“I am 92 years young, and I believe it is of vast importance for veterans to share their stories so that people know our individual experiences and what happened during those times of war,” Willcox said. “Many young children don’t have a formal education on these wars in their history books. There is one history book I looked through that only had one sentence devoted to WWII. Other books have a page, maybe two that discuss the war.”
When Willcox received his medals at the October ceremony, tears streamed down his face as American Legion members presented the very colors he fought to defend. The standing-room-only crowd gave him a standing ovation and Gohmert, himself a former captain in the U.S. Army, saluted the honoree. One local mom even brought her homeschooled children to witness the occasion.
“We feel privileged to honor Puett at Buckner Westminster Place,” said Wes Wells, executive director of Buckner Westminster Place. “This ceremony could just as easily be held inside the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Puett’s story is so dynamic and compelling that it should be made into a movie. He’s truly a hero.”
Willcox addressed the crowd, sharing stories with poignant clarity, pausing between sentences to get the details just right. His words were simple and without airs, the man himself the humble star. As Willcox looked for the right closing remarks, the microphone shook in his hands, his eyes watered and his voice choked. Finally, after dotting his eyes with a Kleenex, he said in 10 words what he’d experienced in a lifetime.
“Teach your children history. And teach them about the Lord.”