It's wonderful to see so many here today in honor and support of the 303rd bomber group. We should first begin by remembering all of those who could not be with us today. Although many are not here for this final reunion, I know that in spirit, at least, the Hell's Angel's are here, to the last man.
From the first mission to St. Nazaire, France to the final flight of the 303rd, mission number 364, into Czechoslovakia, the Hell's Angels were a force to be reckoned with in European skies. For nearly three years the 303rd bomber group braved the flak to deliver strategic air strikes to Axis positions with deadly accuracy.
Tom Brokaw defines "the greatest generation" as American citizens who came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modem America.
Masters of the Air chronicles the story of the U.S. Eighth Air Force in its sprawling, authoritative narrative of the "largest aerial striking force in the war." The Eighth arrived in England in 1942 to engage in "a new kind of warfare": unescorted "high-altitude strategic bombing." While destroying Germany's war-making capacity, the Eighth Air Force members had a greater chance of dying than ground troops. In 1943 an American bomber crewman stood only a one-in-five chance of surviving his tour of duty. The Eighth suffered 26,000 combat deaths, a 12.3% fatality rate topped only by submarine crews. A diverse lot included celebrities like the actors Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable and anonymous fliers like 21-year-old Lt. Chuck Yeager.
And there was 23 year old Second Lieutenant TJ Cornyn. Flying with the Jack Rose crew, Lt. Cornyn flew 26 missions starting October 7, 1944 and ending January 13, 1945. After being captured as POW, my dad was liberated by Patton's army at the end of April 1945.
Conditions at Stalag 13d, where POWs stayed for three months, were deplorable. The barracks, originally built to house delegates to the Nazi party gatherings had recently been inhabited by Italian POWs, who left them filthy. There was no room to exercise, no supplies, nothing to eat out of, and practically nothing to eat, in as much as no Red Cross food parcels were available upon the American's arrival. The German rations consisted of 300 grams of bread, 250 grams of potatoes, some dehydrated vegetables and a little margarine.
After the first week, sugar was not to be had, and soon the margarine supply was exhausted. After three weeks, in answer to an urgent request, 4000 Red Cross parcels arrived from Dulag Luft. Shortly thereafter, the Swiss came to make arrangements for sending parcels in an American convoy. Soon Red Cross parcels began to arrive in GI trucks.
Sanitation was lamentable. The camp was infested with lice, fleas and bed bugs. Three thousand men, each with only two filthy German blankets, slept on the bare floors. Since many men were afflicted with diarrhea, the can had an insufficient capacity and men perforce soiled the floor. Showers were available once every two weeks. The barracks were not heated. Only 200 kilograms of coal was provided for cooking. Morale dropped to its lowest ebb, but Col. Darr H. Alkire succeeded in maintaining discipline.
At 1700 hours on 3 April 1945, the Americans received notice that they were to evacuate the Nurnberg camp and march to Stalag 7a, Moosburg. At this point, the POWs took over the organization of the march. They submitted to the German Commander plans stipulating that in return for preserving order they were to have full control of the column and to march no more than 20 kilometers a day. The Germans accepted. On April 4, with each POW in possession of a food parcel, 10,000 Allied POWs began the march.
While the column was passing a freight marshalling yard near the highway, some P-47s dive-bombed the yard. Two Americans and one Briton were killed and three men were seriously wounded. On the following day, the column laid out a large replica of an American Air Corps insignia on the road with an arrow pointing in the direction of the march. Thereafter the column was never strafed. It proceeded to Neumarkt, to Bersheim, where 4500 Red Cross parcels were delivered by truck; then to Mulhauser, where more parcels were delivered.
On April 9, the column reached the Danube, which Col. Alkire flatly refused to cross, since it meant exceeding the 20-kilometer a day limit. With his refusal, the Germans lost complete control of the march and POWs began to drop out of the column almost at will. The guards, intimidated by the rapid advance of the American Army, made no serious attempt to stop the disintegration. The main body of the column reached Stalag 7a on 20 April, 1945.
Your success and service throughout World War Two stands as a shining example for all of those pilots who follow in your footsteps. In a time before laser-guided targeting, advanced radar, many times even without radios, B-17 bomber pilots were an essential and devastating weapon against the Nazis.
No doubt when you all peer into the cockpit of a modern plane, you have to suppress a laugh at the sight of so many lights, and gadgets, and computer screens. The planes you flew didn't have the luxurious amenities of some of our modem aircraft, and the bombs certainly didn't guide themselves.
That is not to say that being a pilot today is easy, but rather to say that airmen of your generation held a special connection to their bombers that may be lost on the younger generations. I've heard from many members of the 303rd stories about the connection they felt with their plane and the rest of their crew. You were more than a team, you were a band of brothers in your own right.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates that more than the famous nose-art which you proudly painted on your bombers. With names like "Liberty Run," "Knockout Dropper," "Flak Wolf," "Queenie," "Ragged But Right," "Shoo Shoo Baby," the famous "Thunderbird," and the squadron's namesake, the "Hell's Angels," you demonstrated a great pride in your fellow crew, your plane, and your service. I think you all flew with a certain swagger, if that is possible, that defined your Bomber Group and highlighted your courage, your patriotism, and your determination to defeat one of the greatest evils the world has ever known.
Today, technology has changed some of the required skills for members of the Air Force, but the essential ingredients for a bomber crew are still the same: dedication, patriotism, and bravery.
I have had the opportunity to visit Iraq and look into the faces of our young men and women fighting for freedom. In their eyes, I see your legacy: the courage, strength, and honor which has been handed down to every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine by the generation that preceded them, dating back to the "Greatest Generation."
You should all be proud of your remarkable service and the indelible mark you have left on this country. You have earned the respect of all of your fellow countrymen, and more directly, of your children and grandchildren.
I know that I can speak for all of the sons and daughters of the 303rd Bomber Group in saying: You brought liberty to a continent in fear, you brought peace to a world divided, you brought an end to a force of evil, and you brought to your children a legacy of courage and self-sacrifice that will always guide us.
It has been my distinct honor to have been able to be an honorary member of the 303rd Bomber Group. I particularly appreciate the opportunity to be here today to mark the final, capstone reunion of the group.
Today we should celebrate the exemplary service you all provided to America, and to the entire world. Today we should all reflect back on the last 65 years and take great pride in the accomplishments of the 303rd.
But today we must confess to mixed emotions. We remember with fondness the countless brave airmen that never returned home from Europe, and those that otherwise could not be with us today. Their sacrifices will never be forgotten, and their memories will be forever honored here at the Nation's World War Two Memorial, and at similar sites across the country.
It is also fitting that we all meet now, less than a week after the 60th anniversary of the United States Air Force. You flew as a part of the Army Air Corps, and were one of the first examples of the incredible strength and importance of air power. As such, you are among the founding fathers of the modern day Air Force. The courageous work of today's airmen is a reflection of the bravery and strength which you all first brought to the skies as part of the Air Corps.
Today we take for granted the role of air power in combat. We sometimes forget that World War Two solidified the importance of air supremacy. The ability to make bombing runs to key tactical positions behind enemy lines provided critical support that helped break the backs of opposing military forces, allowing our soldiers to make significant gains on the ground. And countless stories from prison camp survivors start the same way: "I knew the Americans were coming when I heard the planes."
The United States Air Force maintains today that same reputation as the first sign of liberty for those in need. Your work throughout Europe laid the groundwork for everything the Air Force stands for today. We all owe you a great debt of gratitude — one which can never be fully repaid.
Although this year will mark the final reunion of the 303rd bomber group, I know that the lasting friendships forged by a bond of common experience and common purpose are unbreakable. That's what happens when you are united against such evil, that's what it takes to be a part of a bomber crew, and that's what it means to have served in the 303rd.
While there may never again be a group like the 303rd , every airman that has followed, and will follow after you, will carry in him your legacy. And through their service, the world will witness the lasting memory and legacy of the Army Air Corps and the Hell's Angels.