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Thursday, May 5, 2016

WWII vet's diary reveals his duty

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Harold Plunkett, 81, reflects on his days as a turret gunner in World War II.

Nearly 60 years after returning home from World War II, W. Harold Plunkett, 506 W. CR 700N., gets a far-away look while sitting at his dining room table with scrapbooks spread out in front of him. He can still picture the ball turret he sat in back when the Nazi's were the target of his gunfire.

The turret gunner originally had trained to be a radio operator in the United States Air Force. He specialized in Morse Code, but when combat called for a turret gunner, the 5-foot-6, 125-pound Plunkett was transferred to the ball turret of the plane, which he describes as a tight-fit, cramped position which required a small person who could endure seven hours in the position, capable of firing the machine guns.

"It didn't require much training. I fit in there pretty well," he said, explaining the ball turret was a very vulnerable spot in the airplane.

-Joining new crew

Having to leave his original crew was the toughest part of the transfer.

"I was broken-hearted when I was told I had to leave the crew I trained with," Plunkett said. He quickly became attached to the new crew, however, and maintained contact with everyone. Crew member David Tyner, of North Carolina, and Plunkett are the only living members of the group today.

-Plunkett makes the front page

Plunkett's photo appeared on the front page of The Brazil Daily Times Nov. 6, 1943. And rightfully so, as a look back today on microfilm from the World War II time period reflects that not only was Plunkett a hometown hero, he was one of the many other servicemen from across the nation who fought in the great war and was deserving of special recognition when making it home.

The stand-alone photo caption reads, "Staff Sergeant Willis H. Plunkett of Brazil, is on furlough after 51 flights over Africa, Sicily and Italy as turret gunner of flying fortress. He was injured in action once, but helped bring down German planes. Wears Purple Heart Medal." The big headline for that day reads, "Russians retake the city of Kiev."

It all went fast. From the time he heard the news of war announced over the radio until his homecoming that November, one thing was certain: The war changed everyone's lives.

-Hearing about Pearl Harbor

"On Sunday we were listening to 'Walgreen Hit Parade' on the radio, when the radio program was interrupted and announced that Japan had attacked at Pearl Harbor," he said, adding he had a friend serving in the Navy in Japan at the time. "So, the next day, Monday Dec. 8, 1941, I went to the recruiting office and enlisted in the military."

He remembers well the day he heard the news. As he drove into town on his way to pick up his girlfriend, he noticed a group of boys playing basketball outside of the old Pinckley Street school. All their lives were about to change and they didn't even know it. In the group were future World War II servicemen: Paul Jackson, future chief of police who later served in the Battle of the Bulge; David Fisher; Howard (Hardy) Dean; and Lefty Mead, who was later killed while in Germany.

"I went there and played it for them on the radio," Plunkett said. "They didn't know we were in war -- most were still in school."

-Diary chronicles war

He documents his war life in a diary kept during his seven months overseas, where the veteran earned a Purple Heart, a double service stripe embellished with three stars and nine bronze oak leaf clusters. He was 21 at the time and flying in B-17s -- the most powerful fighter plane of the day.

-War results in near-death experiences

"I got killed twice," he reflected.

On Monday, July 5, 1943 Plunkett writes:

"I got 'killed' today. So my crew thought. The oxygen that I breathed at high altitude is carried in an aluminum canister and a German fighter plan shot away my oxygen can.

"When the other crew members noticed that my turret wasn't moving anymore and I had quit shooting, they just mentally marked me off the list. After they looked around and saw the holes around the turret and that my canister was gone, they knew I couldn't live without oxygen. But fortunately for me, the Germans were running low on fuel and left us.

"So the crew members hurriedly got me into the radio room. I had already started to turn black. But they put me on raw oxygen and I soon started to get my color back again. So, I lived to fly another day."

His other brush with death came on Thursday, Aug. 19, 1943 when he starts off the entry the same way, "I was 'killed' again today, or so my crew thought.

"While I was firing at a plane about my 7:00 position, a fighter was coming up at our 3:00 position, who put several bullets through the middle of our plane. One 20 mm came into my turret, shattered everything and knocked me unconscious."

He goes on to explain, "One of them (crew) looked into the inspection window of my turret and all he saw was blood and black powder and saw that my heat suit was gone from around my left shoulder."

After they got him back to base, the medics found some more shrapnel that the crew couldn't get and taped him up."

-Maintaining a positive attitude

"I wasn't so bad," Plunkett remembered of the close call.

The positive attitude is reflected in several war-time photographs he keeps of himself with the trademark Plunkett smile. There are no complaints in his diary entries. He casually points out that the food was poor quality and how uncomfortable it was to sleep on the ground or in the plane at times and how homesick he could become.

Mostly, though, throughout the pages, you get a sense of patriotic duty and pride accented with much faith in God. The reader gets a feel for the morale of his crew. Mail from home meant much to Plunkett and the others. Especially when he notes in its various pages that he received a letter from "my darling wife."

He married his Staunton High School sweetheart, Betty Snyder, shortly after enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.

-Entertainment helped morale of troops

Entertainment was an important aspect of overall war-time morale, he said, pointing out the crew were able to view several movies and even got to see USO shows with a performance by Bob Hope.

Plunkett, 81, is the son of Anna Davis and W. Luther Plunkett. His three brothers, Lloyd, Donald and Robert also served their country. They have one sister, Rosalee.

-Back home in Indiana

After a period of teaching, Plunkett returned to Brazil to work at his father's feed mill. Eventually, in 1949, he started his own feed mill in Center Point. Then in 1956, he worked at Hulman Field Airport in Terre Haute as an air traffic controller, a job he would do until retirement at age 60.

"I was happy to be able to work around airplanes again," he said, smiling.

Plunkett and his wife have three grown daughters, Sharon Mishler, Debbie Brown and Peggy Gill.

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