Fair-goers took a break from the heat to honor those who have served and are serving in the United States military during Sunday afternoon’s Military Appreciation Day ceremony.
The Mathewson Exhibition Center seats were full of veterans, members of the military, military families, and supportive citizens while the floor was filled with dozens of motorcycles ridden by Patriot Guard Riders. The ceremony featured Brig. Gen. James Raymer, U.S. Army Engineer School commandant at Fort Leonard Wood, Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets IV, Commander 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, and Maj. Gen. Stephen L. Danner, Adjutant General of the Missouri National Guard.
The three men each spoke for a few minutes, including thanking those who have served, those who are still serving, and the friends and family who support the U.S. military, but the keynote speech came from Missourian Dale Mitchell, a World War II veteran and prisoner of war.
“As a World War II veteran and prisoner of war, Dale is a true inspiration,” Missouri Director of Agriculture Richard Fordyce said as he introduced Mitchell. “As a fellow Bethany resident, Dale has been a mentor to me, and I can’t wait for him to share his incredible story with us today.”
Mitchell spoke for nearly an hour about his experiences in WWII, recalling minor details with complete clarity as if the events had happened yesterday.
Mitchell was assigned to the 419th Squadron of the 301st Bomb Group with the 15th Army Air Force after he enlisted at age 18. He was a crew member of a B-17 Flying Fortress as the bottom ball turret gunner.
He said he and his crew quickly bonded, and his pilot, a college graduate not much older than Mitchell, emphasized the importance of working as a team.
“He said none of us were any more important than the other,” Mitchell said. “He pointed his finger at me and said ‘If you don’t protect the underneath of that plane, we’ll get shot down.’ He went to the tail gunner and told him the same thing. And then he said, ‘If I don’t fly that plane well, we’ll go down.’ And so we took our training very, very seriously.”
He and his crew took pride in their “bright, shiny” plane, which they flew all over Europe and North Africa. While on a mission, their plane was shot at, hitting the gas tank. He and his fellow airmen parachuted out of the plane and they found themselves in Austria, where they were soon taken to an Air Force prisoner of war camp near Berlin, Germany.
Mitchell detailed his time in the POW camp, and told the story of how he and his fellow prisoners were rescued April 2, 1945, just days before the war ended. A major came to the camp and spoke with some of the prisoners, telling them to be prepared the next day.
“He said, ‘Tomorrow morning, I want all of you guys flat on your stomach because,’ he said, ‘my tanks are right over that hill, and if it’s a real clear day, you’ll hear them start their engines. By 10 o’clock, you won’t be a prisoner anymore,’” Mitchell recalled. “Well, we didn’t know about that, but boy the next morning it was a sun-shiny day. It was Patton’s third army. I don’t know that we heard them start their engines, but those tanks came rolling over that hill, and the Germans had set up (something to stop) them, and they just ran over those Germans. …
“One of the men, he knew the fence (around the prison) was high voltage, and he took his gun and shot out the transformer, eliminating the electricity. Then he run his tank through that wire fence, raised up his hood and said, ‘Boys, you’re out of prison. You’re not prisoners anymore.’ He said, ‘I just made you a gate.’ Some of the bravest guys I’ve seen were in Patton’s third army.”
While he endured awful conditions, he said being a foreign prisoner made him realize he was a “citizen of one of the greatest nations on this earth.”
While the ceremony’s focus was on the military, Mitchell was a fitting choice for the fair event for another reason — he grew up on a farm near Green City and he worked for the USDA Soil Conservation Service until 1985 when he retired after 34 years. He still raises cattle on his farm.
During his time speaking, Tibbets talked about his grandfather, Paul Tibbets Jr., who was part of the group who dropped the atomic bomb. As he ended his speech, he thanked everyone at the center for their support of the military.
“Those who are serving now, veterans who have served in the past, I tell you, thank you for your service,” Tibbets said. “And also to those folks in the room who represent the communities around who serve us every day and help us get our jobs done: Our airmen, our soldiers, our sailors, our marines will do what we ask them to do, but we do it so much better, so much better with your support.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1482 or @NicoleRCooke.