Of the 16 million Americans who served their country during World War II, less than 500,000 remain alive today. On Wednesday, one of those veterans — Delaware resident Charles Allen — became the latest member of the “Greatest Generation” to become a centenarian.
Undoubtedly, those who reach the century mark have plenty of stories to tell those willing to listen, but not many 100-year-olds can say they completed a combined 31 bombing missions during WWII and the Vietnam War, and lived to tell about it.
In fact, Allen will tell you about two missions, in particular, where his life flashed before his eyes — both as a B-24 bomber pilot in WWII.
How Allen found himself in those situations originated from his love and fascination with airplanes, along with his desire to serve his country when it needed him most.
“When I was a little kid growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, I took a liking to airplanes,” he said. “At that time, I very seldom saw one, so I built model airplanes out of wood and tin. I always wanted to fly, so when I got into the service I was able to apply for that.”
The start of Allen’s 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force didn’t begin when he wanted it to as his father threw a wrench into his initial plans.
After attending business college, Allen returned to the family farm to help his father. At that time, men of his age were required to register for the draft.
“We were farming, and my dad got me a deferment that he didn’t tell me about it, so I had to wait six months (to join the military),” Allen said. “I was anxious to get in as everyone else was getting in. I wanted to get into the service.
“I remember I was unhappy with my dad, because he got me a deferment. I should have gone in earlier, but it worked out real good, considering,” he added.
Allen got his wish in August 1941, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
His time in the Army, however, was short-lived as Allen had one dream in mind — flying for his country.
“A couple weeks into my time in the service, I received an honorable discharge from the Army so I could re-enlist in the Army Air Corps, which became the Air Force after World War II,” Allen said.
Surviving in enemy territory
After graduating from the Aviation Cadet Program in 1943, Allen was assigned to the 460th Bombardment Group. After training at Chatham Army Airfield in Georgia, Allen’s group was sent overseas in January 1944 to a base in Italy.
To this day, Allen still has in his possession the original mission log sheet detailing the 14 bombing missions he co-piloted. The log contains the names of the following countries, all of which were targets: Yugoslavia, Romania, France, Hungary and Italy.
“We never just bombed a city,” Allen said. “We always had targets like fuel storage facilities, airports or manufacturing plants — anything producing stuff for the war. Our main opposition was anti-aircraft fire, which they had a lot of.”
One of the missions highlighted on Allen’s log sheet contains the following: “Missing in Action April 21, 1944.”
Allen remembers that day vividly — a day when his life was ultimately spared thanks to a group who viewed Americans as allies.
On this particular mission, Allen was co-piloting a newer B-24 that had just been delivered from the States, because his unit’s regular plane was out of service.
On their way to their initial target, overcast conditions and no radar prevented them from carrying out the planned bombing, so the crew was redirected to a target in Turnu Severin, Romania. The trouble started after the crew carried out its new mission and was returning to base in Italy.
“We got a notice that we were running low on fuel as the plane was burning too much fuel,” Allen said. “As we hit the coast of the Adriatic (Sea), we had all engines running on one tank, and it was about empty. We knew we didn’t have enough fuel to go to Italy. Rather than ditch the plane in the ocean, we decided to turn back in and bail out over land, because we thought we had a better chance of surviving.”
So, all 11 people on board bailed out over the coast of German-occupied Yugoslavia, not knowing what fate awaited them below.
The parachute trip from 12,000 feet above ground was quite the experience for Allen.
“Going down in a chute was very comfortable as we were just kind of floating along until reality set in, and we realized we were going to hit the mountains,” Allen said. “We were trained that as soon as you hit the ground, you were to hide your chute and try to get away as far as you could from the chute, because people could see where your chute was and would go there right away.”
Once on the ground, Allen and the rest of the crew wasn’t sure if they would be discovered by American allies or Germans.
“I hide in a rocky area until this voice got real close. I looked up and it was a young teenager, probably 18 years old,” Allen recalled. “He had a gun on his shoulder, and on his cap was a hammer and sickle emblem. He said, ‘Marshal Tito’s Partisans’ (National Liberation Army that sought to free Yugoslavia from Axis occupation), and I lifted up my dog tags and said ‘American.’ At that time, I knew pretty well that we were going to have a good chance of getting out because our intelligence briefed us that if you got picked up by Marshal Tito’s Partisans, they did a really good job of getting people out.”
It took over a month, but the group did exactly that for Allen and the other 10 guys.
“We stayed with them for 42 days, walking back inland through Yugoslavia and the mountains,” Allen said. “We’d walk to a safe area where we’d stay one or two days, then we would keep walking until we got to a place back inland in the mountains that had a plateau where planes could land. After 42 days, American planes came in and picked us up.”
To this day, Allen is thankful for the resistance group that helped him and his comrades escape German capture.
“They took real good care of us,” he said. “They kept us safe, and we were never hungry. We ate a lot of potatoes, mostly, but we always had something to eat.”
No rest for the weary
Just a little over a month after Allen was rescued, he found himself once again in a predicament that nearly cost him his life.
On July 6, 1944 — his 14th and what turned out to be his final bombing mission during WWII — Allen was co-piloting a B-24 destined for a target in Northern Italy, which was occupied by the Germans.
“The plane got hit real bad with anti-aircraft fire, and the number three engine got hit,” Allen recalled. “I was the co-pilot, and I was looking out the window to see what kind of damage had been done and some flak came through the windshield.”
Struck in the left shoulder, Allen recalled the pain wasn’t that bad, but the burning sensation he felt was something that he will never forget.
“The plane got hit pretty bad, but I was the only one in the plane who got hit,” he said. “Fortunately, I was leaning over looking at the number three engine at that time.”
Had he not been trying to catch a glimpse of the damage, Allen would have been sitting upright, in his normal position as co-pilot.
“The flak would have hit me directly in the chest,” he said.
After a six-week stay in the hospital, Allen was sent home. While his days protecting the world from the Axis Powers was over, his time in the service was far from through.
Upon his return to the States, Allen and his wife, Helen, whom he married on July 18, 1942, settled down together and lived the military life, one in which Allen spent the next two decades holding various titles within the Air Force.
In 1965, he got the call to once again serve his country overseas — this time in the Vietnam War as a staff officer on a B-52.
“We were part of one of the first groups that went out to Vietnam,” Allen said. “I was stationed out of Guam for two 90-day tours bombing Vietnam.”
After completing 17 missions, Allen was assigned to an additional one-year tour in Vietnam, but this time around he flew C-47s.
“We flew supply missions around Hong Kong and Singapore,” he said.
Having survived 14 bombing missions during WWII and another 17 during the Vietnam War, Allen continued to serve his country after returning home from Vietnam.
After spending time at Lockbourne Air Force Base in Columbus, Allen decided in 1971 — after 30 years in the U.S. Air Force — to hang up his uniform.
Once back to living the civilian life, something he hadn’t experienced
since 1941, Allen and his wife decided to remain in Columbus, where he sold real estate for a number of years.
“In 1979, I completely retired,” he said. “I played golf.”
Reflecting on 100 years of life
Delaware resident and U.S. Air Force veteran Charles Allen has lived through a lot over the past century. When asked the secret to living to experience his 100th birthday celebration on Wednesday, Allen said there’s no fountain of youth that he’s aware of.
“Every morning I just keep getting up,” he said.
Kidding aside, Allen said in his case, it comes down to family genes, and a little good fortune.
“When I was a kid, I remember when my mom and dad got to be 60 years old. I thought they were old and wouldn’t be here much longer,” Allen recalled. “Well, my dad lived to be 98 and my mom 89.”
Allen added two of his three siblings lived long lives as well. He had a brother live to be 92, and a sister who lived to be 84.
In addition to being blessed with good genes, Allen said looking back on his life, he did whatever he could to keep stress at a minimum.
“I’ve kept a positive attitude on most things,” he said. “I didn’t worry about too many things. I try to look at the good side of life and enjoy it. I enjoy my friends, my work with the church, and I like it very much here (at Willow Brook at Delaware Run).”
When one lives to be 100, life, unfortunately, has moments of struggle and heartbreak.
Allen’s life consisted of both.
During his 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force, Allen saw combat as a bomber pilot in both World War II and the Vietnam War. He dodged near-death experiences on several occasions.
In the early 1960s, between his tours in Italy and Vietnam, Allen survived a battle with an enemy that had invaded his body.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” he said. “When the doctor told me I had prostate cancer and it was very aggressive, I didn’t worry about it. I had it, and we were going to treat it.”
As for heartbreak, Allen has had to lay to rest both his wife of nearly 60 years, Helen, and their only child.
“My wife died in 2001, and my son died in 2010,” Allen said.
Nowadays, Allen is thankful to still have a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren left to share his time and memories with.