Paul Crawford’s bullet-riddled Mustang P-51 was about 3,500 feet above central China when it started filling with smoke.
He couldn’t stay in, but he couldn’t get out.
“I released the canopy,” Crawford said, looking back on that day in 1945. “They tell you to roll over onto the wing, but instead I stood up. The wind knocked me right back down.”
On his second try, he rolled, but he got his leg tangled in the seat harness. As he dangled outside the fighter plane in the 250 mph breeze, the wind beat him against the fuselage just like a dog shakes a rat.
He freed his leg and, falling sideways, saw the rear stabilizer rushing directly at him like a guillotine. “I saw that tail-fin coming at me and I thought, ‘Now I’m dead.’”
Crawford didn’t die. In a moment you’ll learn more about how he escaped.
Suffice it to say that, once his parachute opened and he landed behind Japanese lines, his troubles were far from over.
Crawford, 91, recently visited a Dunwoody social club called ROMEO — Retired Old Men Eating Out — and described his 200-mile odyssey in China, dodging Japanese troops on the way to a take-out point in the mountains.
“It was the best meeting we’ve ever had,” said Jack Miller, a youthful 80-year-old, who became friends with Crawford after they both joined the same athletic club.
Wednesday is Veterans Day, which reminds us to be grateful to all who have served, and there were veterans of Korea and Vietnam in the ROMEO gathering. But Crawford, a former Flying Tiger, was the center of attention.
Of the 16 million who served in World War II, fewer than a million survive, and 492 die each day, according to the National WWII Museum.
As a member of that dwindling cadre, Crawford carries memories that are ever more precious, and these days he’s more comfortable talking about those years, Miller said.
But Crawford, who lives in Buckhead, is quick to stipulate: “I was not a hero. I was just there.”
A native of Americus, Crawford arrived in China in 1944 as part of the U.S. Army Fourteenth Air Force, under the command of Gen. Claire Lee Chennault. The 14th was referred to as the Flying Tigers, though the original Tigers, organized as the American Volunteer Group under Chennault in 1941, disbanded in 1942, and was absorbed by the larger force.
Crawford flew 29 missions with the 14th. On his 29th, en route to attack a railroad near the Yellow River, he was shot down. His overriding regret from that moment on July 14, 1945, is that he was flying a brand-spanking-new P-51, a machine that still makes the old soldier’s eyes shine.
“There’s nothing in the world like that airplane,” Crawford said recently. “It had the power, the armor, the armaments, the maneuverability; it was quick.”
He hated to see it shot up and to watch it crash, but he avoided the tail-fin, and, with only a bump on the head, landed his first parachute jump. (Crawford said there had been no practicing with parachutes during his training.)
With the help of Communist Chinese fighters, Crawford eluded Japanese soldiers at the crash site, and traveled on foot and on horseback to a secret airstrip in the highlands.
It was near a compound owned by a wealthy, Western-educated native, who served as a go-between with U.S. troops based in the Yunnan province of China. Among the highlights of that stay on the plantation were a warm bath, clean clothes and a fried chicken dinner — all of them quite welcome after three weeks wandering in the mountains, living on rice and honey.
Crawford and others gathered at the take-out point were also introduced to Mao Tse Tung, though the Chinese leader seemed uninterested in the American soldiers. “I don’t think he gave a damn,” Crawford said. “He barely acknowledged us.”
The Southerner arrived back at the Yunnan base on Aug. 5, a day before the bombing of Hiroshima.
He went on to graduate from Georgia Tech; to marry his college sweetheart, Jean Bullard; to raise a daughter, Marcia; to work a long career in the envelope business; and enjoy some excellent fishing in Florida and South Georgia. (His wife, Jean, died in 2007, after 61 years of marriage.)
But he rarely has flown since 1945.
“They had a Mustang at Peachtree-DeKalb once,” he said, “but they wanted $3,000 to go up in it. They used to pay me $229 a month to fly one.”
He’s not interested in Bonanzas, Cessnas or Pipers.
“Once you’ve flown a Mustang, flying anything else wasn’t fun.”
A sampling of Veterans Day events in metro Atlanta:
The 11th annual Marietta Veterans Day parade. 11 a.m. Nov. 11. Free. 774 Roswell St., Marietta. Marietta’s parade will include drill teams, floats and military vehicles. High school bands and ROTC groups will also represent schools in Cobb County and Marietta. marietta.com/veterans-day-parade.
Atlanta History Center’s Veterans Day events. 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Nov. 11. Free. 130 W. Paces Ferry Road N.W., Atlanta. This annual gathering will feature a speech from Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, who received a Medal of Honor for his service in the Vietnam War. 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com/program/veterans-day-program.
Atlanta Opera’s “Soldier Songs.” 8 p.m. Nov. 11, 12 and 14; 3 p.m. Nov. 15. $44-$72. Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St. N.W., Atlanta. This multimedia performance follows a man through his youth, service in the military and life as an elder. The play is based on interviews with veterans of five wars and incorporates opera, rock music and animation. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org.
Emory University’s annual flag-raising ceremony. 10:55 a.m. Nov. 11. Free. 201 Dowman Drive, Atlanta. Emory continues its tradition of holding a military flag-raising in honor of Veterans Day. The event will be held on the Quad. 404-727-6123. emory.edu/home/events/index.html#/?i=1.