Befriending a Mustang pilot and ace

In this week's MyPast, Kevin Korterud tells his story of a friendship with Bob
“Punchy” Powell, a World War 2 pilot and ace...

“Promise me you will go …”

Those were the last words I heard in person from Bob “Punchy” Powell, WW2 Mustang pilot and ace. He said that to me at the 2015 Atlanta PDK Good Neighbor Day. Time goes by so quick it seems like yesterday.

The previous year in 2014 I participated with Bob for both the Warbirds In Review as well as the Saturday night panel discussion. I had known Bob for a number of years and was very excited to be part of both events.

Bob “Punchy” Powell with a replica of his P-51

In 2015 Bob participated in our Atlanta Warbird Weekend which featured a number of P-51 Mustangs. His family members Betsy, Nancy, Robert and friend Ken had brought Bob out to the warbird area of the ramp to see us and I was very happy to catch up with him. Compared to our interactions in 2014, it was apparent that the loss of his wife Betty and our universal nemesis the clock was, as is with all of us, starting to have an impact on him. When he was leaving to go home while wearing his WW2 fighter pilot jacket and cap (now located in the Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson Terminal T CAF exhibit), he turned around to me and put his hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes.

“I know Kevin you sometimes work in England…on your next trip I want to you to promise me you will go to my old base at Bodney.” I responded, “Bob, this is a promise I will surely keep. We have talked so much about it I feel like I have already been there.” Bob smiled, turned around and went home.

In the months that followed Bob went west to meet Betty as well as his squadron mates from the 352nd Fighter Group that are gone to us except for their memory Fast forward two years later to 2017. I’m on a flight that is descending early morning through bright July sunshine into London Heathrow airport. My daughter Caroline had spent the past month west of London in Exeter at a summer study program, and my wife Jenny and I were on separate flights going over to pick her up. I was going over a day earlier than my wife -- the plan being to fly a Spitfire at Biggin Hill (story to come) the day after my arrival as well as to keep my promise to Bob on the day of my arrival. In June I was in contact with Alex Walsh who serves as the unofficial UK division of the Dixie Wing given his status as an Oshkosh P-51 rider. As the Bodney base near Norwich is under the control of the UK Ministry Of Defense (MOD), Alex worked with local historians Colin Spinks and Bill Espie to gain access to the location of the Bodney airfield. As a child, Bill would see the Bob Powell and other pilots of the 352nd Fighter Group depart and sometimes return back to Bodney -- he and Colin are walking encyclopedias of UK fighter bases, especially Bodney.

As I was starting to feel the effects of a morning tea with two creams to ward off jet lag, I zoomed thru customs to meet Alex just outside the terminal doors for the trip to Bodney. As we raced up the M11 towards Bodney, we passed by other fighter bases including North Weald and Duxford, both which are active today with warbird activity. After reading BlueNoser Tales book on the exploits of the 352nd fighter group about a million times as well as all of the dialogs with Bob over the years, I was left wondering what it would be like to really be there.

Bob’s P-51 at Bodney.

Arriving outside the gates of the Bodney MOD facility, we met Colin, Bill as well as other historians Brian and Austin who had driven to meet us. Across the B1108 road was the monument that I had seen so many pictures of for the 352nd Fighter Group. At that moment all of the dialogs with Bob as well as the books, pictures and other reference material started to take on three dimensions. Beyond the monument stretched to the horizon the fields and hedgerows that comprised Bob’s former base. No longer constrained in two dimensions, I started to place myself into a space when Bob and many other young men who arrived to fight for freedom in P-47s and P-51s.

Travelling up the road a bit, we made a right turn onto a gravel track that formed the perimeter road of the tower facility and living quarters. And there it was, the Bodney control tower (below) still looking quite stout despite the years, a collision with a P-51 on D-Day and overgrowth that Colin was waging war against to reveal more of the structure.

Looking out from the control tower structure (right), the runways are all gone being replaced with the wages of peace found in farmers’ crops. But you can still make out the general runway area as well as see to the northwest a field where Bob did a deadstick landing in a P-51. The ground crew raced to the spot thinking Bob had perished but due to his endless luck he greeted their arrival; by then his P-51 was reduced to flaming rubble.

Colin and Bill took us around to see the living quarters where Bob and his squadron-mates lived during their time at Bodney. Using surplus bricks from the control tower, they had built a shelter and fireplace chimney (right) to keep them warm during the cold days in England -- pretty much every month but July our team told me jokingly. Colin and Bill pointed out other existing facilities as well as where the P-47s and then P-51s were parked along the road we came in on. After a short while Bill spoke “…let’s go see where Bob’s plane was parked.”

During WW2 fighter planes crossed the paved B1108 road that led to Bodney to park aircraft on the south side of the field. I had studied the picture of Bob’s replacement P-51D parked on a gravel hardstand next to a row of trees. Bill took us to the actual dispersal area where Bob’s plane was parked. I spoke up and shared “ I have spent time around the CAF Dixie Wing’s P-51 Red Nose, let’s find his tie downs”. After a quick walking search we found a tie down ring. I then paced off what I knew to be the distance between the tail and wing tie down mounts on the CAF; in short order we found the remaining tie downs just jutting out of the scrub grass and gravel. The feeling to be in the same place that Bob took his own personal war to freedom in a P-51 was indescribable. I picked up a few stones from the tie downs to take back to Bob’ family and we returned to revisit the control tower.

Bill and Brian took us on a tour of the first and second floors; despite some wear and tear the overall structure remains in decent shape. They then took us to the second floor ledge (right) where the squadron leaders and staff would await the return of their aircraft from another day of battle over Germany. Bill, Brian, Colin and Alex then proceeded down to the first floor to see other rooms and left me on the second story ledge of the control tower.

A light breeze started to kick up in what was a completely still idyllic English afternoon. And that’s when it happened.

As I was looking out towards the runway I felt a pressure on my shoulders. It could have been them slumping from jetlag, the breeze that kicked up or one of any other factors. But it felt different -- almost as if someone was there with their hands on my shoulders. I turned around to look behind me but there was no one there -- just the beautiful fields of England awaiting sunset like so many times on late WW2 afternoons when the sound of aircraft engines filled the skies.

I clambered down the stairs of the control tower and went outside to the waiting cars. Our next stop would be some refreshments at a local pub frequented by 352nd fighter pilots where Alex and I would give our thanks to Colin, Bill, Brian and Austin for their efforts.

As we started west on the B1108 towards the pub, I took one look back in the rear window to take one last look at the control tower, wondering what was the force that was pressing against my shoulders -- fatigue, the breeze or something else. I thought for a moment that it could have very well been Bob once again placing his hands on my shoulders; this time to thank me for keeping my promise to go to Bodney…

…which I did…

Tune in to MyPast next week to hear more of Kevin's incredible story

Read part 2 of Kevin's story here!