Donald Betts had just avoided the brunt of fire from German fighter planes when he spotted another large group of fighters spread out across the sky up ahead.
It was 1944, and he was in a bomber flying over Europe. Betts was a waist-gunner with the U.S. Army Air Corps, a long way from his home in Pennsylvania.
Betts reached the radio operator. He told him he had no ammunition left. So the crew’s plan was to fly straight at the fighters and jump out at the last minute.
As they got closer, the planes ahead gave a recognition signal. They were U.S. planes on a mission in northern Italy. Another close call for Betts.
On the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Betts, 99, reminisces from his St. Petersburg assisted-living facility about his 51 B-17 bomber missions. About two weeks before the anniversary, Betts claimed yet another harrowing victory: recovering from COVID-19.
“I was proud I was able to do something,” Betts said of his service.
Betts enlisted on Sept. 16, 1942, and left the military on Oct. 13, 1945, as a staff sergeant. At the war’s end, he was back stateside serving as a gunnery instructor. He later returned to work in Pennsylvania for his former employer, a candy and sundries wholesaler, where he did everything from processing orders to making sales and deliveries until he was 80, according to his great-nephew, Joe Piemonte.
Piemonte and his sister, Theresa Piemonte, who both live in Tampa Bay, learned more growing up about Betts’ work at the wholesaler than they learned about his war stories.
He probably felt his sacrifice during the war wasn’t as great as others’, they suppose, particularly those fighting on the ground. He didn’t open up until he was in his 70s, they said, about the time Joe Piemonte entered the Air Force.
People were afraid to ask him what the war was like when he came back, Betts said. He knew all about the tragedies. How a gunner went out on a mission and disappeared. How some lost their lives on the first mission, others on the last.
He survived the war by luck, he said, and it’s important to remember the war’s anniversary for all those who were lost.
About 325,000 U.S. World War II veterans are expected to be alive by the end of this month, according to projections from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
And Betts recently survived another close call. After noticing that he was losing weight rapidly, he was taken to the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System on July 30, where he tested positive for COVID-19.
“We kept telling him, you know, you’ve been through worse, you’re gonna pull through this,” Theresa Piemonte said.
On Aug. 13, Betts was treated to a birthday surprise at the hospital with balloons, a “Happy Birthday” banner and a poster with several photos of a B-17 bomber, Joe Piemonte said. His family even sang to him via teleconference. He was released back to his apartment on Aug. 17, after testing negative for the virus.
Betts has inspired Joe Piemonte, not just through his military service, but through his dedication to his family. Betts took care of Joe and Theresa Piemonte’s grandmother when she was widowed and had Alzhiemer’s disease, Joe Piemonte said. He now watches over their mother, who lives in his assisted-living facility and also has Alzheimer’s.
“I mean, he’s certainly a hero in my eyes,” Joe Piemonte said.
Before he enlisted, Betts’ mother asked him not to request a job that involved flying, he said. He recalled saying he would honor her wishes.
But when he graduated from armament school, he was asked to be a flyer.
“I said, ’Well, if you’re asking me, I’ll say yes, but I’m not asking for it,’” he said in an interview last week.
Betts said he had no fear of flying at the time, nor of being shot at, which he admits was kind of crazy.
His crew shared the same sentiment. When they went out to bomb German ball bearing and aircraft factories and oil refineries, they sang riffs of songs with lyrics such as: “Oh what a beautiful morning. Oh what a beautiful day. What a day to go bombing. Soon we’ll be on our way.”
Betts said he was glad he didn’t have to do any fire bombings on cities.
He recounts his tales more frequently these days to family members hoping to learn more about their World War II veteran, including the tale of his last mission.
Betts already had served two tours when he signed up for one more mission to fly deep into northern Germany from Italy, through Poland. Crew members trained for the worst-case scenario: not having enough gas to get back.
They were prepared to parachute out over what was then Yugoslavia and hope they got picked up by friendly forces.
Luckily for Betts, he got to fly in a newer B-17 model with gas tanks that allowed them to make it back home.
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