At age 96, Leonard Dowling doesn’t really like to talk about his World War II experiences, but he admits that the war somehow creeps into his thoughts nearly every day.
“I think about it quite a bit, but I try not to any more than I have to,” said Dowling, a U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who endured a grueling test of survival at the tender age of 19 as a turret-gunner on a B-24 Liberator when his plane was blown out of the sky on a mission over Germany in 1944.
This week, however, the war has been top-of-mind for the DeLand resident, who has been honored by dozens of his friends and fellow veterans in what they call long overdue recognition of his heroism as a staff sergeant in the 8th Army Air Corps, 389th Bomber Squadron.
They presented him with a shadow box display of his military honors at a ceremony at American Legion Post 6 and another reception at Brian’s Bar-B-Q in DeLand.
“We recognize in Leonard a trait that has always characterized military service: honor, courage and commitment to his country,” Mel Rollins, 75, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and advocate for local veterans issues, told those gathered at the restaurant. “Leonard is the epitome of that.”
On that harrowing day in 1944, however, survival was the first order of business.
As fire and smoke consumed the B-24 aircraft as it plunged from an altitude of 23,000 feet, Dowling and his crewmates scrambled for their parachutes. In his haste, Dowling put on his chute upside down, a mistake that only became apparent when he pulled the rip-cord as he hurtled toward the ground.
“Some people believe that I actually came down above the parachute,” Dowling said, his lips curving into a sly smile. “I had to straighten them out on that. When the time came to jump, it was too late to change it, but it worked out all right.”
Dowling made a “soft landing” in a tree that likely saved his life, but that wasn’t the end of his troubles. Soon, he was captured by the Germans, who marched him with other POWs on a 700-mile, 87-day trek across Germany and Poland. The ordeal ended when the prisoners were liberated by U.S. Army troops.
“Pure hell,” Dowling said of the march. “Really cold; half-starved. We were sleeping in a barn, when we could get into a barn or in the woods or a field when we couldn’t.”
For food, the prisoners lived on the occasional boiled potato, rutabaga or crust of bread that tasted like a cross between sawdust and wheat, Dowling recalled.
After growing up on a farm in Valdosta, Ga., Dowling sometimes found that the barns offered another dining option.
“Being an old country boy, I’d find a bag of cow feed and I filled up my sack with that,” he said. “It was beet pulp and at home we had cows, so I knew what beet pulp was.”
‘Just a plain old country boy’
Despite the hardships, Dowling never felt hopeless about his fate, he said.
“I figured I was an American soldier and I was better than anything Germany had,” he said. “Whatever they put on me I was man enough to take, even though I was a boy.”
When he returned to the states, Dowling went back to the work that he had started before the war, as painter in an auto-body repair shop in Valdosta. He married his hometown sweetheart, Lois, in 1968 and the couple moved to DeLand in 1974, where he continued to work in the auto-parts business.
Dowling was left with a lingering reminder of his B-24 experience, in the form of shards of clear plastic from the disintegrated turret bubble that remained lodged in his neck and shoulders for some 15 years.
Yet he consistently downplayed his military service, even giving away his 389th Air Medal to a friend after he returned from the war. Rollins located another of the original medals that was included in the shadow box that Dowling was presented this week.
So rarely did Dowling discuss his war experiences that his wife of 53 years is only now is hearing details of his sacrifice.
“He doesn’t like attention, doesn’t like the limelight,” Lois said. “He’s just a plain old country boy.”
This week, however, others are stepping up to honor his service.
“I feel humbled that there were men like that to defend our country and to join up when we were at world war,” said Mike Frey, 81, of DeLand, another U.S. Marine Corps veteran who attended this week’s gathering. “I have nothing but appreciation, kindness and admiration.”
Dowling’s service represents the sacrifices of many other veterans, Rollins said.
“He is the face of the military veteran,” Rollins said. “We have a true American hero, a patriot. He did it for America, not for anything else but America.”
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