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Fairmont WWII veteran receives painting from his war plane that flew missions over Europe

The American flag. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol)

Worthington native Okla “Okey” Edgell lives with his wife Arlene on a quiet street in Fairmont.

But decades ago, he was flying across Europe in the throes of World War II — a weighty past he shared with neighbors, friends and other veterans at his home Wednesday afternoon.

Although it marked the tail end of summer, bright sun gleamed overhead when Okey and Arlene stepped into their driveway, decked out in purple to commemorate the Purple Heart Okey earned fighting the SS.

Upon stepping outside, Okey found himself surrounded by familiar faces gathered together to present him a painting with a storied history.

The painting, featuring a baby in a diaper and the words “Pin Up Girl” in red and white letters, first figured on the plane Okey flew out of England in World War II.

While Okey himself was not the plane’s pilot, he was one of few soldiers on board when German soldiers began shooting into the sky, forcing its crew to crash into Europe’s mainland.

Four passengers were killed, and another four, including Okey, were badly injured and taken to prison camps.

This painful backstory is what earned Okey his Purple Heart, and why members of the community rallied behind him to provide a gift that speaks to his legacy as a veteran.

The painting was commissioned by Patrick Ryan, a community member and World War II buff who discovered Okey on a whim when researching the war.

Ryan was getting framework done in Fairmont for wartime photographs from the 1940s that he collected when he was notified that a man living nearby, Okey, flew some of the same planes Ryan had become fascinated with in recent years.

Ryan reached out to Okey and over time learned more and more about his story. Looking for a way to show his gratitude for Okey’s military service, the idea for recreating the painting was born.

The gift was presented to Okey by Capt. Francis Nwiah, who oversees recruitment for the United States Army in northern West Virginia.

Niwah was contacted by Ryan, who thought the gift would be particularly meaningful coming from a member of the military.

“I will do everything to support our veterans who have paid significantly for this nation,” Nwiah said. “It’s a great honor to do it for a decorated veteran.”

Ryan was elated to see the event come together, and to watch Okey receive the gift, which was given as a complete surprise.

“This is the best part of my day, and probably the best part of my whole month,” Ryan said. “It’s just amazing. I’m so glad that we could do something for him.”

Family, friends, neighbors and local veterans got to hear about Okey’s story and see the collection of World War II memorabilia he maintains to this day in the basement of his Fairmont home.

Susan Brown, Okey’s stepdaughter, said she has heard about Okey’s military service for years, and that it was a privilege to see it shared with the wider community.

“I’m thrilled. Absolutely thrilled,” she said. “He’s a very special guy.”

Okey’s wife Arlene said she was proud to see her husband honored by members of the community. “He’s a fabulous man,” she said.

When asked where he would hang his new painting, Okey decided it should go somewhere prominent in his home.

“I’ll put it someplace close to the fireplace,” he said.


(c) 2023 the Times West Virginian

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