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Memorial Day: A 101-year-old North Syracuse WWII vet recalls crewmates who didn’t survive

In this 2016 photo, John Shott of North Syracuse touches the rivets on a B-25 bomber, the same type of aircraft he was shot down in during World War II. He took a ride on the plane at the Syracuse Airshow at Hancock International Airport on June 11, 2016. (Dennis Nett | [email protected] TNS)

It’s been 79 years since John Shott was the sole survivor of a five-man B-25 bomber crew shot down in action in the Pacific in the final months of World War II.

His memories of that time remain clear.

“Mostly I remember all my crew members, all my crew were killed, except me,” said Shott, who lives in North Syracuse and will celebrate his 102nd birthday on July 4. “They were killed and I was saved, and I still don’t know why. I think about that a lot.”

And that, Shott says, explains why he thinks it’s important to recall those who made that sacrifice, especially as the nation observes Memorial Day. The holiday is dedicated to those who died during wartime service.

“I remember the hardships that the servicemen and servicewomen went through,” he said. “All those people who left their homes to go to those faraway places, and some who never came back. And the civilians back home, what they went through too.

“People don’t understand what really went on then, so we should make sure we remember.”

Shott was a radioman and gunner on that mission to bomb Japanese positions on the Chinese island of Formosa (now named Taiwan) in May 1945. He said he survived because he was positioned in the tail of the plane, which broke off during the impact.

He suffered three broken ribs and was knocked out. When he came to he went in search of his comrades.

“It was a about quarter mile, half a mile away, and when I saw it (the remains of the plane), I knew,” he said. “I knew there was no way they survived.”

The crew members killed were 2nd Lt. J.T. Lackey, of Tyler, Texas, pilot; 2nd Lt. Carl I. Middlebrook Jr., of Waco, Texas, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. Leslie H. Anderson, of Stuttgart, Ark., navigator; and Cpl. William J. Kozak, of Philadelphia, engineer-gunner.

After three days alone, Shott was captured by Japanese soldiers. He spent four months in horrible conditions in a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines, finally getting his release after the Japanese surrender in August.

Shott, who grew up near Pittsburgh, had left his job in a steel mill to join the U.S. Army Air Corps during the war. He flew 12 successful missions against the Japanese aboard a B-25 before being shot down.

During their time together, the crew members made agreements with each other in case any of them didn’t survive. Kozak, the crewman from Philadelphia, promised to visit Shott’s mother if he didn’t make it back. In return, Shott agreed to visit Kozak’s wife, Helen.

“I was very friendly with him (Kozak) and so I went to see her,” Shott said. “And then I married her.”

They moved to Syracuse, where Shott worked for American Airlines, first at Amboy Airport and later serving as operations manager at Hancock Airport. He retired in 1983. His marriage to Helen lasted until she passed away in 2000.

In June of 2016, Shott’s daughter, Lois Burns, arranged for him to fly in a B-25, the same type of plane he served on in the Pacific, during the Syracuse Airshow at Hancock Airport.

Over the years, Shott has frequently marched in the North Syracuse Memorial Day parade, and still shows up once a week to meet old friends at the VFW Post in North Syracuse.

He was interviewed in recent years for a forthcoming documentary called “The Boys that Oppenheimer Brought Back Home,” produced by Syracuse filmmakers Eric Roberts and Andrea Reeves. It tells the story of veterans whose lives may have been saved by the dropping of the atomic bombs developed by J. Robert Oppenheimer (the subject of the 2024 Academy-award winning film, “Oppenheimer.”)

In that interview, he recounts his time in the POW camp, and talks about returning home.

“You don’t know how anybody feels getting back to the states,” he said in the interview. “Then he paused and seemed to choke up a bit. “Dammit this is the greatest country in the world. I hear the Star-spangled Banner now and I get tears in my eyes.”

Here are some excerpts from the film interview, shot by videographer Richard Caragiovanni:

Don Cazentre writes for and The Post-Standard. Reach him at [email protected], or follow him at, on Twitter or Facebook.

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