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74 years later, a WWII fighter pilot remembers those he served with, and those he flew against

Posted at 7:53 PM, Nov 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-11 23:40:51-05

CATOOSA, Okla. — Every veteran's war story is different. They all feature a unique perspective of their experience in combat. Lt. Col. James Carl's story of WWII is no exception. He saw the entire campaign from the air, and to this day remembers each of the 86 combat missions he flew, and exactly how he felt being in the skies over France.

Carl's war story begins on "a date which will live in infamy". On December 7, 1941, he didn't know where Pearl Harbor was. "We didn't know until the next day", he recalls. But he knew his country needed him.

Carl was going to college in Miami, Oklahoma, washing airplanes at night for the British flying school. 20 days after the attack in the middle of the Pacific, he enlisted. He remembers almost being rejected from the service because of a heart murmur, and pleading to be able to fly for his nation.

"I told this doctor how I had been living, washing airplanes at night, going to school," Carl recalls. "And he said, 'I don't believe I've ever come across anybody who wanted a service like you.' He says, 'I'm going to pass you', and he passed me."

In 1944, Carl found himself in Scotland, training in the P-51 Mustang.

"It was outstanding, really," Carl remembers. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven."

Carl was in the 354th fighter group, 356th fighter squadron. They didn't land in France until 19 days after the D-Day invasion, but Carl saw everything from the air. He flew over Omaha Beach, and to this day two things still stick with him: the ships just off the shore, and the men dying on the shore.

"The whole channel was full of ships... full of ships," Carl said. As for what was happening on shore, "well, a bunch of people getting killed... We lost a ton of people there." He trails off when he remembers what he watched thousands of feet below.

Carl flew 86 combat missions over the course of the war, surviving countless dogfights. But when he talks about the planes he shot down, he doesn't talk about the pilots - only the planes.

"My group shot down 701 airplanes in 18 months," Carl said. "You're not bragging. Sometimes I wish I had never shot my guns."

When you ask Carl about his toughest dogfight, he remembers one in particular, with a pilot who got the better of him left and right. But Carl lived to tell the story.

"He outflew me, and outflew me, and outflew me," Carl said. "I thought I was shot, but he never hit me... He pulled up, and I finally got in behind him. I would have liked to meet that guy. He was a heck of a pilot."

In that fight, Carl says he only got one chance.

"He could outfly me, but not outshoot me," Carl said, tissue in-hand. "I wish I would have missed him. I wish I would have had a malfunction of my guns."

Over the course of the war, Carl and his group would stay in France where Germans had once occupied. He learned from people who met both sides that the only difference between them "were the uniforms".

"It's tough," Carl said. "Some things you forget. Some days you never forget."

Even though Carl flew nearly 100 missions, his body was never hit. But after one mission late in the war, he came back with an unbearable pain in his back. The doctor told him he had been flying with a collapsed lung.

Five years later, Carl tried to sign back up to fly in the Korean War. In his words, he was told "son, you ain't going no place. You're going home... You've done enough." He never got to fly in the war, but still believes he could have.

At 98 years old, Carl still fits into his WWII uniform, eyes beaming with the same pride he felt when he was 17, the same pride he had when he first climbed in to the P-51 Mustang, and the same pride he had in each combat mission he flew.

"Heck they didn't give it to me, I had it. I still got it strong as it was back then," Carl said. "You never do enough."

Carl would go on to earn the French Legion of Honor medal at 97.

"I don't feel like I deserve this," he said about the honor. "If anybody deserves it, it's the friends I lost."

This Veterans Day, he remembers the sacrifice his fellow soldiers made. He reflects on his friends - the ones who made it home, and the ones who didn't. And he remembers those he flew against, who earned his eternal respect as fellow pilots.

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