George Waddell was still in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
He didn’t have a radio at home, but he heard about the attack while visiting someone who did. At first, he had no idea what that would mean for his own life, but by 1944, Waddell was on his way to fight in World War II.
“I was 18 when I went in. I went in as a cadet, but I didn’t have any college so I washed out as a cadet, and they sent me to gunnery school,” said Waddell, who ended up serving as a tail gunner on a B-24.
He flew in 18 combat missions, but he almost didn’t make it to the war zone. After leaving the United States, the plane carrying him, other soldiers and a lot of supplies encountered a hurricane.
“The engineer told the pilot we were not going to make it. We might have enough gas to make it to the Azores,” he said. “They started dumping cargo. The plane was loaded with supplies.”
The tactic worked and prolonged the fuel supply, but it wasn’t smooth flying just yet.
The plane wasn’t equipped with all the technology available today. Pilots had little navigational equipment, and those aboard the plane were fortunate to have the navigator they did. The pilot was unable to see the airport in the Azores because they were flying above a bank of clouds, but they knew there was a mountain not too far past the airport.
“He said ‘I sure hope we are over the airport,’ ” said Waddell.
Fortunately for all of them, he was correct when making his descent.
“We came out of the clouds at the airport,” he said.
And that navigator got promoted.
Waddell’s 18 combat missions didn’t go without a hitch.
“In one of our missions, we had 200 holes in our plane and lost three engines,” he said.
However, in other missions, they had the support of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“They were our escort planes,” he said. ‘They would go with us over the Adriatic Sea as far as they could go. They were good protection.”
After the war, he returned to his home in upstate South Carolina, where he farmed for a few years. He decided to learn a trade and moved to the Aiken area where he became a pipefitter and welder at Savannah River Site, where he spent 31 years.
On Veterans Day, Waddell reflects on those whom he served with and others.
“It means a lot of me. I think many people just don’t realize what it’s all about,” he said.
Waddell still has vivid memories of people who didn’t make it home from the war. At the time he was a soldier, he was young and unmarried, and he wondered what his parents would’ve felt if he hadn’t made it home like some of those young soldiers he knew.
“My mama was real worried about me,” he said.
While Memorial Day is set aside in May to honor those who died while serving, Waddell said Veterans Day is a good day to remember them all especially the ones who didn’t come home.