The superheroes of Jim Wetzel’s youth were the men who flew the flying machines.
Aviation was still in its early years when it captured Wetzel’s attention.
“I was always fascinated by airplanes. I built models,” he said.
And when companies such as Shell would bring pilots into town, he was there.
“It was unusual,” said Wetzel, who had his sights set on the Army Air Corps as a teenager. “It was an exciting time, and pilots were our heroes.”
After graduating high school, Wetzel signed up for the Army Reserves, but his parents wouldn’t give their permission for him to join the Air Corps. He went to the University of Illinois, and in June 1942, he was called to active duty. He went to basic training and was on the track as a combat engineer.
“I found out once you were in the service, you could transfer so I transferred into the Air Corps,” he said.
He trained on Piper Cub aircraft in Oklahoma.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said.
During his training, he learned a few maneuvers that he never got to try out anywhere else, such as corkscrews and other things you can’t do on a B-29. Wetzel flew 23 missions over Japan on a B-29.
“On a bombing run, you go in and get the hell out of there,” he said.
Wetzel wasn’t the only member of his family who served during World War II. His two brothers also served. One of them was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, and the other served in the Signal Corps.
The war was tough on his parents who didn’t want their son flying planes.
The few times any of them were able to come home on leave during the war were hard on his parents as they said their goodbyes.
“They thought it could be the last goodbyes,” he said.
After the war, Wetzel returned to Illinois and graduated from college. He became an engineer, but he soon realized it wasn’t the career for him. One thing he was good at in high school was debate.
“People who debate become lawyers,” he said.
He went to law school and became a patent attorney in Chicago. He retired in 1995 and moved to the Aiken area in 2000 to be closer to his son.
Wetzel said Veterans Day means more to him the older he becomes.
When he returned from World War II, everyone he knew had some experience with the war, but now many have forgotten or just don’t know, he said.
“I appreciate Veterans Day from the standpoint that I believed in what I was doing then and I believe now it was the right thing at the time,” he said.