James Russo Jr., an 88-year-old World War II veteran, said seeing a replica of his old Piper L-4 Grasshopper warplane Monday felt like “meeting an old friend.”
A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Russo had the dangerous task of being an artillery spotter pilot during WWII, where he directed artillery fire onto his enemies.
Russo and about 10 other World War II veterans from the capital area spent the nation’s 235th birthday admiring vintage warplanes at a private hangar at Metro Airport.
The pilots of the World War II planes — in town to fly in the annual Fourth of July mock battle with the USS Kidd — stopped at PAI Aero hanger to meet with the veterans and let them have a look at the planes.
Russo said he’d logged more than 400 hours on the Grasshopper before he was shot down in the Philippines toward the end of the war.
“There were two bursts of small arms fire, and the plane went down,” Russo recalled.
Russo lost consciousness after hitting his head in the plane, but a military officer on board pulled him out of the aircraft after it hit the ground.
“He got about 30 feet away and then the plane blew up,” Russo said.
He spent the next year and a half recovering from his injuries, he said.
Most of the veterans at the hangar were members of the Red Stick chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War.
Commander of the group Beth Dawson, whose father was a WWII veteran POW, said there are about 20 ex-POWS in the capital region.
Among them was Philip Haley, a Japanese POW, who braved the almost-100-degree weather to take pictures of the familiar planes.
Haley, a former Marine, was a POW for three years, three months and nine days until he was freed by a Russian attack.
“It was the scariest time of my life,” he said. “I didn’t know what scared was before that.”
Ed Capron, 90, said he enjoys being around other veterans because he understands what they’ve been through.
Capron, a former Army sergeant, was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and held captive by Germans between December 1944 and April 1945.
“I abandoned my vehicle and took off into the woods. There was a guy trying to hit me with a machine gun, but I dodged him,” he said.
Capron remembers trying to play dead, but feeling the sharp edge of a German soldier’s bayonet, marking the beginning of his capture.
During that time he attempted to break free five times, but was thwarted each time.
Capron was finally freed after being mistaken for a British soldier and sent to England, he said.
Now Capron said he collects WWII memorabilia. He helps veterans and families of veterans reconnect with others they may have served with.
“You have to be a vet to understand a vet,” Capron said. “The friendships you make are different than civilian friendships.”