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In a frame of World War II memorabilia he usually keeps behind a couch in his den, James Marshall Boswell points to a picture of an American bomber spiraling helplessly toward the ground.
“This is a B-17 with one wing shot off going upside down,” Boswell says. “All of the radio operators had a camera in the bottom of the plane, and somebody took a picture of that from some plane up above. I doubt those guys got out.”
Boswell, a Wilson native who celebrates his 100th birthday today, easily recalls the details of his early life, from Depression-era Wilson to his days as World War II pilot.
Boswell is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal, two of the most highly regarded decorations for an aviator.
‘THEY NEVER HAD ANY SHORTAGE OF SHELLS’
“I was a pilot flying B-17 bombers, the old Flying Fortress, four-engine, heavy bombardment,” Boswell said. “I’ve been mighty lucky to have made it this far.”
Boswell was working for the FBI in Washington when Japan attacked the United States.
“Pearl Harbor came along in ’41, and I just felt like it was my duty to go,” Boswell said.
Boswell signed up to take an aviation cadet test to join the Army Air Corps.
“I went down there and took it, and they swore me in that day,” Boswell said.
“Before the war, you had to be a college graduate just about to be a pilot. When the war came along, all you needed was people, thousands of them,” Boswell said. “We took a brand new B-17 over, picked it up in Savannah, Georgia, and took it up to Newfoundland and from Newfoundland went to the Azores and then across North Africa up to Italy with it.”
Boswell spent three years in the service during the war flying missions in Italy, France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Greece, Germany and Austria.
“I flew 51 missions,” Boswell said. “You had to fly 50 to come home, but some of the worst targets and long distances they counted double. We were based in Italy.”
The big, lumbering B-17s, loaded down with 500-pound bombs, a crew of four officers, six enlisted men and 13 50-caliber machine guns usually faced bursts of antiaircraft fire as they approached their targets.
“They never had any shortage of shells,” Boswell said. “That sky would be black before we got there, and it would be black while we were there, and it would be black after we left. They had radar-controlled guns and knew right where our altitude was.”
If a burst happened to rip through the wing, it could penetrate a gas tank up and blow the whole plane up.
“We only had two boys that got hit,” Boswell said. “Nobody got hit bad. The bombardier was the one that got hit, Joe Henderson. It blew part of the Plexiglas nose out of the plane and cut him on the face. Another one was a big Polish boy, a waist gunner in the back, and it went through his parachute harness and all that and did just barely touch him. I doubt if he even got a Purple Heart out of it.”
If they were able to survive the mission, the planes often came back shot up and scarred.
“I’ve seen patches on top of patches,” Boswell said. “They’d have them ready to go the next morning. If the engine was messed up, they could hang another one on it overnight. They kept those things rolling.”
When the 8th Air Force bombed Regensburg to target the German aircraft industry on Aug. 17, 1943, there were horrific losses.
“They lost 60 bombers up there that day. Most of them had 10 men on them. That’s 600 men that went down that day,” Boswell said. “That 8th Air Force took a beating over there.”
Early in the war in Europe, B-17 crews were expected to complete 21 missions before being eligible to return to the U.S.
“They were lucky to make 21 missions back then because the Germans had the very best of fighters overhead,” Boswell said.
A sight all bomber crews hated to see was a group of German Messerschmidt 109 fighter planes diving in from overhead.
“You just hoped that your escorting fighters would get there and get rid of them,” Boswell said.
Boswell said his bombers were frequently protected by red tailed P-51s flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, piloted by African-Americans.
“We had black Tuskegee Airmen there,” Bowell said. “They were flying three times what we could fly. Up above us. When you saw them coming, if you were getting toward a target, you would see all these specks way up in the sky somewhere, you were hoping it was them coming and not some German fighters coming.”
Boswell credited the Red Tails for his crews’ safe returns.
“They had a joke they would tell about them,” Boswell said. “One of them would radio to his buddies higher up. They would say, ‘Get down here. I’ve got three Me 109s cornered down here.’ They had some good fighters.”
Boswell met many of the Tuskegee Airmen who had protected the bombers.
“They were all just the nicest guys I have ever known,” Boswell said. “They had a reputation. They never lost a bomber they were escorting to a German fighter. They couldn’t keep you from getting shot down by anti-aircraft. There was nothing they could do about that. They had to stay out of it themselves, you know, to keep from going down themselves. I kept in contact with several of them for years after we got out, Christmas cards and things like that.”
Boswell and his three brothers served their country.
“The youngest was Harvey, and he got into the Merchant Marine,” Boswell said. “He was too young to get into anything else. He was in the Merchant Marine until he got hurt in the Pacific, got paralyzed from the waist down, a paraplegic.”
Then there was brother George, who served with the 8th and 9th Air Forces in Europe during the war.
“He was over there about two years and came home and got killed in an automobile wreck less than 30 days after he got home,” Boswell said. “He was 24 when he got hurt, and he was 74 when he died. He spent 50 years in a wheelchair.”
Boswell’s brother Delmar became a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne.
“I reckon that my brother Delmar saw more action in the 82nd Airborne because they dropped into North Africa, then he dropped to Italy, then he dropped into Normandy, then he dropped into Holland for the Battle of the Bulge,” Boswell said. “He survived all of that, came out, stayed out a while, went back in, and they sent him to officer candidate school. They didn’t have any paratroops in Korea back then and he ended up over there as a regular platoon leader. He only lasted seven days over there before a mortar shell banged him up pretty badly, tore up his hands and legs real bad, but he survived it.”
When Boswell returned from the war, he and a friend, Ray Morgan, opened a grocery store, the Super Food Center, on Herring Avenue.
“That was before we had any supermarkets here in Wilson,” Boswell said. “The only chain market we had was the A&P down on Goldsboro, a little wooden floor store building. The new one, my daddy built the building, and we rented it from him. Our store was a lot prettier than any other one here in Wilson back at that time.”
“We lived in a rented house,” Boswell said. “When it snowed, the curtain would move, and the snow would seep in through the windowpanes. We wrapped up every winter night. Mama would heat a blanket, and we would run across the hall into that one bedroom. We had four boys and two big double beds, and she would wrap us up, and the next morning when you woke up, your nose felt like a block of ice.”
People had to do what they had to do, Boswell remembers. His family had a big chicken yard and a big garden.
“My family grew up across the railroad tracks over there with poor whites and blacks. My dad worked in a factory. I went to work in that factory building old farm wagons, Hackney Wagon Co. down on Gold Street where the social services is now,” Boswell said. “I went to work at $12 a week, 30 cents an hour for 40 hours a week doing hard manual labor. Well, they raised me $1 a week to $13. I thought I was on my way to prosperity.”
When a friend offered him a job at a drive-in for $15 a week, Boswell took it.
That’s about the time he married his wife, Alma Mozelle Woodall Boswell. They were married for 77 years until her death in 2014.
“We got married on $15 a week and rented an apartment over there on Broad Street and bought groceries. We didn’t have a car. We rode a bicycle and walked,” Boswell said. “We paid bills and all just like everybody else on $15 a week, if you can believe that. That was in 1938. Her birthday was the 13th of March, and we got married that day on her birthday, the day she was 19 years old.”
Boswell said people like that had to learn to make a living.
“A lot of wealthy ones from the other side of town, they went to college, but out there on our side of town, all those people up and down several blocks that I knew, I don’t remember any of them ever went to college to tell you the truth. We had to make a living, and we started families. You were used to hard work. All our parents came out of the country. My mother and dad, I bet, never got over the fifth grade. They could read and write, and her mother and dad were about the same way,” Boswell said.
First Christian Church has organized a surprise birthday sing on the lawn at 11 a.m. today at 2202 Somerset Drive in Wilson. Parishioners wanted to pay him back for the many years of birthday wishes he has given.
Boswell said he just doesn’t go for all that publicity.
He has been a Mason and a Shriner for more than 60 years.
“I am still driving myself, but I’m going to have to stop before too much longer,” Boswell said. “I’ve been fighting glaucoma for 25 years. The time is getting short. I know that. I’m going to have to hang up my wheels.”
He has given some thought about what he would like on his tombstone.
“If I ever had something on it, I just wish it could be that ‘the world is a little bit better place because I passed through it,’” Boswell said.
But since Boswell is still healthy, is frequently heard whistling a happy tune and has a handshake stronger than a man half his age, it’s probably going to be a long while before anyone needs to put chisel to granite on his behalf.