By Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Hamilton (108th Trng. Cmd.)August 26, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - "Attention to Orders," belted out Command Sgt. Maj. Rocci DeRezza, command sergeant major of the 108th Training Command (IET), U.S. Army Reserve.
And with that, the journey to recognize a 92 year old, Army-Air Force flight engineer for his efforts during World War II finally came to an end.
On August 16th, just one day shy of the 70th anniversary of his final combat mission during the Great War, Paul Hallman Sr., a Staff Sgt. with the 454th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, Army-Air Force in 1944 was finally awarded the medals he rightfully earned.
Hallman was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, and Prisoner of War Medal, by Maj. Gen. Leslie Purser, 108th Training Command (IET) commanding general, during a ceremony held at the 108th TC Headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.
Humbled by the presentation, Hallman said he was truly blessed.
"I feel honored by all this, but you know, the true heroes didn't come back. We lost some great men that day. One was my best friend. And then there was the bombardier. He had a daughter six months old that he had never seen."
Hallman, based in Italy at the time, had flown 42 successful combat missions before that fateful August day.
On August 17, 1944, Hallman and crew set out from Italy on his 43rd bomb run to Ploesti, Romania, in a B-24J "Liberator." Their target, an oil refinery used by Hitler and the Nazis to power the immense Axis war-fighting machine.
"We had a team of two bombers and we took over lead from Col. James Gunn's plane because his radar got knocked out. His plane got hit and I saw it spiral down and crash. I was told everyone got out."
"Shortly after that, our plane took a direct hit and the whole nose was blown off. The bombardier and navigator were both killed," added Hallman.
With the engine hit and prop feathered, most of the crew managed to bail out, but Hallman and radio operator, Army-Air Force Staff Sgt., Alfred Peccia, decided to stay on and help the pilot, who was going to try and make it back to Italy.
Hallman and Peccia both manned the waist guns as the pilot struggled to fly the burning plane back to base, to no avail.
"An oxygen tank I was standing next to caught fire and exploded. I had burns on my face and hands and couldn't see!" said Hallman.
On fire, Hallman stepped back and fell out of the floor escape hatch. He managed to extinguish the flames on his suit by freefalling down then pulled the rip cord on his chute.
Hallman says he landed in a cornfield but before he could roll over to get his parachute off, was surrounded by German Soldiers. He said he was captured and eventually taken to a Romanian Hospital where he and a handful of others were treated for their injuries until they were freed by the Russian Army and returned to U.S. forces later that September.
But Hallman's story, unfortunately, doesn't end there. Before he could leave the European theater, Hallman was told by his commanding officer that he was put in for several awards, though he wasn't sure by whom. His commander also told him that if he wanted the awards he was going to have to stick around, but as he put it, "I just wanted to go home!"
It wasn't until many years later, that Hallman actually discovered that his awards had been approved, though he had no way of knowing how to get them.
That's when leaders of the community and Purser stepped in.
Purser says she first met Hallman on Veteran's Day of last year when she was attending a Freedom Breakfast.
She said Hallman approached her while talking to presiding North Carolina Governor, Pat McCrory.
"You know, I'm missing some medals. Do you know how I can get them?" asked Hallman.
Purser said, McCrory in turn asked her if she could help.
"I told him 'of course I can help with this," added Purser.
"I contacted the chief of the awards branch and they were quickly able to verify and locate the four medals he was given here today."
On hand for the ceremony, were several distinguished guests, including retired North Carolina State Senator, Bob Atwater, who along with Purser made it a personal mission to ensure Hallman was finally recognized.
Atwater says Hallman lived in the Mount Carmel community at one time, which fell in his district and also says Hallman was a pillar of that community.
"No matter what he's done, whether its in the church, the company he's worked for or the community he's lived in, he's been a real source of strength as you might imagine."
Atwater, said he had worked on this for three years and gave credit to Purser for finally being able to get this done in a matter of hours where others could not.
"It's a great testament to Maj. Gen. Purser who got this done in lightning quick order. To coin a term, he's a member of the greatest generation and if anyone deserves to be recognized, it's Hallman. He's invested so much in this country and still does today."
"The fact that this had been delayed for so many years gave a sense of urgency to everyone involved. He's a perfect example of a genuine and authentic American hero and we need examples like him now more than ever," added Atwater.
"I listened to his story and it gave me goose bumps. We're losing so many of these heroes everyday. The story he told was so relevant to the outcome of that war," said Purser
"Veterans like Hallman helped determine our destiny and shape our military. It's important that we don't forget them and that we recognize their accomplishments and achievements."
Purser added, "Those [service members] shared the same pride and discipline in their service that our Soldiers do today. They taught us that you can move on and succeed, and we need to recognize them just as we would our current Soldiers."
When asked what he would say today to those airmen's families that lost their lives that day, Hallman said, "I would cry."
"The good lord doesn't work like we think he should but he knows what's best. I say I am the most blessed man on earth!"