FORT STEWART, Ga. -- On April 11, 1944, the "Kansas City Kitty", a B-24 Liberator bomber assigned to the 566th Bombardment Squadron of the 8th Army Air Force out of Hethel, England, was shot down by enemy aircraft over Germany during World War II.
On February 23, nearly 74 years later, Edward H. Mims was presented the Purple Heart Medal for the wounds he received in the crashing bomber. He was 20 years old that fateful day; he's now 83 and living in The Villages -- a retirement community roughly an hour northwest of Orlando -- with his wife, Sandi.
"I'm thankful that I'm here," Mims said. "It was unbelievable that I was spared."
Mims was the top turret gunner on the bomber, serving alongside 10 men. Seven men, including Mims, bailed out of the aircraft after it was hit by enemy fighter fire. One man's parachute did not open. Mims and the surviving five men were captured and held as prisoners of war in Stalag 17B in Austria. He spent 390 days in the camp, where 4,000 others were held. Mims was liberated by U.S. forces on May 3, 1945, after enduring a westward 300-mile march after the stalag was evacuated in the face of oncoming Soviet forces encroaching from the east. Being a POW "wasn't a picnic," Mims said.
"It was something I didn't want to go through," he said. "But most of us managed."
Gene Parent, a military veteran and resident of The Villages, and Mrs. Mims were instrumental in securing Mims' Purple Heart.
"We had to follow procedures to make a request to change military documents to include all military medals not yet awarded to him for World War II action in Europe," said Parent during the Purple Heart Medal ceremony held in the Villages' Eisenhower Recreation Center. "After filling out all the paperwork…(he was) denied the Purple Heart because the review board said they could not be sure his injures were sustained by enemy action. You see, his military records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire back in 1973."
It took seven years of hard work and social media sleuthing to ensure Mims was awarded the medal he deserved.
"There was enough eye witness documentation to show that Sgt. Mims received injuries from the fire that went up through his top turret position and burned his face, head, and hands," Parent said.
It also took the support of the Trump administration, Mrs. Mims said.
"I am overwhelmed and have abundant joy and appreciation that my husband can be honored the way he should be honored," she said.
Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield garrison command team Col. Jason Wolter and Command Sgt. Maj. Marty Conroy presented the Purple Heart to Mims in the community's Eisenhower Recreation Center. It was a fitting location for the ceremony, with its museum vibe, showcasing artifacts from throughout the nation's military history.
"This is long overdue," Col. Wolter said. "Thank you for your service and sacrifice."
Although long overdue, Mrs. Mims said her husband still endures the unseen wounds the war left behind.
"He has post-traumatic stress disorder," she said. "He has nightmares, continual nightmares, where he is in the plane. And he'll wake me and he says 'would you please see if we're on land or in the sky.' It's an everlasting effect. For so long, he kept it in, didn't want to share it with his family. They kept on saying 'Ed, our children need to know what you and others have done for our county. Talk about it.' And he began to talk about."
Mims started to open up about his service about eight years ago, roughly the same time Mrs. Mims bought tickets for him and her to fly in a restored B-24 on Father's Day. Mims eyes' lit up and he chuckled as Mrs. Mims described the experience.
""It was so barbaric and so cold and smelled like gasoline," Mrs. Mims said.
Mims said he was amazed people made an effort to restore a B-24.
"I was just surprised," he said. "I appreciated it."
As part of the ceremony, Parent asked for a moment of silence to honor the crew of Mims' Liberator.
The names of the crew are:
Pilot, 1st Lt. Jack Wyatt, killed in action
Co-pilot, 2nd Lt. David Stiner, prisoner of war
Navigator, 2nd Lt. Richard Gustafson, killed in action
Bombardier, 2nd Lt. George Sherry, killed in action
Nose turret gunner, Staff Sgt. Robert Tackett, killed in action
Radio operator, Staff Sgt. Kenneth Hebert, killed in action
Ball turret gunner, Staff Sgt. Donald Williquette, prisoner of war
Waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Ralph Wetzel, prisoner of war
Waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Albert Rieser, prisoner of war
Tail gunner, Staff Sgt. James Bradley, prisoner of war