FORT RUCKER, Ala. -- Fort Rucker hosted its POW/MIA Recognition Day Ceremony Sept. 17 at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum to a limited in-person audience that was broadcast over Facebook Live.
Brig. Gen. Stanley E. Budraitis, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker deputy commanding general, spoke at the event, focusing his speech on a World War II-era former POW from Andalusia, 2nd Lt. Wesley Courson.
“In the Army, people are our greatest strength and our most important weapons system,” the general said. “It’s never been more important that we recognize the service and sacrifice of our brave Soldiers who, across our nation’s history, have lived out the Army Values and put their lives on the line to keep us free. They are the backbone of the joint force. Their honorable service, past and present, touches each and every one of us today.”
Budraitis then moved on to Courson’s story that was made public recently when a local paper published excerpts from his diary that he kept during his days as a Soldier.
“He was a member of the Greatest Generation,” the general said, adding that Courson enlisted in the Army in 1941 and initially trained as an aircraft mechanic. “He went on to earn his wings as a B-17 bomber pilot and commission as an Army officer.”
In 1943, Courson received orders to England and an assignment with the 306th Bomb Group, 423rd Bombing Squadron. He flew four combat missions with only minor damage to his aircraft, according to Budraitis.
“His fifth mission, which focused on a Nazi strategic asset – a submarine repair installation and depot in Hannover, Germany, would be his crew’s last mission of the war,” the general said. “Courson described that mission as ‘involving more flak and fighter planes than all the previous runs put together.’”
While flying in formation, Courson said he felt an explosion underneath the plane lift the aircraft up and caused enough damage to make the aircraft structurally unsafe, Budraitis said, adding that the radio operator onboard was killed.
The aircraft sustained further damage shortly thereafter, and with many crewmembers injured, the wings chewed up by enemy fire, and one engine on fire and the other smoking, Courson directed the bombardier to destroy the Norden bombsight and for the rest of the crew to exit the plane.
“There was ‘no way to go but down’,” according to Courson’s account of the incident.
Courson was the last to exit the aircraft and suffered injuries jumping out of the bomb bay doors as the aircraft made a sharp roll.
“When the chute opened he lost consciousness, and when he came to he realized he was being escorted down by two circling enemy fighter aircraft,” Budraitis continued. “On the ground, in Dutch territory, some German border guards realized he was injured, so they left him temporarily under a tree on a farm.
“He recalled a little girl, in an act of kindness, came from a nearby house and brought him a mug of cool water,” the general said. “He wrote, ‘That has to be the one most outstanding drink of water in my life.’
“In multiple prisoner of war camps, Courson endured harsh conditions and solitary confinement. At one point, he briefly escaped but was captured. He spent more than 640 days as a prisoner of war, and thankfully was among those liberated when U.S. forces drove into Moosburg, Germany, and the city surrendered April 29, 1945,” Budraitis said. “He wrote powerful words in his journal: ‘Liberated! Liberated! We are free men again!’
“Fortunately, Courson returned home to Andalusia and lived out the rest of his life, until he passed away in 1989,” the general added. “It’s amazing that so many years later the Soldier’s family would share with the world a written, firsthand account from one prisoner of war during World War II. And there are so many more stories out there. Since the Revolutionary War, we know that more than a half-million U.S. servicemembers have, at one point in time, been held as prisoners of war. It’s so important that we recognize their honorable service to our nation.
“And today, we continue to keep the light on for our many missing in action,” he continued. “We know that nearly 82,000 servicemembers remain unaccounted for – approximately 1,600 from the Vietnam War, nearly 8,000 from the Korean War and more than 72,000 from World War II.
“They are not forgotten,” Budraitis said. “We know that our nation dedicates significant resources, and will continue to search the Earth until each servicemember is rightfully returned back to U.S. soil. And we certainly rejoice every time we see the news headlines that another servicemember’s remains have now been accounted for and they’re returning home where they belong.
“We will never forget the selfless service and sacrifice of our brave heroes who were taken as prisoners of war and those still unaccounted for,” he added. “We are forever grateful for them and their families. Their stories need to be told, and in so doing, hopefully we can better understand their proud legacy of service and just how precious our freedom is.
“I would ask that you please continue to keep in your thoughts and prayers our many servicemembers who are deployed around the world, and continue to wrap your hearts around their family members,” Budraitis said.