MOORE — Lloyd Mitchell's 94-year-old eyes are fixed on the painting that features the B-17 bomber, “Kipling's Error III.”
The memory of Mitchell takes a direct flight back 70 years to his service as a crew member in the 8th Air Force, 96th Bomber Group, 413th Squadron. He was a navigator first and gunner second. And quicker than Mitchell could snap his big-old country boy fingers, he was sitting behind the front of the nose guns in the plane in which he served 24 of his 25 missions.
He can tell you what he heard, what he felt, what he saw.
His ears were ringing with the sound of the machine guns inside the plane.
Plus, there was no heat in the B-17, and they were bombing from about 20,000 to 25,000 feet. Although Mitchell was in the nose, the plane had open waist windows to allow those gunners to fire their guns. He thinks the temperature was about minus-45 degrees. They were freezing.
As for what he saw, Mitchell — still fixed on the painting — talked about fighters lined up, coming right at him.
“You thought you were going to lose your heart, it was pounding so hard,” he said.
On this Veterans Day 2012, Mitchell took time to go back not only to his war years, but to what that experience has meant to the rest of his life. His story is just an example of the contributions of veterans and current military.
They wrote it down
Although most of what he saw is etched in Mitchell's memory, even more can be found in the book he held in his lap.
He was part of a 10-man crew.
Five of those men kept diaries, and Mitchell's son, Brooks Mitchell, obtained each and wrote a book published in 2006 titled, “The Story of the B-17 Flying Fortress Kipling's Error, They were good Americans.”
Lloyd Mitchell's entries indicate this son of a sharecropper knew without the slightest of doubts he was no longer in Hollis, OK. Take for instance his second mission, which came on May 17, 1943. It was a raid on Lorient, France, with a power plant being the primary target.
However, the crew of Kipling's Error III was attacked by fighter aircraft five minutes before they hit the target.
In his diary, Mitchell wrote, “Whew! I knew we were dead pigeons. The fighters tried to get us, but got Capt. Conahan and Lt. Holcombe instead. We were flying on their wing.”
The sights from the missions remain sharp in Mitchell's mind.
He can still see flames shooting thousands of feet when they bombed a synthetic rubber plant in Germany in June 22, 1943.
He recalls perfect visibility on July 4 of that year as they raided LaPallice, France, targeting submarine pens.
And then there's that moment 10 days later.
“We raided the air depot at LeBourget today,” he wrote. “There were 300 fighters up after us. We claimed five. The target was obliterated. We got two bullet holes in the nose.”
When talking of that, he said, “I would have given anything to be back sharecropping.”
Before and after
Even though he was no longer in southwest Oklahoma, Mitchell said his raising helped tremendously in World War II.
“When you grow up in poverty like we did, you learned to love work, and I really did,” he said. “I didn't mind working hard at all.”
After the war, he quickly went to college so he could get a good job and get to work as soon as possible.
From 1948 to 1973, he served as a real estate review appraiser for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Then he worked many more years in his own business as a real estate appraiser.
But his story isn't all about being Capt. Lloyd Mitchell, or about his business career.
In May 1942, he wed Mable Apple. Mounted on a wall close to his Distinguished Flying Cross is a picture of Lloyd and Mable with a 2-month-old Brooks in October 1943. They raised five successful children, Brooks, Martha, Sarah, David and Mark. The couple were married 50 years before Mable lost a battle to pancreatic cancer in 1992. He later married Nancy and finally retired when he was in his mid-80s.
Besides being dedicated to his family, Mitchell is strong in his faith.
He's served as an elder in four Church of Christ congregations over 33 years.
“I was talking with my daughter, Sarah, one day, and she asked me how I feel I got through this and so many people didn't,” he said. “I said, ‘Honey, I felt like God had other things for me to do, and after the war it was time to get at them.'”
Back to the painting
When Mitchell once again fixes his eyes on that painting, he begins to talk about July 28, 1943, just off the coast of Denmark en route to Oschersleben, Germany.
He could see two cloud layers coming together and was wondering if the lead plane was going to keep going into them. It did. And as soon as they were in, the two clouds became one, he said. Inside the massive cloud was 148 B-17s, and no one could see anyone.
He thanks God and the plane's pilot, Ruben Neie, for getting them out.
“Rube immediately jammed all those throttles forward, full-power,” Mitchell said. “He sent it to the left as steep as he could and luckily got us out.
“You know, praying takes priority at that point.”