11/11/04 — WWII pilot recalls service on Veterans Day

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WWII pilot recalls service on Veterans Day

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on November 11, 2004 2:01 PM

The sub-zero temperatures of Iceland stand out in the mind of former pilot Ken Collings.

Collings, now a retired colonel, was assigned to Iceland with the U.S. Army Air Corps' 33rd Fighter Squadron in September 1944 during World War II.

His mission was to patrol about 20 miles off the coast in a P-47. He flew about 20 sorties a month trying to intercept German planes.

The missions were going steadily until one day in January 1945. While patrolling the area, Collings' propeller went into low pitch, and he could not maintain his altitude.

His aircraft headed for an inlet between cliffs. Large chunks of ice jutted out from the frozen water.

He decided to bail out of the airplane at about 500 feet in the air. His parachute opened and collapsed. He landed hard on the ice. He injured his head and tore cartilage in his left knee.

Some Icelanders eventually found him and took him to their house overnight. They applied a splint to his leg and gave him a liquor made out of potatoes to dull the pain.

The next morning, Collings was transported by jeep to a fishing boat and taken to the closest Army hospital. After 10 days, he rejoined his unit.

His commander noticed that Collings was not well enough to fly, so he recommended he go back home for rest, and return when he was fit. World War II ended before he returned to his unit.

Collings' tour in Iceland was only the beginning of his service. After the war in 1949, he deployed to Germany and participated in the Berlin Airlift.

At the time, Germany was divided into sections -- the Allied part was controlled by the United States, Great Britain and France, and the other was controlled by the Soviet Union. West Berlin was occupied by the Allies and East Berlin was occupied by Soviets. In June 1948, the Soviets tried to control all of Berlin by attempting to cut off traffic coming to and from West Berlin.

To gain control, the Soviets tried to starve the population. President Truman decided to counteract by instituting a daily airlift to bring food and supplies into West Berlin.

Collings flew 91 missions in various aircraft during the airlift. The aircraft would fly in a row in three-minute increments carrying milk, food, coal, flower and other items, some of which were used as raw materials in factories, he said.

Each trip took about four hours. The schedule was brutal. His day would begin at 7 a.m. and would fly non-stop until about 10 p.m.

The times he reported for duty would change, but he still worked around 12 hours a day for over two months. He lost all concept of day and night.

The only break was when he would go to the officer's club on base that had an orchestra playing all the time and they could get a meal --breakfast, lunch or dinner -- anytime.

Collings was promoted during the airlift, although at that time he was getting paid less than a Greyhound bus driver, he said. He flew in the airlift until it ended in September 1949, when the Soviet government lifted the blockade.

Collings stayed overseas for three more years flying C-82s in various missions. He also did war planning while based in Japan, conducted flying exercises in Thailand and flew in air shows in New Zealand and Australia. He was in charge of a close air support center during the Vietnam War. "It was really a poor man's war," he said of Vietnam.

The only way they could mark targets was to dive down in their planes and throw a smoke grenade on the spot.

Collings returned to the U.S. and later arrived at Seymour Johnson as part of the 19th Air Force. At Seymour Johnson he was the combat support group commander before retiring in January 1974 after 31 years of service.

He flew 22 different types of airplanes during those years. After retiring, he was the city manager of Selma and later was the city manager of Goldsboro.

Collings found a picture of his childhood home in Texas, which was one of several houses scattered on the barren land in the early 1920s. It is hanging up in his office in his home in Goldsboro.

As he looks at it, an expression of pride comes to his face. It is a pride in his ability to have served his country for so long and in so many missions.