08/30/09 — World War II veteran receives medals after half century

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World War II veteran receives medals after half century

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 30, 2009 12:26 AM

Donning a finely pressed, vibrant set of Air Force blues, Howard Holt Thornton approached 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly with a hand extended Saturday morning.

The technical sergeant might have worn his flight suit -- the one he fashioned during 52 combat missions in a B-24 Liberator called the "Hangar Queen" -- if it weren't more than 60 years old.

Still, he brought it with him for his return to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the installation where he received an honorable discharge after his return from World War II, to give those airmen in attendance currently serving a glimpse of their heritage.

Thornton was back on the Goldsboro base this weekend to receive medals due him but never formally presented -- the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

But had it not been for his granddaughter, Carrie Bass, and members of the 4th Fighter Wing, the onetime M2 Browning machine gunner might never have received them.

Before Saturday, he only had received two.

So he choked up several times as he talked about what his war experience -- and the experience of finally, at age 85, being fully honored for his part in history -- meant to him.

And his chest got a little bigger each time Kelly pinned one of the decorations nearly lost on his breast.

"I am extremely happy to be here, but more than that, I am happy about the people who are here supporting me," he said.

Like Mrs. Bass, who worked tirelessly to track down his military records to make the hour-long ceremony possible.

Or his sons, Richard and Rob, who spoke about the kind of father he was and how inspired they always were by his service.

He even thanked his wife for "taking a chance" on a man forever changed by the things he saw -- a man still rattled by images of firing on the enemy as the Hangar Queen took fire from them.

"Before I married her, I said, 'Look, you're going to marry a guy who is in bad shape,'" he said. "When men come back from service who have been in combat ... they have sacrificed part of their life. They are a mess, and I was a mess."

Thornton did not say much about the 10- to 12-hour missions he endured over Europe.

He chose not to reflect on taking shrapnel Aug. 1, 1944, when the Hangar Queen was hit dozens of times by anti-aircraft fire.

"I'm an emotional person," he said. "I can't talk to you about some of these things."

So his granddaughter did the talking for him.

She told those on hand about the career of a man she has always admired -- a career she researched after being told his records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

Thornton signed up to serve at age 17, and became an official member of the Army Air Corps. Nov. 30, 1942.

He would leave for war not long after, aboard the Hangar Queen, an aircraft that had been stripped for parts before being refurbished by his crew.

He and his comrades flew 52 combat missions from southern Italy.

One of them unfolded July 15, 1944, and resulted in his receipt of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Hangar Queen was on a bombing mission against oil fields in Romania when the weather took a turn for the worse, Mrs. Bass said.

Anti-aircraft fire rocked the aircraft -- wounding Thornton and beating up the B-24 -- but the crew completed the mission anyway.

Mrs. Bass read an excerpt from the narrative written about that particular flight.

In it, her grandfather was characterized as "gallant" and "courageous."

"As you can see, Holt Thornton did amazing things for our country during World War II," she said "My grandpa ... is one of my greatest heroes."

Kelly also spoke before the medal presentation.

He told those gathered that today's airmen "stand on the shoulders of giants" like Thornton.

And he talked about how hard the war must have been on aviators, how "unbelievably demanding" the environment must have been.

But he kept his remarks short.

"I could go on and on," Kelly said. "But we're really here to see this man."