Lexington WWII veteran shares experiences that will land him in British war museum

jwarren@herald-leader.comApril 20, 2014 

Even after nearly 70 years, you don't forget having an airplane blow up around you.

It happened to Lexington's Gayle Alexander when his B-17 bomber was hit by flak and exploded over Germany during World War II.

"The whole plane disintegrated," he said. "The next thing I knew, I was falling headfirst at 28,000 feet.

"They trained us not to open our parachutes at that altitude because there's no oxygen. But I never thought of that. I wanted that chute open."

Getting blown out of the sky is just one of Alexander's wartime experiences that could have come out of an adventure novel.

Which is why British war museum researcher Jenny Cousins flew all the way to Lexington last week to film and interview Alexander about his days as a bomber pilot with the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Europe during World War II.

"We are redoing our museum, and one of the things we're missing are people stories, particularly pilot stories," said Cousins, project manager for the American Air Museum in Duxford, England. She spent several hours Wednesday interviewing Alexander at his Lexington home.

In addition to his stories, Alexander is donating part of his World War II uniform and other memorabilia to the British museum. Those items, along with the video Cousins shot, will be part of a new historical display at the museum starting in December 2015.

With Victor Gayle Alexander included, it should be a popular attraction.

Alexander, 92, was a pilot's pilot. He flew planes before he was old enough to drive. He flew just about every kind of airplane the Army Air Corps had during the war.

He survived close shaves on 18 combat missions, only to be blown up on his 19th. But he survived that, plus seven months as a POW, finally returning home weighing barely 113 pounds.

Alexander remembers it all in precise detail: names, dates, events.

"It's burned into my memory; I'll never forget it," he says.

So, when Cousins recently called Nancy Toombs, vice president of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society, and asked for articulate World War II pilots to interview, Toombs quickly recommended Alexander. She has known him for years.

"I thought, 'Who can I pick that lived through a harrowing experience but has a sense of humor and can find a ray of sunshine in telling about it,'" Toombs said. "And I thought, 'Gayle can do that.'"

Alexander was born in Versailles but moved to Lexington as a child. He's spent most of his life here.

He loved airplanes, apparently from the first moment he saw one. He got his pilot's license, after just a few lessons, at age 15.

"If you have the talent, I guess it comes naturally," he said. "I remember that back then I could ride my bike out to the Cool Meadow field on Newtown Pike, rent a Piper Cub for $3 and spend an hour just flying around the area."

Then things turned serious. Alexander went to pick up a date one Sunday afternoon, and she told him Pearl Harbor had just been bombed. It was Dec. 7, 1941.

America declared war the next day, and Alexander wanted to be in it. He applied to become an Army Air Corps pilot and was accepted immediately.

Alexander soon was learning to fly powerful military planes, which came easily thanks to the air experience he already had. The Army noticed.

"One day, the captain said to me, 'You're one of the best pilots we've got,'" Alexander recalled. "He said, 'You're going to stay right here and be a flying instructor.'

"Well, I didn't want that. I wanted to go to war. But they didn't give you a choice."

Against his will, Alexander spent almost two years training other young men for combat flying, always wanting to be in the action himself.

"I lost one pilot who crashed in training," he said. "That was really hard. After that, I told them I'd had enough of teaching."

Finally, the Army relented and sent Alexander to England to fly the B-24 and B-17 bombers that were blasting targets in Nazi-held Europe on a daily basis. He named his plane "Kentucky Kloudhopper," with a funny painting of a hillbilly on its nose.

But there was nothing humorous about his job. More than 70,000 American fliers were lost during the European bombing campaign.

Alexander and his crew returned from one mission with 308 holes in their plane, two engines out, and part of the tail missing. They barely made it back to England.

"I thought those white cliffs of Dover were the most beautiful things I'd ever seen," Alexander said.

Much of the time Alexander flew a "Mickey ship." The planes, specially equipped with radar that could "see" through thick clouds, led other bombers to their targets.

On his 19th mission, Alexander led one of the war's biggest raids: 1,200 bombers attacking a synthetic oil plant at Merseburg, Germany, on Nov. 2, 1944.

Alexander's plane was blown to bits just moments after dropping its bombs. Of the 10-man crew, Alexander and six others survived.

Alexander reached the ground in one piece despite fumbling with his parachute. Captured within minutes, he was marched away in his socks, having lost his boots on the way down.

It was the beginning of seven long months in various German POW camps, enduring bitter cold, bedbugs, starvation rations and essentially no medical care.

Prisoners often were force-marched long distances from one camp to another. Alexander said they snatched up boiled potatoes that local farmers tossed out for their pigs to eat.

"The hogs didn't get them, we did," he said. "It was the only way you were going to survive."

Somehow, Alexander hung on until a spring day in 1945, when "we heard tanks coming, and here was old Gen. George Patton standing up in his Jeep. We were liberated."

Alexander returned home on a hospital ship and eventually recovered to have a long and successful career as a veterinarian in Lexington.

He said he's surprised, but also honored, at having a British museum suddenly interested in preserving his story for countless museum visitors to hear in future years.

"It's quite an honor; you'd think I'd gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor," he quipped.

The American Air Museum in Duxford is comparable to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and is part of the British Imperial War Museum. It has one of the largest displays of American planes outside the United States, according to Cousins.

"We're very good on aircraft, not so good on people," she said. "One of things I try to do is find people willing to tell me their stories, and we're going to feature those stories at the museum."

Alexander, of course, is always glad to share his story.

"The pretty part of being a pilot was flying on sunny days with big cumulus clouds," he said. "There was nothing better than looking down on those clouds and flying between them. It was a lot of fun ... until they started shooting at you."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @heraldleader.

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