MOUNT VERNON — The chance to return to the airways and to be behind the flight controls once again was a dream come true recently for three local veterans. Their dream was granted when they were treated to a 30-minute flight around Knox County at the Knox County Airport.
The love of airplanes and traveling around to air shows has built a real camaraderie between Lou Gilliand, Eugene Yarger and Merle Jarvis. While attending the recent WACO reunion at the Wynkoop Airport, the trio struck up a friendship with Brett Fletcher, whose father was also a World War II veteran. Fletcher, who is known as the “lobster guy,” has a brother, Doug Mill, who has a twin engine Cessna 340 plane. Hearing their stories and their love of planes, Fletcher invited the trio to Mount Vernon for a lobster dinner and offered for them to go on a ride with Doug in his plane.
Entering the U.S. Navy just after WWII in 1946 was Gilliand who for two years was a flight crew member on a PV4Y2.
“It had four engines but only a single rudder,” said Gilliand about his plane which flew sub-patrol flights over the Gulf of Mexico while he was stationed at Pensacola, Fla. He joked about his first naval assignment being in Hutchinson, Kan. Gilliand later served at the Naval Air Reserve in Columbus until it was deactivated in 1959.
Yarger was a member of the 562nd Bomb Squadron, 3rd Bomb Division in the 8th Air Force of the U.S. Army Air Corps in WWII. He piloted a B-17 bomber and was in a lead bomber group, which once had a mission to Cottbus, Germany, near the Polish border. While on this mission, Yarger’s plane lost two outboard engines to enemy anti-aircraft fire. The plane was brought down at Florens, Belgium, where repairs were made.
While repairs were being completed, his crew stayed in private homes where they were housed and fed. Yarger was given a trinket by his host family which was an eagle that was carved by a Russian prisoner who had previously stayed there. Yarger was very touched by that treasure as well as the kind treatment he received.
Upon return to England, Yarger’s crew discovered the message about their condition was never received by the 388th, so their belongings had been packed and sent home because they were considered missing in action.
“I enjoyed it very much, if you could actually enjoy something like that,” said Yarger who served in the Air Force until 1955.
Jarvis spent two years with the Glider Infantry with the U.S. Army. “I never saw a glider until the last month there,” said Jarvis after being in glider dry-run training for 13 months. He was aboard eight times on a CG-4A transport glider in the 8th Infantry Division when his regiment was dispatched from North Carolina to New Jersey and on to Normandy, France.
“They trained us for anything and everything they needed us for,” he said, explaining that his glider would be towed by a C47 at 125 miles per hour before being cut loose at 5,000 feet.
Eventually moving up to the front lines, Jarvis stepped on a land mine and spent three months in an British hospital where he was given a prosthetic leg. He was reportedly promoted to Sergeant, but the paperwork never caught up with him, and he never officially received his new rank. He received a Purple Heart from his wound in combat and a Bronze Star for his wound coming from the enemy. His fondest memory was in 1944, coming around a curve of the Hudson River on the Queen Mary and seeing the Statue of Liberty. “It was the most beautiful sight I had seen in my life,” he said. “The tears were streaming down the cheeks of every guy on that ship.”
“This sure brought back some memories,” said Yarger of the flight. “I flew until I lost most of my eyesight through macular degeneration. I haven’t been able to get up the last 10 years,” he said after being able to take control of the plane for a short distance on the flight.
“It was beautiful,” said Jarvis of the flight. “It was the first we had been up in a while.” He and Gilliand had owned a plane together for four years. Gilliand had a license and flew the plane, but it was later sold when his eyesight began to fail.
“That was a beautiful ride,” said Gilliand. “It was just a little bumpy over in here,” he said, pointing to a dark cloud bank.
Being generous enough to offer the plane ride to the veterans, “I just wanted to give them something they would enjoy,” said Doug Mill. “They deserve it.”