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B-24 gunner honored with Purple Heart

By Robert Goetz | Wingspread staff writer | Aug. 23, 2007

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — The scene in the rotunda of the Taj Mahal on Tuesday morning probably seemed like too much hoopla to one former Army Air Corps staff sergeant. 

But all the TV cameras and reporters there to capture the moment, the remarks by Air Force Maj. Gen. Anthony Przybyslawski, Air Force Personnel Center commander, and the admiration shown by servicemembers and civilians alike more than fit the occasion - a long-overdue ceremony to honor a true American hero. 

With one of his daughters at his side, Roy Talbott, 84, a self-effacing veteran who once served as a B-24 gunner with the 72nd Bomb Squadron of the 13th Air Force's 5th Bomb Group, received the Purple Heart, one of the most time-honored U.S. military decorations, for injuries he received in a harrowing attack by Japanese fighter planes in the Pacific Theater during World War II. 

"The majority of his life has been about one thing only - service to his country," said General Przybyslawski. "We look up to his generation. His generation taught us what we should be like." 

He said that, "because of actions like his," Mr. Talbott and the Airmen of his generation "created today's Air Force." 

"It was a time of duty," General Przybyslawski said. "The whole nation was mobilizing, and Mr. Talbott stepped forward." 

Mr. Talbott volunteered for the Army Air Corps in October 1942. The Missouri farm boy subsequently was assigned to the 72nd Bomb Squadron, which moved from base to base as Pacific operations against Japanese forces progressed. On that fateful morning in May 1944, the squadron was based on Los Negros Island in the Admiralty Islands chain. 

He and his crew members were returning to their base after completing a bombing mission on a Biak Island airfield when Japanese "Zekes" ambushed their B-24 and others engaged in the mission. 

"We got hit by antiaircraft fire," Mr. Talbott recalled prior to the ceremony. "Everything happened so fast you didn't have time to think about it. There was a lot of dirt and dust flying." 

The crippled bomber managed to limp to New Guinea, which had just been invaded by American troops. It crash-landed on a dirt runway - originally placed there by the Japanese - near an Army field hospital, where the crew members were treated for their injuries. 

Mr. Talbott suffered shrapnel wounds to the thigh during the attack and a broken wrist and a knot on his forehead during the crash landing. He said he was fortunate compared to some of his crew mates. 

"Other personnel were hurt pretty bad," he said. "But we all survived. My injuries were minor compared to what the others' were. I was what you call a walking casualty." 

Mr. Talbott left the South Pacific after a month and spent some time convalescing in an Army hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was later reassigned to Combat Crew Training School in Pueblo, Colo., to train B-24 and B-29 crews. He left the Army Air Corps shortly after the war ended but re-enlisted in the Army about three years later and retired as an Army sergeant first class after a 20-year career. He now lives in Sedalia, Mo. 

General Przybyslawski, who also described the details of the attack Mr. Talbott and his crew mates endured by reciting a report filed by the squadron's intelligence officer that day, said the veteran didn't request the Purple Heart. 

"His generation wasn't in it for themselves ... but he most certainly deserves this recognition," he said. 

It was through the intercession of Mr. Talbott's daughter, Army Col. Donna Talbott, who is assigned to the Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston, that his heroism was acknowledged. She enlisted the help of the Air Force Personnel Center and the Military Order of the Purple Heart to ensure that he received his due. 

"He never would have done anything," she said. "He feels he was just doing his duty. But I heard him talk about his experiences the more he got older, and I realized he needed to be recognized as well."