TAMPA — U.S. fliers who survive a crash in Afghanistan today are rescued in an average of 12 minutes. John Nelson can only marvel at such speed.
Shot down by German gunners in World War II, Nelson spent almost a month behind enemy lines before he was rescued.
"I fully understood that I was alone on the other side of the world from my home," said Nelson, 91, a Tampa resident and former fighter pilot.
Nelson is in an exclusive club. Members are called "Evaders." Eligibility requires a landing by crash or parachute in enemy territory by a U.S. pilot or crew member. Those who make it back to friendly forces — or escape captivity — can join.
So too can those partisans or "helpers" who aid them.
They are members of the Air Force Escape & Evasion Society whose annual reunion came to Tampa starting last week and was expected to conclude today at the Crowne Plaza hotel.
The group, formed in the 1960s, has about 600 members (family are allowed in, too) who fought in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Most members battled the Germans in World War II.
It's a group that is rapidly disappearing. Only eight former pilots and crew members, in addition to three of their foreign helpers, made it to Tampa this year.
The group president is 93. One of the youngest veterans in town is a spry 89.
"We know one of these days there won't be any more evaders to come to the reunions," said Lynn David, the society's vice president, whose deceased father was an evader. "So many veterans groups from that era are disappearing."
None among these veterans has an ordinary tale to tell.
He was a poor farm boy from Idaho with little education. Nelson was just 20 when he joined the Army Air Forces a few days after the Pearl Harbor attack.
His life almost ended in gulf waters off Clearwater when his aircraft's engine caught fire during a training flight. Nelson bailed out with seconds to spare.
He proved a natural in the cockpit of a fighter plane. In September 1944, he flew a mission out of an American base in Italy. Flying over the Adriatic Sea, Nelson was in a group of fighters making daytime strafing runs on German forces south of Belgrade in Yugoslavia.
Nelson, flying a P-51 Mustang in low, lined up his guns on a German truck. Suddenly, the side of the truck dropped away to reveal a gun crew that began blasting him.
Nelson was momentarily blinded by an explosion in his engine. His plane brushed a telephone pole, then a tree before it crash landed in a small garden. He banged his knee hard but was otherwise uninjured.
That night, Nelson hobbled along. At first, he figured it would be easy to survive in the rough, mountainous country. He was, after all, a country boy. But by early morning the next day, thirst overwhelmed him.
Nelson knocked on the door of a farm house. A local was surprised to see him but let him into his home.
Later, several armed civilians burst into the house. Nelson said one put a pistol to his head. He thought this might be his end. Nelson told the man, "Americansky."
The stranger lowered the gun and gave Nelson a bear hug.
What came in the following weeks was an unending series of harrowing experiences. At one point, Nelson said, some locals "borrowed" a German truck to move him. But as Nelson, wearing civilian clothes, stood near the truck waiting to get in, three German vehicles rounded a corner. His heart seemed to stop.
"It was like something out of a movie," Nelson said.
The Germans, Nelson recalled, were angry that their truck had been taken and took several men into custody. But the Nazis never gave Nelson a second look.
Good thing. Nelson said a pilot caught in civilian clothes would be summarily executed.
Nelson headed west with the aid of locals. Along the way, he was reunited with a buddy named Moon Mullins, who was shot down in the same raid as Nelson.
Nelson and Mullins eventually made it back to U.S. forces after two C-47s were flown in on an improvised runway to retrieve them.
When he got back, Nelson was shocked to learn a small Italian village near his air base — where he had romanced a local woman — declared a day of mourning to mark his death.
Nelson spent 22 years in the Army Air Forces and Air Force. He said his war memories seem more surreal as time passes.
"It seems like kind of a dream, I guess," Nelson said. "Sometimes it seems so unreal. Did I really do this? If I didn't have pictures from the war, I probably wouldn't believe it myself."
On Friday, several MacDill pilots and survival-training specialists paid a visit to the evaders' reunion and told them that their experiences from half a century ago are the foundation of survival training today.
MacDill officials surprised the group by presenting each with copies of all surviving records of their experiences still in Air Force archives.
But it was another MacDill gift that told more of one generation's respect for another. It was a gift that is part of an age-old military tradition signifying respect among comrades at arms.
Two bottles of scotch.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432