It took 63 years, but on Wednesday George Costage was finally honored for his courage during World War II flying in B-24 bombers such as the Pistol Packin' Mama.
No longer the robust young soldier, he is now 83, slightly hard of hearing and living in the Briar Creek Mobile Home Park.
Costage was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, for his heroism during aerial combat over Europe.
"I've known George for 25 years,'' Bilirakis said. "He's almost like a father figure to me. He just told me my shoelaces were untied.''
Bilirakis went on to describe Costage's bravery, honor and dignity — qualities that served him well on 35 combat missions from August 1944 to March 1945. At the time of his discharge, the criteria for receiving the medal was different, according to the congressman's office. It was later changed, and officials discovered that Costage was eligible for the honor after all.
"Congratulations,'' Bilirakis said, handing Costage the medal. "You're so deserving.''
A former Safety Harbor city commissioner and vice mayor, Costage normally is not at a loss for words. But at that moment he was so filled with emotion he could hardly speak.
"I can't talk,'' he said. "I'm sorry. I'm just shook up.''
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Costage was born on March 4, 1925, in Detroit.
After graduating from Fordson High School in Dearborn, Mich., he was drafted into the Army at 18 and began the adventure of a lifetime.
As a private, he served in the infantry but said he decided he "didn't like that'' and signed up as an air cadet in the Army Air Forces.
After passing exams in Miami, he was sent to gunnery school at Tyndall Field in the Florida panhandle and then to Davis Mountain Air Force Base in Arizona.
From there, he shipped overseas to Europe and worked as a gunner firing double .50-caliber machine guns. Costage was one of six gunners on board.
He flew 35 missions, his planes bombing oil refineries, tank plants, factories, train depots and bridges in the German cities of Cologne, Koblenz, Berlin and Dartmund among others.
He also flew secret military operations over Holland, Belgium and France.
Several trips were aborted because either a superior canceled a mission or Costage's plane had engine problems.
On the mornings before the missions, he and the crew would typically get up at 4 or 5 a.m.
"They fed us really good breakfasts,'' Costage said. "You didn't know if you were coming back.''
The flights to and from the targets were exhausting, typically six to 91/2 hours.
"My first mission, I was too dumb to be scared,'' Costage said. "On my second mission, (we) flew in formation and a plane on the right wing ... antiaircraft fired at it. It blew up. Then I got scared. I knew some of the people inside.''
He and his crew watched in terror as some parachutes opened and survivors floated toward the ground.
"They said I'm a hero,'' Costage said. "I'm not a hero. The young people who did not make it back are the heroes.''
He doesn't know how many were killed, but he did learn that a few of them ended up in prisoner of war camps.
One time, the B-24 he was flying aboard got hit by Germans who were shooting flak up at his plane from the ground.
"When it hits, it feels like turbulence,'' Costage said. "The shrapnel goes all over.''
One piece of shrapnel hit him in the left heel.
It was his 27th mission.
After World War II ended, Costage served in the Korean War from 1952 to 1953. He was elevated to the rank of captain and served as a medical officer.
That's when he saw blood.
"When you were flying, you saw the destruction,'' he said. "In Korea, I saw the human results.''
He met his wife, Nancy, after his war career ended. The couple married in 1955 and Costage became a firefighter.
"It took my wife two wars to catch me and I got the best deal,'' he said.
At the end of Wednesday's ceremony at the mobile home community, Nancy Costage, 79, began to shed tears.
"He's not wearing (the medal) for himself,'' she said. "He's wearing it for all his buddies that were lost.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.