Two firsts took place Friday afternoon at Thomasville Regional Airport.
The World War II co-pilot of a B-17, who bailed out of the severely damaged aircraft just before it went into the North Sea, boarded a B-17 for the first time since that fateful day in April 1944. The co-pilot was the sole survivor of a crew of 10.
Also on Friday, the co-pilot and the pilot’s son met for the first time.
Ed Knowlden, a Binghamton, N.Y., resident, recalled seeing the B-17 disappear in a plume of steam and sink in the frigid North Sea water. Joseph Kirkpatrick McClurkin Jr. was the pilot and the only person remaining on the plane after he told the crew to bail out. Two crewmen died instantly when the plane was struck by German artillery shells.
It is not known if McClurkin bailed out before the plane went down or if he was still steering the aircraft when it hit the water. The pilot was declared killed in action at the war’s end in 1945, along with all other missing crewmen.
Joseph Kirkpatrick McClurkin III, who never knew his father, was born April 4, 1944, shortly after his father arrived at a U.S. bomber base in England.
After visiting in the plane’s cockpit, McClurkin and Knowlden sat near the B-17 late Friday afternoon and chatted. The two are visiting Thomasville resident Mike Woodham, whose mother, Anne, was the elder McClurkin’s sister.
Woodham, airport manager, was born four years after McClurkin’s death. He grew up hearing stories about his uncle and thinks the stories influenced his decision to go into aviation.
In addition to the stories, a photograph of McClurkin was always on a mantel at his grandmother’s house. Interested in aviation and baseball as a youngster, Woodham opted for the former. He is a retired Northwest Airline pilot.
Woodham visited Knowlden at his New York home in May, and it was decided Knowlden would visit Thomasville this week when a B-17 would be on display at the airport.
Knowlden returned to his New York home after the war and married Juanita, who died two years ago. The couple had twins, a boy and girl, now 59. Knowlden is grandfather of two.
The former pilot, who observed his 91st birthday in August, worked for IBM for 37 years. An engineer, he designed printers.
“It was my pleasure, my honor,” McClurkin said, describing meeting Knowlden.
Knowlden said McClurkin’s voice sounded like his father’s.
“I can hear the voice. … It’s there somewhere. You can’t make those things up,” said Knowlden, who described the pilot as unassuming and quiet.
“No one ever told me stories about my daddy at all,” McClurkin said.
McClurkin’s mother, Eloise, eventually married a man who had been a B-24 pilot in the war. After the war, he became dean of architecture at Clemson University.
A cousin recently found a box of McClurkin’s mother’s belongings and gave the box to McClurkin. His mother had given the box to her sister to keep after she remarried.
The box contains letters McClurkin’s parents wrote during the war and his father’s flight log from when he joined the Army Air Corps until he sailed overseas. McClurkin is slowly making his way through the box’s contents.
McClurkin and his wife, Lu, have two children and six grandchildren. They live near Montgomery, Ala., where McClurkin owns a security system business.
Knowlden said that when he parachuted into the North Sea, it was a battle to prevent drowning because of being entangled in parachute lines.
He was picked up by a German rescue boat. His captors covered him with blankets, placed heaters on him and seated him in a warm shower to raise his body temperature.
“They gave me a room with a bunk in it, and the darn bed fell apart,” he said, adding that he was served warm milk.
Knowlden was transported to a German prisoner of war camp and later to a second prison camp.
Food was barely adequate, mostly potatoes and kohlrabi. “Another staple was bread. I hate to call it bread. They would bring it in by horse-drawn wagons,” Knowlden recalled. The bread, he said, was the consistency of wood pulp and sour.
“We also got meat, but we never knew what it was,” Knowlden said. He thinks the meat was horse, perhaps goat.
The Veterans Administration declared Knowlden 60 percent disabled after the war because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Knowlden finds it difficult to describe the disorder.
“You wake up in the middle of the night, not knowing where you are. … It’s a mind-boggling situation,” he explained.
He added, “Looks belie the inner man.”
Knowlden underwent open-heart surgery. The surgery, he said, robbed him of some of his memory. His back has hurt since he had back surgery 10 years ago.
After his wife died, Knowlden purchased a small house. He enjoys tending to his vegetable garden.
Friday was not his first time in Georgia. The Knowlden family used to travel from New York to Daytona Beach, Fla., and passed through Georgia. Knowlden quipped that speed traps and fruitcakes come to mind when he thinks of the Peach State.
“I can still see that plume of steam coming up,” the nonagenarian said.
Knowlden does not recall being afraid when the B-17 was struck by Germans and lost its electrical system, oxygen supply and automatic-steering capabilities and obviously would crash. “It was something you had to do,” he explained.
He has no regrets. “It’s just one of those things that happens,” Knowlden explained.
With the B-17 pilot’s son seated next to him, the rays of a setting sun on his face and looking around at airport and runway surroundings, Knowlden said, “So many things have happened in 70 years. I’m just lucky I’ve lived so long.”
Senior reporter Patti Dozier can be reached at (229) 226-2400, ext. 1820.