Flying unfriendly skies
WWII pilot Bill Patten faced perils of combat and turned to God
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Fifth in a series on war veterans
Over Regensburg, Germany, flak not only hit the plane, but tore into a crew member and the chief pilot’s thigh. As the pilot tried to stanch bleeding, co-pilot Bill Patten took over the controls.
Patten, 26, was a pilot with the 15th Air Force. He had a wife and daughter back home in Kansas City, Mo. Once in a while he’d read a Bible someone had sent to him, but as a not-too-religious military man, he took little comfort in it.
That day above Germany during World War II, as he tried to maneuver the injured B-17 bomber beyond enemy range, Patten promised God he’d be more faithful if He just helped him land.
It was a promise he intended to keep.
Patten had volunteered for the Air Corps in 1942, hoping to become a pilot. He’d already graduated from college with a degree in aeronautical engineering, worked in production for Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kan., and married his life’s love, Pearl.
During more than a year at airfields nationwide, he learned to fly small single-engine planes, then twin-engines, and eventually four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers.
While stateside, Patten’s biggest struggle wasn’t learning flying protocols or even saying goodbye to his wife and infant daughter. The worst was receiving the wire saying his mom had died from cancer. “I almost washed out then,” he later told me, recalling how he fought to concentrate on flying.
Superiors sent him to Foggia, Italy, with the 15th Air Force in early 1944. From then until the war ended, Patten, a first lieutenant, flew 34 bombing missions. Often his crew targeted German factories producing parts for Nazi equipment. Sometimes he navigated toward Romanian oil fields, supply sources for Axis countries. “Those were tough targets—far away and well-protected,” says Patten.
You were always alert, trying to stay in formation, checking altitude, watching for foreign fighters.
Keeping 12 to 16 planes safely in formation required vigilance and undivided attention, says Patten: “There were midair collisions … lots of near-misses.” He says he was probably too busy to notice how scared he was: “You were always alert, trying to stay in formation, checking altitude, watching for foreign fighters.” Routinely, the acclaimed Tuskegee Airmen fighter escorts protected his formation.
On several missions, his plane lost engines. During others, like the one over Regensburg, attackers riddled the fuselage with bullets and flak. On that one, after breathing his prayer for help, he focused his attention and strength on holding the controls steady, maneuvering away from Luftwaffe planes, and eventually landed safely.
After the war, Patten kept the promise he’d made on that flight. He started attending his wife’s Methodist church regularly and got baptized there. He concentrated on raising his family and rising with Butler Manufacturing, where he became a vice president. He and his wife mourned when they suffered a stillborn boy and girl between their oldest and youngest daughters.
His adult daughters, Cheryl Goodin and Lisa Johnson, say their dad is a humble role model. “He is strong in his faith, leading by example,” says Johnson. They recount how both parents started a church plant that thrives today.
After 70 years of marriage, Pearl died in 2011 from Alzheimer’s disease. Patten faithfully tended to her during those difficult last years. When no longer able to care for her, he drove 90 minutes each way to visit her daily.
“I really loved her,” says Patten quietly. “She was just a wonderful woman.” Then quickly he jokes, “She tolerated me.”
Today Patten, 102 years old, listens to audiobooks and Charles Stanley sermons, works out with his caregiver, and relishes phone visits with friends and 17 great-grandchildren. His daughters say he rarely talks about difficulties. Patten says resolutely, “Well, I just have to keep going.”
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