70,000+ — veterans in Volusia County
12.64 percent — veterans as a percentage of Volusia County’s population
13,000+ — number of veterans who use Volusia County’s Veterans Services every year
Less than 100 — estimated number of World War II veterans in Volusia County
Sadly, what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation” is quickly going the way of all flesh.
Surviving members of the World War II generation are now an endangered species. They are, individually and collectively, a national treasure.
Those Americans, mostly born during the Roaring ‘20s, lived through the Great Depression, only to find that the long-awaited economic recovery came in the form of full employment based on a national mobilization of people and machines to make munitions to defeat powerful enemies in Europe and Asia.
Those greatest still living are now advancing in years, with the youngest ones now in their 90s. Bert Cornwell, a DeLandite, is one of them. At 98, his mental clarity is still quite keen.
Among the stories from Bert’s life that I treasure his telling me is his recollection of events during the Cuban missile crisis.
In October 1962, Maj. Cornwell and other Air Force reservists were called to active duty to make the DeLand Municipal Airport an actual Air Force base, if needed.
As tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union escalated after U-2 spy planes photographed medium-range missiles on the Communist island south of Florida, the Sunshine State became a mega-military base.
Cornwell, along with former Volusia County Agriculture Extension Agent Larry Loadholtz, led a cadre of part-time officers and enlisted men in preparing the airport to house and feed hundreds of Air Force personnel to receive, maintain, repair and arm military aircraft in a war that seemed all-too imminent.
The sense of urgency was such, Cornwell once said, that there were plans to close the then-new Interstate 4 near DeLand, and use it as an airstrip for warplanes.
In keeping with the war footing underway, Cornwell said, the reservists wore their uniforms and were armed with .45-caliber pistols. They spent almost two weeks on duty at the DeLand Airport, until the crisis ended with Nikita Khrushchev’s promise to get his missiles out of Cuba.
During World War II, Cornwell had the opportunity to realize his fantasy to fly. Although he was never sent overseas, he was ready, willing and able to use his skills in the defense of his country.
After the U.S. was bombed into World War II with the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines and Wake Island, Cornwell did what many young Americans did: He enlisted in the Army, which subsequently selected him to train as a pilot. A bomber pilot, in fact. At that time, the Air Forces were still part of the Army.
Before the war was over, Cornwell was qualified to fly the heavy bombers the U.S. used for long-range missions against enemy targets. Cornwell recalls flying B-17s, B-24s and B-29s. The B-17, he remembers, was quite easy to handle and comfortable.
The B-24 was a different flying beast. It was often physically demanding to fly. To make matters worse, the high-octane aviation gasoline often leaked into the cockpit, and the crew could not turn on heaters to keep themselves warm without the risk of a deadly fire, if the fumes came into contact with the heating elements. The crew thus had to endure the extreme cold at higher altitudes.
To Cornwell, the B-29 was probably the best of the old bombers, as it was the first pressurized bomber. The B-29s, in fact, became the workhorse of the bombardment of Japan, including the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Though he is a devout Republican, Cornwell credits President Harry Truman, a Democrat, for ending the war some thought might last for several more years.
“He saved my life,” Cornwell said of Truman.
Just before the war ended, Cornwell had been slated to be sent to the Pacific Theater to fly bombing missions over Japan.
After the war, Lt. Cornwell stayed in the Army. He decided to wing off with the Air Force, when it became a separate branch of the military in 1947. He later joined the Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of major.
Cornwell’s love of flying moved him to teach the next generations of aviation enthusiasts about the things they would one day fly or help design. He became an instructor in airframes and engines at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. He also became a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and, until recent years, he enjoyed attending the group’s annual Sun and Fun Fly-Ins in Lakeland each spring.
These stories are priceless. Memories that one often does not find in history books.
Who will tell these stories, and others, to the future generations of Americans?
Each of these older people have stories that need to be told and remembered. I feel honored to know Bert Cornwell and to hear his stories.
There is probably other wisdom Bert and his cohorts could give to us. Bert is a widower, having lost his wife, June, in early 2014.
“If she had lived two more weeks, we would have been married 70 years,” he said.
Bert took care of June, especially as she progressively lost her vision. He kept the vows he made to love, cherish and honor her in sickness or in health.
The days of marriage for life may seem antiquated now, but most of Bert’s generation considered marriage an enduring value, a lifelong covenant made before God and human witnesses.
This Veterans Day, I will be thinking about Bert, as well as my father, who served in World War II and the Korean War, and my grandfather who was wounded in World War I.
I will also smile as I recall the bumper sticker on Bert’s car: “My other car is a B-29.”