DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — On this Veterans Day, Warren “Wayne” McCoy said he planned to be right where he is most days — in his living room recliner.
The 99-year-old veteran of World War II earned that right to rest many times over.
McCoy flew more than 20 missions as a bombardier in the war.
When the B-17 he was in was shot down over Italy in 1944, he cheated death in a struggle to get to his parachute.
Upon landing, he was captured by German forces and held for nearly seven months in three different prisoner of war camps before being liberated in 1945.
McCoy, believed to be the last surviving POW in Becker County, knows Americans wouldn’t have the freedoms they have today if not for WWII veterans.
“I don't know where we’d be, but we wouldn’t be where we are now,” he said.
Dick Johnson, 71, got teary-eyed listening to his father-in-law talk about his service to the country, stories he’s heard many times before.
More recently, McCoy has dealt with prostate cancer and other health scares.
“He is a tough old bird. He has faced so many things straight on,” Johnson said, his voice choked with emotion.
'We knew what to expect'
McCoy was born in Abilene, Kan., one of seven children in his family. Now closing in on age 100, he’s the only surviving sibling.
Some time after graduating from high school in Crosby, Minn., he enlisted in 1942.
At age 22, McCoy was close to being drafted and wanted something other than an infantry assignment, so he joined the Army Air Corps.
Everyone wanted to be a pilot, he said, and though he began pursuing that course, he would become a bombardier, graduating as a second lieutenant from bombardier school in 1943.
McCoy was assigned to the 463rd bomb group, 772nd squadron. Orders to go overseas soon followed, and the dangers ahead for the young military men were obvious.
“We knew what to expect,” McCoy said.
His job included checking the bombs before takeoff and making sure the switches were working. Once airborne, he would factor in weather and wind conditions.
“It was kind of complicated, but it was interesting the way it worked,” he said.
On Oct. 12, 1944, on what would be his final mission, McCoy was aboard a brand new B-17 equipped with a clear front "bubble," a feature that was part of a new radar bombing system.
McCoy dropped a bomb on a bridge in Bologna, Italy, to cut off access for the Germans, but trouble soon followed.
At more than 20,000 feet, the B-17 took a direct hit to the right wing, and the plane caught fire.
The crew bailed, but McCoy had a problem.
He was wearing a flak jacket, a form of body armor, over his parachute.
While in a free fall, he had to try to remove it.
At around 5,000 feet, he was able to open the parachute and come down to earth safely.
But the danger was only beginning.
“The rifle bullets were buzzing by, and I landed in a bunch of Germans,” McCoy said.
He was captured, along with several other Americans, and the Germans immediately separated him from the others.
They thought bombardier McCoy must know all about the new radar bombing system, but “I didn't know squat,” he said.
Captured by Germans
McCoy was taken to Germany and interrogated for the next month.
He said he was waterboarded three or four times and repeatedly deprived of sleep in an effort to get him to talk.
At one point, the Germans decided McCoy either didn’t know anything about radar bombing or wasn’t going to give them information.
He was moved by train with other prisoners to two different POW camps in the months that followed.
McCoy said the time in captivity was miserable, sleeping in bunks with only straw bedding and getting a shower only about every two weeks.
There wasn’t nearly enough to eat.
“I've seen grown men fight over a crust of bread,” he said.
His weight dropped from 165 to 135 lbs.
Freedom finally came on April 29, 1945, when artillery rounds flew, the Germans fled and American tanks rolled into the camp.
The famous Gen. George Patton was riding atop one of them.
“I stood not 10 feet from him,” McCoy said.
The war was over and the government had to figure out how to get so many American soldiers back home.
Transportation was limited, so the military drew lots to determine the order of departure. McCoy was unlucky; he was one of the last to leave.
However, it gave him the opportunity to retrieve his POW records from the camp offices, which included his picture, fingerprint and bunk number.
Both of his brothers would also come back from the war uninjured.
McCoy went on to work as a bread distributor in Minnesota before moving to California, where he finished his career in insurance.
Three of his sons also served in the military.
McCoy doesn’t try to make too much of his service, adding that people at home sacrificed plenty during the war.
But the result of the collective effort can’t be diminished.
“We owe our freedom to veterans,” he said.