Retired P-51 Mustang pilot dies as hero in hearts of family, friends

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Michael Hess
  • 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
My family suffered a great loss this year, the death of Harry W. Lewis. I wasn’t able to attend the funeral due to time constraints, but my family sent me photos of the ceremony. An honor guard team performed full military honors for the World War II pilot who was my grandfather.

His death was a long-time in coming, though no amount of time prepares you for the loss of a loved one. Over the course of a few short years he went from living independently in the house he built without the use of his amputated arm to a veteran’s nursing home.

When he still had an active life outside the home, we would go out to lunch once a week and he always called me ‘Pal.’ It was a term he always used for me.

When I first visited an Air Force recruiter, my grandfather was already in his mental and physical downward spiral. I visited him in his nursing home to tell him I enlisted. He kept saying, “I’m so proud of you.”

During those first few weeks, I heard those words so many times that I almost brushed it off as a pleasantry, but when I looked into his eyes they said it more than any words could express.

When I left for basic training, technical school and eventually my first duty station, his health declined to the point that he barely recognized anyone, including my mother and uncle, but he always asked about his grandson in the Air Force.

In September, I visited him while on leave. My mother warned me of his condition, but I wanted to see him anyway. We drove two hours to the nursing home, signed in and made our way to his room. Fellow World War II veterans who sat in wheelchairs and stared silently, listlessly ahead lined the halls.

As we walked down his corridor, I knew my grandfather wasn’t like these men because I could already hear him barking orders at the nurses.

We walked up to his door in time to see him poke a nurse with the nub of his arm as she exited. I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered him putting on his hook before we went to lunch just to see the look on people’s faces when he clanked the prosthetic limb on the table or poked waitresses with his fake hand. I wondered if my mother had exaggerated his condition. I soon found she hadn’t.

At her request, my mother walked into the room first. I stood in the doorway as she approached the bed. He didn’t recognize her. His normally expressive eyes were vacant and he looked so small. As she introduced herself, I swung my body against the corridor wall and stared at the ground terrified he may not recognize me or worse yet, that I wouldn’t recognize him. The shell was certainly the man I loved, but I wondered if that was all that remained.

After several seconds, I gathered my thoughts, stepped through the door into the dimly-lit room and walked to his bedside. It took him a moment to accept the coaxing of my mother to turn to his guest.

As he turned, his eyes cleared, looked at me with the same look of pride from years before and said, “How are you doin’ Pal?” My eyes welled with tears and I told him, “Everything is fine.” He asked me, “How do you like the service?” I laughed with tears still in my eyes and told him, “It was the best thing I’d ever done.” He smiled and said, “Me too.”

My grandfather was an amazing man and regardless of the circumstances, he was never bitter to have served his country.

If he could see you performing your day to day duties, he would have look at you as only he could, thank you with all his heart for your service, and extend his good hand to shake yours as one Airman to another.