CHIÈVRES AIR BASE, Belgium --
The following is the second installment of a two-part series detailing two World War II Airmen and their visit to Chièvres Air Base, Belgium.
"...and I was freed."
"Flying a P-47 with eight machine guns and a bomber too was really fun," said Ralph Kling, a Ramona, Calif., native, recalling his U.S. Army Air Corps days. "I can guarantee you, it was fun as far as we were concerned."
Like his colleague Archie "Lin" Maltbie, Kling's near-acrobatic aerial skills with the Ninth Air Force's 365th Fighter Group kept him flying in the face of deadly risks.
Yet, Kling's 68th mission Sept. 21, 1944, wouldn't end when he returned to the ground.
"We kind of wrapped things up and were about ready to go home, but there was one more building that they wanted to get rid of," he said.
As an element leader and feeling "pretty cocky about that," Kling flew in a 12-ship formation to take out the targeted building.
So far, so good... until...
"Somebody on the ground with a gun didn't know how to shoot," Kling said. "So the dummy just shot straight up, and this dummy (Kling) flew into it."
Like Maltbie's scenario, the floor of the P-47's cockpit began seeping with gasoline. Yet as he reached to bail out, the mechanism didn't fully release him - he was stuck.
"My first reaction was to bail out, and when I did, I got as far as my legs," he said. "I asked God to let me go, and I was freed."
Barely escaping the flaming aircraft, Kling's descent to the ground brought him within Axis territory. His first days of evasion eventually ended with capture, and he'd spend the next three months as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III -- the same one of "The Great Escape."
His captors moved him again to Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Germany, before Allied forces finally liberated him and his fellow POWs April 29, 1945.
And like many of his fellow veterans, Kling stayed with the emergent U.S. Air Force and continued to fly. He retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserves with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Since then, he's devoted much of his time to helping other POWs across the country, speaking on their behalf and even dedicating statues to their memory.
To anyone who may dismiss the incredible grace as "dumb luck," Kling said they need look no farther than to him as an example to the contrary.
"I think down through the years how I've managed to get myself into one jam or another, and God has always been there for me," Kling said. "I've been here now, and I probably shouldn't be. I'm about to be 90 years old. I live kind of an active life, should stay home to rest. My wife and I just celebrated our 70th wedding anniversary. We're so fortunate. We both are. But it's unfair to me and God if I don't let everyone know that He's appreciated."
"They helped us bring freedom to our country"
Both Kling and Maltbie, along with members of the 365th Fighter Group Association, toured Chièvres Air Base, Belgium, Aug. 9. The veterans received American flags flown by U.S. Army helicopters over Chièvres and then presented to them by the base honor guard.
Members of the Belgian "Wings of Memory" military organization presented them with original ammunition shells from the war they had unearthed during an excavation as well as the best of Belgian beers in a sign of solidarity between nations.
Even Maltbie and Kling's significance wasn't lost on the Airmen's children, too.
"They helped us bring freedom to our country and did so for others, too," said Amir Chislom, 12, son of U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Christina Chislom, NCO in charge of Supreme Allied Command Europe Protocol and New York City native. "If it wasn't for people like them, we still would not be free and would be living under a king."
But perhaps the real treat for the 424th ABS Airmen wasn't in receiving an autograph or handing over a piece of shrapnel or even Old Glory to the veterans.
Perhaps the true value came in realizing how today's Airmen pledged to follow in Maltbie and Kling's footsteps toward newer journeys as part of the U.S. Air Force.
"It's really an honor for me to be here today," said Kling to the Airmen. "I don't know that you realize how important your work is. America needs help. Keep it strong. Thank God for you."
To see more photos from the event, visit Spangdahlem's Flickr page.
For more information on stories like this one, visit U.S. Army Benelux's "Trenches to Foxholes" website.
For more information about the 365th Fighter Group, visit www.hellhawks.org.