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Mustang pilot rememberedMustang pilot remembered

'Punchy' Powell flew 87 combat missions in two wars

His legs twisted by cramps, Capt. Robert H. “Punchy” Powell had to be carried from the cockpit after flying 16 hours of nonstop combat on June 6, 1944. He and fellow fighter pilots flew to the point of exhaustion, protecting the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, the D-Day that marked the beginning of the war's end. Powell spent that longest day in his P-51 Mustang, dubbed “The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian.”
Capt. Robert H. "Punchy" Powell. U.S. Army Air Force photo.

“We had orders to destroy ‘anything’ moving towards the beaches, and we did,” Powell told a newspaper near his Atlanta-area home weeks before his death on June 22. “When we ran out of ammo, we flew back to England, rearmed, and returned to the battle.”

Powell rearmed and refueled twice, and ultimately had to be pulled from the cockpit by his crew chief, a Native American nicknamed “Chief.”

“My legs cramped so bad I couldn’t move them. ‘Chief’ pulled me out and carried me like a baby,” Powell recalled.

Powell and his fellow airmen of the 352nd Fighter Group patrolled the skies and watched the roads leading to the beaches, pouncing on German vehicles rushing to repulse the invasion and shooting them to pieces. Powell is personally credited with four confirmed kills during World War II, another six probable, and another seven aircraft or vehicles damaged. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, among other decorations. The “Bluenosed Bastards of Bodney,” as the 352nd became known (Powell authored a book by that name), helped the Allies establish absolute air superiority for the invasion, and beyond.

Powell, 95, died in the early morning hours June 22, according to Ken McCoy, chaplain of the 352nd Fighter Group Association. “We already miss him!” McCoy wrote in an email.

Robert Powell with his P-51B in 1944. He would later survive a crash on takeoff (with full combat load) and was given a P-51D which was given the same name. Photo courtesy of the 352nd Fighter Group Association. Following the Allied victory, Powell remained in the reserves while he earned a degree in journalism from West Virginia University. He worked as a newspaper writer and photographer before resuming active duty service during the Korean War. Powell, born in Wilcoe, West Virginia, and nicknamed “Punchy” thanks to his experience as a Golden Gloves boxer, grew up in the coal-rich mountains and earned a reputation for not shying away from a fight. He was studying at West Virginia University when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and hitchhiked with a friend to Kentucky to take the aviation cadet exam, according to one of many online biographies of the man who came to represent many of his fellow airmen in the public mind. Powell earned his wings in California, and was briefly assigned to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt before his squadron transitioned to the P-51 and headed to Europe to escort bombers, destroy trains, and protect soldiers on the ground. Powell shared credit for the first downing of a German He-177 bomber on Jan. 5, 1944.

A replica of Powell’s P-51 is on display at the 57th Fighter Group restaurant at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, the Rockdale Citizen noted in its recent article.

Powell and his wife, Betty, had three children, and Powell worked in journalism and publishing throughout his civilian life, always actively involved in preserving and telling the stories of what became known as The Greatest Generation, particularly the fighter pilots and crews. Powell survived a crash on takeoff in a fully-armed Mustang, though the sheet metal that carried the airplane's name was rescued from the hot fire and kept for decades as a memento, and a visual aid for the stories Powell told of his exploits, and others by his fellow airmen. Powell is credited among the war's participants who have been most active in documenting the stories and preserving them for future generations. He served as historian and editor for the 352nd Fighter Group Association.

“He left behind a legacy that will last for generations,” McCoy wrote in an email to association members. “And a huge hole in my heart … In many, many ways, Punchy was the heart and soul of the 352nd Fighter Group Association. He had a knack of connecting people … Godspeed, Punchy. We are sure you’re having a great time telling stories and jokes right now!”

Artist and blogger John Mollison's online tribute was among several remembrances posted by organizations and groups, also including Stallion 51 of Kissimmee, Florida, which operates P-51 Mustangs today for airshow performances and rides.

Powell will be honored at a reception planned June 25, 5 to 7 p.m. at the Turner Funeral Home in Decatur, Georgia; a funeral is planned June 26, at 2 p.m. at the Oak Grove Methodist Church in Decatur. Donations in lieu of flowers are directed to The National Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force or The American Macular Degeneration Foundation.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Pilots

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