All seven men who appeared recently at Leesburg Library have received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for exceptional courage and skill flying combat missions during World War II, Korea, the Cold War, and Vietnam. Some were honored with more than once.
“Other well-known recipients include Charles A. Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, George H.W. Bush, John Glenn, Chuck Yeager and others,” says David Lehtonen, president of The Villages Chapter of the DFC Society of Central Florida and presenter at the recent presentation.
Now, these men have written a book about their collective war stories. “Faces of the Distinguished Flying Cross of Central Florida: In Their Own Words” details 24 individual stories of bravery and valor lived and told by each man in his own voice.
Lt. Col. Joseph R. Finch, U.S. Army, retired, is author of the project, and one of the heroes. He added ‘et al’ on the cover because each man contributed his own story. Joseph served during the Vietnam War.
In his story, he tells how the Vietnamese put a price on a pilot’s head of $10,000 “…which was a lot of money to those guys and they didn’t even need the whole body—just the head!”
There are many harrowing stories of this nature in the book.
“War isn’t fun,” says Eugene (Barney) Barnhart, “One time, I lost my nose wheel and had to land my jet at 160 miles per hour. The airstrip wasn’t foamed.”
In the book he writes, “We were trailed by fire caused by the sparks and residual fuel…When we finally came to rest adjacent to the 5,000-foot marker, we went through our emergency shutdown procedures and evacuated the aircraft in record time. When I hit the ground, my legs were going full speed. I came to a sudden halt about 15 feet from the aircraft when my nylon lanyard [which was] attached to the ejection seat stopped me in mid-stride.”
His plane was eventually salvaged and flown again.
Wayne Lotsberg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, also served in Vietnam. In November 1972, he was shot down during a night reconnaissance mission and the darkness was his savior. He was rescued because it was at night and the enemy could not see him.
“You can’t allow yourself to dwell on your emotions,” Wayne says, “You shut down and make yourself not feel.”
He did say, however, that he felt a bump on his leg while he floated on his small raft before rescue. Later, it was found he was in Vietnamese waters with poisonous sea snakes.
“What have I learned in life?” Kenneth Taylor was a lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, and clarified the question, “Be patient and enjoy what you have. Have a positive attitude, and don’t give up.”
At 95 years old, he is the only surviving member of the group who served in World War II.
On Dec. 2, 2015, he met another survivor of the war who was just six years old at the time his family’s house was bombed in Japan. Judging from data, the men believe it was Lt. Taylor who had bombed that town. Now, having an historic meeting, it points at time being the healer of old wounds. The book shows a photo of the men eating at a local restaurant in The Villages.
“The hardest part was being away from my family,” says John Webb, 1st Lieutenant, U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam. “My daughter was being born right then, and somebody had to tell me the baby was born safely and that it was a girl.”
David Lehtonen, Lt. Colonel, US Air Force/CAP, served in Korea and the Cold War. He was asked the meaning of courage: “Something you go through that is stressful, bad, but you do it anyway. When you have a job, it’s your duty to complete it. So you do.”
Of the seven men at the presentation and book signing at Leesburg Public Library, all are members of the Villages Chapter of the DFC Society of Central Florida.
All 24 first-person accounts are compelling stories of young pilots who earned the prestigious award describing their heroic acts of exceptional courage, while flying combat missions during World War II, Korea, the Cold War, and Vietnam.
The book is available in soft cover on Amazon.com and will be available in hard cover at the upcoming 2018 Central Florida Book and Authors Expo being held Dec. 8 at Eisenhower Recreation Center in The Villages. It’s free and open to the public.