WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – A tribute to the life and service of a World War II pilot, who recently received the highest honor ever bestowed by France, before he passed away in October.
Retired Lt. Colonel Bill Fry was born in Stafford, but he grew up in Atchison. Not too long after, he shared his story with KSN News on how he received that honor.
It all started when he was a child and wanted to fly. He wrote that special message in a Valentine to his father.
“It says, daddy, I’m going to be a pilot and take you for a ride,” Ret. Lt. Col. Bill Fry said.
He said there was one thing he always loved about flying.
“The freedom of the sky.”
Fry’s first experienced flying in a Boeing Stearman and had an amazing teacher who taught him all the basics. He said he always appreciated it that the instructor wasn’t afraid to teach him things that were not in the book.
In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
“I had several God-given talents that made it interesting for me.”
The first combat aircraft he flew was fast. They were in the cockpits of Black Widows.
“Right at 500 mph, which was fast at that time. We could fly it out on a low level,” Fry said. “If you could imagine an 18-year-old boy walking up to this monster airplane.”
The aircraft was also the first with airborne radar, and Fry said it even had a fancy autopilot.
“We’d never seen that much sophistication at that time.”
At that same time, the country was running out of four-engine pilots.
Fry was sent to Rapid City, South Dakota, and after just 30 hours of training, he was off to World War II in a B-17 back in 1944.
He said many people think the invasion of France was a big deal in World War II, but he said they didn’t understand the whole picture.
“Very few people know that we were coming in from the other side with airplanes and bombs,” Fry said. “I saw the one shell coming straight at us.”
On one mission, he describes a near miss as they closed in on their target.
“Actually, the good Lord turned my three-ship formation slightly, just enough to miss a direct hit.”
His flying fortress saw heavy fire. On his 24th and final bombing run, he lost three of the four engines.
“So, I was sitting there at 31,000 feet with one engine.”
His radio operator was hit with shrapnel in the spine and was suffering.
Fry said they couldn’t see anything through the clouds above the ocean, so that’s when he presented his crew with three options. He told the crew they could either make a return flight to England, attempt a landing in Russia, or cross the Baltic to get to Sweden.
The men voted unanimously to head to Sweden, and Fry told the guys to dump everything they could overboard, so the bomber could fly longer. He also ordered them to open the bomb bay doors to show they had no firepower.
“I went through weather, and then, I finally saw land.
That’s when he told the crew to lose another 1,200 pounds.
“I had had them drop the ball turret and everything heavy to lighten the airplane, so I was fast on the approach.”
He saw a small landing airfield below and said he was thankful he had learned a trick in training about landing a B-17 on a short strip.
“We got one shot at it,” Fry said. “With a crippled aircraft, there wasn’t any going around or trying to make another approach.”
Fry said they were just 150 feet off the ground.
“The number two engine had burst into flames on the landing.”
He saved his crew.
“There was maybe 30 people lined up at the end of the runway with machine guns waiting for us.”
They were taken as prisoners of war for a few days until they could check the crew out.
Fry said he later counted, and there were only 18 holes in the plane. He said that wasn’t that many.
“Every hole had taken out something vital in that airplane.”
Fry went on to fly after the war, and at one time, tried to get into the Wichita Air National Guard but all the flying positions were taken. He said a colonel suggested he start his own National Guard Unit, so he did.
Fry is responsible for starting the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance Fighter Pilot Group and was commander at one time.
The distinguished pilot earned many honors for his service to the nation, and recently, he was honored by France with his wife, Beverly.
“We will never forget the sacrifice of America’s Greatest Generation,” said French Consul General Guillaume Lacroix.
Fry was pinned with the Legion of Honour.
“In serving your country, saving my country,” Lacroix said.
In order to receive the highest decoration bestowed by France, veterans must have fought in one of four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes, or Northern France.
Fry was there for three of four of those campaigns. The decorated pilot wasn’t most proud of combat flying but rather his ability to teach.
“I’ve experienced most everything I have ever taught.”
He said he had to convince all his students of one thing.
“Make them feel like they could do it. I think that is the biggest satisfaction in all of it.”
Fry lit up when he talked about training future pilots.
It also brought him great joy to talk about giving his dad that plane ride he promised as a child.
“I was born to fly an airplane, and I flew all my life.”
Fry gained his forever wings at the age of 98.
He served from World War II until he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1983. After that, he went on to work at Beechcraft for 38 years. He was married to his wife Beverly for 53 years and was very proud of his children.