LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - The memory of explosions and airplanes falling out of the sky is still very vivid for two East Texas men. Despite never meeting each other, both men have lived similar lives in the skies.
"I had a lot of friends who were lost in World War II cause we flew in formations of twelve B-24's and one day we were going to bomb Berlin and the group ahead of us disappeared in the aircraft; shells exploding in the air, and the smoke and I could see B-24's falling out of the sky," former Air Force captain, Tom Slaughter, said.
It's been years since retired pilots Slaughter and Jerry French, a former Air Force major, flew an airplane, but they say it feels just like yesterday that they were fighting for their country in not only World War II, but the Vietnam and Korean wars.
"The other heroes are those that didn't come back from the war. I was lucky and came home. Out of 16 crews in my squadron over there of B-24 bombers, 16 crews, 12 airplanes, I was the only one to come home," French said.
In 1941, both men joined the Army Air Corps as pilots protecting the American skyline for nearly twenty years.
"I love being above civilization, being above the clouds and bright sunlight on a cloudy, stormy day, up there in the beautiful sky at night with the stars. You know that old saying, I touch out and touched the hand of God," French said.
At 19, French was one of the youngest flight commanders of four engine bombers in World War II. He flew over 50 missions in B-24's for World War II, 35 missions in B-29's for the Korean War, and 135 four engine jets during the Vietnam War.
After he retired from the Air Force, French spent 33 years in commercial aviation as an instructor pilot working for United and American Airlines.
"When I was a kid, my dad paid a barnstormer to take me out in a little airplane and so he went up and did all kinds of maneuvers and I didn't get airsick," French said.
Slaughter also has a list of achievements. He flew 30 missions in World War II and 250 during the Vietnam War. He also spent three years in the Army flying helicopters.
During his first day of combat in Vietnam, a bullet came through the helicopter and hit the pilot's leg. Eight pieces of scrap metal hit Slaughter in the face. Luckily, he was able to land the helicopter safely. He won the Purple Heart for this achievement.
"Some people like to drive cars or ride bicycles. I just like to fly airplanes," Slaughter said.
During his time in the Army, Slaughter also worked for NASA. He said he would take a helicopter down to Ellington Field right outside of Houston and fly Gemini Capsules 10,000 feet in the air. He would then drop the capsules, and jump out of the helicopter with a parasail while an astronaut practiced spot landings with him. He said it was one of the highlights of his career.
But both veterans say despite their achievements, Memorial Day isn't a day to think of themselves as heroes.
"It's a day to celebrate not their gift of life, but it's to celebrate that they did live," Slaughter said.
"I'm no hero. The American people, especially in World War II, they were the heroes. Memorial Day is a day that we remember those things that bring us back to those days. We don't want to forget them ever," French said.