Tom Creekmore celebrated his 95th birthday with some wartime reminiscences

December 7 has several meanings for Tom Creekmore: not only does it mark the United States’ 1941 entry into World War II and Delaware’s 1798 ratification of the U.S. Constitution, but it’s also his birthday.

Creekmore, who turned 95 on Dec. 7, 2018, observed the milestone a day afterward at the Air Mobility Command Museum. Standing in the shadow of B-17G Flying Fortress “Sleepy Time Gal,” the same type of aircraft he rode on 19 missions over Europe during the war, Creekmore reminisced about his life growing up in Depression-era Virginia, his induction into the U.S. Army, originally as a tank crewman, and a couple of near misses while serving as a radio operator aboard the B-17 in the closing months of the war.

Hosted by local radio personality Duke Brooks, the celebration was attended by members of Creekmore’s extended family, including his son, who channeled President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Dec. 8, 1941, request for a declaration of war against Imperial Japan.

Where’s Pearl Harbor?

The day of the Pearl Harbor attack, Creekmore was in a Washington, D.C., hospital room, recovering from an appendectomy. A small party was going on, with the radio tuned to a football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.

“The first thing you know, we heard an announcement that Pearl Harbor had been attacked,” he said. “We wondered, ‘Where’s Pearl Harbor?’”

There wasn’t much discussion about the game after that, Creekmore said. A torrent of announcements ordering military personnel to report back to their bases followed. His brother, Oliver, and a cousin left almost immediately, he said.

Officers were told to report the following day in uniform, which caused a conundrum since, as Creekmore related, many had been working in civilian clothing and didn’t even have a full set of uniforms.

Creekmore received his draft notice in 1943 and was assigned to the Third Armored Division. Eventually, he ended up in Louisiana, training for tank battles.

The idea did not appeal to him, so he applied for a transfer to the Army Air Forces after seeing a recruiting sign.

“I said, ‘Hey, this might be my out,’” he said. Flying assignments and submarine duty were strictly volunteer-only, so his chances of approval were good, he said.

He was lucky, Creekmore said. Dan Durso, a friend who was in the audience, served in the tank corps and was severely wounded when a shell scored a direct hit on his tank.

“Now I can talk to Dan and say if I hadn’t transferred to the Air Corps, what would I have been doing?” he said.

Creekmore celebrated his 21st birthday in 1944 by having a close encounter over Washington, D.C.

His crew had been assigned to fly a factory-fresh B-17 to a New York airfield as part of third-anniversary observances of the Pearl Harbor attack.

The weather was so bad on the return trip to Florida, air traffic controllers ordered the plane to land at the nation’s capital.

Flying at about 500 feet, low enough to try and spot some familiar landmarks, spying out his tiny radio compartment window, he suddenly spotted the Washington Monument off one wing.

Knowing the monument is 555 feet tall, Creekmore realized they were in a potentially bad situation.

“We weren’t supposed to be anywhere near that area,” he said. “That’s a whole restricted area from flying. And we probably flew right over the Capitol Building, right down the Mall.”

The pilot banked and landed at Washington National Airport, but was quickly ordered to move the B-17 to nearby Bolling Field. They made the jump without even raising the Fortress’ landing gear, he said.

‘I’m enjoying life’

There were some close calls on some of his bombing missions, Creekmore related, including once when an anti-aircraft shell went through the plane, destroying his radio room, and another when his aircraft almost collided with another.

One of his responsibilities each mission included making a visual inspection of the B-17’s bomb bay after the plane had dropped its bombs. On one mission, a 500-pound bomb failed to release, and was just hanging in the bay; efforts to get rid of it failed so they brought the shell back to their base in England.

Once they landed, however, the bomb slipped loose, dropped through the bomb bay doors and onto the concrete.

“All of a sudden I heard a crash and bang and looked out my window. People were running away from the aircraft,” he said. Fortunately, the bomb had not been armed, so there was no explosion.

“The chances of something happening were slim to nil,” he said, “but the guys running across that field didn’t care about that.”

After the German surrender, Creekmore and part of his crew were ordered into Soviet-held territory to help evacuate American airmen who had been made prisoners of war. Each B-17 held 30 POWs, but with continuous flying, the crews were able to save more than 6,000 airmen, he said.

Following the war, Creekmore went back to his job as a civilian airline manager and now lives in Millsboro, where he enjoys doing historical re-enactments.

“My goal always was to work for 40 years and then be retired for 40 years,” he said. “I’m enjoying life.”