MILLINOCKET, Maine — Edwin Waite suffered a leg wound, had several terrifying experiences and gained an enormous sense of pride from his service as a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II.
What he’s never had is a Purple Heart for his wound — until Thursday, that is.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, helped pin the medal on the 89-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps veteran’s chest during a brief ceremony at the Waite family’s home on Thursday.
Waite alternately beamed and cried as the kitchen full of friends and family saluted him with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Waite said he was deeply honored by the ceremony and didn’t mind having to await the recognition for so many years.
“Nobody knew anything about it,” Waite said in response to a question about why it took so long to get the Purple Heart. “When it happened, I was in a plane at 20,000 feet.”
Collins said she was pleased to help.
“I am the daughter of a veteran, so I really enjoyed the honor of helping this to happen,” Collins said. “He really is a wonderful man.”
Waite was a copilot, a second lieutenant flying his eighth bombing mission over Germany on May 12, 1944, when he suffered his leg wound, he said. His B-17, which was unnamed — “you just grabbed whatever plane they gave you,” he said, “you didn’t get to keep to one” — came under strafing attacks from a German ME-109 fighter.
Hit by machine-gun fire, the B-17 started to burn and dive when most of the plane’s crew bailed out. Waite, pilot Tom Williams, the plane’s radioman and engineer stayed behind, Waite because his parachute flew out of the plane during its evasive maneuvers, he said.
The plane were heading south toward France when a bullet — Waite believes it was a .30-caliber machine gun round — struck his left calf, Waite said. Williams and Waite struggled to keep the plane’s descent level as they brought it down, arcing the bomber over utility wires strung along a road before crash-landing in a field. German planes followed them right to ground, he said.
The landing, Waite said, “was either very skillfully or very badly handled.”
Waite and his three crewmates spent four days hiding in the woods near their crashed craft before they were captured by the Germans. A squad of German militia appeared after two villagers fed them and turned them over to the Luftwaffe, which ran prisoner-of-war camps at the time, Waite said.
Waite was among hundreds of prisoners liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third Army on April 29, 1945, and he was mustered out as a first lieutenant shortly thereafter, he said.
Waite might have received a Purple Heart sooner, he said, but lost Veterans Administration records and an inability to provide independent proof stymied his efforts — at least until his children started working on the case last year. Waite will wear the medal with pride, he said, but don’t expect to hear much from him about how he got it.
“I don’t talk about it much,” he said. “It makes me cry.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Edwin Waite is 90. He is 89.