BENBROOK -- Working a .50-caliber gun from the top turret of a B-24 Liberator, Dale Hulsey fought in one of the most dramatic air battles in U.S. history and still the single most decorated mission in Air Force history.
He survived the bombing run and the anti-aircraft fire, survived a crash landing when a German fighter jumped his plane, survived a frantic run into the woods to evade the enemy who had seen the bomber go down.
He survived 319 days on the run by linking up with Marshal Tito's Yugoslav partisans, survived a brutal winter in the mountains and survived a daring rescue by secret agents.
But rarely did he talk about his war over the years or his hard-earned membership in the Air Force Escape & Evasion Society.
His wife of 61 years, Velma, and daughter, Darlena, knew little until recently. His co-workers and acquaintances in the utility business over the years knew even less. He'd tried a few times when military service came up, but he gave up in disgust.
"People didn't believe me, and I got tired of trying to talk to people who acted like I made it up," he said.
Hulsey's got nothing to prove, not anymore. He passed that test a long time ago, along with the men he served with. He turns 90 on Tuesday, a cause for a major celebration for his family and close friends, who are hosting a party for him Saturday at the First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth.
His daughter organized the party not only to honor that milestone but also to honor his service. U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, is scheduled to pin on medals he earned but had never received.
"When I was filling out paperwork for VA benefits recently, I was reading his discharge papers, and I never knew about all he had done or experienced," she said. "Every girl's hero is her daddy, but after reading about what he'd done, it made him more of my hero."
Hulsey, the ninth of 11 children, came from a sharecropper's family that farmed cotton in Comanche and Dickens counties and later in Lamb County.
After graduating from Olton High School in the Panhandle in 1940, he went to work in the North American Aviation plant in Grand Prairie, helping assemble AT-6 Texans for use in training new pilots.
The government sent Hulsey a draft notice in April 1942, less than five months after the Pearl Harbor attacks. But he didn't wait to report. He enlisted.
"I didn't want to spend time in the infantry," he said. "I joined so I could get in the air force."
After months of training to become a gunner and radio operator, Hulsey joined a 10-man crew on a B-24 Liberator. The plane was nicknamed "The Witch," with cartoonish nose art that looked like the Disney character in Snow White.
In summer 1943, Hulsey and the entire 98th Bomb Group, commanded by Texan and Baylor University graduate Col. John R. Kane, found themselves in Benghazi, Libya, a city that made international headlines this year as the birthplace of the Libyan Revolution.
The men knew they had a special mission coming up, one that would rewrite all the flying and bombing rules they had so steadfastly learned.
They flew practice missions only feet above the North African desert, trying to master a low-level method of attack for use where high-altitude bombing runs had failed.
Their target was one of the most heavily defended locations in all of Nazi-held territory: the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, which provided a third of the fuel for the German military.
On the night of July 31, Hulsey went to bed and slept well, or at least as well as he "could in a hot, summer desert."
The next morning, Sunday, Aug. 1, 1943, the Witch and 176 other Liberator bombers took off over the Mediterranean Sea with extra fuel in the bomb bays for the 2,400-mile round trip. They had not a single fighter for protection.
"We knew the purpose of the mission," he said. "We knew it had been defeated twice before. But at least for us inexperienced guys, we didn't realize this mission was that much more risky than a normal mission would have been.
"Maybe the guys with combat experience knew that. I know of one pilot in the group who refused to go because he called it a 'suicide mission.'"
The bomber groups, some of which got confused and went off course, arrived at the oil refineries in the middle of the afternoon and less than organized.
The 98th Bomb Group came in virtually on top of another group that wasn't supposed to be there and dropped its bombs a mere 50 feet off the ground, surmising that the withering anti-aircraft fire would be sighted for planes at high altitudes.
Smoke, fire and secondary explosions made the flying even more hazardous.
"Supposedly a German general said it was one of the most coordinated attacks he'd ever seen," Hulsey said. "He didn't know it was a screw-up."
As the Witch began its return to North Africa, though, a pair of German fighters pounced, shooting out three of the aircraft's four engines and wounding two crewmen.
The pilots maintained control of the aircraft through its terrifying descent in the mountains of Yugoslavia, finally crash-landing in a field near a small village. By then, four of the crew had parachuted out.
Hulsey, along with three others, took off for the cover of woods. Bulgarian troops, allies of Germany, moved in quickly, seizing the aircraft and capturing two of the crew. But they somehow failed to find Hulsey and the other three men, even though a family in the tiny village took him in.
With the partisans
The next morning, a group of partisans linked up with the Americans outside the village and began an odyssey that would test Hulsey physically and mentally.
Over the ensuing 11 months, Hulsey and the three other Americans went everywhere with the partisans, occasionally robbing weapons from trains and once trying to blow up a power generation station the Germans needed.
Except for the worst nights of winter, they slept outside -- "I preferred to sleep outside because of the vermin inside" -- and moved constantly -- "It was later estimated we walked 4,000 miles."
They knew next to nothing about the larger war. They knew next to nothing about their future.
"You didn't allow yourself to think about getting back home," he said. "You just went along day to day."
Hundreds of Germans ruthlessly pursued the partisans and put a bounty on the heads of the Americans.
In late spring 1944, three British agents joined the partisans to gain intelligence on the group and discovered the four Americans from the Witch crew, plus two other downed fliers.
They notified their superiors and some weeks later, three men from the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) parachuted in.
Several days later, two C-47 aircraft landed on the shoulder of a mountain in Yugoslavia and whisked the Americans away.
Hulsey would never visit Yugoslavia again, though he now sounds as if he wishes he had.
"Those partisans protected us," he said.
Back from the dead
The Army flew Hulsey to Italy, then eventually to Denver. Hulsey called a sister in Amarillo and told her he'd be on a train there the next day. It was the first his family knew he'd survived.
Military officials had all but proclaimed him dead in their communication with his family. They'd even presented a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross to his mother.
"To the words of Gen. Arnold, neither Gen. Brereton nor I can add further praise for the courageous action of your son," Brig. Gen. V.H. Strahm wrote to Hulsey's mother. "Gen. Brereton, all officers and enlisted men of this Air Force join me in extending to you our deepest sympathy and in expressing our mutual pride in having served with one who has rendered such heroic and unselfish service to our country."
Hulsey didn't know any of that then, nor did he know the terrible cost of the Ploesti raid in lives -- 300 airmen dead, 140 captured, more than 400 wounded.
More than half the men who went on the mission became casualties of some sort. Five Medals of Honor were awarded to pilots that day, including Hulsey's commander, Kane.
Hulsey's father, about as undemonstrative and unaffectionate as any man could be, told his family that he'd go pick his son up alone.
"He was emotional," Hulsey said. "He didn't want anyone to see him like that."
Hulsey got quiet, his eyes welling up, at the memory of the reunion with his father in the Amarillo train station in 1944. He spent a few weeks in Olton, eating his mother's cooking and trying to again get used to a landscape without a tree in sight.
One day in town, he ran into a buddy from high school who was on leave from his Navy duty.
"What are you doing here, Hulsey?" his friend called out. "You're supposed to be dead."
Thirty-five years after that Ploesti raid, the 10 men of the Witch reunited in New Orleans. All had survived the war, six after being held in prisoner of war camps.
They had a few more reunions over the ensuing years, the last in 2003 when only three could make it.
Now only Hulsey and Roland Gillette, the former bombardier who lives in Houston, are alive.
On this Veterans Day, Hulsey misses the rest of his old crew in a way few people can comprehend.
"The things we went through together," he said, as if that was all he could or even had to say.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547