Left: photo of Bill McGinley, center: Bill McGinley’s Purple Heart, right: Bill McGinley receives a medal
One of the latest additions to the American Air Museum in Britain’s permanent collection is a Purple Heart that is small in size but has great meaning. It was awarded to Staff Sergeant William “Bill” Connel McGinley after he was wounded—and supposedly killed—while serving as a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator during World War II.
Fortunately for Bill and his once-grieving parents, the US military was wrong about him dying when his aircraft was shot down over Nazi-occupied Belgium. The mistake was understandable given his B-24 crashed in a ball of flames after being attacked by a swarm of enemy fighter aircraft. And although Bill did indeed survive after helping other crew members get out, and parachuting from the burning bomber, he was rescued by members of the Belgian resistance who kept him safe for eight months—with no one knowing he was still alive.
In 2014, Bill described his harrowing leap:
“The fighters jumped on us. They hit the front end and killed the bombardier and navigator. One knocked out an engine and gas and oil were coming down. I pushed one guy out and started to follow him. But the ball turret gunner was still down there. So I’m laying down pulling him out of the turret … and I could hear bullets going by my ear.
“The next thing I know, I am flying under the tail. The parachute ballooned out toward the slip stream and I just swung down.”
Bill landed awkwardly in a pasture, knocking himself out in the process of being dragged across the ground by his billowing parachute. A farmer signaled him to lie down in the field and stay still so he wouldn’t draw the attention of German soldiers in the area.
After nightfall, the farmer returned to get Bill and take him to a barn, where he hid among hay for three days and nights. Members of the Belgian resistance brought civilian clothes for Bill to wear and began moving him to different locations to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo.
From the barn to an automobile repair garage and room above a barber shop, Bill and other downed American airmen were kept safe by Belgian helpers. One day while eating dinner at a miller’s home, someone rushed in to warn Gestapo agents were coming up the street.
Bill’s host quickly guided him down an alley before returning to his home. “The Germans got him,” Bill recounted, “and beat him up. Three or four weeks later, I saw him but didn’t recognize him [because] he was beat up so.”
Referring to all of his Belgian helpers during his time on the run, Bill recalled, “they would do anything for us. I mean they put their lives on the line for us guys that were shot down.”
The Unbroken Line of Patriots
Bill McGinley’s Purple Heart was delivered to his parents with a message signed by President Franklin D Roosevelt and hailing Bill for standing “in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live.”
Despite being informed he had been killed in action, Bill’s parents clung to a thread of hope. His father felt that if Bill had managed to make it to the ground, then he would manage to make it home safe and sound.
That hope was rewarded with a telegram Bill sent from London in September 1944, following the liberation of Belgium by Allied troops. In rural Arkansas the local postmaster delivered telegrams by hand. When he arrived at the McGinley family home, Bill’s parents were picking peas in their garden.
“Dear Mom, am safe and well, hope to see you soon, don’t worry.” Upon reading this miraculous news, Bill’s parents danced for joy. So much so, Bill said with a smile, “Mama lost her glasses! It took three days before they found them.”
We imagine a few days without her glasses didn’t bother Mrs. McGinley one little bit once she knew her son was on the way home. And we know Bill was amused by running into old friends who would ask, “How come you are back here? You are supposed to be dead!”
About the Purple Heart
The Purple Heart is the oldest military award still being presented to members of the US armed forces.
On August 7, 1782, George Washington announced the Purple Heart-shaped Badge of Military Merit would be awarded to soldiers who showed gallantry and fidelity during the Revolutionary War. After 150 years without use, the award was revived in 1932 as the Purple Heart. In 1942 it was redesignated as an award exclusively given for death or wounds in combat.
Bill McGinley’s Purple Heart, now a permanent part of the museum’s collection, is one of an estimated more than 1 million awarded during World War II.
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