Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, December 20, 2012
Local veteran and war hero tours Washington, D.C.
by Jessica Brophy
On a fall day earlier this year, Dick Welch of Stonington was enjoying lunch at Harbor Ice Cream in Deer Isle when two men began asking him about his service during World War II.
The men were fascinated by Welch’s service as a bombardier for the 8th Air Force and as a year-long POW in a German camp.
One of the men, Bruce Pfann, decided to ask a group of his friends—about 20 or so men who had been fraternity brothers in 1959 at Cornell University—to fund a trip for Welch to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. The members of the fraternity usually meet each year in Sedgwick for a vacation.
The group agreed to honor Welch’s service and that was how, in late October (just as Hurricane Sandy was arriving) 92-year-old Welch was escorted to D.C. by Pfann for a four-day trip. While some of the activities planned had to be cut due to the weather, the pair did see the WWII and Vietnam memorials, as well as visit the National Air & Space Museum.
“It was very satisfying to be there,” said Welch in a recent phone interview. “Especially with another military man.” Pfann served as a helicopter pilot, said Welch.
Welch was very impressed by the holdings of the National Air & Space Museum, especially the space shuttles.
The WWII Memorial brought back many memories for Welch. “It was naturally kind of emotional,” he said.
Best seat in the house
Welch joined the Army Air Corp in 1943, and was trained as a bombardier (one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, according to Pfann). His job during bombing runs was to sit in the Plexiglas nose of the plane and look 180 degrees all around.
“I had the best seat in the house,” said Welch. “Some men didn’t want to look.”
Welch loved flying, and said he never thought about the danger much.
On his 18th mission, his plane was hit by German flak and went down. He was taken to a large prisoner of war camp for airmen in occupied Poland.
“Compared to some places you heard about, it wasn’t so bad,” said Welch, who ended up spending exactly one year as a POW. “There was no severe shortage of food.”
The prisoners were moved as the U.S. Army closed in on the Germans, said Welch.
“We walked and were moved in boxcars,” said Welch. “It was uncomfortable and crowded, but at the same time it wasn’t like they were shooting at us.” Welch said camps further East had it much worse, with prisoners walking upwards of 400 miles in the winter. Welch said he and other POWs in his camp “only” walked about 100 miles.
Welch said the POW camp was liberated by General George S. Patton and the U.S. Army. After the camp was liberated, Welch said he spent some time in a demobilization camp in France before returning stateside.
Once back in the states, Welch traveled to his hometown of Little Neck, New York. “They didn’t have any parade for me,” said Welch. “It was at the time when people knew everyone just wanted to come back home.”
A cab took him “just a few blocks to where my mother was standing in the doorway,” said Welch. “That was my homecoming.”
“I have to say, the whole thing to me personally seems like a stroke of luck,” said Welch of his time in the war.
Welch and his wife, Gigi, started summering in Stonington in 1963 and moved permanently in 1985. Welch now lives in the home alone, as Gigi is in the Island Nursing Home, where she “suffers from dementia,” said Welch.
A plaque describing Welch’s service now hangs at the Harbor Café, where Welch is a regular. Welch said he’s never talked so much about his service before. “I didn’t avoid [talking about] it, but very seldom did people bring it up,” he said. “I haven’t had so much attention in my life since meeting those guys.”
The trip was certainly a good one for Welch. “Outside of getting married, after the war this is about the best thing I’ve done,” said Welch. “It’s kind of overwhelming in a nice way.
“I guess my lucky streak is still holding,” he said.