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A humble hero

WWII pilot endured brutal conditions as POW

The rolling prairie south of Starbuck, Minn., harbors picturesque farmsteads nestled in amongst ancient hills and glacial till. Joanna Campbell and her husband, Jay, live on one of these secluded sites. My recent visit to their home was to talk with Joanna about her father, James Cannon, a fighter pilot in World War II. “I was so proud of his time in the military,” Joanna told me, “what he did and what he endured.”

Jim Cannon at age 4.

It has been 10 years since my friend Jim Cannon passed away. He was a quiet, private man, polite and direct. He minded his own business and always helped others when asked, a real gentleman. Jim and his wife, Dorothy, were married nearly 60 years, raised two sons and a daughter, and enjoyed participating in the activities of their grandchildren. In a crowd or at a parade, Jim blended in. There was nothing flashy about him to draw the attention of passersby unless they happened to notice the discolored skin on his forehead, neck, and hands. It is because of these combat injuries, and his being a retired member of the Armed Forces, that Lieutenant Colonel James Cannon is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, on the high ground overlooking the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Jim is one of more than 400,000 veterans laid to rest at Arlington. His humble beginnings did not suggest he would be successful in life. Abandoned by his father and then placed in an orphanage at age five by his mother, Jim eventually spent his childhood living with various relatives in Nebraska, always supporting his keep with farm labor. He did not graduate from high school, a common outcome for boys who were needed to help with chores. When Jim turned 18, he hitched a ride from Nebraska to California where he and his two siblings were reunited with their mother. His skill with engines eventually landed him a job as an automobile mechanic. When war came in 1941, the 23-year-old volunteered for the Army Aviation Cadet program. Jim earned his wings the following summer. A natural leader, he was named one of four flight commanders in the 353rd Fighter Squadron, a unit that would go on to lead all United States Army Air Force’s squadrons in aerial victories in World War II.

Photo taken in England, January 1944. Jim Cannon is pictured far right. Four of these friends were killed in action. Contributed photo

Arriving in England in late 1943, the young lieutenant soon found himself piloting the new P-51 Mustang, escorting B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers on missions over Occupied Europe. By March 1944 Jim, now a captain, participated in massive raids involving 1,000 heavy bombers hitting Berlin and other targets in Germany. In his memoirs, he described one of many missions in which intense anti-aircraft fire (flak) destroyed B-17s and B-24s, killing many of their 10-man crews:

“The bombers were in such heavy black puffs of flak bursts that I nearly lost sight of them. I was glad to be a fighter pilot and be able to move about freely and avoid the dangerous flak to some extent. The bombers had no choice but to stay in formation and on course during their bomb run. I saw several B-17s blow up and others spin out of control with pieces and debris floating down. I suspected that the bombs in one plane’s bomb bay had gone off from a direct hit by flak.”

Thinking of her father’s responsibilities during the war, Joanna said, “I can’t imagine having a job that you go to and you don’t know if you are going to make it back from your flight.”

By April Captain Cannon had destroyed or damaged several enemy aircraft and had survived shell hits by enemy pilots and anti-aircraft crews.

Jim’s luck ran out on April 29, 1944, when deadly ground fire struck his Mustang, Cannon Ball, as he pursued an enemy fighter low over the German countryside. After struggling to break free from the burning cockpit, he bailed out, his parachute popping open moments before landing in a field. Angry farmers quickly surrounded him.

“They were older men and very emotional,” Jim said. “One man with a thick-soled shoe ran up and kicked me. Some used their fists to hit me, which were weak and ineffective because I could ward off most of their blows. One old man had a long stick that he tried to hit me on top of the head with, but I saw it coming and ducked just in time so that the stick hit my left shoulder with a thud.”

Only a German officer’s intervention saved him from serious harm.

Jim Cannon pictured on documentation during his time as a POW in May 1944. Cannon had burns on his face and neck.

Jim was sent to a prisoner of war (POW) camp at Stalag Luft III near the German-Polish border. In January 1945, the men endured a two-day forced march ahead of the advancing Red Army. Jim remembered that “quite a few of the fellows had frostbitten feet that had turned black and blue and were badly swollen, becoming gangrenous.” It was difficult for them to walk because their boots or shoes were too tight to wear. He saw men cut holes in their footwear to make room for their toes. “During rest stops,” Jim said, “I would take off my wet socks and put on dry ones. The wet ones were wrung out and placed under my shirt to dry out. When we stopped walking, even for short periods, my wet shoes would freeze stiff.” At a rail head, the POWs were stuffed into cold, unsanitary freight cars and shipped to southern Germany. Jim spent February and March in an overcrowded, lice-invested camp. The food-starved, shabbily clothed men suffered from dysentery and low morale. Exactly one year after his shoot down, soldiers from General George Patton’s Third Army liberated Jim and his colleagues from imprisonment.

Because of shared experiences with pilots and fellow POWs, Jim felt a deep sense of brotherhood for those in uniform. When he developed a terminal health condition late in life, Jim agreed to his children’s request that his remains be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, where he would be with others who had served their country.

On a warm July morning in 2007, Jim’s son James, his daughter Joanna and other family and friends walked behind a horse-drawn caisson carrying his flag-draped casket to Section 64 of the cemetery. Then the honor guard transferred the casket to grave 4557. Joanna was in tears, “It was surreal. I felt like I was in a daze. It was so emotional.”

An Air Force chaplain spoke conciliatory words. The flag was removed from the casket, folded neatly, and given to the family “on behalf of the President of the United States, George W. Bush, and a grateful nation.” A seven-man rifle squad fired a three-volley salute and then a lone bugler played Taps, the sad notes drifting across row upon row of marble headstones. This ended the burial service. “I went over to Dad’s casket and touched it,” Joanna recalled, “to say one last goodbye.” Then she reluctantly turned away, walking with family members from the gravesite.

“It was hard to leave,” she said. “I kept turning back for one final look. I loved him very much.”

Joanna returned to her home in western Minnesota, missing her father but at peace knowing he rested with his comrades.

Paul Sailer is the author of a new book, I Had a Comrade – Stories about the bravery, comradeship, and commitment of individual participants in the Second World War –

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