World War II tail gunner's journey came with close calls, closer faith

Henry Musick, seen at his home in Honaker, Va., flew more than 20 bombing missions over Nazi-controlled Europe during World War II.

HONAKER, Va.—Sitting in his living room, Henry Musick, 94, said he is grateful for his blessings. At his age, he has some health challenges, but he’s still surrounded by family—those who live in the area and treasured photos that fill the walls of his home.

He’s spent most of his life in Russell County, where he was a longtime educator in the county schools and a Baptist pastor.

He is also a World War II veteran.

After growing up on a farm in Russell County, he recalls being drafted at age 18. “You didn’t choose then; they chose for you,” he said in a recent interview.

Between 1943 and 1944, he served as a tail gunner in the Air Force. He was stationed in southern Italy and flew over 20 missions, including an unforgettable bombing of an oil refinery in Vienna, Austria.

“Our hearts sank,” he said about when they first heard about their mission, which was one of his first. At the time, Vienna was among the Axis Powers’ most well-defended cities, he said. “We got the message: It’s going to be a dangerous mission.”

After an early morning departure, the bomber carrying 11 men made it to their target, along with a group of other planes. He recalls their plane suffered some damage—including a damaged engine—although “not one man got one scratch,” he said.

But it was the trip home that almost killed the men.

First, a German plane attacked them after they left Vienna. Musick made a trilling machinelike sound with his mouth, mimicking the gunfire, as he talked about the encounter.

“Something red started coming all down over my shoulder, I looked around and thought my arm was shot off. I didn’t know what it was,” he said. He soon realized the fighter had hit machinery that operated his turret. “That had a red fluid in it—hydraulic fluid—and that’s what was coming down and going around.”

An American squadron came to their rescue and downed the German plane.

They continued their flight back to Italy, with plans to fly through what was then Yugoslavia and then across the Adriatic Sea, Musick said. As they navigated through mountains and approached the Adriatic, it became clear that they didn’t have enough fuel to make the journey, and the pilot made a forced landing.

An emergency landing can be a dangerous prospect—soldiers can be vulnerable to enemy capture—and armed men and women soon surrounded the crew after the Americans landed the plane safely, Musick said.

Soon, however, it became clear that their visitors were Yugoslavs who had been working to push Hitler’s forces out of the area. They took in Musick’s crew, and the Yugoslavs eventually connected the Americans with British forces who helped them return to Italy, he said.

He participated in over 20 missions before returning to Russell County.

“When we got back home, I was determined to help other boys to know peace and safety and to be secure, he said. “So I spent 45 years preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and 34 years as a county teacher and administrator, every job from teacher to assistant superintendent.”

He’s currently retired and lives with his wife, Pauline, 95. Together, they’ve had 8 children, 16 grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren, he said.

But Musick doesn’t see himself as a hero or a central figure in a compelling narrative. He credits his faith for protecting him during the war and everything he’s experienced.

“I’ve had different people ask me, ‘What did that do to you, going through all that?’” he said. “It tested me, it was quite a testing, but the Almighty Creator knows what he’s doing—he knows how to work it out and how to provide. He’s able.”

Get our daily Headlines Newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Recommended for you

Load comments