While he may be gloriously decorated, bearing an Air Medal, two Purple Hearts and a Presidential Unit Citation, William “Bill” Laughlin will tell you that he’s a survivor, not a hero.
The resident of Carmel Valley’s Emeritus assisted living community will turn 92 on Sept. 8, but he still vividly remembers what he went through in 1944, when he was shot down from his B-24 bomber and captured in Romania as a prisoner of war. He endured a grueling five and a half months of detainment in a girls’ school in Bucharest, eating cabbage soup, sleeping in a mattress made of hay, and withstanding lice and bed bugs. But he still says he thinks he had it pretty good compared to many other World War II veterans who were shot down over Japan or Germany, or the tens of thousands who didn’t make it home at all.
“It wasn’t living in the Ritz, but everything is in comparison to something else,” said Laughlin, whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in Del Mar. “Had I ended up in Japan I would have had a real rough time. Many of them were tortured, and most didn’t come back. In Germany, they didn’t have the food to feed the prisoners.”
Laughlin is not only thankful to be alive to tell his story, but he’s one of a dwindling generation of WWII veterans who have lived long enough to talk first-hand about this important part of American history. That’s one of the reasons Laughlin was invited by U.S. Sen. John McCain and U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney to join them on stage for this year’s Memorial Day tribute at Balboa Park’s Veterans Museum. Being a former B-24 bombardier, the ceremony was particularly special for Laughlin because the heavy bomber, also called the Liberator, was designed by San Diego company Consolidated Aircraft.
Laughlin’s daughter, longtime Del Mar resident Donna Hall, had read about the ceremony in the paper and called the organizers to get tickets to the event. She then mentioned that her father is a veteran and they said, “Tell us about your dad.”
“They were so thrilled because the ceremony was to be held at the B-24 memorial. When they heard my dad was a B-24 bombardier, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh we have to honor this man. Can he come?” Hall said.
Laughlin added, “Then they found out I had gotten shot down and I was a prisoner of war and they went ape.”
The B-24’s most infamous mission was the one in which Laughlin participated — a low-level strike against Romania’s Ploiesti oil fields, which turned into a disaster because the enemy was reportedly underestimated. The strategic operation was meant to cut off much- needed oil to the Axis powers so they couldn’t fuel their equipment.
When his aircraft was shot, it lost power on one side and fell through a group of about 270 flying planes below, he said.
“It’s hard to say what you think during all this,” Laughlin remembered. “You’re on fire, everybody’s trying to get out of the airplane and you think, ‘How’d I get in this position?’ You think so fast.”