LEWISTON — Harold “Pop” Gilbert sometimes wonders why he survived.

“My thought process was why did it happen?” the 86-year-old World War II veteran said. “There must be a reason. I just wondered, ‘How come it was me?’”

Before his third mission as a gunner with a B-17 bomber crew over Europe, Gilbert fell ill. Without him, the crew with whom he’d trained and flown — nicknamed “The Michigan Air Force” after their pilot’s home — was forced to abandon their plane over occupied Holland.

Some men died. Some were taken prisoner. Three made it home to continue fighting.

In the end, Gilbert found peace by controlling what he could. Nothing more.

“I can recall lying in my bunk at night when I was going to fly the next day,” he said. “Not morbidly or anything, I just wondered if I’d be in the bunk again the following night.”

He had reason to worry.

The Canton native was part of a magnificent-but-costly endeavor: the daylight bombing of Germany.

The Allied campaign’s aim was to end German industry’s ability to supply its war machine by bombing its factories. However, to effectively destroy the factories and avoid the most civilian deaths, Allied planes had to do their work during daylight, when they were unprotected by the dark. German fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns shot down many.

“The numbers were against us,” Gilbert said. “They figured for you not to make it.”

On a typical mission, the Allies lost one plane in 25.

Gilbert arrived in England in August of 1943 and was assigned to the 385th Bombardment Group in Great Ashfield. He endured a few weeks of training and flew his first mission in October.

He was only 19.

“We felt confidence in our crew,” he said. “There was a great sense of teamwork.”

His first job was as a waist gunner, defending the nicknamed “Flying Fortress” against enemy planes from a window in the side of the bomber.

As soon as he grew healthy, he began filling in with other crews, taking on missions as the tail gunner and eventually in the ball turret in the belly of the plane.

He learned the shudder of his plane as it dropped its bombs, often watching as they fell onto their German targets. And he learned the sound of the anti-aircraft guns that would hurtle exploding shells into his plane’s path.

To the men in the planes it was known simply as “flak.”

The Rohr River Valley, where much of German industry was based was particularly well protected. The sheer number of guns led the guys to give it their own sardonic name, “Happy Valley.”

“The flak was pretty bad on some of the missions,” Gilbert said. “You hear the flak, definitely. At times, if it was close enough, you’d get the feeling of the detonation of it. But it’s got to be pretty close for you to feel it.”

The shells took too many planes. Routinely, his group of 21 aircraft would return from a mission with a plane or two missing.

“You always hoped that they would all return, and sometimes they did,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gilbert was working toward every crew member’s magic goal. Completion of 25 missions meant the end of the job and the opportunity to go home.

By the time, he reached his last mission, he was a seasoned veteran.

He participated in the first major daylight raid on Berlin. His bomber group took the lead.

“We were plane number four,” he said.

His heroism was noticed. Before he left England, he was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was also honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross, ordered by command of Maj. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, a larger-than-life character in the war best known for his 1942 air raid on Tokyo.

“Displaying great courage and skill, Sgt. Gilbert destroyed two enemy planes and materially aided in the success of 15 missions,” read the accompanying citation. “The courage, coolness and skill displayed by Sgt. Gilbert on all of these occasions reflect the highest credit upon himself and the armed forces of the United States.”

The citations and the honors were remembered last month when his University of Maine class — the Class of 1950 — awarded Gilbert with a “Greatest Generation Award.” They gave him a plaque citing some of his accomplishments.

Gilbert attended with his wife of 61 years, Norma, and about 40 classmates.

Yet, his greatest award was survival.

The Army Air Corps made him fly 26 missions total, adding one extra for good measure.

How did it feel to touch the ground when the last mission ended?

“Relief. Very much relief,” Gilbert said. “The group chaplain came out and greeted me and said, ‘Hello lucky!’”

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