FARMINGTON — Like others of his generation, Philip Walters is humble about his service to his country.  

Walters, who turns 97 on Dec. 1 and resides Sandy River Center in Farmington, remembers clearly helping with 47 bombing missions during World War II, being shot down and spending a year as a prisoner of war.

“Books tell the facts but he is a living history,” his grandson Caleb Walters said. “I’m grateful to be able to talk with him.”

Since 1958, Walters and his wife lived in Wilton. He was a bush pilot for International Paper from 1953 to 1980 and kept watch of their timberland, his son, Tom Walters, said. 

The elder Walters’ said his faith was the “only reason I walked away” from three separate incidents that could have taken his life.

During World War II, he wanted to go into the service for the excitement, Tom Walters said. 

Philip Walters joined the Army Air Force in 1942. He wanted to be a pilot but didn’t make it in the service, he said. Instead, he was a top turret gunner on a B-17G bomber. 

Based in Italy, a crew of 10 flew missions over Germany, France and Romania. They were tasked with bombing targets such as bases and oil fields in Germany, he said.

While most crews remained together, Walters’ original crew was split up. He became a spare gunner and flew each mission with nine others unknown to him.

As the reign of Adolf Hitler began to wind down, bombardments were heavy, he said. The crew’s mission was to strike Ploesti Oil Field in Romania. 

It was one of the biggest oil refineries and heavily guarded, Caleb said. 

An engine on the plane was hit. There was only fuel enough for about 20 minutes of flight as they headed back to Italy, Philip Walters said.

At 30,000 feet, they knew they had to ditch the plane so they went nose-down into the Adriatic Sea. Part of the crew, including Walters, was in the back of the plane. His job was to help push five men out through a hole in the plane, he said.

There was already 3 inches of water on a table used to reach the porthole when Walters was left to save himself.

“Did I want to live or not,” he said he asked himself. “I scrambled and got out through and into the water by myself.”

He got into a rubber raft and away from the plane.

At age 24, Walters spent the next year in Stalag Luft IV in Poland. It was hardly the same treatment that German prisoners received at camps here in Maine, Tom Walters said.

Philip Walters lost 50 pounds. There was little food, mostly cabbage and beans. Every day was different.

“I was thankful for life,” he said. “One day at a time — you live that day.”

When the Germans realized the Russians were coming from the east, they took the prisoners out on a death march — into the woods toward the west in the middle of winter.

Walters had frostbite and remembers little food, including three days when there was no food or water. Nights were spent in barns where he would scrounge to find hay to sleep on the ground.

That year he went without a shower. Their clothes were burned at the end to kill the lice. During breaks on the march, he would sit and pick bugs from his hair, he said.

He found two other Mainers among the 10,000 prisoners, one from Skowhegan and one from Winthrop. They stuck together. The one from Skowhegan, too weak to walk, was helped by Walters to keep him from being killed by the Germans.

Finally, he was on a planeload of prisoners brought back to the states. The frostbite caused a nagging issue with neuropathy in his feet and other health issues over the years, he said.

He returned to his grandfather’s farm in Readfield. One day, after dropping his father off at work in Winthrop, Walters couldn’t see around a train car that there was an oncoming train on the tracks. His vehicle was struck by the train.

With no seat belts, he was thrown nearly 100 feet from the crash, Tom Walters said. He survived a coma and injuries to his kidneys.

Using his GI Bill, he pursued his love of flying and took flight training in Augusta.

“My happiest days were those spent flying,” he said.

He walked away from yet another plane crash while flying for the paper company. They leased a plane but Walters was not told the condition of it. On takeoff from Twitchell Airport in Turner, the plane had some problems. His supervisor was with him and didn’t think he could clear a house at the end of the runway. He overrode Walter’s plan. The plane crashed into the woods.

Both were spared and walked away. Even though gas was dripping, it didn’t explode, he said.

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