HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah — James Cotton says the Germans and the Japanese surrendered during World War II the moment they caught word of him.
“When the Germans heard I was in England, they surrendered,” the soon-to-be 90-year-old said, tongue firmly in cheek. “Then after that, the Japanese heard I was coming, and they followed suit.”
While Cotton uses his sense of humor to downplay his contributions during the war, active-duty servicemembers at Hill Air Force Base stood in awe and reverence of him and his fellow World War II veterans Thursday.
Cotton was one of nine original members from the 388th Bombardment Group (Heavy) who, along with about 70 family members, toured Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing this week.
“These guys are extremely special,” said Col. Lance Landrum, commander of the 388th Fighter Wing. “We (the active-duty armed forces of today) look up to them, and we’re inspired by what they did.”
The 388th BG(H) has a distinct heritage and was instrumental in winning World War II. The group participated in the 8th Air Force Blitz Week in July 1943, bombing targets over Bergen, Norway and Hanover, Germany — the latter of which earned the group its first Distinguished Unit Citation.
They were also heavily involved in the well-known Berlin Blitz, where they launched 33 B-17s. The group’s losses during the blitz amounted to 13 B-17s shot down, 40 members killed in action, five missing in action, 78 prisoners of war and 10 interned in Sweden for the duration of the war.
The group completed 333 missions between 1942 and 1945 before inactivating in August 1945.
“It was dangerous, but I enjoyed every bit of it,” Cotton said. “We knew we were fighting for something important. I wouldn’t mind doing it all over again.”
The group has close ties to today’s 388th Fighter Wing. The 388th BG(H) was designated the 388th Fighter-Day Wing in March of 1953, and then redesignated the 388th Fighter Bomber Wing in November of the same year. The wing was then redesignated the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1962, and finally the 388th Fighter Wing on Oct. 1, 1991.
“Our connection to our heritage and legacy is extremely important,” Landrum said. “And these guys are it. It’s our responsibility to live up to them, which is no easy task, but that’s what we try to do.”
On Thursday, Landrum and other airmen led the group through an air traffic control simulator training, an F-16 aircraft launch and recovery test, a weapons load demonstration and a static F-16 and munitions display.
When learning of the F-16’s highly technological weapons system, 388th BG(H) veteran Donald Scott simply shook his head.
“Well, things are a lot different now than they were back in our day,” he told Landrum. “It looks like the radio operator became obsolete a long time ago.”
The group has held an annual reunion since 1949, but their numbers continue to dwindle with each passing year.
Alfred Soo has been attending the reunions since 1977. Soo was a B-17 navigator and was accompanied Thursday by his old B-17 pilot, Wayne Daniels. Their plane was shot down in late 1944 on what was only Soo’s third mission. He was a prisoner of war for the duration of the war.
Soo said the reunions help carry on the group’s storied tradition.
“There’s not many of us left,” he said. “We need to tell our stories while we still can.”
©2014 the (Ogden, Utah) Standard-Examiner. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.