Friendship in Columbia reveals World War II veteran's past

Posted October 14

— Fate brought Michele Spry and Lt. Col. Ferrill Purdy together in 2014.

She needed to interview a World War II pilot for a children's book. He needed to fix a lamp, and she is the co-owner of Midway Electric in Columbia, the Missourian (http://bit.ly/2ep6sQX ) reported.

He walked into her store that August day wearing his "Corsair F4U" hat, and Spry asked if he was a veteran. When he told her he was a Marine fighter pilot during World War II in the Pacific, both of their lives took a turn.

"She hasn't left me alone since," Purdy, 94, said with a laugh.

Purdy flew a Corsair F4U fighter during two tours of duty during the war, and Spry professes a deep regard for veterans from that generation.

Since their first meeting, she has published her book, reunited Purdy with his wingman and helped him apply for two Purple Hearts. A few months ago, she discovered a Corsair F4U at a museum in California, learned that Purdy had flown it and is now working to reunite him with the aircraft.

What started as a children's book about a World War II pilot has evolved into a friendship based on her interest in Purdy's decorated but almost forgotten war career.

"These guys were told to never talk about what they did," she said. "It's not at the top of the mind, so you really have to search."

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Purdy was on a hunting trip in Iowa.

He didn't hear the news until late that evening. The next day, he boarded a train to Kansas City to enlist as a Navy pilot. He was 19.

Roughly two years later, he had become a fighter pilot in the Marines and was headed for the Pacific Theater. Purdy can recall the war years vividly, save a few details when he occasionally stumbles. He ended up serving as a fighter pilot for two tours in the Pacific — one from 1943 to 1944 and one from 1944 to 1946.

During those tours, Purdy witnessed some of the most devastating aspects of the war.

He was present and fighting during the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943, often considered one of the bloodiest battles for both the U.S. and the Japanese. A total of 1,696 Americans lost their lives, along with 4,690 Japanese soldiers.

Less than two years later, Purdy was flying near Nagasaki when he and fellow pilots received an order to turn their planes around — the United States was preparing to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

But even when talking about the tragedies of the war, Purdy remains composed, even upbeat. He remembered that 45 days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he and a few men from his squadron drove a Jeep through the ruins of Nagasaki, curious to see what had happened.

"They didn't necessarily understand the after effects back then," said his wife, Elouise.

During both tours in the Pacific, Purdy's wingman was Maj. John Tashjian. The two had been assigned to the same squadron early in the war.

Purdy speaks reverently of Tashjian, and for good reason — the wingman once saved his life.

In 1944, Purdy and his squadron were flying over the Marshall Islands when the plane's oil cooler was hit. He was able to land his plane safely on the water, 68 nautical miles from shore.

To protect Purdy, Tashjian flew in circles above the damaged plane and kept the enemy at bay, while two other pilots located a Naval destroyer to rescue the downed pilot. By the time Purdy was finally saved, he was only 12 nautical miles from land, where the enemy was waiting.

This act of heroism solidified Tashjian and Purdy's friendship.

"He was such a solid kid," Tashjian said in a phone conversation last month.

Purdy was shot down again during his second tour in 1945 near Okinawa, Japan. Gunfire struck the belly of his plane, causing shrapnel to hit his face, arms and legs, and cutting a tendon in his hand. With his one good hand on broken landing controls, Purdy managed to steer the plane into a field on Okinawa, sustaining a few injuries that were attended to in a hospital shortly afterward.

After recovering from the crash and finishing his tour, Purdy returned home to Bosworth, Missouri, in 1946 for good. He finished college and moved to Columbia to teach pharmacology and physiology.

"And I've been messing up everyone's life ever since," he added, laughing.

After hearing pieces of Purdy's story for a year, Spry finally sat down in the fall of 2015 to interview him for her book, "A Trip to Remember." The tale is based on Spry's volunteer work with Central Missouri Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated to their service.

Spry wanted her story to focus on a veteran World War II pilot getting the chance to go on an honor flight for the first time.

"Every star aligned with Mr. Purdy," Spry said. "He was exactly what I was looking for."

Spry asked him repeatedly to apply for a spot on an honor flight, but he kept declining because of poor health. Finally, he told her, "If you quit asking me to go on an honor flight, I will give you my story."

The book was self-published in July, but she still found herself attached to Purdy's story. Last spring, she began searching for his wingman.

After weeks of dead ends, she finally reached Tashjian's son in California. His father, now 95, was alive and on a trip to Australia.

Three weeks later, Tashjian called to tell her he would be in St. Louis at the end of June. Spry quickly arranged to have him picked up and driven to Columbia to see Purdy. It was an emotional weekend for everyone involved.

"I thought I was never gonna see John again," Purdy said. "All the other friends I flew with are gone."

In the meantime, Spry has worked with Purdy to submit applications for two Purple Hearts, one for each time he was wounded during the war. To receive a Purple Heart, a veteran must document the incidents, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.

In June, Spry and Purdy submitted the paperwork to U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler.

That same month, Spry and Purdy made their most astonishing discovery yet. Using a serial number from one of Purdy's logbooks, Spry found the Corsair F4U he flew on display at the Planes of Fame air museum in Chino, California.

The plane not only survived the war, it had been featured in "Baa Baa Blacksheep," a TV series that aired in the late 1970s about a group of Marine fighter pilots during World War II.

Cory O'Bryan, a volunteer for Planes of Fame, had been studying the Corsair for at least two decades and was able to determine that it was built in August 1943 and turned up again in August 1944. He couldn't find any records to account for the missing year.

When Spry told him Purdy and Tashjian had flown the plane during that period, O'Bryan was astonished. He said he couldn't think of another instance where a plane in the museum had been matched with its crew.

In August, Spry met Tashjian and his son in Chino to see the Corsair. She and Tasjian's son even got a short ride in the plane.

"It was absolutely one of the coolest things I've ever done," Spry said.

Still, she couldn't shake the notion of reuniting Purdy with his aircraft, despite his poor health. Both Spry and Purdy are acutely aware of a ticking clock. As many as 492 World War II veterans die every day, according to The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The death of these veterans means the loss of history, Spry believes.

"You're not going to get what they lived, what they saw," she said. "I wrote my book so I can try and show that to the younger generations."

So she decided that if he couldn't come to the plane, the plane would come to him.

On Aug. 20, Spry started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $28,000 and bring the plane to Columbia. Last week, she met her goal.

The plane will arrive in Columbia on Oct. 15 for a free public event, and Spry said Purdy was overjoyed when he heard the news:

"He is so excited to pat the belly of that plane one more time."


Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all