WINTER SPRINGS, Fla. – World War II Army Air Corps Capt. George Starks said he knew he wanted to serve his country before he was even old enough to do so.
"I was an American boy and I wanted to do what I could for this country," 94-year-old Starks said. "I would do it again if I were physically able. I had been in the National Guard when I was a junior in high school, and they knew how old you were, but when they were federalized the day the war started, they had to discharge you. So I graduated high school and enlisted in the Air Corps as an aviation cadet. I wanted to go and I knew I wanted to fly because I had been in the infantry."
After about two years of training, at just 20 years old, his first major mission as a pilot in Europe would forever change his life.
"We go on a mission to Germany, in Munich, and in France, near the German border, we were shot down. We bailed out," Starks said. "My No. 1 engine was burning badly and my ball turret gunner called and asked for permission to leave his turret because the flames were beating against his turret. I knew it was going to blow any minute, and it wasn't 10 to 15 seconds I was out when that left wing went boom and it went down to flat spin. If I was 10 to 15 seconds later, I never would have gotten out ... the centrifugal force, I'd have been stuck. I fell 24,000 feet, I broke a bone in my right foot and I had shrapnel in the back of my left leg. So both legs were injured and I walked for 300 miles on them to Switzerland. I was very fortunate."
Before crossing into Switzerland, Starks also helped the French recapture a few of the towns the Germans had previously taken. For this, he was awarded the French Legion of Honour, which is the highest French award granted to a non-Frenchman, Sparks said.
He recounts the full story in a new book that is out by author Carole Engle Avriett. The book is called "Coffin Corner Boys: One Bomber, Ten Men, and Their Harrowing Escape from Nazi-Occupied France."
"The name of my book that's out, 'Coffin Corner Boys,' there was high squadron, lead squadron and low squadron, and low squadron was out on the corner, and the German fighters would hit there before the other fighters because they had less guns shooting back at them," Starks said. "We lost a lot of planes there, and that's where I was flying that day. That position out there, everybody had to fly it some time or other until you fly enough. As you move up in the formation, you got a little safer."
Starks said what he remembers most is the patriotism of the men he flew alongside.
"I want to tell you about Americanism," Starks said. "I'll always remember Tom Dexter. His brother was a bombardier in one of the aircraft that had a crash landing and his twin brother was killed. And Tom stood there and watched it burn. So I'll always have a lot of respect for a guy like that. They would usually send that boy home during the war, if there was just two in the family, one was killed. They'd send the other out of combat, but he said, 'No, this is my crew. I trained with them. I believe in them. I trust them. They trust me. I want to stay here with my crew.' And instead of going home to safety, he flew 30 missions and later became an airline pilot. He means a lot to me. He believed in what he was doing in fighting for this country."
Starks said that's what the Fourth of July is all about.
"Fourth of July means this country is the USA -- the greatest country in the world -- and we should do everything in the world to protect it," Starks said.