World War II fighter pilot Robert “Punchy” Powell is used to people asking him to share his tales from the war, so he readily agreed when a group of pilots asked him to come to the 57th Fighter Group Restaurant at DeKalb Peachtree Airport (PDK) in Atlanta earlier this month.
What Powell didn’t know is that a group of more than 100 relatives and friends were standing by waiting to unveil a fiberglass replica P-51 repainted as his World War II ride when he was part of the 352nd Fighter Group.
As his friend Travis Reynolds drove Powell up to the restaurant, he told Punchy that he had an ulterior motive and pointed out the new paint job. “He said, ‘you rascal!’ when he saw it,” Reynolds recalls. “It was a great moment.”
Reynolds spearheaded the effort to honor the World War II ace, who is now 90.
“The Mustang was out front of the restaurant on a pole, painted in the colors of the 55th Fighter unit, which has no historical connection to the airport,” Reynolds says. “Punchy does a lot of this area and I thought it would be cool to honor him by painting the airplane in his colors.”
Reynolds asked aviation legend Pat Epps, who owns the restaurant, if they could undertake the project. Once given the go-ahead, it took about two months to complete the project. Reynolds was joined by six friends on the project.
“We just dove right in,” he says. “In our spare time we’d go over there, sanding it, and cleaning it up. There was lots of tape and newspaper and plastic.”
Reynolds also contacted his friend, Lee Lauderback, the man behind Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Fla., who led the group to Sky Harbor Aircraft in Ontario, Canada, which has vast experience in painting P-51s. Folks there helped them get the right paint colors, including the blue for the nose.
That was especially important as the 352nd Fighter Group, based in Bodney, England, had earned the nickname “The Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney.”
“The Germans coined that phrase,” Reynolds says.
In fact, it is said that Hermann Goering, supreme commander of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, came up with the nickname.
They were definitely his nemesis. The 352nd was one of the most highly decorated fighter groups in World War II. The 352nd flew 420 missions, 59,387 operational combat hours, destroyed 776 enemy aircraft, and had 29 aerial aces.
Between his first mission on Nov. 11, 1943, and Aug. 4, 1944, Powell flew 89 missions with the 352nd. He claimed 5.333 enemy aircraft destroyed, two probables, and five damaged. He was awarded the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, The Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the European Theatre Award with three Battle Stars.
Reynolds admits that once the group painted the replica’s nose blue, they were worried Powell would find out about the project. “He has so many friends in the area, but we managed to keep it a secret,” he says.
It helps, he says, that Powell’s wife, Betty, was in on the secret, as well as his children, who came to the unveiling from their homes in Columbia, S.C., St. Simons Islands, Ga., and Conyers, Ga.
The finishing touch was the nose art, including the name of Powell’s P-51, “The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian,” which was painted on by a talented local artist, Mark Lemon. Powell is a native of West Virginia who joined the war effort while he was a college student.
Also helping out on the project were Tim Zins, Mike Noonan, John Noonan, Barry Johnson, Greg Leach, and Rusty Mahoney.
Honoring the World War II hero was an honor for the group, Reynolds said.
“I’m honored to call him my friend,” he said. “A lot of people think he’s unapproachable because he’s a hero, but he’s the nicest guy. The hardest thing is to get him to stop talking!” he jokes.