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Conyers veteran Garrison kept American planes in the air during WWII

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Bill Garrison relaxes at home and shows off his favorite picture of a FlyingTiger P-40 over the fields of Burma. It is from WWII, Series 3, The Fighters. - Special Photo

CONYERS -- Born into a farming family, Bill Garrison graduated from high school in Monroe County at age 16.

"After high school I entered a government training program in Athens for aviation mechanics," he said. "My father paid the room and board and I learned my life-long trade."

Notwithstanding, Uncle Sam had first tabs on his skills in the forgotten CBI Theater of WWII: China, Burma, and India.

In 1943, 18-year old-Garrison entered the Army Air Corp.

"I was sent to Miami Beach for basic training," he said. "We stayed in hotels, had decent food and sandy beaches, plus I drank fresh orange juice!"

Fresh orange juice and sandy beaches were short-lived. Sent to Chanute Field, Ill., to study metallurgy and repair simulated structural damage on obsolete aircraft, Garrison grumbled, "Chanute was OK, but then I went to Salt Lake City, Utah, for ground combat training. I didn't care for it."

He would soon find the combat training very useful.

Sailing to Oran, Africa, for a short layover, Garrison boarded a Dutch East Indies liner in November of 1943, traversed the Suez Canal, and sailed on to Bombay, India.

"We were quartered by the British," he recalled. "Shoot, I was raised on eggs, butter, milk, fatback, and streak o' lean, but the British fed us beans -- beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and they tasted horrible!"

From Bombay, Garrison traveled to Calcutta.

"We repaired battle-damaged B-24 Liberator bombers in 100-degree heat," he said. "The metal was so hot it blistered your hands and arms."

Garrison requested nightshift or a prison cell; he got the nightshift. No matter, shortly he was en route to northern Burma to catch a "hop" across the Himalayan Mountains, "The Hump" into China on a C-46 Commando cargo plane.

"I was in my suntans (khakis) flying over the Himalayas with ice and frost inside the plane sifting down like snow," Garrison said.

In Kunming, China, he joined Gen. Claire Chennault's legendary Flying Tigers with the 14th Air Force, 3rd Fighter Group, 8th Fighter Squadron, or CACW -- Chinese-American Composite Wing.

"I repaired combat-damaged P-40 fighters and P-38 reconnaissance aircraft. My ground crew was six Chinese that spoke pigeon-English," he said, rolling his eyes. One undertaking was modification of the belly fuel tank on P-40 fighters for use on supply flights into India for "absolutely critical" provisions, like peanut butter and British gin.

Garrison spent the next 28 months in China shuffling back and forth from several bases with names like Lingling, Kweilin, Liuchow, Liangshan, Chungking and An Kang, depending on which side was winning the war at any given moment. He survived more than 100 bombing raids.

"They'd come over and drop bombs, then circle back real low, about 500 feet off the ground, to let their gunners strafe our airfield and personnel. We were ordered not to shoot back with rifles or pistols because they'd gun us down," Garrison said.

A remedy was found: Garrison and crew scavenged 50-caliber machine guns off junked P-40 fighters to craft twin-mounted anti-aircraft weapons.

"I fed the belt," he said. "We could hear the rounds hitting their planes. We killed a few pilots. Their bombers stayed a heck of a lot higher after that."

On occasion the Americans sought shelter in caves to avoid bombing raids; other times they'd sit on a mountain top to watch a nearby town destroyed.

"The Chinese took a beating," Garrison said. "But they'd build a shack with the rubble, rub mud inside and out for insulation to stay warm, and continued on with their lives."

The fighter aircraft were stationed as close to the combat as possible to help fend off enemy planes and assist ground troops, making a target rich environment for snipers and infiltrators.

"One day we were standing in line for chow and a guy ahead of us dropped dead; then we heard the rifle crack," Garrison recalled. "We'd take cover and a few boys would go outside the base, find the sniper and shoot him out of the trees. You don't get used to it; you just survive it."In another incident, the Japanese infiltrated the airbase and killed a guard standing watch outside of Garrison's barracks.

"The Japs did things like that to scare our Chinese laborers or our Chinese guards," he said. "Shoot, they scared the hell out of us, too!"

There were close calls.

"I was asleep when all hell broke loose," Garrison said. "I jumped up, got dressed, grabbed my carbine and ran outside. Shells and tracers and explosions were everywhere. I asked an officer what the heck was going on. He said, 'We're being overrun. Get on that C-47 and get outa here.' Well, we did, and the Japs took the base."

Another time enormous bombers approached the base.

"I saw those bombers and thought we'd lost the war. They were huge!" American bombers, B-29s coming in for a landing, low on fuel. "We filled them up and got them gone," Garrison said. "I sure was happy those bombers were ours."

Garrison also recalled waking up in the middle of the night and hearing what he thought was another attack.

"I still remember another time all hell broke loose while I was in the sack," he said. "Screaming and sirens and guns going off; I jumped up, got dressed, grabbed my carbine and ran outside. I knew we were being overrun. I asked a fellow what to do. He said, 'Celebrate, man, the war is over!' Yes, sir, that felt pretty good."

Garrison returned home, married the girl next door, worked odd jobs, got recalled for Korea to refurbish B-29s in San Antonio, Texas, for combat overseas, built houses, sold pharmaceuticals, and eventually retired from a long and satisfying career with Lockheed-Marietta.

When asked what he liked most about coming home from WWII, Garrison stated,

"My mom's eggs, butter, milk, fatback, and streak o' lean -- there ain't nothing better!"