The Yukon Veterans Museum Gala honored World War II prisoner of war Leonard Curtis and featured Tinker Air Force Base commander Col. Paul G. Filcek as the keynote speaker Thursday.
Curtis was an Army machine gun squad leader, whose war ended June 30, 1945, when he took a ship from France to New York City.
His company was the first to land in Sicily in 1943, and from there the U.S. took Italy.
Rome was taken June 4, 1944. Two days later, Curtis’ brother, who was assigned to an artillery unit, invaded France.
“(My brother and I) were probably 1,000 or 1,700 miles from each other because he invaded France from Great Britain and I was in Rome,” said Curtis.
During the war, Curtis fell ill.
“I didn’t know anything until I woke up and I heard some talking in German,” Curtis said. “I knew I was captured.”
He said he was not taken to a concentration camp, rather his captors kept him with them, and had about five guards look after him to ensure Curtis would not escape.
Curtis thought they would shoot him, but after about a month and a half, they released him, returning his M1 Garand and bandolier to him.
An M1 Garand, a .30-06 caliber semi-automatic rifle was the standard U.S. service rifle during World War II, as well as the Korean War.
Bandoliers are belts with pockets to hold ammunition.
“I turned to God for him to protect me, and if I get killed, (God’s) going to have me,” Curtis said. “I never looked back — I kept walking.”
During his journey through German territory, Curtis said he saw a Jeep approaching him. There were two men in the front and one in the back.
“I still think of that — God was with me, I always felt that way,” Curtis said. “With every war and every time God was behind it, we always win the war.”
Curtis fired his rifle at the Jeep’s German driver, killing him.
Shortly after, Curtis saw another Jeep, this one belonging to Americans.
The driver, who was Curtis’ friend, whom he went to school with, took Curtis back to his unit.
One hundred and fifty-nine men from Curtis’ unit died, he said.
After the war, Curtis obtained a book that had names of all the men who died. He highlighted all the ones he knew in his company.
Yukon Veterans Museum treasurer Jerry Stafford invited Curtis to attend the gala after meeting him at Maranatha Baptist Church in Bethany. Both attend the church.
Throughout Filcek’s speech, the colonel thanked Curtis for his service, commended the Yukon Veterans Museum and discussed accomplishments of Tinker Air Force Base.
“I hope you look at me and realize your job is well done,” Filcek told Curtis. “And that I look 40 years from now at the next generation and know that my job was well done.”
Filcek has served 36 years in the Air Force.
“Service and continued service, an effects-driven lifestyle will ultimately lead to the kind of success that’s independent of rank and money, and instead is dependent on looking in the mirror,” Filcek said. “Every veteran in this room, every veteran honored by the Yukon Veterans Museum and every veteran in the entire state and country … has had an effect.”
Friday was the Air Force’s 73rd birthday.
The U.S. Department of War officially activated Tinker’s airfield March 1, 1942.
Friday was also National POW/MIA Recognition Day to honor former prisoners of war and those who are missing in action.
“What we do for our veterans today, resonates with the next generation,” Filcek said. “That generation is the only key to our success as a nation. We need to venerate the past. We need to tell those stories.”
He also said veterans need to tell their stories because the nation needs to remember them every day.
“The Yukon Veterans Museum tells that story,” Filcek said. “You have people’s stories. You have humans who have given their lives for this country and everything we believe in. Thank you.”