SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --
Airmen and Soldiers gathered with the family of the late Col. Charles C. Heckel, World War II prisoner of war, to honor his sacrifices during a ceremony Jan. 19.
The event included a Missing Man Formation fly over, the reading of Heckel’s story, a Prisoner of War Medal presentation and a wreath-laying ceremony.
After entering active-duty service as an Army flying cadet in January 1943, Heckel attended training until he left the U.S. as a lieutenant to fight for Allied forces in the sky over Germany in August 1944.
Less than three months later, Heckel and fellow P-38 Lightning pilots engaged enemies when his aircraft collided with another, forcing him to eject. Soon after, Heckel was seized by the German army and transported to a prison camp.
“The once feared rumors of death camps had now been verified,” said Philip Johnson, Heckel’s grandson, as he read to ceremony attendees. “Food was scarce, the facade of politeness and decency between captors and captives had disintegrated. … He was prisoner number 8286. He joined 10,000 captured Allied air officers. He was 19 years old.”
In October 1944, Heckel battled starvation, exhaustion and the elements as he and other prisoners were forced to march across Germany or crowd into camps with the threat of violence and execution looming over their heads until Soldiers assigned to U.S. 3rd Army arrived to liberate them by running over the camp’s gate in April 1945.
“The ex-POWs swarmed over the tank, burying it in a sea of humanity -- 130,000 men now were hysterical with joy,” Johnson said. “Many cried as they saw the stars and stripes raised in the camp.”
Heckel, no longer POW 8286, returned to the U.S. in June 1946 and married his high school sweetheart, Jacqueline Bowman, less than one month later.
Despite the hardships Heckel faced as a POW, he continued to serve for more than 30 years.
“My husband, when he was a small boy, [thought] flying was it, and he was going to fly,” Jacqueline said. “It was no decision at all. … There was never, ever any decision at all. It was his first love.”
During his career, Heckel flew combat missions in Korea, reconnaissance missions in Vietnam, and worked in a variety of positions from crew chief to installation commander.
However, his assignments to Shaw AFB impacted him more than most.
“We were here three different assignments, and this is home,” said Jacqueline while discussing Shaw. “He was chief of maintenance over here, and he could tell you the number on every airplane on that line because those were his airplanes. ... We have just a lot of very fond memories here.”
Heckel’s connections to the base extended past his assignments.
“My grandfather had a long career that continually looped back through the 9th Air Force and the 20th [FW],” Johnson said. “His first aircraft, the P-38 he jumped out of, was from the 20th Fighter Group when they switched to P-51s in July . He returned to 9th AF, 20th Tactical Fighter Wing in the 1960s in Royal Air Force Wethersfield, and again to Shaw AFB where he flew and trained for Air Combat Command. … It seems appropriate that we could honor him at Shaw AFB.”
The connection also extended to his liberation in Germany by Soldiers assigned to 3rd Army, an organization that began operations at Shaw in 2011 and has been renamed U.S. Army Central.
With this strong link and love for Shaw, the family returned to the local area following Heckel’s retirement in 1975.
As generations of Airmen, Soldiers and families gathered to hear Heckel’s story and pay their respects, they also learned about a small part of Shaw’s heritage.