A lifetime of experiences: World War II pilot from Ballinger now fighting COVID-19
Joe Freeman has flown over the beaches of Normandy and the crops of West Texas during his 99 years
UPDATE: Joe Freeman died peacefully at his home in Ballinger on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, about a week after being released from a nursing home's COVID-19 unit. He was 99 years old.
The story below was published Dec. 1, 2020:
BALLINGER — Joe Freeman endured the Great Depression through his childhood and flew 109 combat missions in Western Europe before his 23rd birthday.
Now 99 years old, the Ballinger resident faces a new fight after he was recently hospitalized due to COVID-19.
Freeman is among the estimated 325,000 veterans still alive — about 2% — of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
His son-in-law, David Cowart, said the family received an encouraging update Tuesday on Freeman's condition.
"They had just diagnosed him Monday as positive, so we're very early on, and his age will certainly be a huge factor in this," Cowart said. "We're just going to take it day by day."
Freeman has spent nearly all of his life in West Texas. He grew up in Fort McKavett and attended school in Menard before graduating from San Angelo High School in 1937.
Four years later, his life — like so many others — was forever changed when he learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
It's what motivated Freeman to join the fight in World War II.
"He told me he was mad as hell when he heard it on the radio," Cowart said. "The next day, he went down and enlisted."
Before he flew a single mission, he met his future wife, Elizabeth Kellam, while stationed in Waycross, Georgia.
They were married shortly after he returned home from the war, and they enjoyed 59 years of marriage before she died Oct. 30, 2004.
Freeman had to survive some close calls in Europe to make it back home.
He said he could smell gunpowder from a German bullet that was lodged between his engine and his cockpit. He still has the bullet.
Another time, he damaged his own plane from dropping a bomb at too low an altitude.
"He had two wing men with his flight, and they both bombed and missed the bridge. Well, he was determined they weren't leaving there with that bridge intact," Cowart said. "So he flew up to altitude, and he had his nose straight on that bridge, and he stayed on it until he couldn't miss and dropped that bomb. He said, 'Shrapnel came all the way up through my airplane and canopy from my own bomb. But I destroyed that damn bridge.'
"He went back and landed, and luckily it didn't destroy any critical components. ... But the next morning, in formation, the squadron leader walked up to him and said, 'Don't get me wrong, I like hotshot pilots. But I've got plenty of hotshot pilots. I don't have many airplanes. Don't do that again.'"
Freeman also had an almost unfathomable perspective from high in the sky on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when more than 150,000 troops landed on five beaches in Normandy, France.
"On D-Day morning, we saddled up at daylight and headed for France. I'll never see another sight like that," Freeman said in a 2011 interview with Texas Woman's University.
"Looking back towards England from France, there's four rows of boats coming, which were mostly those landing craft full of soldiers, you know. And they went all the way back to England and then up around the west coast of England. I didn't know there was that many boats in the world..."
The D-Day invasion helped turn the tide of the war for the Allies, but the aftermath was unimaginable, Freeman recalled.
"On the next-to-last mission returning over Omaha Beach, he was flying low coming back, and he said the ocean surf water was absolutely reddish pink from the blood," Cowart said. "Bodies were lined up as far as he could see, just laid side by side down on the beach to be taken off. He said he'd never seen so many dead soldiers before or since."
Grateful to have survived the war, Freeman returned home with many years ahead of him.
He went into business with an uncle and began building farm terraces in Tom Green, Runnels and Concho counties.
His flying experience came back into play when Dow Chemical began manufacturing brush control products that had to be provided aerially.
"Being a fighter pilot, he jumped on that," Cowart said. "He bought his first airplane and started a business, and it was extremely successful. He sprayed for ranchers from Del Rio to Sterling City and out to Midland and Odessa. He did some crop dusting in the early years, and he was spraying cotton around Eldorado, San Angelo and, of course, Ballinger.
"So he built a business, and I know of at least three other pilots he helped train and establish their own air spraying business, and so he was very generous with his knowledge and time."
Freeman and his wife leased the Ballinger Municipal Airport to use as their home base.
They had three children — Carol, Jimmy and Linda.
In the 1970s, Freeman ventured into ranching. He even served as the director of the American Rambouillet Sheep Breeders Association.
"If you want to pick any industry where you'll meet some of the best people, the sheep industry has more than its share of good people in it," Freeman said in an article published by Ranch & Rural Living in September 1998. "I guess they've had to overcome so many obstacles that it just built character for them."
Cowart said he believes Freeman's upbringing in rural West Texas during the Depression helped build that same kind of character.
"I've heard him speak of working on ranches and riding horses in races to win money — all kinds of neat things they did to survive," Cowart said. "But that's the background he came from. They buckled down and did what they had to do, and I always thought that was an interesting aspect of his character.
"He's always been, to me, the epitome of the old West Texas spirit. 'I don't need anybody to do anything for me. I'll make my own decisions, and I'll make my way,' and he did that very successfully."