As he sits in a reclining chair in the corner of his Monona home, 99-year-old Bill Allen thinks back to 1945, to tracer bullets flying through the German skies toward his Piper Cub airplane.
He recalls banking the airplane to the side as German machine guns put holes in the wing of his plane. He recalls the look on the engineer riding along with him as he navigates back from enemy skies.
“I had an engineer with me and he kept looking out at the wing, and I said, ‘what are you looking at?’ He said, ‘you’ve got holes out there,’” Allen said.
Allen’s only thoughts were simple: “Get the heck out of here,” he says with a chuckle.
Luckily, a couple of holes in the wing of a plane doesn’t affect its handling too much, Allen said, and he was able to safely land the plane. In that instance, he had accidentally strayed beyond enemy lines.
“I was behind the lines and didn’t realize it at the time. There was a German down at the end of the line with a machine gun,” Allen recalls. “He tried to get me but I banked the airplane, and as a result he put holes in the wing and didn’t get me.”
“Shot at many times...never shot down,” Allen’s friend Lue Sturdevant remembers him saying.
Another time Allen remembers tracer bullets flying through the sky, they were coming from American artillery, who thought Allen’s plane was German.
“They put holes in the tail of the airplane, but I banked off when I saw the tracer bullets coming,” he said.
Allen’s main job overseas as a pilot in World War II was doing reconnaissance flights to find where German troops had built new airports. On this particular trip, he had a colonel along with him, who he was showing one newly built airport to.
“Boy, when we landed, he scooted over there and let them know that they were shooting at the wrong airplane,” Allen said.
Nowadays, Allen’s days are a bit less dangerous, filled with a lot of reading and a daily meal at his favorite restaurant, Elie’s Cafe on E. Broadway. He still frequently thinks back to his lifetime spent thousands of feet in the air.
This year, he went up in a plane for the first time in a number of years. At age 99, he can still recall his first flight, with a flight off a frozen New Hampshire lake during the wintertime. He can also recall his first flight as a pilot.
“I couldn’t believe that I was flying,” he said, calling it “the most exciting thing in the world.”
That flight would be the first of his roughly 20,000 flight hours.
Allen was in the military from 1940 to 1945, though the first four years of his service were as a flight instructor stateside before “the pipeline got filled and they sent me overseas,” he said.
He went overseas to France and Germany in 1945, and stayed after the war was over to help the war assets managers find U.S. military property, gather it and decide what to do with it. He received the Silver Star Medal after the war, one of the U.S. Military’s highest honors.
Once all of his overseas duties had finished, Allen returned home to the United States. Originally from New Hampshire, post-military work took him to Kansas and Oklahoma, where he trained to be an aircraft mechanic and worked as a corporate pilot, crop-spraying pilot and flight instructor.
Eventually, work would bring him and his wife Louise to the Madison area, where he took a job as the private pilot for Rayovac, the Madison-based battery company. He would go on to work there, flying around the continent, for 30 years before retiring at age 62.
Louise passed away in 2011 after 66 years of marriage. They had two kids, one of which lives in Wisconsin Rapids, and the other in Baraboo. They still keep close tabs on him, he says.
Allen remains active in the community at Community Christian Church and the Madison East Kiwanis Club, though the COVID-19 pandemic has made social life more difficult.
He does have his cat to keep him company, and he gives Lue a call every morning at 9 a.m.
“Or is it the other way around?” he asks her with a laugh.