When Russ Walker thinks about COVID-19 and the millions of people who have spent the last year in quarantine, it takes him back to 1943, when he spent 30 days quarantined with scarlet fever as he awaited deployment into World War II.
Walker, now 99 years old, received his draft notice at the age of 20, around August of 1942, the same month the legal draft age dropped down from 21.
Walker left his home in Green County for Milwaukee, where he was tested for physical fitness before heading to Keesler Field in Mississippi for basic training.
While there, Walker was analyzed to determine which branch of service he’d be best suited for. The results? Armament.
He left Keesler Field after only a day and a half, when he was sent to Colorado for 13 weeks of armament school. Armament school prepared Walker to supervise air units, and trained him in the maintenance of aircrafts and the process of arming planes with ammo and equipment.
Those three months in armament school did him well, Walker said, but only four days after completing the training and joining his squadron, he caught scarlet fever. It landed him a 30 day stay in a local hospital, and he remembers itching for activity during those days in isolation.
“I wasn’t really that sick, so I helped mop the floors in the hospital every day,” Walker laughed.
Following his month-long stint in quarantine, Walker followed his squadron to Walla Walla, Wash., where the group hit a snag trying to make its way overseas. The squadron’s commanding officer, a World War I vet, failed to pass his physical to go to the Pacific.
Walker’s squadron was quick to regroup, though.
“[Our officer] was a banker from Baltimore, so he knew all of the generals in Washington. He said, ‘boys, I know the generals, we’ll just go the other direction,’ and so that’s exactly what we did,” Walker said. “We went across the United States from Walla Walla to the east coast, and then went over to Europe.”
He remembers boarding the Queen Mary ship at 4 a.m. on a hot June morning, and five and a half days later, landing in Scotland. With the Queen Mary unable to dock, Walker’s squadron had to be pulled into shore by smaller boats before boarding a train and then a ferry to reach the final destination: northern Ireland.
Walker spent the next two years in North Ireland, with the first 11 months at an airbase for B-26 pilots in training. His squadron was responsible for arming and monitoring the planes, Walker said, which were difficult to fly for even the hardest trained pilots.
“They were sending pilots overseas who’d never even seen a B-26, and it’s a little tricky to fly one of those, so they were sent to our base to get that final phase of training,” said Walker. “To be flying a B-26, you’d better be a darn good pilot.”
On a couple occasions, Walker remembers planes crashing right onto the runway, just feet in front of him.
“Plop, right down in front of me,” Walker said as he described the experience of watching both engines quit on a dual engine plane, which fell from 30 ft. in the air back onto the runway.
After nearly a year at that base, Walker moved to another North Ireland base, where he ran the final checks on B-17 aircrafts and put wings on P-38 fighter planes. The base was abandoned by the British prior to the American squadron’s arrival.
The war was slowly winding down at that point, Walker remembered, and the British had left behind a nice base. It came equipped with an indoor rifle and pistol range, three bowling alleys, a theater and an ice cream maker.
“When people would ask me what service I was in, I’d say ‘Boy Scouts,’ because nobody ate like the Air Force did,” Walker joked about his time at the former British base.
Eventually, it was time for Walker to finally head to the Pacific. But, again, it never happened. The war in Japan ended just seven days before Walker’s boat was scheduled for the eight week trek.
Walker would spend the next three months at an American airbase in Germany, waiting for the point system to allow him a permanent return home.
“They had a point system,” Walker said. “You got one point for service in the United States, two points per month for overseas service, and then people in active duty got five points. So, all of these people that did the fighting, they had enough points that they could go home, but I didn’t yet.”
He remembers his time spent waiting at the airbase in Germany as cold and unpleasant. The windows of the barracks had all been broken in, and the heating system was leaking. A far cry from bowling alleys and ice cream machines in Ireland, he said.
Finally, after three long months, it was his time to come home. He landed in Virginia in late December that year, a sweet return home after three years of war.
Walker, who now resides near the outskirts of Monona, would go on to start a family and become an accomplished carpenter. He built the house he raised his family in, and even went on to build his son a house, too.
When asked if his family was relieved to see him return home all those years ago, he said he hopes his loved ones never worried too much.
75 years after coming home from what historians have dubbed the deadliest war in modern history, Walker remains a humble soul.