Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Lewis Powers Jr. gets a little choked up when he talks about his visit to Albuquerque on what would have been his father’s 100th birthday in December.
“Memorial Day, Veterans Day, we need to remember people like my dad and others like him, especially with our country as divided as it is today,” he said.
His father, Lt. Col. Lewis Powers, was a decorated World War II and Korean War fighter pilot who died in a plane crash on an intelligence mission over North Africa in 1958. The New Mexico native logged 208 combat flying hours on 231 combat missions in World War II and Korea.
“I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” the 73-year-old Powers Jr. said about visiting the chapel at Kirtland Air Force Base where his father’s funeral was held 61 years earlier. He still remembers the missing man flyover, even though he was 12 at the time of his father’s crash in the Zerhoun Mountains near Meknes, Morocco.
He and other family members paid a visit to his father’s grave at Fairview Memorial Park Cemetery, off Yale SE. They brought a birthday cake. He would have been 100 on Dec. 31.
“I know who my father was,” Powers said. “I want his family to know of his legacy.” He lives in Houston, but several family members still reside in New Mexico.
Powers said that when he was a boy, it took some time for “it to sink in” after hearing his father had been killed. Lewis Sr. spent time with his children between missions he flew when he was stationed at Salé Air Base, near Rabat, Morocco, where he was director of operations with the 316th Air Force and his family lived there with him.
“He started the Little League program where we lived in Morocco and built the field where we played,” Powers said. “We taught the Moroccan kids how to play baseball. From what I understand, the field is still there.”
He remembers another time when his father returned home from a mission with two chow dogs on Christmas.
“They were under the tree on Christmas Day,” he said, noting that he grew up as an international Air Force brat. “He named one of them Sheriff, which was also what he named one of the planes he flew.”
But he always had connections to New Mexico, where his father grew up and much of his family remained.
When it comes to his father’s military career, Lewis Jr. said most of his memories are stories told by his grandfather and his mother, Betty, who died in 2009.
His favorite story is about his father’s less-than-glorious start in the military. He lied about his age and enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard at 16 and joined the regular Army in 1938.
“Grandpa told me Uncle June Bug (John Hansford Powers Jr., Lewis Sr.’s elder brother) and dad both went to juvenile detention for stealing or borrowing horses for a joy ride,” he said. “The judge was lenient with them after encouraging them to join the 19th Infantry and finish high school.”
“It turned out to be sound advice,” Lewis Jr. said.
His father was an infantry sergeant in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, and was at Schofield Barracks with his brother and their buddies when the Japanese attacked, Lewis Jr. said.
“They fought Japanese planes with only rifles and machine guns,” he said, adding that they were “sitting targets.”
“He vowed to be in a cockpit of an American fighter the next time he had any business with the Japanese,” Lewis Jr. said.
Lewis Powers Sr. followed through and became a pilot, although he would end up flying missions in Europe against the Germans. He went through flight training after going to officer candidate school in 1942 at Fort Benning, Georgia.
He rose from the rank of private to lieutenant colonel during his military career, which spanned the Army and Air Force.
“He went from grunt to lieutenant colonel,” his son said.
Lewis Powers Sr. was assigned to the 355 Interceptor Fighter Squadron in the 354 Fighter Group in the European Theater. He was credited with destroying five German planes in 114 combat missions.
Betty Powers told her children in a letter that their father was known as the “buzz bomb ace” for his knowledge of how to shoot down the bombs that were threatening England.
His favorite plane to fly during that time, his son said, was the P-51 Mustang, which he had named Sheriff.
Lewis Powers Sr. was awarded 16 medals, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross, for combat missions in both wars. He was credited with destroying seven enemy aircraft.
“He didn’t do it for the commendations or for the awards,” Lewis Jr. said. “He wasn’t in it for the glory. He did it out of a spirit of patriotism. He did it because he loved his county.”
Lewis Powers Sr. would become one of the first pilots in the Air Force, which was created in 1947. He was one of the first pilots to break the sound barrier, his son said. One of his fellow pilots was Chuck Yeager, the first known to have accomplished the feat.
Lewis Powers Sr. was among the first pilots to fly the F-80 fighter jet, the first American aircraft to exceed 500 mph.
He was one of five brothers to serve in the military. His elder brother, John, who was with him at Pearl Harbor, died fighting in the Pacific Theater in New Guinea in 1944. He is also buried at Fairview Memorial Park Cemetery, as are their parents and younger brother, Hiram Henry Powers, a U.S. Navy veteran. His other brothers, Gordon Powers and Fitzgerald Powers, also served in the Navy.
Other members of the family are currently serving in the military, Lewis Powers Jr. said. That includes his niece, Maj. Christine Wintermote, an Air Force Academy graduate who is following in her grandfather’s footsteps. She flies C-17s.
“Unlike my dad’s generation who were essentially self-taught pilots thrust into war, my niece’s generation are the best educated and trained aviators in the world flying second to none aircraft,” Lewis Powers Jr. said.