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San Diego POWs Relive History At Greatest Generation Naval Museum

Former World War II POWs from San Diego look at historic aircraft at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, April 30, 2015.
Susan Murphy
Former World War II POWs from San Diego look at historic aircraft at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, April 30, 2015.

San Diego POWs Relive History At Greatest Generation Naval Museum
The Greatest Generation Naval Museum in El Cajon recently hosted a special group of World War II veterans. The sights and sounds of the historic aircraft brought back vivid memories of the war from seven decades ago.

It has been a lifetime since some World War II veterans from San Diego sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet.

"I like airplanes. I did since the time I could walk,” said James Reily, 92, who was a bombardier in a B-24 during World War II. “It brings back memories that I don’t think about very often.”

Greatest Generation Naval Museum

The Greatest Generation Naval Museum, operated by Jet Air Systems, is free to the public and open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call (619) 448-5991.

James Reily, 92, a former World War II POW, shared his memories of war at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum in El Cajon, April 30, 2015.
Susan Murphy
James Reily, 92, a former World War II POW, shared his memories of war at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum in El Cajon, April 30, 2015.

The veterans were given a chance to relive history at the Greatest Generation Naval Museum at Gillespie Field. The museum, owned by Jet Air Systems, is filled with a dozen refurbished World War II-era planes.

Each aircraft is flyable and has a story behind it. So do the veterans who recently visited the El Cajon museum — they’re all former prisoners of war.

Ed Davidson, 91, of La Jolla, was a 20-year-old pilot when his B-17 was shot down during his seventh combat mission over Bordeaux, France on Jan. 5, 1944. The burning plane landed in the Bay of Biscay.

Ed Davidson, 91, recalled his experience of flying a B-17 in WWII, during his visit to the Greatest Generation Naval Museum, April 30, 2015.
Susan Murphy
Ed Davidson, 91, recalled his experience of flying a B-17 in WWII, during his visit to the Greatest Generation Naval Museum, April 30, 2015.

“And because the airplane was on fire and we had no communication with the other crew members, they decided to bail out and they left the airplane and presumably drowned, because their bodies were never recovered,” Davidson recalled.

Davidson escaped the burning plane through a window and onto a life raft. Hours later he and his surviving crew members were captured and held prisoner by the Germans.

Ralph Kling, 90, of Ramona, recalled a similar story. He flew a P-47 thunderbolt and was hit over Luxembourg on Sept. 21, 1944.

“So the plane’s on fire,” Kling said. “I managed to get out on my right hand side. My legs are burned up to my knees, my head is burned because I lost my helmet bailing out.”

Kling was captured by the Germans and held prisoner for a year. He recalled marching through two feet of snow, riding in boxcars on trains and nearly starving to death.

Kling said he’s honored to be a part of the group of veterans the museum is named after. He said his generation gained the “Greatest Generation” designation by following a simple formula.

Ralph Kling, 90, a former WWII POW, recalled flying a P-47 thunderbolt during his visit to the Greatest Generation Naval Museum, April 30, 2015.
Susan Murphy
Ralph Kling, 90, a former WWII POW, recalled flying a P-47 thunderbolt during his visit to the Greatest Generation Naval Museum, April 30, 2015.

“If there’s a job to get done, you figure out how to do it the best way — not for yourself, but for the people that you’re with,” Kling said.

Reily described his fellow veterans as “a great bunch of American guys.”

“We knew what it was, many of us, to be hungry,” Reily said. “I don’t think generations before ours ever experienced that. We went through the Great Depression," and shortly after that, he said, World War II started.

The veterans said they hope the collection of planes will serve as an authentic history lesson for younger generations, to which Kling offered this advice:

“Don’t think for a moment that you can’t succeed,” Kling said. “If you don’t make it the first time, just keep trying. And if you don’t make it the second time, look around and find somebody else, and the two of you do it together. And you’ll make it.”