It was December 1943 when Don Womack first left his hometown of Chattanooga, and he remembers looking back at his house, wondering if he'd see it again.
World War II was raging on, and every able-bodied, 18-year-old male was called to the draft. Although Womack had never flown on a plane, he figured joining the Army Air Force was his best bet for survival.
"They were needing people so bad over there at that time. I was overseas before I was 19 years old, flying combat. They rushed us through training to get us over there," he said.
Weighing only 125 pounds at the time, Womack fit into the lower ball turret of the plane, a dome that held machine guns, and from there he flew 22 missions around Europe as a gunner.
Name: Donald Womack
Military branch and rank: U.S. Air Force, staff sergeant
"We had a lot of scary moments when we were flying, but other than that it wasn't bad," he said. "I don't guess I did much talking about it when we came back, and I had a brother, one who went over on D-Day, that never would talk about it."
Although Womack was initially trained to fly in B-17s in England, his high school band director encouraged a B-24 pilot to take Womack under his wing, which landed him in Italy.
The 92-year-old, the youngest of his crew, is the only living member of the 10-man team, and many of his memories have faded. But he doesn't forget the time he was hit by flak, an injury that earned him a Purple Heart.
"I got hit by it in the side by a piece of metal," he said. "It made a tunnel wound, and I was in the hospital about a month."
Still laid up and recovering from his injury, Womack watched his crew fly out one morning on a routine mission, but that afternoon, they didn't return.
"I attribute a lot to me coming back — not being on that plane when it went down, not being on a B-17 and flying a B-24 instead, just things that happened I didn't see any reason for — I think the good Lord had a hand in how it happened. I really do," he said.
Eventually, some of Womack's crew who bailed out of the plane on that fateful day returned to camp, but several were never heard from again, including the man who took his position. Womack suspects they were taken by the Nazis as prisoners of war.
The crew members who came back and Womack remained close after the war, even returning to visit their base in Italy 40 years later.
"It was a thing I had to do at that time, and everybody my age was going in. If you saw a young man back on the street with civilian clothes on ... you thought, 'What's wrong with him?'" he said. "It was a bad thing then — Hitler wanted to take the world over."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423- 757-6673.