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William Hartshorn, 94, holds a model Thunderbolt P-47 airplane like he flew in 1944.
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William Hartshorn, 94, holds a photo of himself on a Thunderbolt P-47 airplane like he flew in 1944.

Bio:

Name: William Hartshorn

Age: 94

Home: Signal Mountain

Military branch and rank: U.S. Army Eighth Air Force, captain

Inside a kitchen table-sized box in a storage unit at the Alexian Village retirement community on Signal Mountain sits William Hartshorn's old World War II parachute, its shroud lines still frayed from being cut away from his injured body.

Hartshorn, a 94-year-old former WWII pilot who was shot down over Belgium by the Germans, said he hasn't been able to part with the nylon war relic, a symbol of his service to country seven decades ago.

"What do you do with it?" he mused.

A member of the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force, Hartshorn was hit by enemy fire while flying a dive-bombing and strafing mission during Operation Market Garden in 1944, an allied initiative to capture bridges in a part of the Netherlands controlled by German forces.

The mission, depicted in the hit 1977 movie "A Bridge Too Far" starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Anthony Hopkins, was designed to outflank the Germans by dropping 35,000 allied troops behind enemy lines.

A veteran of 26 missions in his P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft, Hartshorn, at age 21, was one of the junior members of his group when Operation Market Garden started.

"There were more Germans in the area than we had forecast," he recalled. "On the second day of dive bombing, my group had 39 airplanes and 16 got shot down. I was one of those.

"Almost immediately upon entering enemy territory, I got hit in the wing. We were flying about 50 feet off the ground, just above the trees, and I pulled up and did a 180 (degree turn).

"The airplane was burning and had a hole in one wing," he said.

Hartshorn was able to fly back to a column of allied troops, which he identified from the white stars on top of their vehicles, and he quickly bailed out of his aircraft. On the way out, he hit the tail of the airplane, breaking two bones in his left leg below the knee.

Friendly troops from a nearby weapons carrier came quickly and cut him loose from the parachute. He was hospitalized in England for two weeks before being shipped to America, where he spent more than a year convalescing in government hospitals.

Today, Hartshorn pulls up his pants leg and runs his fingers over a bump in his left shin, a remnant of the old war injury.

After WWII, Hartshorn resumed his education at Dartmouth University. While there, he met his wife, Gloria. The couple celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary earlier this year.

After college, the Hartshorns had settled into family life when William told Gloria he wanted to return to the military during the Korean conflict. He intended to fly again, but ended up as a radar controller.

But he never lost his enthusiasm for the P-47.

"You put a 20-year-old boy in a machine with a 2,000-horsepower engine — that's really living," he said.

After Korea, Hartshorn spent most of his working life as a sales representative for a steel company covering various territories in the Southeast. In 1968, the Hartshorns, who have three children, moved to Signal Mountain.

Over the years, his WWII memories were ever-present.

"While you are out there selling steel, all of this history is still rolling around in your head," he explained.

For years, the Hartshorns traveled to reunions of his 56th Fighter Group unit, the United States Army Air Forces' top WWII fighter group. At its peak, 80-100 vets would show up, Hartshorn said. Then, about seven years ago, the gatherings stopped. There were only six remaining vets in the group and three were in wheelchairs, Hartshorn said.

In 2015, he was invited to England, where he and other wartime pilots signed copies of art prints depicting the air battles of World War II.

"People were lined up in the streets waiting to get in," he recalled.

Contact staff writer Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com at 423-757-6645.

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