“I figured there are only about 25 people that know me.”
Columbia resident Mr. Ferrill Purdy was clearly overwhelmed by the number of people who had come to hear about his life and military service, and see one of the planes he flew in combat during WWII take to the skies over town this past October.
On a crisp Saturday in October, more than a hundred people filed into an empty hangar at the local Columbia Regional Airport. A fire truck with ladder extended and flag flying sat out front, and, in the rear of the hangar sat an F4U-1 Corsair – a plane that was used by marine fighter pilots in the Pacific theater during WWII.
All of these people – veterans, active military and civilians alike – had come to honor the service of one Mr. Ferrill Purdy – or Lt. Col. Purdy as he was known during the war.
90-year-old Fred Bethman, a fellow WWII vet, was among them. He was an army man or “ground cruncher,” as he referred to himself, during the war. He said that his reason for coming was two-fold.
First of all, he said he wanted to honor a fellow WWII vet “because there aren’t many of us left.”
And he wanted to see the F4U-1 Corsair fly because he had only seen them from below while he was also stationed in the Pacific theater during the war.
People milled around chatting, looking at Purdy’s old wartime memorabilia and admired the plane until Purdy entered. Then the room erupted in applause, and Purdy was nearly at a loss for words.
“I want to thank every one of you for everything you did during World War II and since,” Purdy said.
After the presentation of the colors and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, those gathered took their seats. First to speak was Michele Spry, the local author who had discovered the connection between Purdy and the plane.
She met Purdy when he came into the local business she and her husband run – Purdy needed to get a lamp fixed for his wife.
“And it just went from there.”
Spry spent time talking with Purdy about his time in the military, and used his log books to learn more about the planes we flew while deployed. It was when she began looking through his flight logbooks that she discovered that one of the planes Purdy flew in June 1944 was still around, still functioning and owned by the Planes of Fame museum in Chino, California.
So she sent them an email.
“We just knew it had to been in combat somewhere and I had been searching for log books for any history I could find on it with no luck,” Cory O’Bryan, a volunteer at the museum said. “Out of the blue then I got an email and a phone call one day and here we are – and that was only a couple of months.”
Spry introduced O’Bryan, as well as the Corsair pilot Robbie Patterson, and asked them to tell the crowd a little more about the history of the plane.
“When it came back in August of ’44, they overhauled it and it went into all these different training squadrons, so we know the history from then on. Right in August of ’45 it was stricken from the records and it actually was sold to MGM studios,” O’Bryan said.
He said they don’t really know what MGM used the plane for, if anything, but since the museum purchased the plane in the 1970s, it has been busy. It appeared in TV shows like Baa Baa Black Sheep (two words?)and Airwolf, and in films like Flags of our Fathers.
“All kinds of early ‘80s episodes of stuff,” O’Bryan said.
But they were missing a lot of the history of the Corsair’s time in service – until Michele Spry called. Since discovering Purdy’s connection to this plane, they have found two other veterans who flew the Corsair. One of whom was Mr. Purdy’s wingman.
Michele Spry talked about Purdy’s experience in the Pacific.
“On his first tour, he was flying his aircraft and he was shot at by the enemy and it hit his oil cooler. And he was in the Corsair and he was hit in the oil cooler and it drained all of the oil out of his engine and stalled the engine.
Purdy had to make an emergency landing into the ocean.
“And his wingman stayed right next to him when his plane went into the water, and made sure to circle him so the other boys went back to get a Navy destroyer. My. Purdy says John [his wingman] saved my life.”
Following a brief rundown of Purdy’s service during WWII by Spry, and a little more history about the Corsair from O’Bryan and the Corsair’s pilot Robbie Patterson, the time came.
Mr. Purdy was taken outside, and more than 72 years after he last entered the cockpit of F4U-1 Corsair number 17799, he patted the belly of the plane and smiled.
The two adult children of Purdy were both there, and were able to take a ride in what pilot Robbie Patterson called “their dad’s office.”
His daughter Gayla Maier said that she was both excited and nervous about going up in the Corsair, and joked that she was more likely to fit in the backseat then her brother – who is several inches taller.
She added that today was an important day for her.
“It’s very special because we are honoring our veterans that have served and kept us free, and it’s part of my dad that I’m going to have forever because I realize at 94 his time is limited,” Maier said.
Both she and her brother Greg took turns going up in the Corsair. They would climb into the backseat, wait for the engine to turn over and then take to the air.
The pilot took them for loops around the airfield being sure to pass over where their father and the crowd stood watching – so Purdy could see them flying in the plane he flew more than 72 years ago.