SCC widow shares amazing story
For nearly 15 years, Bernard Pagels sat in the same pew at Prince of Peace Catholic Church each day at morning Mass, alone with his thoughts. “He was a contented man of few words,” said Fay Pagels, his wife of 67 years. “But everyone liked him.”
Most people knew nothing of Pagels’ history — a past that included serving in one of the most famous and fascinating bomber squadrons of World War II, the renowned Flying Tigers.
As a Master Sergeant in the Air Force with the Flying Tigers, Pagels was stationed in China, Burma and India from 1942 to 1945, serving as a crew mechanic and co-pilot during a time when the U.S. newspapers were filled with stories of defeat at the hands of the Japanese.
The Flying Tigers achieved such notable success during the lowest period of the conflict that it gave renewed hope to many Americans looking for a silver lining inside the dark clouds of war.
Bernard Pagels kept the memories of his years with the legendary Flying Tigers stored away in a scrapbook in his home in Sun City Center, where he loved investing in the stock market and embarking on camping trips with his wife and family.
He retired to Florida at age 55 from Sperry Gyroscope Corp. in Great Neck, New York, where he worked as an executive flight pilot.
“We had a wonderful life together,” said Fay, who spent most of her life with her husband on Long Island before making their home in Sun City Center in 2003. The Pagels family celebrated Bernard’s 100th birthday just before he passed away on June 3rd this year.
Depicted in the time-worn scrapbook photos is Bernard Pagels in his leather bomber jacket, bearing the ominous insignia of the 375th Bombardment Squadron — a grim reaper clutching a bomb and a sickle in his skeletal hands.
Attached to one fragile page is a yellowed invitation to a Squadron Dance in the Men’s Mess Hall on June 4, 1944, requesting the presence of Master Sergeant Bernard Pagels and guest.
“Bern was such a wonderful dancer,” said Fay, laughing. “He was always so charming with the ladies — even here in Sun City Center. The girls would have his coffee and muffin waiting for him every day after Mass.”
The Flying Tigers were a group of American volunteer aviators flying against the Japanese on behalf of Gen. Claire Chennault and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek in the months just before World War II. Since the U.S. was not yet at war, the “Special Air Unit” could not be organized openly, but the request was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.
The Flying Tigers first saw combat Dec. 20, 1941, 12 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Commanded by Gen. Chennault, the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force comprised pilots from the U.S. Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps.
The Flying Tigers were divided into three squadrons: 1st Squadron (“Adam & Eves”); 2nd Squadron (“Panda Bears”) and 3rd Squadron (“Hell’s Angels”). The shark-faced nose art of the Flying Tigers remains among the most recognizable images of any combat unit of World War II.
“Bern used to play baseball with General Chennault” said Fay, describing the friendship that existed between her husband and the General. Chennault had a radically different approach to air combat than any other, basing his strategy on his study of Japanese tactics. But he faced many serious obstacles, since American pilots were inexperienced in such tactics. The Flying Tigers faced other hardships as well, including a shortage of medical supplies and personnel in a land plagued with malaria and cholera.
Despite these disadvantages, the Flying Tigers demonstrated great victories. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote that “The outstanding gallantry and conspicuous daring of the American Volunteer Group is a source of tremendous pride throughout the whole of America. The fact that they have labored under the shortages and difficulties is keenly appreciated.”
In later years, the Pagels enjoyed attending the Flying Tigers reunions held each March at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Just before their 50th reunion in 1992, the AVG veterans were retroactively recognized and awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for “professionalism, dedication to duty, and extraordinary heroism.”
In 1996, the U.S. Air Force awarded the Flying Tiger pilots the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star Medal.
There are several museum displays in the U.S. honoring the Flying Tigers, including the Flying Tigers Monument in Ocala, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, and the Naval Museum of Aviation in Pensacola. There are also several memorials to the Flying Tigers in Asia. A number of novels and movies have been based on the Flying Tigers, the most famous being a 1942 black-and-white film starring John Wayne and John Carroll as fighter pilots.
These days, Fay Pagels has her own way of paying tribute to her veteran husband. With the help of her friend and caregiver, Charlene Lively, she decorated a tabletop tree with red-white-and-blue symbols of American Independence, in keeping with the Fourth of July. Of the patriotic tree, Fay said simply: “Bern would have liked it.”