Robert ‘Punchy’ Powell: WWII pilot called self no hero, historian first

He considered himself a historian first, an author second, and then a pilot. But just about anyone else you asked about Robert ‘Punchy’ Powell would likely tell you he was a World War II fighter pilot with the famous “Blue Nose Bastards of Bodney.”

Punchy Powell was born Nov. 21, 1920, in Wilcoe W.Va., and died June 22 at age 95. His memorial service included a flyover by two P-51 Mustangs, the type of plane he flew.

“He was really not about being a fighter pilot,” his son, Bob ‘Punchy Jr.’ Powell, said. On his business card, he added, his dad listed descriptions in this order: “Historian, author, pilot.” And when people labelled him a “hero,” he would respond, “I’m not hero, but I flew with heroes.”

After 87 combat missions, Powell himself would say he was a “nobody” in the 352nd Fighter Group based in Bodney, England, whose nickname became the title of a book he wrote. But a friend and fellow historian, John Mollison, said, “He became the face and voice of anyone who’d ever served with the famous ‘Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney.’

“When people realize that they have played a part in something bigger than themselves, there’s a natural humility that comes with that,” Mollison said. “Punchy understood the deeper meaning of why we connect to our past, and why our past is important, and why our past means something today and in the future.”

“He reached out and touched people all over the world,” Punchy Jr. said. “He was really not about being a fighter pilot, or hero. He was about keeping the history alive … His biggest thing in his heart was making sure that someone tells the story.”

While he was growing up, Punchy Jr. said, being known as “Punchy” was akin to being a boy named Sue. Naturally, his dad taught him how to fight. “Mother didn’t know,” he said, but his father used to teach him how to box. “He never wanted me to fight, but he wanted me to be able to if I needed to. He taught me to take a hit, that way you could stand up and keep on fighting until they left ya alone.”

Ken McCoy met Powell in 2003 on a trip to Europe to the graves of some of Powell’s fallen friends.

McCoy called him a “valiant warrior” who was “emotional, friendly” and had the gift of gab. “Two wings on the same airplane,” he said. “The most telling thing I remember was after visiting the grave of one of their guys who had been shot down,” McCoy said. He saw Powell discreetly wipe tears from his eyes.

On that trip, Powell told McCoy many stories about the war. One was about when a plane crashed into a control tower on takeoff before dawn on D-Day. In the commotion in the pilot shack as airmen scrambled to see what had happened, Powell stepped on someone’s neck, and it happened to be the Colonel’s. “Punchy kept that secret for 45 years, and finally told him 45 years later with a twinkle in his eye,” McCoy said. “And that guy just about wrung his neck 45 years later.”

Traveling with Powell and his crew, McCoy — and others — said, was like travelling with rock stars. “Everywhere we went they treated them like royalty,” he said. They would frequently be asked for photos and autographs. And in every picture Punchy posed for, he had a thumbs up, and every signature would include “Blue Skies,” along with his name.

McCoy recalled Punchy saying, ” ‘Do you know why pilots have their thumbs stuck up all the time? So it’s not stuck up their butt!’ “

Travis Reynolds often took friends who wanted to meet his pilot pal to the 57th Fighter Group Restaurant at DeKalb Peachtree Airport. Or, “I would bring people to his house because he had a museum down in his basement.” Reynolds said. “He loved it when I would bring people over to his house. He loved sharing the stories and sharing the history with anybody who was willing to listen.”

About five years ago, Reynolds and others surprised Powell with a fiberglass replica of a P-51 Mustang painted to look exactly like the one he flew during the war, right down to the name, “The West ‘by Gawd’ Virginian”— spelled that way because he didn’t want to take the lord’s name in vain, his son said.

Powell was married to Betty Wiley Powell, who died before him, for 70 years. He is survived by three children, Robert W. Powell (Nancy) of Atlanta; Linda Powell Catarino (Roger) of Columbia, S.C. and Betsy Powell Wall (Jimmy) of St. Simons Island; six grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and extended family and friends.