Mission accomplished!  On Tuesday, March 19, World War II pilot Paul Crawford fulfilled his dream of flying in a P-51 Mustang like the one he commanded 79 years ago in China, where he flew 29 missions until he was shot down in 1945. Now 100, Buckhead resident Crawford was delighted when the Liberty Foundation and Inspire Aviation Foundation took him up in a TF-51D on a perfect blue-sky day for flying.

TF-51 "E Pluribus Unum" piloted by owner Bob Bull with Paul Crawford in the back leads the formation over Lake Lanier. The camera ship was a Bonanza piloted by long time Liberty Foundation's pilot Cullen Underwood.
TF-51 “E Pluribus Unum” piloted by owner Bob Bull with Paul Crawford in the back leads the formation over Lake Lanier. The camera ship was a Bonanza piloted by long time Liberty Foundation’s pilot Cullen Underwood.

For the occasion, four P-51 Mustangs landed at the Dekalb-Peachtree Airport and parked at Atlantic Aviation, the FBO that supported this unique event. Mr. Crawford lovingly touched the nose and wing of one of the Mustangs when he first walked up to it, reuniting after a 79-year separation. LtCol Ray Fowler, Liberty Foundation Chief Pilot, and pilot Bob Bull helped Crawford into the back seat of the TF-51 and gave him an exhilarating 30-minute ride.

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The organizers envisioned the participation of only one P-51, but a quick round of calls sparked the interest of other owners who enthusiastically decided to participate in the event. Bob Bull, Steve Maher, and Rodney Allison flew their Mustangs to Atlanta bringing the total number to four:

P-51D “Old Crow” (N451MG) – Pilot Ray Fowler – Liberty Foundation
P-51D “Rebel” (N3BB) – Pilot Rodney Allison
P-51 “E Pluribus Unum” (N351B)  –  Pilot Bob Bull –
P-51 “Ain’t Missbehavin” (N51K) – Pilot Steve Maher

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Paul graduated six months later, during which time Congress passed the law to draft 18-year-olds. “I knew that I was going to be drafted so I went to Atlanta to talk with the Army Air Corps [sic] and the Navy about flying,” shared Mr. Crawford.  ”The Navy said they would accept me for flight training but wanted me to go right then to their Great Lakes training center. The Air Corps told me they would accept me, but to go on back to college and they would notify me when to report.” said Crawford. Paul went back to Americus, entered Georgia Southwestern College, and shortly thereafter he received his draft notice to report to Fort McPherson in Atlanta on January 2, 1942.

Paul Crawford in his P-51 ‘Little Rebel’ ( photo by Paul Crawford Collection)

Paul had an older brother, Tim, who had gone into the Air Corps before Pearl Harbor and was flying B-26s, a medium bomber. He ended up flying combat in the B-17 Flying Fortress out of North Africa. The older brother influenced Paul’s choice, convincing him that the Air Corps had better aircraft, “I thought the water was, as they say, too deep and too wide to swim!” said Mr. Crawford.

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With about 100 hours on the P-51 and 250-275 hours total, Mr. Crawford was sent off to Chengtu, China assigned to the 311th Fighter Group, 529th Fighter Squadron protecting the B-29 bases. As these B-29s transferred to the Pacific Theater, his squadron was transferred to Hsian headed for combat. At the time, Mr. Crawford was estimated to have only accumulated another 60 hours of flying time.

On his 29th mission, Mr. Crawford was shot down by ground fire while strafing a small railroad facility. After getting hit, he bailed out and was picked up by Chinese Communist guerillas. A few days earlier one of his housemates had been shot down and captured by the Japanese who cut his head off and put it up on a gate post. After a 200-mile-long walk, chased by the Japanese a couple of times, yet still evading capture, Mr. Crawford ended up at a compound owned by a wealthy family. A few miles from the compound was an airstrip where the OSS (U.S. Office of Strategic Services) brought downed airmen out. After the flight, Mr. Crawford talked about his experience: “When I recall my time in World War II, I always start by saying, I was not a hero! I was just there! That is not false modesty because it is the way I have always felt. I flew the P-51 Mustang.”

Mr. Crawford who has time in P-40, P-47, A-24, and P-51C, believes that the P-51 was the best fighter plane of its day. “There’s nothing in the world like that airplane,” Crawford said. “I loved doing the maneuvers again.” Paul Crawford was surrounded by several friends, his son-in-law, Tommy, and dozens of Liberty Foundation and Inspire Aviation Foundation members eager to have their pictures taken with him, shake his hand, and thank him for his service.

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After serving in WWII, Paul Crawford finished college at Georgia Tech with a degree in Industrial Management. That’s also where he met his wife, Jean. They had a daughter and were married for sixty-one years when Jean passed away. Paul worked in the paper industry and for the U.S. Envelope Company until he retired in 1988. Paul currently lives in Atlanta and participates in aviation and historical WWII events.

This special event was made possible thanks to the support of Bob Bull, Ray Fowler Chief Pilot of The Liberty Foundation, Steve Maher, Atlantic Aviation FBO, Cullen Underwood with Vintage Flights, and Inspire Aviation Foundation.

Paul Crawford after the successful flight with (L to R), Cullen Underwood (Camera ship pilot), Bob Bull, Ray Fowler and Rodney Allison.
Paul Crawford after the successful flight with (L to R), Cullen Underwood (Camera ship pilot), Bob Bull, Ray Fowler, and Rodney Allison.