Heroes came from the sky

LEWISTOWN – During World War II, for the first time in history, airplanes were a major method of warfare. Two local men, David D. Borland, of Lewistown, radio operator/gunner, and Will Marks, of McVeytown, a paratrooper, fought their war from the sky.

Borland was the first to join the service; he enlisted in June 1942, right after he graduated high school.

“The war was on and everybody should volunteer. It’s the way it was, ” he said.

Borland was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to train at the Aviation Cadet Center. He was then sent to Primary Flying School in Fort Stockton, Texas. After primary school, there was basic school, where he realized his dream of becoming a pilot was out of reach.

“I was washed out of basic because they said I was too careless and I would either kill myself or wreck the airplane,” he said.

Borland was sent to radio school and he became a radio operator instructor, but soon volunteered to go into the training program that sent him to gunnery school in Saint Angelo, Texas.

“After you finish 10 weeks of training in gunnery school, we then went to California and we were assigned crews. Then we went on to Nevada, which is where we did our crew training in B-24s. It was 20 weeks together in training. Same 10 (crew members) everyday,” he said.

Once Borland and his crew completed their training in June 1944, they were certain they were about to be shipped to the Pacific Theater.

“Then we were shipped to Hamilton Field in San Francisco and we figured we were going on to the Pacific and they gave us khakis and everything for the Pacific. We got assigned a plane and took off and opened our orders and it said to proceed to Grand Island, Nebraska, then Airfield New Hampshire, then Goosebay Labrador, then to Iceland,” he said.

The crew eventually ended up in England, where they were assigned to the 8th Air Force. Their job was to fly combat missions over Germany and bomb specific targets.

“You weren’t bombing cities, you were bombing targets. Specific targets. … We had primary targets and if the weather was bad you would have to go to a secondary target,” he said.

The crew flew 27 daylight missions and around 10 to 12 night missions. Usually, the crew would only have 12 hours notice that they were going to fly.

“The day before, about 4 o’clock, it would go up on the board you were going to fly the next day. You didn’t know where until the next day. They get you up at 3:30 a.m. and you ate breakfast and then went down to a briefing and you would find out where you were going,” he said.

Borland’s crew was notorious in the 8th Air Force, and not in a good way.

“No one liked to fly on our missions because (there was) only one mission out of 27, when we came back that our plane wasn’t full of holes,” he said.

Despite being targeted, only one person was severely hurt – their navigator on their eighth mission. Borland said because they were spending a lot of time over enemy territory they were trained to know what to do if they crash-landed in Germany.

“They always had little instructions books that told you what you better not do. You gave your name, rank and serial number and that’s it. Nothing else,” he said.

The real possibility of being captured was something Will Marks had to deal with on a daily basis. Marks was a part of the 551st Infantry Paratroop Battalion and one of its major tasks was to jump out of planes behind enemy lines.

Marks might not have been a part of the outfit, if he hadn’t been late returning from his furlough during training.

“We were in North Carolina and they gave us five-days furlough to come home. I didn’t get back in time. I got back a day late. So the captain said, ‘Where were you?’ and I said, ‘Well, going to Pennsylvania and back in five days is impossible to see your family.’ So he said, ‘Go pack your barracks bag you are going overseas,'” he said.

Marks joined the outfit in Naples, Italy, in 1944. Shortly after joining the battalion, Marks became a part of history, when on Aug. 22, 1944, they completed the first credited daylight jump in combat.

“We jumped 10 minutes after 6 and 10 miles behind the enemy line in southern France. We jumped behind the enemy line and we cut all of their line communications down and destroyed their artillery and stuff. So when the guys came in on the beach they had no resistance at all. They came in and went right along,” he said.

Marks said he believes the Army decided to employ daylight jumps after the D-Day invasion, when night jumps became a problem.

“In Normandy, they jumped the paratroopers all over. The pilots were panicking. These guys (the paratroopers) were scattered all over. So in southern France they wanted to do it differently,” he said.

Mark’s group also had a major role during the Battle of the Bulge, and the battalion suffered heavy casualties. Marks was injured in December.

“We were mostly going on patrols to see where the Germans were. But one time we were caught out and I was wounded in the knee,” he said.

On Jan. 7, 1945, the remaining members of the 551st took control of the Belgian city of Rochelinval and closed off the German escape route. It took almost 60 years, but the unit’s key role in the battle was finally recognized when it was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation in 2001.

After the war, Marks worked at American Viscose, where he met his wife, Madeline, and they were married two weeks after they met, on Sept 16, 1946. They live in McVeytown.

Borland was discharged on Oct. 5, 1945, and attended night school at the University of Pittsburgh, where he eventually received a degree in industrial engineering. He retired as the CEO of Standard Steel in 1992.

Both men were a part of history. They were both a part of the first conflict in which airplanes had a major factor in the outcome of the war. They also joined the part of the Army that statistically had the highest death rate, but made it back to their families and lived to tell their tales.