Keith Cornell: WWII Hero Drops the Puck
Keith Cornell, 93, is the Thunder’s ceremonial puck dropper at tonight’s, Saturday, April 5, game against Utah. A WWII veteran, Cornell served in the Army Air Corps where he flew in 25 combat missions in 1943, piloting B-17 “flying fortresses.”
For Cornell, tonight is an opportunity to honor all the active duty, reserves and veterans in attendance at Stockton Arena, as well as the families of fallen soldiers.
“I honor all the other veterans that are there,” Cornell said. “For every person in combat there’s 20 that’s not, but they deserve the same amount of honor. I honor them just as much as I do somebody in combat because the military is a different life entirely. So it isn’t just that I honor the combat people, I honor all veterans.”
Cornell graduated with Associate of Arts degree from the College of the Pacific in 1942 and, like many Americans, decided to serve his country by enlisting in the military, joining the Army Air Corps.
“My brother was in the Air Force,” Cornell said. “In those days Air Force pilots… everybody admired them, and I thought, ‘Here’s where I can help the most.’”
He served to England as part of a B-17 squadron conducting strategic bombings on targets in Europe. At the time, a tour of duty was 25 combat missions, with sadly, not that many completing them all. With WWII battles raging on, Cornell was pressed into service before he had too much time to get acquainted with flying.
“They were desperate for pilots and I was supposed to have 150 hours, but I only had 40 hours, and most of that was from getting over there,” Cornell said. “So I was a co-pilot for seven missions, then I made first pilot and it wasn’t until I had 18 combat missions that I became a combat leader.”
One of the most difficult missions Cornell faced came early on, when he was still a co-pilot. On July 29, 1943, Cornell’s squadron was part of a raid over Kiel, Germany. Flying through anti-aircraft flak, his plane lost an engine, leaving it crippled.
“We couldn’t keep up with the formation and we fell back and fell back and finally the formation disappeared,” Cornell said. “When they did, we were attacked by 16 German fighter planes. They came from the back and the sides, we were just one airplane out there. We took a tremendous amount of damage, they counted over 2,000 holes in the airplane. We lost our rudders and the controls, the airplane wanted to dive and the pilot and I could hardly hold it level.”
The pilot wanted to ditch the plane in the North Sea, but Cornell argued that, with the 12-foot waves, the many holes in the airplane and a ruined life raft, trying an emergency landing in the ocean would be suicide. He and the rest of the crew pulled the plane level, at which point he crossed his legs around it and braced himself to keep it from crashing.
“We flew for about an hour and a quarter with my legs crossed and holding us at the altitude,” Cornell said. “We knew we had a about an hour and a quarter to England and the navigator gave us the closest landing strip, which was the Hudson Base. It had a grass field and a short runway. We asked the tower what we would hit if we went off the runway and they said we’d be going into a field of Brussels sprouts. That’s the only vegetable we had to eat so nobody liked it. So we landed, and of course we ran through the fence and into the field. We had a waist gunner who was seriously wounded in the stomach so we told the tower and they had an ambulance out there and got us out right away.”
For his efforts, Cornell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest award the Army Air Corps had to offer; one of three times he received the award. Among his other numerous medals, he also received a personal commendation from Winston Churchill. However, there were some dark days when things didn’t work out. Cornell and his squadron were a part of the raid on the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt, Germany now known as “Black Thursday.”
“We sent out 15 ships, we lost 13, which was an 87% loss,” Cornell said. “I remember quite clearly, we made up two basketball teams and we were playing basketball that Sunday, and the following weekend there wasn’t anybody left… what can I tell you? The overall loss during the entire time the 8th Air Force was there was 80% so only 20% were finishing, but in my squadron only 13% finished.”
With such a low survival rate, the anguish over losing comrades and friends took a toll, and Cornell says it became easier not to get close to his fellow soldiers.
“Once you started losing people, which was immediately, you didn’t become close to anybody anymore,” Cornell said. “That wasn’t just me, that was everybody. You didn’t want to know about their wives, you didn’t want to know about their children, can you understand that? So you completely withdrew from any personal things. Over my time there I had seven different roommates.”
His experiences haunted him after his return from WWII. His loving wife, Peggy, helped him get through the tough times until her passing in 2012, 69 years after the couple was married. Cornell didn’t speak much about his time in WWII until 2004, when he was approached by the Library of Congress to document his story.
After so many years of reliving the nightmares of his combat missions, Cornell only recently learned he had Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), something that went by many names until it was commonly classified in the 1970s. He says he’s been encouraged through counseling to be more open about his experiences, which has led to him sharing them more frequently.
The Stockton Thunder thank Keith Cornell and all veterans and current members of the military for their bravery and service to their country.