TOPEKA, Kan. — A story of heroism and one veteran's "can-do" life aboard a B-17 bomber and in a German prisoner of war camp is being told in a new film by a Salina television producer.
The film, "Leo Perkins: Flying in a B-17" is debuting as part of a three-year exhibit at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene chronicling U.S. involvement in World War II. The 90-minute documentary was the byproduct of a flight Phil Black took in a restored B-17 in Salina.
His interest in the historic heavy bomber led Black to interview Perkins, who was a flight engineer in a B-17 that was shot down in August 1943 over Holland.
"I had no idea that it was going to end up where it is now," Black said. "This is a great honor. This is really a big honor for him and the family."
Perkins, who turns 96 on Nov. 26, was to be in Abilene for the film's debut and to discuss his military service. He said in a telephone interview from his home in Lampasas, Texas, that he was looking forward to seeing the film and discussing his military service.
"I don't mind what they say about it. More power to them. It's OK with me," Perkins said.
Karl Weissenbach, director of the Eisenhower library, said public response to the World War II project had been strong.
"The exhibit and associated programming aims to honor and thank our veterans while educating the younger generation through the personal stories," he said.
Perkins joined the Army Air Corps in August 1941, realizing the United States would soon be in the fight. He was trained as a flight engineer on a B-17 and also served as a top-turret gunner. Perkins spoke proudly of his duty to take care of everything mechanical during a mission, even when German fighters and flak were all around.
"You didn't realize the things that were going on around you until you were back in England," he said.
Perkins was on his 14th mission with the 381st Bomb Group flying out of England when he and the rest of the 10-member crew were shot down.
He recalled that they had made an initial pass on a target over Holland when they had to circle back for another run, discovering that it was a dummy target. The bomb-bay door became stuck open and it was Perkins' job to take off his parachute, climb down and use a hand crank to close the doors.
Anti-aircraft fire was heavy and the plane was struck, setting the No. 3 engine on fire, he said. Perkins climbed out of the bomb bay to see the last crew member wave as he bailed out. Perkins grabbed his parachute — putting it on upside down — and jumped while the plane was at about 28,000 feet.
"We always had an understanding that we would take care of one another," Perkins said.
He realized the chute was backward but was able to pull the ripcord at 10,000 feet and floated to safety. Six of the crew survived and became prisoners of war.
Perkins spent the rest of the war at Stalag 17, which housed both American and Russian soldiers. He said the prisoners dug tunnels and the Russians and Americans frequently switched sides.
"The Germans couldn't do anything about it. The guards didn't seem to mind much," Perkins said.
While he was in prison he learned Spanish from a fellow prisoner. The training was parlayed into eight hours of college credit when he got out of the Army, which helped with his career in Texas and New Mexico after the war. Perkins worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stem a spread of hoof and mouth disease in remote parts of Mexico to halt it from spreading north.
Black said in the film Perkins discusses POW life and exploits, including Perkins working a scam with a German guard to get $2 cartons of cigarettes smuggled to Vienna where they sold for $12 a pack.
"Some of the things that he talks about is like watching an episode of 'Hogan's Heroes'," Black said.
Perkins used his bartering skills after the camp was liberated in 1945 to get to France, trading tobacco for food or helping folks along the way.
"It was just a cavalier, 'I can make anything happen' attitude that got him through it," Black said.