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‘I was lucky,’ recalls decorated WWII pilot and Pearl Harbor survivor

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA -- He enlisted in the Army because his big brother told him he ought to.

"I was with the Army Air Corps," says retired Air Force Lt. Colonel William Bonelli.

He didn't want to tote a rifle so he took a post at Hickam Air Field in Hawaii in 1941 to work on airplanes.

He was there on the morning of December 7th as the first wave of Japanese planes flew in.

"I could see the red ball on the side of the fuselage," he recalls. "And I said to my buddy, 'I wonder who those aircraft belong to'."

Within minutes, the air field and Pearl Harbor were ablaze.

Bonelli ran through strafing fire to line up for a rifle and ammunition.

He was lucky that day.

"They had already started to pick up the wounded and left the dead where they lay."

He kept working on airplanes, the B-17 Flying Fortress mostly.

Bonelli waited for his chance at becoming a pilot.

He got it in 1944, leading a squadron on 30 sorties over Italy and right up to the Battle of Berlin.

Again, he was lucky.

On his second combat mission a piece of flak came right up through his seat in the cockpit.

Bonelli chuckles and estimates, "I would say it came within an inch of the family jewels."

Until a few years ago, he was either too busy to talk about his wartime memories or reluctant.

Now retired, some of those memories haunt his dreams.

"I recall enough," he says, then pauses to gather his emotions.

Even the passage of time can't erase the loss of friends or the things he experienced first-hand.

"There is hardly a night," he continues with emotion, "that I don't wake up in the middle of the night."

But his daughter bought him a nice jacket a few years back.

William couldn't share his stories with other WWII veterans because they were mostly gone.

So, he started to open up.

On the afternoon of November 10, 2017, a lifetime since those memories were formed, William P. Bonelli accepted hundreds of thank yous in a ceremony at Oklahoma City Community College as their guest of honor.

He didn't want to miss any more chances at saying 'You're welcome'.

Bonelli received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery as a pilot. He flew tactical bombers during the Cold War in the 1950's and enjoyed a long career at the FAA Training Center in Oklahoma City.

He now lives near Philadelphia with family.