(Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
(Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Robert Binzer sat at his Madison home Wednesday thinking back to his military service days in China during World War II.

His three Distinguished Flying Cross medals, photographs with fellow Flying Tigers pilots and a military-issued silk map of western China all were displayed on his coffee table as references.

"You were just a kid. Very young," his wife, Alyce, said nudging him in the right direction.

At 91, Binzer is far removed from his active service days as a first lieutenant with the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron, 14th U.S. Army Air Corps. But his recollection of his stint overseas is crystal clear.

Binzer, a native of northern Indiana, flew missions into small airfields in support of Chinese Army units with American advisers on the western border of the country.

His log books show that he spent about one year overseas. In that time, he lived through more than one crash landing - including one where he broke his back - and even survived an emergency leap from an aircraft.

Not surprisingly, it all seemed like a much longer chunk of his life.

"We must have been awful busy in that short period of time," he said.

Binzer will talk about his military service during Trinity United Methodist's Veterans Day program on Monday at 5 p.m. The event will include food from the 1940s era. Binzer will give a PowerPoint presentation outlining his experiences.

Ever since he could remember, Binzer said he wanted to fly.

But when he first enlisted in the military at 18 in 1941, he was too young to become a pilot and did not have the required two years of college.

The military later implemented the aviation cadet program, which allowed Binzer to work toward the cockpit by passing a series of exams.

He describes his first experience as a pilot as "what I always wanted."

"I managed not to cry," he said.

Before being stationed overseas, he trained at numerous bases in the South, even helping train Chinese military personnel to combat the Japanese forces.

"Little did I know that I'd end up in China," he said.

In China, Binzer was stationed near The Hump, a nickname given to the Himalayan Mountains. He flew the C-47, a transport aircraft, and supplied troops with ammunition, fuel and other materials.

The Hump was a notoriously dangerous place because of its terrain and high altitude. It engulfed hundreds of aircrafts and service men, many of which are still unaccounted for today.

And as if the terrain wasn't scary enough, Binzer said each pilot had their own myths and stories about the mountain villagers.

"They said there were cannibals down here," he said. "Of course, later we found out that that wasn't quite true, but still, people were scared to death."

Binzer said pilots often flew over the mountain range with no oxygen tanks, which meant the plane could not hit a high altitude. The tanks, which were located on the bottom of the aircraft, were removed because of heavy ground fire by Japanese forces.

"The oxygen tank sat right under the pilot's seat, so you can't have that," he said.

One of Binzer's most bizarre and serious encounters came when he and his crew had to parachute out of a plane in the middle of a cold, stormy night. During the flight, their navigational device showed that the aircraft was on course, but little did everyone know, the plane had barely made progress against the heavy winds.

"Turns out, we were standing still. ... For maybe hours," he said.

The crew attempted to radio their position, but the heavy winds and storms swallowed the radio waves like a steel trap. Then, the gas gauge began creeping toward empty.

It soon became apparent that landing the plane wasn't an option, especially since the men had no clue if they were over land or water. During the leap, a crew chief prematurely pulled his ripcord before clearing the tail of the plane. The parachute blew back into the aircraft and tore.

Binzer and the remaining crew members watched helplessly as their friend floated off into the night. Then, they fortified the courage to jump out as well. Binzer was the last man out, noting that he had no one to give him a push out the door.

They landed safely, though the crew chief who jumped first was still missing.

"I still got that ripcord. I don't why. You're not suppose to hold that thing. But for some reason, I still got it," Binzer said.

The remaining men eventually made their way to a small village where no one spoke English. Their Army-issued translation books were of little use.

In the snow, they began out on a search for the lost crew member, eventually finding their way to a small town where Chinese forces were stationed. The men found an interpreter and explained the situation. They quickly formed a group and went out on yet another search in the frigid weather.

"There were all these friendly people. We had 50, 60 people on each side of the road," he said.

As it turns out, the lost crew chief was fine. More that fine, actually.

Following his near-deadly leap from the plane, a Chinese family had found the man and taken him in. They fed the young, weary soldier and gave him a comfortable place to rest as his crew members searched the tough terrain in freezing conditions.

"So, George spent the night with this family in comfort, and we were out worrying about him," Binzer joked.

It took another few days to get back to their U.S. base, where the men found most of their items had been claimed by other soldiers.

"My air mattress was confiscated by someone who figured we wouldn't be back," he said.

Since leaving the military, Binzer and his family have lived all across the country. He has four children, three with his wife, Alyce.

Binzer said many of the men he served alongside with have since died, some in the past year or two. He actually could think of only one other living person from his squadron.

"I'm about the only one left," he said.

The Binzers' youngest child, Cookie Binzer, has heard her father's stories several times over.

"He doesn't see himself as a hero," she said in disbelief.

Each time, she stands in awe of what her father lived through, claiming he has "nine lives."

Binzer worked as an electrical engineer and settled down in Madison around the time Marble Hill was being constructed.

Binzer and his wife, Alyce, visited China in 1991 with several other living members of the Flying Tigers.

Just like when Binzer had been in the country decades earlier, the Chinese people extended a warm welcome.

"They treated them like heroes everywhere they went," Alyce said.