The mere fact that Colonel Richard Bushong survived World War II is nothing short of a miracle; so not even COVID-19 could stand in his way of celebrating his 98th birthday.
At age 19, Bushong enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941, answering his inner call to service after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7 of that year. He was only 20 years old when he flew his first combat mission into Nazi Germany.
"[I] never got back without holes in my plane," said Bushong in front of a small crowd at the 390th Memorial Museum in Tucson, in which he is a founding member. The crowd was there for his birthday celebration, which was a surprise.
During WWII, Bushong piloted 28 completed missions in a B-17 bomber as a member of the 390th Bombardment Group. Bushong told the story of his last mission, when he lost two of his four engines while flying over Germany, and had to safely navigate the plane back to safety in England.
After landing past the runway, he came to a stop thanks to "English mud," or as he puts it, "Thank God for good old gooey English mud!” Bushong received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his act of heroism.
Bushong candidly continued to speak about the time he came face-to-face with hundreds of German planes, who charged right at his plane head-on, the quickest way to get behind his bomber.
"600 enemy airplanes, I think I saw half of them," smiled Bushong, who, again, miraculously survived.
"You're going to have to be lucky to survive," said Bushong when asked what message he would tell his 19-year-old self. "And I was extremely lucky. Looking back on it, it is unbelievable how lucky I was. I flew seven different B-17s on combat missions, all of them were destroyed after I flew them."
Bushong spent 32 years in the Air Force, flying in the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars.
In December, Bushong contracted COVID-19.
"I was quarantined for 11 days, no symptoms."
Three months later, he's sitting next to his younger girlfriend (his words, she's 93), receiving proclamations from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, as well as the mayors of Marana, Sahuarita and his hometown of St. Mary's, Ohio.
On Thursdays, Bushong stands underneath a B-17G Bomber named "I'll Be Around," sharing his war stories to anyone who will listen. A fitting place to be for a soldier who not only been around, but has also always been around.