|Wilmington, Delaware||Mailboy, clerk (prewar); salesman, businessman (postwar)|
|U.S. Army Air Forces||Enlisted 13098297 / Officer O-765619|
|European||708th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 447th Bombardment Group (Heavy)|
|Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters||European Air Campaign|
|Military Occupational Specialty|
Author’s note: This article is very different than most pieces published to Delaware’s World War II Fallen in that it profiles a serviceman who made it home. Paul J. Collins was a good friend who provided a great deal of information for several profiles published on this site. His story is also a reminder of just how much the country lost with the sacrifice of so many men and women who never got the chance to raise families, have careers, or live life to the fullest as he did.
Early Life & Family
Paul John Collins was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on December 1, 1923. He was the third child of W. Frank Collins (a machinist) and Elizabeth Collins. He had an older sister, June Collins (later Love), and an older brother, James T. Collins. The Collins family was recorded on the census on April 9, 1930, living at 614 West Eighth Street in Wilmington. They were recorded on the next census on April 4, 1940, living at 801 (North) Jefferson Street.
Collins graduated from Wilmington High School in 1941 and began working as a stock boy at Woolworth’s. “I worked 60 hours a week, 10 hours a day, six days a week for $14” a week (with no benefits), Collins said. After a few months, he became a mail boy for the DuPont Company in Wilmington.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Collins and his friends (including Harry M. Hinkson, Jr.) discussed which branch of the armed forces each one would join. He was inspired to become an aviation cadet after watching a Jimmy Stewart recruiting film.
Around February 1942, Collins and his friend, Bobby Reagan, went to take a test to qualify to become an aviation cadet in lieu of two years of college. “He was consoling me,” Collins recalled of their trip up. “‘If you don’t make it, you know, maybe you could become a gunner or something like that.’” As it turned out, it was Collins who passed!
At the time, Collins stood five feet, 6½ inches tall, with brown hair and blue eyes, but he only weighed about 116 pounds—too light to pass his physical. On July 25, 1942, with the help of some bananas (and a master sergeant who rounded up on his weight), he passed. Collins wasn’t called up to begin his training until the following year. He was 19 years old when he went on active duty in Nashville, Tennessee, on February 9, 1943. One of his closest calls occurred there soon after—before he even set foot in an airplane—when Collins contracted meningitis. He turned down the option of a medical discharge and after recovering, he was assigned to bombardier training.
In April 1943, Collins and his class arrived in Santa Ana, California, to begin their pre-flight training. Collins recalled:
And we were we were there one week early, so we were assigned different jobs for one week. And my job was working on the baseball diamond under the supervision of Joe DiMaggio, one of my heroes. I was a Yankee fan and I knew how great he was. […] He was a very quiet gentleman that smoked a hell of a lot of cigarettes. Very quiet. I scraped the diamond with a scraper and then I lined it, the bases. And I loved baseball, I was a baseball nut. […] We cadets, about four or five, we did a lot of work. And then on Sunday, there would be a big baseball game. And they would bring in a team, like from Long Beach, they were Navy and they had about half the Yankee team on there and Joe had about half on his team almost. They were almost all big leaguers and saw some great games.
After completing preflight in mid-July 1943, Collins and the rest of his class headed east for gunnery school at Kingman, Arizona. At Kingman, Collins experienced the first flight of his life, in an AT-6, in which he operated a .30 caliber machine gun against a towed target. It was memorable for another reason as well:
And I get up there and I pull the gun up. I’m all set to go and I’m all eager. And I was chewing tobacco. […] So I was chewing tobacco—Red Man, ten cents a pouch—and I spit. It came right back and hit me in the face and it blinded me. Part of it went down. I threw up all over the cockpit. Pilot goes ape. Has to land. This is a court-martial offense. You’re thrown out for this. The commanding officer’s waiting for me. I was almost in tears. I could see myself gone. In disgrace.
And he [said,] “Collins, get a bucket and a rag and clean out that plane and get back up there!”
Collins graduated from gunnery on August 30, 1943, and then began 18 weeks of bombardier and navigator training in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Upon graduation on January 15, 1944, Collins was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Of his 100 classmates in Western Flying Training Command Class 44-1 who graduated the same day, 12 died during World War II (10 killed in action and two in accidents). At least 13 more were shot down, of whom 11 became prisoners of war and two evaded capture. Another three men died during the Korean War (two killed in action and one in an accident). Thus, approximately a quarter of the class were killed or captured during two conflicts—and had they graduated a year earlier, when Eighth Air Force losses were at their highest, the death toll would undoubtedly have been higher.
On January 22, 1944, Collins went to Philadelphia to attend the wedding of his classmate, 2nd Lieutenant Rocco DeFilippis (who was killed in action over Germany later that year). Shortly after the wedding, Collins took a train south to Plant City, Florida, a classification center.
It was late January or early February 1944 when Lieutenant Collins met his crew. The pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Lowell F. Simmons, immediately bestowed a new nickname upon him.
“There was an umpire named Jocko Conlin. Very, very well known in baseball,” Collins recalled, explaining that the introduction went something like this: “‘I’m Collins.’ ‘Jocko,’ he says. ‘Jocko Collins.’ I said, ‘It’s Collins not…’ ‘Yeah, Jocko. Yeah, that’s it.’ And after that, everybody called me Jocko.”
Collins’s crew came from all over the United States.
Pilot: Lowell F. Simmons (Maine, 1918–1944)
Co-Pilot*: Leslie F. Lund (Wisconsin, 1922–1992)
Navigator: Leonard D. Hessenauer (Maryland, 1920–2001)
Bombardier: Paul J. Collins (Delaware, 1923–2021)
Flight engineer*: Roger H. Dennis (New Jersey, 1920–1983)
Radio Operator: William H. Beste (Minnesota, 1922–2015)
Left waist gunner*: Robert E. Harris (Pennsylvania, 1918–2000)
Right waist gunner*: Walter F. Zuba (Connecticut, 1924–2004)
Ball turret gunner: Henri W. Wohnsen (New York, 1910–1995)
Tail gunner: Lonnie E. McDonald (born in Oklahoma, entered service from Arizona, 1921–1986)
Notes: Although identified as assistant engineer on a photo from MacDill, Dennis seemed to fly most combat missions as flight engineer, while Zuba, identified as the engineer on the training photo, flew as a waist gunner. Lund was moved to another crew before the crew started flying in combat and replaced by John J. Zammett on most missions. Harris was moved to ground duty after a few missions.
After ground training on the B-17, they moved on to training flights out of MacDill Field, Florida. After completing their crew training in May 1944, the crew headed to Savannah, Georgia. They were ordered to ferry a B-17 to Nutts Corner, Northern Ireland. Their route took them over Collins’s hometown. “We went over Wilmington, we went down at 2,500 feet—we’d been flying about 5,000—and I threw out a couple rolls of toilet paper to celebrate.”
About two hours after taking off from a field in Maine for what was supposed to be a nonstop transatlantic flight, a member of the crew became sick. They had to divert to Royal Canadian Air Force Station Gander. While waiting for the crewmember to recover, the crew was able to pass some of the time fishing. One day, Simmons and Collins were out on the lake in the canoe. Collins recalled:
A moose came out of the woods while we were on this lake. […] I was going to shoot him with my .45 [pistol]. Simmons was from Maine. “Don’t do that,” he says. “You’re not going to kill it, for one thing, and if you hit it,” he said, “then he’ll kill us!”
Finally, in early June 1944, the crew was able to resume their journey. 2nd Lieutenant Collins and his crew arrived at Rattlesden, England, and were assigned to the 708th Bomb Squadron, 447th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force on June 11, 1944. On June 21, 1944, Collins’s pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Simmons, went on a combat orientation mission as co-pilot with another crew on a mission to Berlin. The plane was shot down by flak and Simmons was killed.
“And even today I can’t really describe the feelings… There’s a feeling of unbelief. You couldn’t believe it happened,” Collins recalled. “I always had a guilt feeling. I always felt that if I’d been with him, he wouldn’t been killed.”
Surviving a tour of duty seemed insurmountable. “I didn’t think I’d make it,” Collins remembered. “I just had a feeling from the time I got over there, that I wasn’t going to make it. And it didn’t really bother me, even though I thought that. I was resigned to that…’til I hit my 30th mission.”
To replace Simmons, a co-pilot from another 708th crew, Lyndon F. Lakeman (1921–1996), became pilot for Collins’s first 12 missions. He also flew with four other pilots, including 16 missions with John F. Noonan (1921–1983). Contrary to the notion that crews had one plane, 447th Bomb Group records indicate that Collins flew missions in as many as 15 different B-17s, including famed planes Milk Wagon and Fuddy Duddy.
As a bombardier sitting in the nose of the B-17, Collins had the best view of any member of the crew. “One of the greatest thrills of my life was the first time I ever went up,” he recalled. “We were up somewhere around 25,000 feet and to get up to 25,000 feet and look out… I don’t know how many miles.”
He added that he was
Just enthralled, practically, with it. [I] thought how great this Earth is. […] You know, a young boy that had never been anywhere in his life to be looking from Holland into Germany, and you can do that [from that altitude]. It was a thrill. It was an experience.
Collins had some close calls during 36 missions over Europe. One time, his seat stopped a jagged piece of flak. His B-17 was attacked by flak as well as enemy fighters, including one time by an Me 262 jet.
One of his closest calls was due to his bomber’s own payload. On July 25, 1944, while participating in air support for Operation Cobra, which preceded the breakout from Normandy, two bombs hung up in his B-17’s bomb bay. Supported by the plane’s navigator, Leonard Hessenauer, Collins leaned from a narrow catwalk over the open bomb bay, using a screwdriver to manually release the live bombs. Collins had little doubt that any turbulence or an attack by enemy fighters would have caused him to fall from the bomb bay without a parachute. “I will never live to be as scared as I was that time,” he recalled.
Collins was promoted to 1st lieutenant in September 1944. During his service overseas, he was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four campaign stars. Collins completed the last mission of his tour on October 25, 1944.
Stateside Instructor & Postwar Military Career
Collins arrived back in the United States on November 11, 1944. He took an instructor’s course at Midland Army Air Field, Texas, and then served for several months as a bombardier instructor at San Angelo Army Air Field, Texas.
Following his separation from active duty on September 18, 1945, Collins remained in the reserves. After 20 years of service, he retired from the U.S. Air Force Reserve at the grade of major. He was also active in the Civil Air Patrol for years. In 2016, Collins was decorated with the Legion of Honor at the French embassy in Washington, D.C.
He was touched when a French officer at the ceremony made the point of thanking him for a supply drop to the French Resistance that Collins participated in. As Collins recalled it, the officer said, “I want to thank you for dropping those supplies. You dropped them to my father. He was the commanding officer of the Maquis outside Lyon. And we truly appreciate it.”
“What a wonderful gesture that was,” Paul remarked. “Because I’d flown 35 missions and about 34 was killing people. I think I dropped supplies once before, so maybe 33. […] And here was one where I was actually helping somebody.”
Collins married Carmella “Co” Cofrancisco (1921–2008) in Wilmington on June 16, 1949. His bride, a nurse at Wilmington General Hospital, had served in the Army Nurse Corps in Hawaii during World War II. Paul and Carmella moved to Manor Park in New Castle in the early 1950s, where they raised a son and two daughters. They were married for 59 years prior Co’s death in 2008.
Collins returned to work at DuPont after World War II. Unsatisfied with his prospects for advancement there, his wartime experiences gave him the confidence to quit his job to follow his dream of becoming a salesman, eventually running his own business selling dictation equipment and later other electronics. He was active in a Catholic charity, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for nearly 50 years. Even during the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, he continued to meet with and arrange assistance for needy members of the community. According to his obituary, printed in the News Journal on November 14, 2021, Collins
was instrumental in establishing a prison ministry at the State prison in Smyrna, DE and received awards from the NAACP and the State of Delaware for his work and that of his associates at the prison and for his work with released prisoners. He established and managed two houses that served as temporary homes for released prisoners. He also received three awards from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, received The Jefferson Award and the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal.
On May 27, 2021—during the last of a series of interviews which formed the basis of this piece—Collins reflected on his life, unabashedly paraphrasing Lou Gehrig: “As I tell everyone that I speak with, I am the luckiest man in the world.”
Paul J. Collins died at home in New Castle on November 10, 2021, aged 97. On November 18, 2021, after his funeral at Holy Spirit Church in New Castle, Collins was laid to rest next to his beloved wife at All Saints Cemetery in Wilmington.
Special thanks to the late Major Paul J. Collins for his friendship and for providing the photos, documents, and interviews that were the basis of this piece. Thanks also go out to his daughter, Kathleen Carter, for providing additional photos.
Collins, Paul J. Interviews in New Castle, Delaware, on August 28, 2020, September 11, 2020, September 25, 2020, October 17, 2020, November 6, 2020, and May 27, 2021.
Collins, Paul J. Military Record and Report of Separation. September 18, 1945.
Delaware Marriages. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-266-12427-68175-0
French, Chris. “Lt Paul J Collins, Bombardier 708BS, Combat Record.” August 22, 2020.
“History June, 1944 447th Bombardment Group (H).” Reel B0558. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
“History 447th Bomb Gp (H) July 1944.” Reel B0558. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
“History 447th Bomb Gp (H) Aug. 1944.” Reel B0558. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
“History 447th Bomb Gp (H) Sept. 1944.” Reel B0558. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
“History 447th Bomb Gp (H) Oct. 1944.” Reel B0559. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
“History 447th Bomb Gp (H) Nov. 1944.” Reel B0559. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
Silverman, Lowell. Unpublished research file on Western Flying Training Command Class 44-1 graduates.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531893_00743
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_10_00002-00131
Western Flying Training Command Class 44-1 graduate list. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=13098297&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=744615
WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_10_00002-00131
Last updated on August 25, 2022
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