MIDDLETOWN — You never know how your family history will be written or the circumstances that may abruptly end your life story.
For the Davidson family, that day came on Oct. 14, 1943. Bill Davidson, then 20, enlisted in the Army Air Corps on March 9, 1942. After several months of training, he was assigned to the 2nd Air Force, and in April 1943, he found himself in England, ready to fly B-17 bombing missions over Germany.
He completed 18 missions before his aircraft took on damaging fire during the 2nd Schweinfurt raid of Oct. 14, 1943. He parachuted out of the burning craft and spent the final 19 months of the war as a prisoner of the German forces in Stalag Luft III. The camp was well known for “The Great Escape,” which inspired the popular World War II movie of the same name.
Davidson was recognized for his service with a Purple Heart and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster for “exceptionally meritorious achievement…over enemy occupied Continental Europe. (His) courage, coolness and skill displayed by this pilot reflects great credit upon himself and the armed forces of the United States.”
We were reminded of Davidson’s extreme sacrifice after he died last week at his daughter’s home near Creston, N.C. He was 95.
After the war, Davidson settled in Middletown, opened Davidson Photo Shop and started a family that includes six children, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The family often thought about the ramifications of that fall day in 1943.
“There are 27 of us who owe our existence to the fact that his parachute opened,” said Michael Davidson, 59, the youngest of six children. “Some others weren’t so lucky.”
Luck followed Davidson after the war.
Davidson and his wife, Jeannette, and her mother, visited Middletown to look at potentially purchasing a downtown photo studio. But Davidson’s mother-in-law said she wasn’t interested in buying the Dysert Photo Shop at 1336 Central Ave.
But Jeannette Davidson liked the location.
“We can do this, Bill,” she told her husband.
But he had no photo experience.
“I’ll teach you,” she said.
The new Davidson Photo Shop later relocated to 1310 Central Ave. and expanded to the Middletown Shopping Plaza in October 1958. The couple operated the store for 42 years, retiring and selling the business in August of 1988.
Michael Davidson said his father taught him several lessons, including patience and customer service. When you walked into the Davidson Photo Shop, you were the most important person in the store. If Bill Davidson was waiting on you, he didn’t want to be distracted, his son said.
“He never had any enemies at the store,” his son said.
As Michael Davidson prepared for his father’s funeral this week, he looked through hundreds of family photographs, all processed at the family business.
“Lots of memories,” said Davidson, his voice cracking. “I’m doing what so many families have done in the past.”
Bill Davidson was a talented golfer. When he lived in Middletown, he had a foursome every Wednesday at Wildwood Golf Club and every Sunday at Brown’s Run Country Club. He made nine holes-in-one while living in Fort Myers, Fla.
Ironically, Davidson and another Middletonian, Bill Corson, spent time together in the same POW camp.
Corson enlisted in the Army Air Corps in April 1943, and after completing bombardier training, he was assigned to the 8th Air Force and was shipped to England. He was stationed at Bassingbourne Air Base, the same base his brother Dan had flown out of a year earlier. Dan piloted the B-17 Danellen that crashed in France on Dec. 20, 1942. Only the tailgunner survived.
On June 22, 1943, Bill Corson’s plane, Golden Bear, was shot down on a mission to Huls, Germany. The pilot managed to land the plane, but the crew was captured and transported to Stalag Luft III POW camp.
In 2015, Middletown historian Sam Ashworth interviewed Davidson for a documentary. That’s when Davidson talked about how he and Cordon met. In 1948, Davidson went to the local Pontiac dealership to buy a new car.
“There was a tall, lanky salesman who came walking toward me,” Davidson told Ashworth. “I said, ‘I want to buy that car in the window,’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s just for display.’ Then I said, ‘You know, you look familiar to me, were you in the service?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘What branch?’ ‘Army Air Corps.’ ‘You didn’t happen to get shot down over Germany, did ya?’ ’ Yeah, Stalag Luft III.’ I remembered seeing him walk into our room one day.”
The two vets became great friends and traveled with their wives to several POW reunions around the country during the next several years.
Bill Corson died in 1991.
Now, 27 years later, the two vets are together again.
Probably sharing stories and looking at photographs.