DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — In a typical year, a man whose 100th birthday falls on Labor Day might expect an influx of friends and relatives from across the country for a three-day weekend.
But this is 2020, the year of the coronavirus, which means that Detroit Lakes, Minn., resident Warren "Wayne" McCoy will be observing this personal milestone with a day full of Zoom video chats.
"There's going to be several different groups," said McCoy during a Wednesday, Sept. 2, interview. "There's one group from Michigan, one or two from the Alexandria (Minn.) area, and at least one, maybe a couple from Anchorage, Alaska ... all at different times of the day. My son is organizing it all from his home in Caldwell, Idaho. It's pretty experimental, so we'll see how it goes."
McCoy will be conducting all of these conversations from his armchair, which is where he spends much of his time these days. But in his early years growing up in Minnesota, he had aspirations to be a pilot, joining the Army Air Corps when he was just 21, during the height of World War II.
"A lot of guys wanted to be pilots — I didn't make it (through flight school)," he said. But McCoy found another way to take to the skies, serving instead as a bombardier navigator.
“A bombardier sits in the nose of the plane, and between the time we take off and the target, I’m figuring out the weather reports for winds and everything,” McCoy told Forum News Service in a 2014 interview. “I control the movement of the plane so that when we’re at the right spot of the target, I open the bomb bay doors and drop the bomb.”
He graduated from bombardier school in 1943, entering the Army Air Corps as a second lieutenant.
"There was a shortage of bombardiers," he said, so McCoy found himself much in demand. After being assigned to the 463rd bomb group, 772nd squadron, he was sent overseas. McCoy flew 21 missions throughout Europe, with various flight crews, and returned to base safely every time — right up until the last one, on Oct. 12, 1944.
"We were flying at 21,000 feet when we were shot down over Italy," he said. McCoy was taken prisoner by German soldiers and sent to an interrogation camp, where he would spend the next 28 days.
"They were trying to get information that I didn't have," he said, noting that while the B-17 he was riding in at the time he was shot down had been equipped with an experimental radar bombing system, he had no idea how to use it, and knew nothing about how it worked.
After surviving various forms of torture — including water boarding, sleep deprivation and near starvation — McCoy was finally sent to a prisoner-of-war camp for Air Force service members, and was subsequently transferred to two other POW camps before the camp he was in, near Munich, Germany, was liberated by U.S. Army Gen. George Patton's forces on April 29, 1945.
"Gen. Patton rode in there on his tank," McCoy recalled. "I was no more than 10 feet away from him."
McCoy spent the next 90 days recuperating form his ordeal before he was finally sent home to Minnesota, having earned a promotion to first lieutenant. After continuing with the Army Reserves for about a year, he was finally discharged, and tried a variety of different jobs, including running his own bakery delivery service and working as an independent insurance agent, before retiring in the early 1980s.
His work took him across the country, from Crosby, Minn., to Hayward, Calif., and back to Minnesota again. It was shortly before his retirement in 1983 that his first wife, Irene, died.
He married his second wife, Virginia, a couple of years later. They continued to make their home in Crosby until moving to Detroit Lakes in the early 1990s. Today, they live right across the street from their daughter and son-in-law.
Between them, the McCoys have five children, 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
"I've been lucky enough to have two of the best families a man could ever ask for," McCoy said.