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WWII Fighter Pilot Shared Haunting Story With the World
Born April 21, 1921, on a 160-acre farm five miles from Luverne, Minn., Quentin Aanenson grew up dreaming of flight. He spent two years at the University of Minnesota, and in the summer of 1941 moved to Seattle, where he got a job at Boeing and attended the University of Washington. Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, and the United States entered World War II.
Although Mr. Aanenson had hoped to become a pilot, he was disqualified because of colorblindness. But he took the eye test enough times to memorize it, and by 1943 was accepted into the U.S. Army Air Forces. After flight training and fighter pilot training, he was sent to England. His first combat mission was June 4, 1944, flying his P-47 Thunderbolt to Normandy, where he was among those who attacked the German positions behind Pointe du Hoc in advance of the Allies' landing.
Almost a year of vicious combat awaited him. In July 1944 over Rouen, France, he took a direct hit from an antiaircraft shell that failed to explode. On Aug. 3, 1944, on a mission over Vire, France, his plane was hit by flak and caught fire. Unable to bail out, he dived straight toward the earth, and the high-speed plunge extinguished the flames. He managed to line up with a nearby runway and crash-landed, blowing a tire, damaging the landing gear and spinning the fighter around until it broke in two. Mr. Aanenson dislocated his shoulder, cracked three ribs and whacked his skull against the gunsight. He was pulled, unconscious, from the wreckage. Ninety minutes later, a photographer for Picture Post, a prominent English photojournalistic magazine, captured the bruised and battered pilot beside his collapsed fighter.
As soon as he recovered, he flew again. During the Battle of the Bulge, he coordinated close air support on the ground. For 36 hours, he and his radio man were trapped behind enemy lines in the Ardennes.
After the war ended, he graduated from Louisiana State University and joined the life insurance company where he spent his entire career. He moved to Bethesda in 1956 and had lived in the same house since then.
Among his military awards were the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with nine oak leaf clusters. Fifty years after the liberation of France, Mr. Aanenson was made a commander of the Legion of Honor, an honor he accepted, he said, on behalf of all American pilots, living and dead, who served in the war. His home town renamed its airport Quentin C. Aanenson Field.
Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Jacqueline G. Aanenson of Bethesda; three children, Vicki J. Murphy of Ellicott City, Jerry L. Aanenson of Boyds and Debra D. Pyers of Chicago; a brother; a sister; and nine grandchildren.
He told The Washington Post in 2007 that he considered himself "just damn lucky."
"It's hard to understand why the guy next to you was blown apart and why you're able to go on to have a wonderful life," he said. "There's a sense of responsibility we assume, or should assume. I tried to make a contribution, to my family, to the business world, to live with high ethical standards . . . not to waste this life, to do something that counts in a positive way. . . . I tried to live with purpose."