William Diman enlisted in the U.S. Army on Monday, Dec. 8, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
He was shipped off to a base near Niagara Falls as an aircraft engine mechanic, but that’s not what he ended up doing. What changed his course was a piccolo player from the Cranston High School band also stationed at the base. He instantly recognized him. The fellow alum was a pilot.
“I thought if he can be a pilot, then I can be a pilot,” Diman recalled on Sept. 18 from his room at Brentwood Assisted Living in Warwick. With him were his two sons, William and Kenneth, who had traveled from Virginia and upstate New York for the occasion – Diman’s 100th birthday.
Being stationed near Buffalo also brought about another major life-changing event. On a visit to see his parents, Diman connected with two other Rhode Island troops planning to return to base from Boston. They happened to bring along their sisters. One of them was Angela, and it was love at first sight.
Diman purposely left a package with his return address in the vehicle, and the two started corresponding. Meanwhile, Diman buckled down to teach himself algebra in preparation for the tests he knew he would need to pass in order to get into flight training. When he was shipped south for training, which took the better part of a year, he and Angela wrote each other every day. Days before leaving on a transport for England, the couple married in North Carolina.
Diman went on to fly a P47 Thunderbolt, flying 113 sorties in the European theater. He shot down four German planes, not that he wanted to make all those kills.
It was near the end of the war and the squadron, flying out of France, was over Germany when his radio crackled “bogie,” alerting the flyers that they had company. The advisory quickly changed to “bandit,” meaning an enemy plane had been spotted. Diman saw the Messerschmitt.
“Please don’t do it,” Diman remembers thinking. He knew in a matter of weeks the war would be over and he suspected the pilot, who had him in his gun sights, had a family and was looking forward to getting home as much as he was. Diman wasn’t going to fire the first shot. He wasn’t going to engage, but the German fighter pilot went for him. Diman returned fire. It was the fourth plane he was to shoot down.
Diman took some hits, but he never went down. He credits his good fortune to the P47, which “was a flying tank.” On one mission, enemy fire hit an oil line. His vision was obscured as the oil coated the windshield. Diman opened the canopy and leaned out the side, but soon his face and goggles were smeared with oil. He periodically ducked under the cover of the canopy to wipe the goggles. Still he had the presence to bring the fighter in so as to leave the field clear for the planes following him. Returning from another mission, he landed on one wheel as the other had been shot off.
Diman’s squadron escorted allied bombers on D-Day and, after they had established a foothold on the continent, flew from airfields leveled by tanks converted into bulldozers. Steel mesh was spread across the ground to make a runway.
On one sortie over Germany, Diman came out of the clouds to find he was flying low over a village. In front of him he could see a church, its steeple reaching up and in the courtyard a German half-track. Beside the armored vehicle stood two uniformed Germans talking to a couple of young women. Diman considered his options. The half-track was a desirable target, but firing on it he could injure and maybe kill the civilians. He flew on.
Decades later the memory of that church and its distinctive steeple became the inspiration for a painting, an avocation Diman took up after retiring in 1984 after working for 37 years at C.I. Hayes Company in Cranston.
On return to the States after the war, Diman said he was at a loss as to what to do. He didn’t know how he was going to support Angela, no less a family. He learned there might be a job at Hayes that manufactured heat treating furnaces used for hardening metals. He started sweeping floors and ended up running the company. He invented the solitaire furnace used in firing powdered metals.
It was upon retirement that Diman turned to painting. Some of his works adorn the walls of his unit at Brentwood along with photographs of Angela, his family and him soon after graduating from high school when he was a member of the Aristocrats of Balance. In the picture, a muscular and trim Diman holds an equally fit man aloft on one arm. The group performed throughout the state, with Rhodes on the Pawtuxet being Diman’s favorite venue. His physical fitness earned him the name of “skin” in the Army Air Corps.
These days, Diman has given up painting due to his failing eyesight. He had difficulty getting around and for that reason ruled out the thought of participating in the Rhode Island Honor Flight and joining fellow WWII, Korean and Vietnam War veterans for a visit of national war memorials in Washington.
But Diman keeps abreast of the news and developments. He calls Apponaug’s five roundabouts “a pain.” While his sons suggested he move closer to either of them following the death of Angela a year ago, Diman wanted to remain in Warwick where he raised the family. They found Brentwood. Ken and Bill are confident their father, who at 100 is the senior resident, is well cared for. What’s more, Diman knows and appreciates it.
As difficult as it is for him to stand, at a recent luncheon he rose to address Brentwood residents. The room went silent. Looking around, Diman announced how fortunate they all were to have such caring people watching over them. He suggested they collectively say thank you. The assembly applauded.
Bill recalled the words of a member of the kitchen staff who told him the story.
“That’s the first time that anyone has said that,” Bill said he was told.