John "Sonny" East
Oct 16, 2018
Earlier this year, I was contacted by the proud family of a World War II veteran. After much correspondence, a trip was set in motion for Central-Texas. This week I was able to drive down to Wimberley, where I was then guided off the main square and into the backcountry. I took a lengthy trek across steep dirt roads and eventually arrived on the secluded 7-acre property of Lieutenant Colonel John 'Sonny' East. The lively 98-year-old, standing tall in his cowboy boots, welcomed me into the three-story home he hand-built during the 1980’s. After admiring the patio view across untouched Hays County, Sonny's first on-camera interview official commenced. We were accompanied by several family members who had traveled near and far for the occasion.
Prior to an opulent career in the armed forces, John ‘Sonny’ East survived a “time of no money.” He was born on a Texas oil lease in 1920 and spent his adolescent years in make-shift tents shared by two older sisters. His family was constantly moving from city to city, traveling as far as California because of his father's oilfield work. Due to the great depression, the family was forced back to Texas, where Sonny graduated from high school in 1937. Soon after, he married his childhood sweetheart, Dollie Purkes, and had three children; “we were either gonna’ make it together or starve together, and we damn near starved together!” In December of 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sonny felt a patriotic obligation to volunteer for the U.S Army Air Corps. He was 21 years old.
After supporting his family alongside lengthy flight school, Sonny’s efforts finally paid off. By age 23 he had become a certified co-pilot aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress, a four-engine heavy bomber with a top speed of 287 mph. With air support needed in Europe, Sonny said goodbye to his family and departed America in early-1944. In May of the same year, he arrived at his home for the next four months; Kimbolton Airfield, England. Several missions in, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant (pilot) and assigned to nonstop bomb runs over Italy, France, Poland, and Germany. From the cockpit of his B17, Sonny witnessed over 200 hours of aerial combat; “Every-time our fleet took off, we knew someone wasn't returning.”
During his brief yet grueling time as a bomber pilot, enemy resistance was encountered during every flight. He narrowly escaped fleets of Nazi aircraft, and valiantly flew through countless field artillery attacks; “my fate was predetermined. If I got shot down, I got shot down.” After 32 missions, Sonny flew his final bomb run on June 20, 1944. Soon after, he was ordered home where he remained with his family until the war's end. As a qualified combat pilot, he applied to fly commercially but was denied as he didn't have the minimum 700 airtime hours; “I was insulted!” Therefore, he remained in the Air Force for a total of 22 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He later worked nine years as Director of Research for NASA and was most notably present for the Moon landing in 1969, and the first Mars landing in 1971.
After our eventful interview, East’s family sat down and enjoyed some delicious pie purchased from the local bakery. Following the festivities, Sonny and I walked up three flights of stairs to his office. We viewed many photographs, took several portraits, and shared a few laughs. We eventually ended back up in the kitchen, where I was honored to share a glass of bourbon with the retired Lieutenant Colonel. It was a pure delight to capture John ‘Sonny’ East’s captivating narrative, as well as make friends with his wonderful family.