Born on January 30, 1921, in Glens Falls, N.Y., Malcolm A. Champagne’s life took a dramatic turn during the chaos following the Pearl Harbor attack. He felt a calling to defend his country against the Axis powers, a choice that would both shape his destiny and define his enduring legacy.
On Dec. 17, 1942, Champagne commissioned into the Army Air Forces, telling his parents, “The country is in trouble. I need to go.” Serving as a Navigator in the 326th Bomb Squadron, 92nd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, he deployed to the European Theater for the three-year Combined Bomber Offensive—a joint effort with the Royal Air Force to establish air supremacy and defeat the Nazis over occupied Europe.
But it was on Oct. 14, 1943, that Champagne’s fate took a dark turn. High above Schweinfurt, Germany, his B-17 was engulfed in enemy fire and plummeted from the sky. As he describes it, “They killed the bombardier … They totaled our oxygen and set us on fire … And when an airplane gets on fire, the best thing to do it get out of it!”
He and his crew parachuted into hostile territory, jumping out of the aircraft at an altitude of nearly 3.5 miles, where they were captured by the Nazis. That ominous day became etched in history as “Black Thursday,” when 650 Airmen were killed or taken prisoner.
Champagne’s captivity unfolded in Stalag Luft III, nestled in modern-day ?aga?, Poland. This camp held thousands of captured Allied airmen, including 7,500 Americans, 2500 Royal Air Force personnel and 1000 airmen from other Allied nations.
During his time as a POW, Champagne says that one of his captors tried to shoot him—twice—but both times their rifle misfired. “I should be dead,” he says. “There’s somebody looking out for me.”
Enduring musculoskeletal injuries, malnutrition and psychological distress, Champagne’s resolve remained unbroken. On April 29, 1945, after 18 months, he was finally liberated. He returned and ended his time in active duty six months later when he met his almost two-year-old daughter for the first time.
Yet, despite his sacrifices, Champagne—affectionately known as “Mac”—never received a Purple Heart. His children embarked on a years-long quest to honor their father’s bravery. Ned, his son, says, “Our dream was to have this presented to him when he turned 100.”
In March 2023, I assumed the role of Former Prisoner of War advocate for VA Portland Health Care System. That’s when I heard of the family’s longing for proper acknowledgment. “Could you get him his Purple Heart?” Ned asked me.
I reached out to the Awards and Decorations Branch of U.S. Army Human Resources Command (HRC) and requested their assistance in looking into this extraordinary request. They immediately launched an investigation, with the results to be sent to the family.
In July 2023, Ned received a package from Army HRC containing his father’s Purple Heart, but that was not all. A deeper search uncovered an array of overdue honors for his father: the Prisoner of War Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star, World War II Victory Medal, and U.S. Army Air Force Navigator Wings.
A historical twist arose: although Malcolm Champagne served in the Army during World War II, his unit now fell under the Department of the Air Force, established in September 1947. I contacted senior leaders from his former unit, the 8th Air Force, who gladly accepted the invitation to the ceremony.
It was a remarkable collaboration: leaders from various departments at the Portland VA Health Care System, Portland Department of Veterans Affairs, and senior military leaders from the 8th Air Force, joined Champagne, his family and friends. Together, they orchestrated a ceremony to honor him on Sept. 15, 2023—National POW/MIA Recognition Day. It’s a day when our country expresses eternal gratitude to those who endured unimaginable suffering in enemy captivity and to those who made the ultimate sacrifice, never returning to their families. These heroes are never forgotten.
We honor his service.