Royals opening day provided one of life’s greatest memories for a member of The Greatest Generation.
World War II veteran Dale Mitchell, 90, of Bethany, Mo., threw out the first pitch Monday before the game against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium.
“Never did I believe that I’d ever get that kind of an honor,” Mitchell said.
Asked if he was happy with a one-hopper to Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas that split the heart of the plate, Mitchell laughed, “I guess so. It got to him. He didn’t have to run after it.”
An ecstatic Mitchell shared a warm embrace and exchanged a few words with Moustakas in front of the enthusiastic sellout crowd.
“He was thanking me for my service, and I was trying to thank him for giving me the pleasure to watch him play,” Mitchell said.
Leaving the Royals’ dugout, Mitchell got the celebrity treatment as Royals minor-league special assistant for player development John Wathan, assistant equipment manager Pat Gorman and former pitcher Al Fitzmorris all stopped to speak with him.
Mitchell, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Force, was stationed in Foggia, Italy, with the 15th Army Air Force during the war.
He was aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress that was shot down in January 1945 during a bombing run of the railroad marshalling yards in Vienna, Austria, which was a key transfer station in the oil supply line from Romania’s Ploiesti oil fields to Berlin.
“We bombed that doggone railroad yard every other day, because we wanted to stop them from bringing that oil back to Germany,” Mitchell said.
On that fateful run, Mitchell’s plane was peppered with anti-aircraft fire, which took out both engines and punctured the fuel tank on the left wing.
When the wing caught fire, Mitchell, a bottom turret gunner, and the rest of the crew parachuted to safety in the Vienna outskirts.
“If we hadn’t caught on fire, I think we could have flown back to Italy with the two (right) engines,” he said.
Mitchell was captured by Axis forces and taken to an interrogation center outside Berlin before enduring a nearly 300-mile forced march to a POW camp outside Nuremberg, Germany, where he spent four months before being liberated.
“When I was a POW, everyone knew that (Germany) had lost that war, so we were treated much better than the POWs that were captured earlier,” Mitchell said.
After the war, Mitchell, a 1949 Missouri graduate with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a minor in agricultural engineering, worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service until his retirement in the late 1980s.
He and his wife, Doris, raised six children — Dalene, David, Dennis, Debbie, Doris Jane (who goes by Jane) and Darcy — on a farm outside Bethany.
“He always says that he’s not the one who sacrificed everything,” said Mitchell’s granddaughter, Ranae Shahan. “It was the men who didn’t come back who were the real heroes, so he really is very humble and doesn’t feel like he’s a hero. … But we’re all very proud of him and he’s definitely our family’s hero and we love him so much. He’s been a great role model.”
Some of Shahan’s favorite childhood memories are the times Mitchell would gather his family for a trip to a Royals game.
“We’d sit out there in general admission and have a really good time as a family,” Shahan said. “That was one of my really fond memories of my grandpa.”
Shahan filled out a nomination for Mitchell to sit in the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat during a 2015 game, writing about his service and the numerous family outings her grandfather led to Kauffman Stadium.
Instead, she received an email March 30 inviting Mitchell to throw out the first pitch.
“I couldn’t believe it …” Shahan said. “When I opened the email, I was stunned. I just said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this.’ Then, I got on the phone and started calling family members. I was super excited, so I knew they would be super excited too.”
Shahan said there would be 47 members of Mitchell’s family in attendance, including all six of his children and their spouses and many of his 16 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.
Mitchell — who played second base and some catcher in high school at Green City, Mo., a town in north-central Missouri not far from the Iowa border — said the Royals provided about 15 tickets and his grandson, Scott Madison, wrangled together the additional 30 tickets.
Mitchell, who hoped to meet George Brett, didn’t plan to practice for his first pitch — “My arm’s still limber,” he said — but he was talked into playing catch by family members after Easter dinner in preparation for his big moment.
It was the talk of the town during Easter services at First Baptist Church of Bethany, where Mitchell worships.
“It’s been really fun to watch his reaction,” said Shahan, a teacher at South Harrison Elementary in Bethany. “He doesn’t get out a lot like he used to. He still goes to the farm and feeds his cattle, stuff like that, but it’s been really fun to see him kind of giddy this week. That’s been the best part, to see how giddy he’s been this week.”