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updated: 8/2/2011 11:53 AM

Suburban vets discover they flew on same WWII B-17

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  • Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth was drafted at age 18 in 1944 and flew as part of a replacement crew aboard B-17 bombers while stationed in Italy in World War II.

      Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth was drafted at age 18 in 1944 and flew as part of a replacement crew aboard B-17 bombers while stationed in Italy in World War II.
    Courtesy of Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth

  • Today, Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth of Geneva, who flew missions in the B-17 The Biggast Bird, is friends with fellow Air Force veteran Kenneth Chapek, who flew on the plane's first mission.

      Today, Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth of Geneva, who flew missions in the B-17 The Biggast Bird, is friends with fellow Air Force veteran Kenneth Chapek, who flew on the plane's first mission.
    Courtesy of Joan Broz

  • Kenneth Chapek of Aurora flew his World War II missions aboard The Biggast Bird, which he inadvertently named while talking with crew mates about the B-17's large tail.

      Kenneth Chapek of Aurora flew his World War II missions aboard The Biggast Bird, which he inadvertently named while talking with crew mates about the B-17's large tail.
    Courtesy of Kenneth Chapek

  • Kenneth Chapek of Aurora, above with a B-17, met fellow Biggast Bird veteran Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth at a squad reunion, where they discovered they'd shared a plane though they served at different times.

      Kenneth Chapek of Aurora, above with a B-17, met fellow Biggast Bird veteran Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth at a squad reunion, where they discovered they'd shared a plane though they served at different times.
    Courtesy of Kenneth Chapek

 
 

U.S. Army Air Corps crews that flew B-17 bombers in World War II have a high regard for their four-engine "Flying Fortresses."

Throughout its years of use, the B-17 earned flyers' respect for its ability to withstand heavy combat, reach its target and still return its 10-man crew safely to base. With a ceiling of 28,000 feet, the plane was primarily used in daylight precision bombing.

Stories abound of B-17s returning with a hole in its wing, flying with one working engine, or pelted with flak and looking more like Swiss cheese than the durable tank it was.

With monikers such as Road Hog, Bright Eyes and Lady Luck, the B-17s were the workhorses of the Mediterranean Theater of Operation, completing countless missions from bases in Italy and England.

From Foggia, Italy, the 15th Air Force, with its six squadrons of B-17s, was a strategic strength for bombing Axis positions. The sight of dozens of B-17s flying in wing tip formation, carrying fuel and bombs as they took off in succession from a runway made from a string of steel mats, remains a vivid memory for those who served.

Officers aboard a B-17 included a pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier/nose gunner. The six enlisted men were a flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, tail gunner, starboard waist gunner, port waist gunner and the ball turret gunner at the bottom of the plane.

Aurora resident Kenneth Chapek and Geneva resident Douglas "Mike" Hitzeroth each spent time aboard a B-17 named The Biggast Bird. However, neither man knew the other until a chance meeting in 1986 at a Tucson, Ariz., reunion of the Fighting 463rd Bomb Group, affectionately called the Swoose Group. Together, they know details of The Biggast Bird.

The story begins with Chapek and his years of service as a B-17 navigator. Chapek was 21 when he joined the aviation cadet program in the Army Air Corps in 1942. With training, the original crew of 10 men picked up a brand new B-17 in Dayton, Ohio, to fly to MacDill Field in Florida. The plan was to fly the southern route to Africa to defy detection.

With Chapek as navigator, the flight plan went over Trinidad to Brazil and then across the Atlantic to Dakar, Senegal. Chapek had to crawl under the pilot and co-pilot seats to get to the front of the plane, where he sat at the navigator's table directly behind the bombardier. There was a small Plexiglas dome he could look out to make celestial observations to plot the course.

"I knew we were getting close, but in looking out I could see a cloud on the water and couldn't understand that," Chapek said. "It was a cloud all right, a cloud of dust from all the airplanes and vehicles on the ground in Dakar."

Chapek's crew was assigned to the 463rd bomb group in Foggia. There the plane received its name.

"I was kidding about the plane's big tail, and described it as a Biggast Bird," Chapek said, laughing at the memory. "The next thing I knew, they painted it on the nose of the plane as its name."

Chapek went on to fly 50 missions aboard The Biggast Bird for a total of 240 flight hours. His crew never lost a man in battle. However, his worst missions were usually over the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania -- recorded as "Rumania" in Chapek's flight log -- like the one that ended with seven planes downed.

About the time Chapek completed his years of service, Mike Hitzeroth was drafted at the age of 18. He went through basic training and gunnery school in Nevada in 1944.

"My two older brothers, I and two younger brothers all served in the air force at different times," Hitzeroth said proudly. "Three of us were in WWII and two in the Korean War."

His part of the story relates how the B-17 Biggast Bird met its demise.

"I flew on the Biggast Bird maybe four or five times as its replacement crew," Hitzeroth said. "We filled in for crews who finished their missions and were going home."

Hitzeroth was with his crew in a plane checking engines in preflight mode. Next to them The Biggast Bird's crew was doing the same when someone accidentally retracted the landing gear and the plane hit the metal ground, ending its career.

"It would have been The Biggast Bird's 100th mission and it ended just like that," he said.

Hitzeroth served a total of 27 missions in two different gunner positions before the war ended. As a tail gunner, he sat on a bicycle seat with his knees bent back under him in the far rear of the plane.

On Hitzeroth's last mission, an engine failed and forced the B-17 to return to base.

"When we peeled off formation, the plane that took our place took a direct hit within a minute of it being there," Hitzeroth said. He continued slow and labored, "I don't know, I guess that is fate."

After WWII ended, both Chapek and Hitzeroth returned to civilian life. Both cherish the medals and honors they earned serving with the 773 bomb squadron, 463 bomb group of the 15th Air Force.

Both men visited the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C., attend military group reunions and together twice returned to Foggia, Italy, with their wives, June Chapek and Lois Hitzeroth.

Each tries to see every B-17 that comes to this area. About five years ago, Hitzeroth took a ride aboard a B-17.

"It could bring tears to your eyes to go up again after 50 years," Herzeroth said. "It sounded and felt the same; there is a catwalk in the middle and you can see the ribs of the plane."

Chapek still remembers the stars he used to plot directions. He can find the Orion belt of three stars that point to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle.

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