Constable: This Arlington Heights veteran served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam

 
 
Updated 11/12/2018 9:30 AM
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  • Starting with World War II, Chester Diolanti of Arlington Heights has flown about every military plane there is. He has this model of the P-51 Mustang he flew, but he also piloted huge transport planes in Korea and Vietnam, and flew jets during the Cold War.

      Starting with World War II, Chester Diolanti of Arlington Heights has flown about every military plane there is. He has this model of the P-51 Mustang he flew, but he also piloted huge transport planes in Korea and Vietnam, and flew jets during the Cold War. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

When Chester Diolanti walks into a Veterans of Foreign Wars lodge, he has options.

The 95-year-old Arlington Heights man can sit with his World War II peers. Or he can seek out those who served beside him in Korea. He can also hang with comrades from his service in Vietnam.

He doesn't want to make a big deal out of that, but he understands why others think his story is worth telling.

"I flew in three wars," Diolanti says. "I guess that's unusual."

Diolanti was born in 1923 in Evanston. His father, Armindo, was an immigrant from Tuscany, Italy, and owned a garage. His mother, Sandara, was born in the United States after her parents immigrated from the Italian Alps. Diolanti was in high school when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He enlisted shortly after graduation.

"Dad, I want to have some control over my destiny," Diolanti remembers saying to justify his enlisting in the Army Air Corps instead of waiting to be drafted. His brother, Angelo, became a tank commander, and Diolanti began training to become a pilot. He spent time in Florida, Texas and at Harding Field, north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"One by one they culled out guys," remembers Diolanti, who had the right stuff and went from primary training to basic training to advanced training, where he learned how to fly the new P-47 Thunderbolt. The plane had a bubble canopy, comfy cockpit and eight .50-caliber machine guns, and it could carry rockets and bombs. But it took skill to master the powerful 2,430-horsepower engine.

"We lost three crews during training," Diolanti says.

When he arrived in England, the risks multiplied. "It was pretty hairy, because we hadn't trained in bad weather, and England always had bad weather," Diolanti says.

During training in Texas during World War II, Chester Diolanti of Arlington Heights, second from the left, learned how to fly many different kinds of planes.
During training in Texas during World War II, Chester Diolanti of Arlington Heights, second from the left, learned how to fly many different kinds of planes. - courtesy of Chester Diolanti

As part of the training on how to survive a crash at sea, he was thrown into the water. "The North Sea was a very, very cold thing," Diolanti says, explaining how he became too weak to climb into his dinghy and had to be pulled to safety.

"The North Sea was full of crabs. I think that's because there were a lot of bodies out there," he says, recalling how they recovered one plane and discovered crabs had eaten all the flesh off the pilot. "After that, I didn't have crab for a long, long time."

Generally, Diolanti's assignment was as a high-altitude escort for bombers flying into Germany. "Each guy protects the other guy's back," Diolanti says, explaining how they'd keep German fighter planes at bay. Sometimes, Diolanti would fly low-level attack missions, taking out German planes on the ground.

"I got shot up a few times, usually while shooting up airfields because they had all kinds of weapons. I was lucky," Diolanti says. He downplays the danger but smiles as he tells about having to parachute out of his damaged plane over England.

"I landed in a field with cows," he says, and a passer-by quickly offered him a ride. "The guy took me to a pub, and we had a drink."

After flying more than 30 missions during World War II, Diolanti returned to Evanston, got a job at a Chicago department store and eventually enrolled at Northwestern University. He walked home one day to discover his mom holding a piece of paper.

"You have a telegram," she said. "Oh, God. Not again."

A member of the Air Force Reserves, Diolanti's college career was over.

"The next thing you knew, we were flying C-46s. We were called to active duty to go to Korea," remembers Diolanti, who piloted the large transport planes. "We flew from one end of the country to the other. We were like a bus service."

They delivered troops to combat zones, dropped supplies and brought soldiers out of Korea.

After the war ended, Diolanti worked delivering planes from Portland, Oregon, to Air Force bases around the nation. "I'd always go by way of O'Hare so my mom could meet me," Diolanti says.

At one point, he was transferred to Yuma, Arizona, where one of his jobs was flying a plane pulling a cloth target for troops to practice shooting. He'd fly over fields of what he thought were cactuses.

"I thought they were plants, but they were missiles," Diolanti says, describing how the missiles would slam into the ground and leave their tails sticking up.

Adept at flying everything, including small fighter planes, large transport planes and jets, Diolanti was called back into active duty during the Vietnam War. Much like during his time in Korea, Diolanti transported troops and supplies.

During the Cold War, Diolanti returned to England to fly jets throughout Europe, including France, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Turkey. His memories of Turkey include bus drivers stopping their route to go into the street and perform the Muslim prayer ritual, and an abundance of cats. "You had to worry about cat claws," remembers Diolanti, who learned not to pet the strays. Periodically, soldiers would roam the streets shooting every cat in sight, he says.

Diolanti found civil service work in England at Greenham Common, helping to maintain a Royal Air Force station also used by the United States as a base for nuclear weapons. He can't even estimate how many different planes he flew, or how many thousands of hours he's spent in the air.

When he finally retired, Diolanti returned to the United States and made his home in Arlington Heights. Never married, he delivered Meals on Wheels, worked as a volunteer at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, and became active in and donated money to the Medical School at University of Michigan, the Anti-Cruelty Society, Paws Chicago and other charities for animals and humans.

Piloting fighter planes in World War II, transport planes in Korea and Vietnam, and jets during the Cold War, Chester Diolanti, 95, of Arlington Heights downplays the heroics and dangers of his military service.
  Piloting fighter planes in World War II, transport planes in Korea and Vietnam, and jets during the Cold War, Chester Diolanti, 95, of Arlington Heights downplays the heroics and dangers of his military service. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

The walls in his senior living apartment at the The Moorings of Arlington Heights feature photographs of the planes he flew and the places he lived. His bookcases are filled with works by and about Winston Churchill, such as "The Last Lion" and "The Gathering Storm," as well as books about the battles, strategies and lasting effects of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Vietnam: A History."

The trio of wars molded his life.

"You always had attrition and you just accepted it," says Diolanti, who adds that his service also gave him the chance to travel the world and experience other cultures.

"You learn history," Diolanti says.

And play a part in it.

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