Park Ridge veteran recounts his World War II survival story
With an ammunition belt slung over his left shoulder and a Browning .50-caliber machine gun in hand, the 6-foot-tall sculpture of a waist gunner stands guard over an ornate gravesite in the Town of Maine Cemetery.
The sculpture depicts Staff Sgt. Don Hurst of Park Ridge during the time that made him a war hero -- and when he was a strong, athletic 15-year-old boy from Chicago who enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was sent to the European theater of World War II.
Seventy-five years later, Hurst chuckles at the memories of his younger self bypassing Lane Tech High School one day in 1944 and instead walking into a recruiting office, lunch bag in hand. His dyslexia made academics difficult, he said, so he thought he might join the military.
He was sworn in that same day, sent to basic training and aerial gunnery school, and later assigned to the 305th Bomb Squad in Chelveston, England.
"When you're that young, you don't take things seriously. It's more of a party," Hurst said.
But soon the realities of war became evident.
"When your buddies don't come home, you start worrying," he said.
In early 1945, Hurst was placed on temporary duty as a substitute gunner with the 303rd Bomb Group. On his 12th mission, he flew on one of nine planes assigned to bomb a German ball bearing plant.
As he and his crew started heading west at 30,000 feet, they were attacked by several German fighter planes.
Hurst jumped into action, taking down one of the planes, he said. But their Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress also had been hit, damaging the bomber's two right engines and most of its functional controls.
Their only option: finding a spot to land.
The pilot redirected the plane toward a border town in Switzerland, and the crew got rid of all heavy equipment to lighten the load. As he played out scenarios in his head, Hurst fastened his gun, ammunition and tripod to a bomb rack, knowing they might be handy.
About an hour later, the two left engines started to flutter. The captain found a football field-size clearing and prepared to make a crash landing.
But they hadn't made it to Switzerland, Hurst said. They were still in Germany.
Hurst tied himself to a bomb rack and inflated a life raft to minimize the impact of the rough landing. The bomber plowed into a line of pine trees and was starting to smoke, he said, giving away their location to the German troops.
The co-pilot died on impact, but Hurst was able to pull out the captain and then the other seven crewmen, all of whom were in "bad shape." Knowing the Germans would be arriving soon, the captain suggested his crew surrender.
"Like heck we will," Hurst responded.
Hurst set up his tripod and fought off 10 to 12 soldiers, catching them off guard as they approached the burning plane. Two young German soldiers surrendered, he said, "and to make a long story short, they helped me get out of there."
Hurst dressed his crew in German uniforms and brought them to Switzerland, where they were rescued by the Office of Strategic Service, a wartime intelligence agency.
He let the two German soldiers go but gave them his parents' address should they want to reach out after the war was over. One became a doctor, the other was an accountant, and both eventually moved to California. They all exchanged Christmas cards for years, Hurst said, smiling.
Hurst was discharged in 1946 and went back to school before joining the Air Force the following year. He served 10 more years of active duty, during the Cold War and Korean conflict, before leaving the service and settling down. He married his wife, Lillian, in 1959, and spent 34 years managing a diamond abrasive business.
He has received numerous medals and decorations, including the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross for saving the lives of his crewmen. But he rarely talked about his service.
At one point, Gen. Curtis LeMay warned Hurst that his heroism might not be properly acknowledged because of his age when he first enlisted. But he recommended saving all military documents and medals -- advice Hurst took to heart.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he started telling stories to his younger brother, who encouraged him to write down his memories. In 2006, he published an autobiography titled "It was Either Them or Us."
Sitting in his living room days before Veterans Day this year, Hurst wore an American flag tie and showed off a World War II veteran hat given to him by a close friend. Models of guns and military vehicles are kept throughout his home, and photos of his time in the service -- and of his wife -- line his walls.
In one corner sits a photo of the sculpture that now stands at the Town of Main Cemetery. It was cast at Wagner Foundry in Chicago and installed last year near his and his late wife's gravesite, complete with white marble flooring and two black granite benches.
"I wanted to make a memorial for me and my wife," he said.
The statue is featured in a book, "Illinois Military Monuments," which highlights veteran memorials throughout the state. Hurst's sculpture stood out to author Lorenzo Fiorentino as a hidden gem that carries out a veteran's legacy.
"The (monuments) I really like are the ones that tell a story," he said. "I think that's what we're trying to show ... what our country stands for: freedom and our always being on the forefront of taking care of others."