Constable: As he turns 100, WWII vet reflects on 50 missions he'll never forget
Riding the streetcar in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, toward a future working in the steel mills, Vic Erdelac got off one stop early.
"I wasn't going to do that," says Erdelac, who dreamed of a life beyond the steel mills where his widowed dad, John, spent his career and all six of his older brothers took jobs. "We got to Fifth Avenue, and I jumped off the streetcar and went to the enlistment office."
The United States hadn't yet entered World War II, and the Army enlistment officer rejected Erdelac because of a rotten tooth.
"I went across the street to a dentist, had that tooth pulled, and went back across the street and signed up," says Erdelac, who now lives in Grayslake and will turn 100 on Tuesday.
"Three days after I graduated from tech school, war was declared," remembers Erdelac, who ended up flying 50 combat missions in Europe on a B-17 bomber for the U.S. Army Air Corps Eighth Air Force.
As the 19-year-old waist gunner manning two .50-caliber machine guns on the four-engine Flying Fortress, Erdelac was the only crew member with the freedom to move around the plane. Trained as an armorer, Erdelac played a key role on every mission by activating each bomb once the plane reached an altitude of 10,000 feet and the crew went on oxygen.
"When the bombs were loaded, there's a pin in the fuse. In case of accidental droppage or anything, the bombs will not explode," Erdelac explains. "Once those pins are pulled, the bomb is loaded. It's ready to explode."
Erdelac kept one of the pins from his first bombing run on Capodichino, Italy, on April 4, 1943, southeast of Rome. He attached a tag to that pin, noting the target, the length of the flight, the pilot, the altitude and other pertinent information. He kept the pin from the next day's bombing run, and the next, and the next.
"After one or two, I thought, 'Let's just keep them all,'" Erdelac says.
"This is a list of the targets we bombed," Erdelac says, opening a scrapbook that also contains a pin from each of his 50 bombing missions. "I must have figured this would be nice to refer to someday."
He doesn't need any help recalling the scary details of one bombing run, when famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White was onboard to capture the action for Life magazine.
"There were scattered and broken clouds, and we couldn't see," Erdelac says. They were unable to find a German convoy for nearly three hours, until they dropped under the clouds and found themselves directly above the Nazis.
"We completely destroyed the German convoy and we were receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire," Erdelac says, recalling the sound of the metal fragments of flak striking the plane. "You can hear them like rain hitting the plane, and you just pray they didn't find you. There was tremendous damage to the plane. You could see the black puffs all around, and you're flying into that."
They made it safely back to their base in England, just as they did in the other 49 missions.
"Every day, every mission, the plane was full of holes," Erdelac says.
Even after a safe trip, there was work to be done. "After every mission, all the guns had to be cleaned and readied for the next mission," he says.
During one surprise inspection by commanding officers, "ours was the only one that passed," Erdelac says. The officers' report said the crew deserved orchids for a job well done.
"The rest of the crews picked up on that and called us 'The Orchid Boys,'" says Erdelac, who is the last living member in the photograph of that crew.
When he came home from Europe, Erdelac served as a combat instructor in Wyoming and in Texas until the end of the war.
The youngest of seven, behind brothers John, Joe, Matt, Mike, Eddie and Bill, Erdelac remembers trying to talk his brother Eddie into keeping a relatively safe job during the war as a tank mechanic for Gen. George S. Patton in Europe. But Eddie insisted on becoming a tank driver. The brothers were both home on leave in December 1943, and Eddie was killed in Belgium soon after.
After the war, Erdelac married and bought a gas station in Gary with a couple of his brothers. When he learned about a program teaching veterans how to fly, he moved to Florida and became a commercial instructor pilot. Eventually, he returned to Indiana, lived in Valparaiso, divorced and took a job as an insurance adjuster, which became his career.
That's how he met his wife, Dianne, who worked as an operations manager in offices. They've been married 50 years.
"When I married him, I prayed to God because I thought he was pretty old," says Dianne, 84. "I said, 'Just give us 10 years.' And every 10 years, God gives us another 10 years."
Physically active and social, the Erdelacs have lived in the Saddlebrook Farms senior community in Grayslake for the past three years, where he still rides his three-wheeler bike. Having taken up woodcarving late in life, some of his figurines adorn their home. Her daughter lives in the area. Two of his five children are alive. She has three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, with a fourth due in September. He has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
They both are glad that Erdelac didn't opt for a life working in the steel mills. They say they are happy, and Dianne is mum about plans to celebrate his 100th birthday. But she has a history of pulling out the stops for his milestone birthdays.
Whatever she plans will be a surprise to her husband.
"I don't know," Erdelac says. "I never had a birthday party until I was 75."