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09 March 2014

WWII veteran originally planned to fight on ground took to the skies

Mar. 8, 2014

George Ditzhazy World War II Veteran U.S. Army Air Corps Palm Desert U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 bomber pilot George Ditzhazy is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
George Ditzhazy World War II Veteran U.S. Army Air Corps Palm
Desert U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 bomber pilot George Ditzhazy is awarded
the Distinguished Flying Cross. / Provided photo
George Ditzhazy, WWII Veteran

George Ditzhazy, WWII Veteran / Denise Goolsby/The Desert Sun

George Ditzhazy, World War II Veteran, U.S. Army Air Corps, Palm Desert

George Ditzhazy, World War II Veteran, U.S. Army Air Corps, Palm Desert / Provided photo

U.S. Army Air Corps veteran George Ditzhazy — a B-24 bomber pilot
who flew 50 combat missions over Europe during World War II — originally
planned to fight on the ground, not in the clouds.

“I went down
to the Marine Corps (recruiting station) and they were closed for lunch
so I went across the hallway and there was the U.S. Army Air Corps,” he
said. “And the first thing you know, I’m standing like this (holds his
right hand up in oath-taking position).

After the young
Michigander earned his wings and was commissioned a second lieutenant at
Lubbock Army Air Field, he was assigned to Davis-Monthan Army Air Field
in Tucson, Ariz. where he learned to fly four-engine bombers.

“I wanted to be a fighter pilot but they said, ‘You’ve got long legs, we’ll put you in the B-24,’” Ditzhazy said, laughing.

pilot and his crew were heading across the Atlantic — bound for Oran,
North Africa on the troop ship USS West Point — while a major military
maneuver was unfolding in early June, 1944.

“We were going over on June 6 when they announced the invasion of Normandy.”

North Africa, the crew was assigned to an air base in Grottaglie,
Italy. They were assigned to the 15th Air Force, 449th Bomb Group, 718th
Bomb Squadron.

Just a month later — on July 26, 1944 — the crew found themselves bailing out over enemy skies.

my fourth mission, I was shot down,” he said. “Our radio operator was
killed — his chute didn’t open. Three of our crew were taken prisoners.
The mission was to Vienna, which was socked over — bad weather — so we
went to an alternate, secondary target which was Graz, Austria. That’s
where we were hit. We lost two engines to flak. We got back as far as
Yugoslavia, on the coast of the Adriatic, where we ran out of gas. We
had to bail out. We were in the hills — you couldn’t land.”

“On the way down we were being shot at. We weren’t very high when we bailed out. We were only about 2,500 feet.”

Ditzhazy, who got scratched up a bit when he landed in some bushes, was otherwise OK.

Five of his crew members also made it to the ground safely.

were picked up by Marshal Tito’s partisans, two young kids picked me up
... two young boys, probably 13, 14 with submachine guns. As we were
landing, they were yelling, ‘Americano, Hey Joe, partisans!’”

Partisans — officially the National Liberation Army and Partisan
Detachments of Yugoslavia — was known to be Europe’s most effective
anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II. The movement was led
by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

He said the partisans — “They all wore
caps that had this little red star ... led us up into the hills and
we’d hide for awhile when we’d see the patrols looking for us,” he said.

first night we were picked up, they took us into — it was like a cave
in the hills — and they interrogated us and one thing they couldn’t
understand was why none of us had a gun — because we left them in the
planes. Who thinks about taking their gun when you’re trying to save
your life.”

The men were hungry, and while they were hunkered down in the cave, the partisans prepared dinner.

roasted a lamb and it smelled so good — and it’s dark now, not real
good light inside, you couldn’t have much light on. The problem was,
when I took that first big bite, I hit nothing but fat. For 10 years or
so I wouldn’t touch lamb.”

The meals would often include a form of bread and red wine, he said.

would move us during the nighttime, starting about one or so in the
morning and we’d go until before daybreak where we’d hide out

After about two weeks, “We finally worked our way back
to the coast of the Adriatic and then we island-hopped, by small boats.
The last one was a larger one. It was a combination power and sailboat.
We were on that for 14 hours. We kept undercover and you had the
natives on deck and they got us to the island of Vis, which was
British-held and the British contacted our air force headquarters in
Bari, Italy. Then the air force sent a plane over to pick us up.”

After rejoining their bomb group, the men were given some options regarding their future.

had the opportunity to go home if you were shot down in enemy territory
— you had the alternative of going home or staying. We decided to stay
and finish up our missions. At that time, when somebody went back to the
states, they’d be there about a month or so and then they sent you to
the South Pacific — and I didn’t want to do that because I was a lousy
swimmer,” he said, laughing.

Ditzhazy piloted missions to targets
in areas including Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Southern France, Ploesti,
Bucharest, Albania, Greece and Brenner Pass, Italy.

On one of those missions, his aircraft got shot up so bad he had to make an emergency landing in Italy.

He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading a mission in October, 1944.

“I got everyone back OK,” he said.

That same month, he was promoted to captain.

One of his most interesting experiences during his time overseas occurred during a rest period between missions.

went to Rome and got to meet Pope Pious XII — I got to shake his hand
and talk to him with about 20 other soldiers from not only the U.S. but
other different countries.”

He flew his last mission in early 1945.

“I came home and had the option of leaving. I was undecided what to do,” he said.

Ditzhazy, who was stationed in Walla Walla, Wash., decided to remain in the military for a couple more years.

He was assigned to occupation duty in Erding, Germany, about 12 miles from Munich.

By the time he was discharged in 1947, he had attained the rank of major.

returned home to his wife, Ruth, and their young daughter. The couple —
high school sweethearts — met in 1938 while standing next to each other
on a streetcar.

He was tempted to rekindle a budding baseball career he’d left behind when he went off to war.

was signed by the White Sox when I graduated from high school,” the
former pitcher said. “I got one spring in and that was it ... the guy
that signed me, Ray Myers, when I got back, he was with the Yankees and
he called and asked me if I wanted to try out again.”

Ditzhazy turned him down.

was married, had a child and I was going to college,” he said. “It was
always an ambition to play major league baseball when I was a boy. The
timing was bad.”

Ruth worked as a school secretary to support the
family — which would grow to include a second daughter — while her
husband was a full-time college student.

After graduating from
Wayne University, he would go on to a 30-year career with General
Motors. He was director of materials management when he retired.

couple recently celebrated their 70th anniversary, and to mark the
milestone, they renewed their vows on Feb. 14 in the presence of Father
Howard Lincoln at Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert.

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