Happy Birthday, Brother Bill Hack

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Bill Hack, a union hero before he was a war hero, would have been 100 on Thursday. The Paducahan beat nearly impossible odds to make it to 95.

Bill, who retired as business agent for Ironworkers Local 782 in 1989, was almost killed in the firey crash of his B-17 bomber in World War II. 

He had just turned 22. "When we ditched…I was dazed," he told me. "But when I smelled my hair burning, it gave me the strength to live."

"He fought for our freedom in Europe in World War II, and he fought for the freedom of working people to be able to earn a good living in our country," Jeff Wiggins, a longtime labor leader, said in a story I wrote about Bill after he died almost five years ago. 

Headlined, "The Greatest Generation is Down Another Hero," the story ran on the Kentucky State AFL-CIO website. The national AFL-CIO reposted it on its website. 

Bill died peacefully in a Paducah nursing home on Sept. 25, 2016. He narrowly escaped violent death when his shot-up B-17 bomber was forced to ditch in the English channel 78 Mays ago. The big "Flying Fortress" burst into flames before sinking.

Bill--who also answered to Billy—packed union cards for more than 40 years. Before he joined Local 782 in 1945, he belonged to United Auto Workers and Pile Drivers union locals. 

I knew bill from his long tenure as a Local 782 delegate on the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, where I'm the recording secretary and Jeff, from Reidland, a Paducah suburb, was president before he became the state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.  

Bill was an air gunner in World War II. After completing 25 missions with the storied 305th "Can Do" Bomb Group, he volunteered to go back and fly more missions. He tacked on four more in 1945, shortly before the Germans surrendered.

On Aug. 17, 1943, Bill was in the first Eighth Air Force raid against Schweinfurt and nearby Regensburg, in southern Germany. It was one of the bloodiest air battles of World War II.

Schweinfurt was home to Nazi ball-bearing factories. The enemy built Messerschmitt fighters in Regensburg. The 305th was part of the Schweinfurt attack.

"They told us before we left that not many of us would be coming back from this one," Bill remembered. "But they said if we destroyed those ball-bearing plants, it would really hurt the Germans and save untold lives of our soldiers on the ground."

The "Mighty Eighth" sent 379 four-engine "Forts" on the raid, its deepest penetration into the Nazi homeland to date. Enemy resistance was fierce. All told, fighters and flak—anti-aircraft fire—shot down 60 of the B-17s, a loss of 600 men, killed wounded or taken prisoner.

Other airmen were killed or wounded aboard badly damaged aircraft that managed to limp home. Some of those planes were scrapped for parts.

Bill said the bright blue Bavarian sky became "a junkyard—a plane’s wing blown off over here, an engine over there, a tail section someplace else, and six guys going past with their parachutes on fire. It was horrible."

Miraculously, "Me an’ My Gal," Bill's plane, was only slightly damaged, and none of the crew was hurt.

Bill came home a staff sergeant with a chest full of ribbons. His decorations included a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart and four Air Medals. The 305th earned a pair of Distinguished Unit Citations.

Born in Paducah on May 6, 1921, Bill grew up in the Great Depression. Like thousands of other western Kentuckians, he went north seeking work. The teen hired in at Chrysler and eagerly joined the UAW.

He became a union activist. After Bill clocked out at Chrysler, he would head for the Ford plants, walk picket lines and do whatever he could to help his UAW brothers and sisters struggling for union recognition.

Henry Ford was bitterly anti-union, and he hired a private army to keep the union away. "I went out there and fought the police and Ford’s goons," Bill said. "I know what it’s like to have to fight for decent wages and working conditions." Ford did not accept the UAW until 1941, the year the U.S. joined World War II.

Bill moved east and landed a job at the Philadelphia Navy yard, where he joined a Pile Drivers local. When he was drafted into the Army Air Force in 1942, he was with another local helping build the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Bill underwent basic training at Keesler Army Air Field in Mississippi, where he said a famous movie star turned bomber pilot made a speech that convinced him and other trainees to become air gunners. "Jimmy Stewart," Bill said. Stewart flew a B-24 bomber in combat in Europe.

On May 29, 1943, Bill flew on the mission in which he almost burned to death. He was subbing for a gunner who had been killed in action 10 days before.

Bill climbed aboard "Barrel House Bessie from Basin Street" and took off for France with a force of other B-17s. Their target was the concrete-and-steel reinforced German submarine "pens" at St. Nazaire, France, on the Atlantic Ocean.

American fliers dubbed the seaport "Flak City" because it bristled with so many lethal anti-aircraft guns. Fast, long-range fighters—notably the storied P-51 "Mustangs"—were not yet available to escort the bombers deep into Europe.

German fighters jumped the bombers over the English Channel and kept after them almost all the way to St. Nazaire. Bessie "was shot up pretty badly before we even got to the target," Bill said. 

Clad in a leather helmet and electrically-heated flight suit, Bill was right waist gunner, firing a .50 caliber machine gun through an open window. He explained: "The temperature was well below zero [minus-11 Fahrenheit] up there and you stood with that wind coming in that window. We also wore goggles to protect our eyes." 

The faster and nimbler German fighters raked the plodding heavy bombers with machine guns and 20-millimeter cannon fire. A 20-millimeter shell from a Focke Wulf 190 tore through Bessie’s thin aluminum skin, missing Bill's head by inches and slicing his life-sustaining oxygen line in two.

Bill knew what to do. He immediately reached down for his metal emergency bottle, which held a thirty-minute supply of oxygen.

"As I worked to plug my oxygen mask into it, a shell hit the bottle, and blew it up in my hands. By this time, I was so weak and dizzy from lack of oxygen that I was down on my knees. I crawled to the left waist gunner, got him by the leg and pointed to my mask. He saw my plight and came to my rescue by plugging me into his emergency bottle. I got to feeling better."

Bill’s comfort was fleeting. "Flak was really heavy over St. Nazaire. The sky looked like a big black cloud from all that flak. I got wounded in the shoulder. Everybody on the plane was hit."

Bessie suffered her hardest blow after she dropped her bombs. A flak barrage crippled Bill’s plane and destroyed two B-17s flying close to her. "Each one of them had some good friends of mine in it. I learned later that four of them bailed out, but two of them died that night in a German hospital."

The flak set Bessie’s number two engine ablaze. She nosed into what seemed to be a death dive. The bombers were 22,500 to 25,000 feet above the target.

Bill figured they were doomed. "But I’d been feeling like ‘this is it’ for quite a while. We were in a very steep dive—all the way down to about 800 feet—before the pilot and co-pilot were able to pull us out."

The dive extinguished the fire, but Bessie was far from home free. Once the pilots righted the wounded warbird, the crew tossed overboard everything that could be spared to lighten Bessie and keep her flying.

Meanwhile, Bill went aft to check on Sergeant Ralph Erwin, the tail gunner. The pilot had been trying to raise him on the intercom. "There were big holes all over the tail section," Bill said. "One was two-feet in diameter. Ralph was still crouched over his guns. He seemed to be dazed. It looked like he was in shock."

Bill dragged Erwin to the radio room, then took over the twin 50-caliber machine guns, the stinger in Bessie's tail. Limping on three engines, the "Fort" was not out of harm's way.

"When a plane is knocked out of formation like we were, the German fighters would gang on it like a pack of wolves. We had made it back to the French coast on the channel, about 100 miles from England, when two Messerschmitts jumped us."

Bill squeezed off several bursts at the attackers. "I guess they thought they had a sitting duck," he said. Suddenly, the Nazi planes turned tail and veered off toward France.

He could hardly believe he chased them away. "I didn’t. I looked up and saw a flight of British Spitfires. Those Spitfires were the most beautiful airplanes I ever saw. I felt like cheering."

Bessie still was still many miles from Chelveston. "Our pilot, Lieutenant James Stevenson, had thought he could get us back to England, but Barrel House Bessie had given us all she had," Bill said. She was bound for a watery grave.

"We were within 50 miles of the coast of England when we ditched. The pilot told us to take what we called ‘ditch positions.' We knew it was going to be rough. You could see whitecaps. All of us but the pilot and co-pilot got in the radio compartment and braced ourselves. I was lying flat on my back with my feet against the bulkhead that separated the radio compartment from the bomb bay."

Bessie plunged into the choppy sea. The impact hurled Bill and another crewman through an aluminum door into the empty bomb bay.

"It knocked the door completely off its hinges. I thought my back was broken. The bomb bay was filling up with water and there was burning gas from the engines on top of it. The entire bomb bay was engulfed in flames."

Bill splashed cold sea water on his burning face and hair. Dazed, bruised and bleeding, he managed to flee the bomber before it sank. "By the time I got back into the radio room, the rest of the crew had gotten out," he said. Bill escaped by wiggling through the window above the radio operator's seat.

He slid down the fuselage onto the right wing. "Fire had completely encircled the plane and the gasoline was spreading all over the water," Bill said.

Bessie carried a pair of inflatable rubber dinghies. One was banged up, the other burned up. Bill plunged into the frigid salt water and swam through the blazing gasoline to reach the damaged dinghy. "The one the fire didn’t destroy was shot full of holes and couldn't be fully inflated," he said.

The crew watched their plane slipped beneath the sea. "We couldn't get into the raft—we inflated it to a cigar shape—but nine of us held on to it."

Everybody made it but Erwin. His life jacket was inflated, but he was dead, floating nearby. "We tried to swim and pull the dinghy over to Ralph," Bill said. "We could see him occasionally as he topped a wave."

Bill did not know if the tail gunner perished on the plane or if the crash landing ended his life. But as the Spitfires circled overhead protecting their American allies from more German fighters, a British seaplane arrived to rescue the downed fliers.

However, the channel was too rough for a landing, and the flying boat turned back to England. "That was really hard to take to see him disappearing," Bill said. Meanwhile, he and the other crewmen watched helplessly as Erwin’s body drifted farther away.

Having survived enemy fighters, flak, a near-death dive and a crash landing in the wave-tossed sea, Bessie's crew faced yet another peril: hypothermia.

"They told me that even in the month of May, the English Channel is usually around 48 degrees. We had just about succumbed when a British navy torpedo boat finally got to us. All of the crew except me and another man were able to climb a rope ladder onto the deck. But they tied a rope around us and pulled us up." 

The sailors hauled the nine Americans safely aboard their little boat, which bobbed like a cork in the heavy sea. The airmen asked the British captain to retrieve Erwin’s body. "…But he said we had to leave him because of the danger of enemy air attacks," Bill said softly. "So we left Ralph, and he floated away into oblivion."

Bill was so numb from the frigid sea that he could not move. "I was sprawled out on the deck and a British sailor—I never will forget him, God bless him—stuck this bottle of rum in my mouth. It was either drink or drown. I didn't have the strength to push it away. He just kept pouring that rum in me. I don't know if it was from shock, hypothermia or that rum, but I passed out, and when I came to I was in an ambulance on the way to a British naval hospital."

After two weeks in British and American military hospitals, Bill was back with his bomber group. He rejoined his old crew, what was left of it. "Four of them had been killed, and I had been wounded," Bill said. Still, he was glad to be back with his buddies.

Following mission 25, the Army Air Force shipped Bill stateside. He expected he might spend the rest of the war as a gunnery instructor at Drew Army Air Field in sunny Tampa, Fla. "But this crew I had helped train was going overseas when one of the gunners got sick," Bill said. "I think he was just scared. I volunteered to go in his place."

Bill returned to air combat in early 1945 with the Great Ashfield, England-based 385th bomb group. "By then, they weren’t putting bombardiers in every B-17," he said. "I was a toggolier-gunner. When we got over the target, I’d go up in the nose of the plane and watch the raid’s lead bombardier. When he’d drop his bombs, I’d drop ours."

Bill said the happiest of his last four missions was over Holland that spring. He was in a group of B-17s that flew low and dropped food to Dutch civilians who were starving after almost five years of Nazi occupation.

Bill, who had lived with his family in Detroit before the war, moved back to Paducah after he was honorably discharged on Oct. 25, 1945. He married Lillie Edna Bolen, who preceded him in death. The couple reared a daughter and four sons.

''No block of marble or elaborate edifice can equal their lives of sacrifice and achievement, duty and honor, as monuments to their time,'' TV journalist Tom Brokaw wrote of Americans like Bill in a book titled The Greatest Generation. "It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced," Brokaw mused. "At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world."

Happy birthday, Brother Bill Hack.