Veterans Stories: Hear Them Now

 

Todd writing in the Sunday, October 30 issue of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

I had the privilege of standing with Charles Utz next to a World War II vintage B-17 bomber at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Charles is 86 years old and lives in Wexford.

In 1944, he was a 19-year-old tail gunner on a B-17 that was shot down on Christmas Eve during the Battle of the Bulge. As he parachuted down from 15,000 feet, he saw his plane explode over the frozen Belgian landscape. German soldiers captured him, stole the three candy bars he had stored in his socks, and detained him in a farmhouse, where a Belgian woman was serenely decorating her Christmas tree, as if oblivious to the colossal battle raging outside.

Thus began an odyssey of marches to various prison camps until the following spring when American forces liberated Stalag 7A, where Charles was finally interned with 80,000 other Allied prisoners. He sailed home and was preparing to ship out to the Pacific when he received news of Japan’s surrender.

As Charles told me his story, his eyes kept returning to the trapdoor at the back of the B-17, the one he used to escape his flame-engulfed bomber.

“I heard the emergency alarm ringing and knew I didn’t have long. I grabbed hold of the trapdoor handle, but it wouldn’t budge. The plane was old and beaten up, not really air worthy, but we were desperate to repulse the German attack at the Bulge, so bomber command ordered us to fly. Now, the escape hatch was stuck. I could see the flames growing around the engines and knew it was just a matter of minutes until they reached the fuel tank. I had my parachute on and was frantically pulling at the red handle. I said to God, ‘If You let me out of here, I promise to spend my life serving You and man. …’ ”

Charles’ voice had trailed off, and his eyes brimmed with tears. “And that’s what’s always bothered me,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I don’t know if I’ve lived up to that promise.”