Fred Czerwionka spent three Christmases during World War II away from his Chicago home. But it was his last one in 1944, that was most memorable. More exactly, it's the series of events in the week leading up to that Yuletide that Czerwionka remembers most vividly.
Sixty years ago last week, on December 17, the B-24 Liberator bomber in which Czerwionka was a turret gunner went down amidst a heavy German fighter attack and flak while engaged in a bombing run over Nazi oil fields near Budapest, Hungary. One engine went out, which wasn't that serious?#34;on three previous occasions Czerwionka had landed in planes with just three functioning engines. But on that occasion the propeller started "windmilling" creating a drag and pulling the aircraft sideways into an area heavily filled with anti aircraft fire.
"It dragged us right into the flak alley," recalled Czerwionka, who said it was the worst flak he had ever experienced.
"It felt like a canoe on a rough river," he said of the explosive concussion. "We were so lucky the plane didn't blow up."
The pilot dove the plane to maintain a semblance of control, while everyone still alive bailed out.
"I landed in the middle of the Danube River," Czerwionka, now a resident at the Oak Park Arms, recalled. He inflated one half of his "Mae West" life preserver, and tried to shed his parachute harness. Unfortunately, the releases on both of his hips were stuck tight. Precariously afloat in the middle of the frigid Danube, with his parachute straps pinning one arm, all Czerwionka could do was wait and hope. And pray.
"I said my prayers. I was ready to go," said Czerwionka. "It was so cold."
Hope, though, arrived in the form of Russian troops in a small motor boat. They pulled him in, and took him to a farm house, where he was wrapped up in a type of feather filled blanket to help warm him. He was then taken to a hospital, where he was treated for exposure.
In the course of making his way to Bucharest with dozens of other rescued Allied pilots, Czerwionka stopped for a while at the Palace Hotel, directly across a square from the Hungarian National Palace. Finally, on December 22, Czerwionka and his fellow fliers arrived at a boys boarding school outside Bucharest.
While Czerwionka, now 88, recalls all the details, the names and places and circumstances of his ordeal like it happened yesterday, he struggles to recall specific events of that Christmas day. There was snow on the ground and Christmas music, he recalls. But he doesn't remember what he ate, or the title of the movie he saw later.
What he does remember is ice skating. Each airman carried $50 in cash on bombing missions, and Czerwionka took his and bought a pair of ice skates. The American airman, who a week before nearly died in the icy waters of the Danube, celebrated Christmas by skating safe and dry on the frozen surface of a Bucharest lagoon.
He also recalls being grateful that he and his colleagues had survived.
"That was the most important thing," said Czerwionka, "that all our guys were alive. Well, most of them."
Czerwionka said a prayer over the grave of his plane's co-pilot, Myron Jacobsen, whose parachute had failed to open. Czerwionka said he thinks of Jacobsen and all the others he knew back then who didn't make it back. It underscores, he said, the blessing he ultimately received during that trying Christmas season, so long ago in a distant land.
He knew that Christmas Day that he was alive, and that he would come back home from the war well and whole.
"What a gift," he said softly. "What a great gift."
?#34; Bill Dwyer