His fall to earth was not a dream,
and it seems like only yesterday
I sit at the small dining-room table a few feet from Aloys Suhling. When he looks at me, he explains, he can barely make out the circumference of my face, but not the main features, not my eyes.
Macular degeneration has claimed his vision. Many days he turns on his little TV, which he sees better than his big TV. His remote control, a gift from his son, is the size of a legal note pad. To pass the time he hovers near the TV and listens for moments of real interest.
"Like when somebody hits a home run or when they show a car wreck," he says.
Then he will lean forward so he can make out a few of the images.
Aloys has lived in his St. Charles home since 1958. Gloria, his wife of 46 years, died of leukemia in 1991.
On the kitchen wall is a rotary phone. In a picture frame are his medals. Throughout the house are photos of Gloria; their son, who lives in Indiana, their daughter, of St. Charles; their grandchild and great-grandchild; and Aloys' friend, Olive Alexander.
Not only is vision a problem, arthritis has crippled his fingers. When we break for lunch he needs my help to zip his coat. He's 85 years old. But he once was 20. It seems like yesterday.
Sgt. Aloys Suhling holds his .50-caliber machine gun behind the wing of the B-17 bomber. His job is to look for enemy fighters and to shoot them.
The bombing target today, Sept. 13, 1944, is a synthetic oil manufacturing plant in Blechhammer, a city in Germany.
At 15,000 feet, the 10-man crew had put on oxygen masks. They had plugged in their electric flight suits, electric boots and electric gloves to stay warm. They were flying at 22,000 feet, or higher.
The sky booms with anti-aircraft fire. Flak rattles against the plane's skin. This is his 25th bombing mission since arriving in Italy July 20.
On a few of those missions he was in the nose, directing where and when the bombs would drop. From there he saw the true horror of hostile fire and was amazed each and every time his plane survived.
They fly in a tight, staggered formation of seven, which makes a squadron. In all, 28 bombers advance on the manufacturing plant.
The target is in sight. The bomb hatch opens and the payload falls.
Aloys releases into the sky pieces of tin foil to confuse German radar. To his surprise, another B-17 - which is supposed to be above Aloys' plane - swerves beneath. It has been hit.
Suddenly, it's hit again, but this time it explodes, perhaps struck by a bomb dropped by one of the B-17s. The explosion is so close it severely damages Aloys' own plane.
Soon, the pilot announces via headset, "OK boys, as soon as we hit these clouds bail out."
The clouds will give the 10 men a greater chance. Otherwise, as they float down they would be easy pickings for German fighters.
Aloys attaches his chest chute and for the first time in his young life jumps out of a plane. The B-17's slipstream knocks him head over heels at 12,000 feet.
Now he's plummeting head-first. An incredible wind rushes past. It is the thrill ride of a lifetime.
He maneuvers in mid-air to a head-up position. He pulls the chute's handle and it seems to him - not that he's ever done this before - that the rigging isn't coming out fast enough. So as he free falls he picks at it with nimble fingers and the chute snatches him up - life will continue! - with a wondrous jolt that will stay with him forever.
He floats onto a field of clover a long way from the family farm in Calhoun County, Ill.
With the help of friendly locals he ditches the chute and his airman's gear. But he suspects the worst when those helping him scatter.
He lies on his belly in 18-inch clover, occasionally lifting his head to peek. Six German soldiers slowly approach. They are spaced 40 feet apart and methodically walk the field.
Boguslaw Zieba, 46, contacted the Suburban Journals. He grew up in a little town in southern Poland called Koniowka, near where the B-17 crashed. He now resides in Austria.
Zieba has written a book titled "Blechhammer" - the text is in both English and Polish - about the crash and the 10 crewmen who dropped from the sky. It is available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
Growing up, Zieba never thought much about the stories he'd heard of the crash. It never piqued his curiosity that a few pieces of the plane had ended up in various homes. It was an old story; it happened 20 years before he was born.
What eventually captured his interest, years later, were the factual inconsistencies in the accounts. If people were going to tell this story for generations, they should at least get it right. So two years ago he decided to contact the five living crew members.
"All my work was a kind of a puzzle," he said via e-mail.
He has interviewed Aloys by phone about 15 times. Aloys has no computer and no longer can read.
Zieba contacted the Journal to plug his book and let us know there was a World War II vet here with a story.
The German soldiers draw closer and Aloys fears he will be discovered. He has no gun.
But the Germans suddenly wheel toward a ravine thick with brush. Instead of heading toward him they now follow the ravine and, later, leave.
By late afternoon Aloys has been on his belly three hours. A peasant approaches in a wagon filled with hay and pulled by horses. Aloys crawls under the horses and into the wagon. The driver covers him in hay. They pass through a village, and he spends that first night in a barn.
He will learn later the crash site was in Czechoslovakia, near the Polish border.
The next day he is united with another crew member, and under cover of darkness they walk a circuitous route - led by members of the Polish Resistance - into Poland.
Soon they are joined by two more crew members and, months later, by the bombardier, who had to first recover from a broken foot. The other five crew members, Aloys will learn later, were captured and sent to prisoner-of-war camps.
For the next five months Aloys and the others are moved to a different home about once a month. They are fed by people who have little. They sleep indoors, in box beds filled with straw. During the day they play cards and think of home.
To loved ones, the men are in limbo; they are missing in action. Aloys' grandfather burns a candle at church for Aloys' safe return.
They are joined by other downed airmen. Eventually the Russians advance and the Germans retreat.
Today there is a pair of sheepskin-lined pants in a museum in southern Poland. They are stenciled with S2329. The S is for "Suhling" and the numbers are the final digits of Aloys' Army serial number.
For years, according to Zieba, the author, the family where Aloys spent his first night would bring out the pants for the annual festival and someone portraying a sheep would wear them sheepskin-side out.
And his silk parachute? Aloys says it was used to make more than one wedding gown.
These are the remnants of his physical presence overseas, where he served his country. The old man you see today was once a young man. His fall to earth was not a dream. And it seems like yesterday.
The Suburban Journals, by Steve Pokin, Monday, January 25, 2010