The Greatest Generation is down another hero. Chester William Hack died peacefully in a Paducah, Ky., nursing home on Sunday. He was 95.
Hack—better known as Bill or Billy—packed union cards for more than 40 years. He belonged to the UAW, Pile Drivers and Paducah Ironworkers Local 782, the latter from 1945 until he retired as business manager in 1989. He was a Local 782 delegate to the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and the third recipient of the annual W.C. Young Award, the highest honor the labor group bestows. In addition, Hack was past president of the West Kentucky Building and Construction Trades Council, and he served for many years on the board of directors at the Jackson House and W.B. Sanders retirement centers, both of which are union-built, owned and operated.
"Mr. Hack was a war hero before he was a union hero," said Jeff Wiggins, area council president. "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."
Indeed. On May 29, 1943, Hack narrowly survived the fiery crash of his big, four-engine B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber into the English Channel. "When we ditched…I was dazed," he recalled. "But when I smelled my hair burning, it gave me the strength to live."
It was his third combat mission; Hack had just turned 22. An air gunner with the storied 305th "Can Do" Bomb Group, Hack flew 22 more harrowing missions against targets in Germany and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1943. He tacked on four more in 1945, shortly before the Germans surrendered.
On Aug. 17, 1943, Hack 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," Hack 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 "Forts" on the raid, its deepest penetration into the Nazi homeland to date. Enemy resistance was fierce. All told, Nazi fighters and flak—anti-aircraft fire—shot down 60 of the B-17s, a loss of 600 men. Other airmen were killed or wounded aboard shot-up aircraft that managed to limp home. Some planes were so badly damaged that they were scrapped for parts. Hack said the bright azure 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, Hack’s plane, was only slightly damaged, and none of the crew was hurt. Hack came home a staff sergeant. His decorations included a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart and four Air Medals. The 305th earned a pair of Distinguished Unit Citations.
Born on May 6, 1921, Hack 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 Hack 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," Hack 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.
Hack 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. Hack underwent basic training at Keesler Army Air Field in Mississippi, where he said a big-time movie star turned bomber pilot made a speech that convinced him and other trainees to become air gunners. "Jimmy Stewart," Hack said. Stewart flew a B-24 bomber in combat in Europe.
After completing gunnery school, Hack trained with nine other men as a B-17 crew, and they flew together to England. As soon as they landed at Chelveston, home of the 305th, the brass farmed out the crew as replacements to cover losses in different squadrons. "It was heartbreaking when they broke us up. We had become welded together as a team. We were brothers."
When Hack joined the 305th, American heavy bomber crews had to fly 25 missions before they could return stateside. A flier’s chance of making the magic number was one in three, he said. "Most of us just resigned ourselves to knowing we were going to get shot down. The only question was would you be killed, or would you be able to bail out, then be captured or rescued."
On the mission where he nearly burned to death, Hack subbed for a gunner who was killed in action 10 days before. He climbed aboard Barrel House Bessie from Basin Street, which, heavily laden with bombs, struggled into the sky. Bessie formed up with another 146 B-17s from the 305th and a half-dozen other bomb groups based in England. The target was one of the toughest—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 fast, agile P-51 "Mustang"—were not yet available to escort the bombers deep into Europe. German fighters jumped the Yanks 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."
Hack, clad in a leather helmet and electrically-heated flight suit, was right waist gunner, firing a .50 caliber machine gun through an open window. He explained: "The temperature was well below zero [11 below, Fahrenheit, in the B-17s above St. Nazaire] up there and you stood with that wind coming in that window. We also wore goggles to protect our eyes. But you could always tell an air gunner when you saw one coming. He had red stripes under his eyes where the goggles didn’t quite reach the oxygen mask."
The faster and nimbler German fighters raked the plodding 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 Hack’s head by inches and slicing his life-sustaining oxygen line in two. Hack 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."
Hack’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 between 5:06 and 5:50 p.m. A flak barrage crippled Hack’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.
Hack 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, Hack checked on Sergeant Ralph Erwin, the tail gunner. "There were big holes all over the tail section. 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."
Hack 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."
Hack 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. Hack 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." 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 slammed into the choppy sea. The impact hurled Hack 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." Hack 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. Hack 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," Hack said. Bessie carried a pair of inflatable rubber dinghies. One was banged up, the other burned up. Hack 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. Everybody but Ralph Erwin got out of Barrel House Bessie.
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. We tried to swim and pull the dinghy over to Ralph. We could see him occasionally as he topped a wave."
Erwin was dead. Hack did not know if he 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," Hack said. Meanwhile, he and the other crewmen watched helplessly as Erwin’s body floated 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," Hack said softly. "So we left Ralph, and he floated away into oblivion."
Hack 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, Hack 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," Hack said. Still, he was glad to be back with his buddies.
Following mission 25, the Army Air Force shipped Hack stateside. He had planned to 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," Hack said. "I think he was just scared. I volunteered to go in his place."
Hack 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," Hack 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." Hack 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.
Hack, 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 Hack 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."
Long after the war, Hack wrote two poems in honor of Ralph Erwin and the other men he flew with who never came home.
The Conflict Within
The guns are silent now.
The greasy smell of flak has long since dissipated.
But the war goes on.
How many times must I fight these battles?
How many times will screaming shells rush skyward
To seek me out?
How many times must I be rocked by exploding shells
and hear the fearful hail of shrapnel tearing through my ship?
How much longer must I endure the cruel cold
of high altitude flight, while the acrid smell of gun smoke
assails my nostrils?
How many times must I watch my comrades’ planes disappear
in a thunderous explosion as metal and flesh fill the sky?
How many times must I leap from my burning aircraft
as it plummets to the ground?
Must I fly these hell torn skies for eternity?
How many tears must I shed in the tortured sleep of endless nights
as I awake to the screams of the hapless victims of our bombs?
Will I ever find peace within myself again?
I must slip the bombs of this torment, and when I do I shall sleep the dreamless sleep of my fallen comrades.
In the shadow of my memories,
I see the bombers flying in formation,
five miles high in the frozen skies of Europe
And in those hell strewn skies the enemy is waiting
And in the shadow of those memories
I see my friends die
Bleeding from wounds inflicted long ago
While people forget and move on to other times and places
Now my friends can rest in peace. In the fields of
Europe, they are lying with their comrades
In the shadow of my memories in that far away
country so long ago
Remember the skies over Europe and the blood,
the cold and the pain and remember our comrades always
so they shall not have died in vain