By Rollie Roers, formerly of Urbank/Parkers Prairie
Recently we had occasion to pay a visit to my wife Jenny’s first cousin, Don Korkowski, whom she had connected with only in recent years via the internet. Don grew up in Millerville and Brandon, Minn. He is now 96 years old. We visited him in his home in Peoria, Ariz., which is a western suburb of Phoenix. He is the son of August and Frances (Bitzen) Korkowski.
In the course of the evening, we discussed his experiences as an attorney for 30 years in Illinois, and eventually the discussion turned to his experiences in the Army Air Corps (predecessor to the Air Force) in WWII. His name-tag included a picture of a B-26 bomber so it was only natural to ask him about it. Well, he flew a B-26 bomber, on 43 missions over Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany and obviously survived them, not without quite a bit of drama. Because of his last name, his nickname was “Corky.”
“I flew the B-26 which was very powerful, and I was only 20 years old when I got to Paris,” said Korkowski. “It had 6,000 horsepower, which can best be described as the power in 24 Buicks each having 250 horsepower. The Army Air Corps made me a first pilot (not a co-pilot), assigned a B-26 to me, gave me a crew and sent me on 43 missions. One time my plane was out of service, getting flack damage repaired, so they sent me on a mission in my commander’s plane. Flak damaged that plane such that I couldn’t get the wheels down, so I had to come in on the belly for my first crash, and though no crew member suffered any physical injury that drew any blood, the commander’s plane was destroyed. The next day we crashed again in my plane due to flak damage, and this was a very serious crash. I was taking a new crew on their first mission, and only one member of my crew was with us. Both of us were injured and hospitalized. I never did find out whether any of the new crew were injured. It was 18 days before I flew another mission. I got a new B-26.”
At first they would fly their missions out of an airfield at Pontoise, about 15 miles northwest of downtown Paris, and later out of Belgium. On his first mission, he was co-pilot on a night run and Corky got his first taste of German flak. The payload for each plane consisted of two one-ton bombs. They flew in formation, six planes per flight. The navigator in the lead plane directed them to the target, possibly a railroad yard. On all missions thereafter, Don was the pilot of his own plane. At this point of the war, the Allies had control of the air space over Germany, so ground fire was the biggest danger. On occasion they would be escorted by Allied fighter planes.
On one mission on which Don was the pilot, the plane’s landing gear was damaged by flak. The hydraulic shaft was bent and he was unable to deploy his wheels. He knew he was going to have to do a belly-flop landing on his return and he advised his crew that they could bail out. None of them did as they trusted that Don could get them safely to the ground, which he did.
The very next day, Don was on yet another mission and experienced a more serious crash. Returning at 9:30 at night from dropping their bombs, Don and five other planes were too low on fuel to make it back to the home base, so he led them into a front-line base. Weather at the home base was deteriorating rapidly and the other five pilots had less experience in flying night weather, so they were ordered to spend the night at that base. Don was ordered to quickly get some fuel and return home immediately without taking time to check his plane for battle damage. At a foot off the ground on take-off, when he had take-off speed but not single-engine take-off speed, he lost the left engine and crashed instantly at about 130 miles per hour. The crash had to be instantaneous, because torque was turning them over to the left and if the left wing had hit the ground the plane would have cart-wheeled and killed everybody. In the process, Don injured his back and only many years later did doctors discover that he had crushed his fifth and sixth vertebrae. Nonetheless, he continued to fly.
On another mission, the target was another rail yard. They realized they were flying right into tracers which were coming from a church steeple. The Germans were using the tower as cover. All of the planes were heavily armed with a number of 50-caliber guns, upwards to 13 on the entire plane. Don and the lead plane flew directly into the tower, firing non-stop, and were able to blow off the top of the tower. In training, they were instructed to fire in bursts, so the guns wouldn’t melt, but the lead plane ordered Don to continue to fire until they were out of ammo.
His most harrowing experience actually did not involve any injury to himself or damage to his plane. Don brought out a picture taken by his plane of another plane that was on fire, flying upside down below him. That plane had been in the flight immediately ahead of Don’s and was hit by flak which took out an engine. That caused the plane to go out of control, ending up below Don’s plane. The plane blew up because it still had its bombs on board and no one survived. Don said he did not know the men on that plane.
On still another mission, the plane next to his was hit by flak and blew up, with its bombs on board as well, only 100 feet from Don’s plane. The explosion blew that plane apart and was so close to Don’s plane that it damaged his hearing. Only later did Don find out that the tail gunner on that plane actually survived because the tail was blown clear off the plane. The tail gunner parachuted out, breaking his ankles in the process of landing, and was captured by the Germans. In order to minimize the time they were in the air as possible targets for German ground fire, jumpers were instructed to wait as long as possible before deploying their parachutes, but the tail gunner waited too long. Nonetheless, he reported that he was treated very well by his captors and was hospitalized to heal from his injuries. After the war, he connected up with Don to let him know that he had survived.
Thereafter, Don spent one night in London, another night in Paris and then, before returning to the United States, he had dinner with a French family he had gotten to know. Don reported that a young lady might have been involved.
Don explained that they were given a ribbon after every five missions. Accordingly, he was well decorated by the time of his discharge. When Don first started flying, he was a second lieutenant. Later he was given a field promotion to first lieutenant. He was recalled by the Air Force during the Korean War, but he did not see any further action because of his prior injuries. By the end of his military career, he reached the rank of captain.
When Don first began training as a pilot in early 1943, he was stationed at Waco, Texas, and finished up his training at Temple, Texas. Since there was an urgent need for pilots, the trainees were given intensive pre-flight instruction and Don finished his training regimen in three months, in half the time it normally would take. He graduated from flight school in March, 1943.
Don grew up on a farm in the Millerville, Minnesota area and attended Brandon Minnesota High School. He said that he drove himself to school then because his dad was battling cancer at the time. Don graduated from high school in 1941.
Serving our country appears to be in the blood for Don’s family. His brother Clarence flew for the U.S. Navy. One son and a grandson also flew for the military. Don’s son James Korkowski (died 1986) was a pilot for the military, NASA and the FAA. His grandson, Joel Korkowski (died 2002) was a U.S. Navy pilot who flew a Tomcat over Afghanistan and later perished in a Super Hornet over the Pacific Ocean. (Joel was Jim’s first-born son.) Don’s son Larry served in the Navy for over six years (including a year stationed in Antarctica), was an Air Traffic Controller in Alaska and had many other interesting work experiences (forest fire fighter, ambulance driver). Don’s son Daniel is a retired police officer.
For more information on Don’s Minnesota roots, military career and Illinois legal career I suggest an internet search of “Donald J. Korkowski.” Don’s autobiographical and anecdotal descriptions will provide a wonderful background of this amazing man and American hero.