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Group History

Carl Thorkelson Flight Crew

Carl Thorkelson - World War II Flight Crew

by Jennifer Armstrong
Chicago Daily Herald Staff Writer

In 1944, fate brought nine men together at an Army Air Base in Rapid City, S.D., to form a B-17 flight crew that would fly 24 combat missions over Germany in World War II. Fifty years later, five of them were together again. But this time, they were reminiscing over lunch and touring a Wheaton museum, recalling the extraordinary deeds they did as very young men.

Oak Brook resident Carl Thorkelson, the pilot of the crew, arranged the reunion, which included dinner Nov. 4 (1994) at the DuPage Club, then lunch and a tour Nov 5 if Cantigny Museum & Gardens, which features war memorabilia and memorials. They hadn’t seen each other since the end of World War II, but kept in touch over the years. Thorkelson said he organized the get-together because “they all wanted to see each other one more time.

The men talked about six hours after dinner Friday night, Thorkelson said. Before Saturday’s lunch and tour, the crew engaged in a ‘round table division ,’ which Thorkleson’s son recorded on video. “I haven’t laughed so much in ages,” said Wallace Minor, the rear gunner, who came from West Virginia to see his crew mates. “I got to see friends I haven’t seen in fifty years – that’s what makes it so wonderful.”

Thorkelson started his military flight training in 1942, flying from several bases in Texas, California and New Mexico before being transferred to Rapid City, S.D., where his crew started flying together. The crew was assigned to fly missions against Germany from a base at Thorpe Abbotts, England. The crew belonged to the “Bloody Hundredth” B-17 Bomber Group and the 350th Squadron, which suffered the greatest losses of any four-engine bomber squadron in the war. The 100th Bomber Group was featured in the film “12 o’clock High” and the book “Flying Fortress.”

Thorkleson said other World War II veterans usually greet members of the legendary bomb group the same way: “You must be the only one alive. We heard you all got killed.” Thorkelson , 73, who was 23 when he began fighting in the war, noted the remarkable number of extraordinary things during the war. “It was all 19 and 20 year-old boys fighting this war,” he said. “Most people don’t realize that young people can do tremendous things when put to the test.”

Minor, 71, said he didn’t think much at the time about fighting the war. “It didn’t seem like a big thing then, but it does now,” said Minor, who was 21 when he was commissioned. “That’s why we were able to do that then.”

Thorkelson, like most of his crew, gave up military life at the end of the war. He said he did it because he just didn’t like killing people. He noted that eight of the nine crew members started their own businesses after the war, something he attributed to a sense of independence from flying.

The reunion group comprised Thorkelson, Minor, navigator Jack Stuhr of Iowa, chief engineer and top turret gunner Ralph Sheill of Montana, and gunner Bob Foster of New York.

Of the nine original crew members, six remain, five of whom got together this weekend. One of the remaining crew members could not make it to the reunion, because he was doing research on Jamaica for his church. Another crew member, John Murray, died just two months ago at the age of 71. On his deathbed, Murray asked his son to tell Thorkelson not to have the reunion until his health returned and he could make the trip, Thorkelson said.

Shortly, thereafter, Murray died, Murray’s son sent the crew members a letter telling them how much Murray had wanted to be with them for the reunion. “My Dad treasured his memories of the time you were all together.” John Murray, Jr. Wrote. “He thought the world of all of you. I don’t think there were too many conservations that I had with him that something didn’t come up about his days in England during the war…” “He never forgot you, I hope you never forget him.”