We were young
By Joni Moths Mueller
Ralph Chmurski jolts awake, momentarily blinded by the flashlight shining in his eyes.
It’s May 24, 1944.
Get up — you’re filling in for a sick navigator on a bombing run targeting Melun, France. It is the 23-year-old’s first mission with the 8th Air Force.
Orders for his second mission come just one night later in the same disturbing way: awakening to the disorienting flashlight, another crew in need of a navigator.
On his third mission, Chmurski finally flies with his own crew, and they stick together fighting fear and engine failure, dodging flak and German fighters on 29 bombing missions in three months.
After his discharge, Chmurski, Arts ’42, Law ’46, returns to Marquette, seeking nothing more than quiet and time to heal. But law professor Willis Lang and Jesuit Wilfred Mallon have different plans for mending Chmurski’s slightly broken spirit.
Chmurski recalls his introduction to World War II service with a chuckle about what he calls “first-mission illness” striking two young navigators. Sometimes a sudden baptism is best. At least it was for Chmurski, who jumped up from his bunk, grabbed his gear and went. But he has had plenty of time since 1944 to relive and retell his tales of luck — some good luck, some bad luck — and feeling of awe at what he and the men and women in service accomplished.
We were young, he says, but we knew what was at risk.
“I had a habit of writing a letter to my father, mother, sister and brother every day,” he says. “I told them to look at the postmark and they’d know as of that (date) I was OK.”
Chmurski was one of a near legion of Marquette men and women who responded to the nation’s call to service. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps after earning an undergraduate degree and was called up in 1943. Leadership abilities that were exercised liberally at Marquette, where Chmurski was grand master of Alpha Gamma Phi, president of the interfraternity council, sideline announcer for Marquette football and state champion on the Marquette fencing team, again shined. He was sent to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center in Texas, where he tested and qualified quickly as a triple threat. He could serve as a pilot, navigator or bombardier. But the 8th Air Force was heavy on pilots at that moment and in desperate need of navigators, so Chmurski was “washed out,” in the parlance of servicemen and women, as a pilot and sent to Navigation School in San Marcos, Texas. Walking beneath the portal that read “Home of the World’s Greatest Navigators” was more encouraging than what cadets running through drills on the quad had to contribute.
“We were greeted by a loud round of ‘You’ll be sorry’” from a large cadre of cadets who were on detail,” he recalls.
Chmurski graduated on Christmas Eve 1943 and, after a short furlough, met his crew at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Our crew scored high in our combat crew training ... and was awarded a brand-new airplane to fly to England,” he says.
Chmurski loves sharing tales of flying the heavy bomber called the B24 Liberator, of his pilot — “He was the best pilot in the 8th Air Force”— and of hearing his pilot’s order on more than one occasion to “bail” and then realizing he was connected to the plane by a heated flying suit and oxygen line, and bailing wasn’t an option.
Luck reigned for the entire crew because the “best pilot” brought them safely home. “Thank God,” Chmurski says. “I’m not that brave.”
Today, a regal 91 years old, Chmurski still has the bearing of young Lt. Chmurski. Age has played a bit with his ability to get around and his hearing isn’t what it could be, but the details of service are cherished, remarkable memories. They include conversations between crewmen during those missions to take out oil refineries, factories, tankers, bridges and marshaling yards in France, Germany and Belgium between May and August 1944.
“I’m still on that plane today,” Chmurski admits. “It was a cramped thing.”
On the dining room table at daughter Mary Cento’s home, Chmurski points to maps showing the route his crew flew to reach Land’s End, England, site of the 8th Air Force base. His finger hovers over Marrakesh, Morocco, and another memory surfaces.
“This is a good one,” Chmurski says, and his eyes and thoughts drift back 60-some years.
“Coming back from officers’ mess after supper, I had to pass an Italian prisoner of war camp. From behind the barbed wire, I heard the prisoners singing Lily Marlene,” he remembers, referring to the song that became a sort of anthem to men serving overseas and far from loved ones. “I could feel the yearning in their voices without understanding a word of Italian. For the next two or three nights while we were there, I threw a pack of cigarettes over the fence to them.”
Chmurski talks of waiting while his flight group moved into combat position for “our penetration of Fortress Europe.”
“It was an awe-inspiring sight to see,” he says, “this long parade of between 1,000 and 2,000 bombers stretching for miles.”
He flew D-Day support on June 6, 1944. “Two of the biggest moments until I met and married my wife were the fact that I participated in D Day, which was the greatest show on earth, and that I led the entire 8th Air Force. That’s a tremendous honor. It’s sort of like winning the lottery because you have to be in the right place at the right time. ... I don’t know how in the world to really explain it.
“I whipped off my short letter home, and then I wrote a letter to Ted Carpenter, who was the public information director at Marquette.”
In his letter to Carpenter, Chmurski wrote of “having a hunch” something big was about to happen. “ ... at last the pent-up wrath and fury of free men were to be unleashed with a vengeance in a death blow to oppression.” His letter was printed in the July 13, 1944 issue of The Marquette Tribune.
Chmurski flew his final mission, a bombing run over Strasbourg, Germany, on Aug. 11, 1944. Coincidentally, it was his 24th birthday.
Today, when looking at snapshots, Chmurski points out it’s easy to tell which were taken after he’d seen combat. “Even my son used to call me ‘teeth,’” he says. “You’re smiling because you’re alive.
“We lost as many as 60 bombers on one mission, which was the equivalent of 600 combat crewmen,” he says of the 8th Air Force. “When I flew my first mission, a combat crewman’s life expectancy was six weeks. While completing the required 30 missions, your chance of being killed was 71 percent.”
After his discharge from combat duty, Chmurski was assigned to manage the President Madison Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla., where staff, tech, and master sergeants and their families went for rest and respite.
“About 100 Cabanatuan Death March prisoners were there,” he remembers. “They were just skin and bones, and I wondered at man’s inhumanity to man.”
Chmurski opted for an early out and returned to Marquette, planning to do nothing but rest. His hope of maintaining a low profile ended when he ran into Professor Lang and Father Mallon. Both wanted to recruit Chmurski.
“I told them I had just finished a horrible period, and I wanted some time to heal,” he says.
But Lang and Father Mallon had different ideas about what would speed healing. Lang convinced Chmurski to sit in on law classes, and Father Mallon enlisted him as executive secretary of the Marquette Alumni Association. Both opportunities, Chmurski admits, paid off. He helped build the Alumni Association into a formal campus organization and increased its membership, and he served as president of his freshman law class and then graduated from Law School and was offered a position as Milwaukee’s assistant city attorney.
He appeared as an appellant and a respondent before the Wisconsin Supreme Court and boasts of his perfect record: “I was undefeated before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”
Chmurski took an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., last spring, joining rows of proud soldiers, air and seamen and women visiting the memorial built to honor their sacrifice and service to country. The experience was remarkable, Chmurski says, but it was the return to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field that stunned him. Thousands of people welcomed the old vets home and let them know their service hasn’t been forgotten.
“I never saw such an outpouring of true Americanism, and it gave me such hope for our country,” he says.