11/11/11: Local men pack WWII memories for Vets Day trip to D.C.

News-DemocratJune 17, 2014 

Dale VanBlair of Fairview Heights and Norman Hake of Belleville will spend Veterans Day in Washington, D.C., today remembering their military careers and old comrades.

The two friends and former teaching colleagues were on board a special two-day Honor Flight that left St. Louis early Thursday morning and will return late tonight.

They will visit some war memorials and other sites, and attend a special Veterans Day ceremony today at the World War II Memorial.

VanBlair, 90, and Hake, 87, were looking forward to the trip, even though they expect it to be tiring. Each can take along a relative or friend to serve as guardian.

Both were teachers but served in different parts of the world during World War II.

VanBlair was a B-24 tail gunner in the U.S. Army Air Corps 8th Air Force in England. He said he joined in November 1942 and was discharged in October 1945.

"I made it through 18 missions," he said. He also was responsible for one confirmed downed enemy plane.

His first mission was Christmas Eve of 1943. On his 18th mission, in April 1944, his plane led a bomber group over Berlin, flying with special radar to penetrate cloud cover. His plane took a hit in its gas tanks and lost so much gas it didn't have enough to make it all the way back.

Instead they had to crash land in the North Sea. The plane also had lost its generator and couldn't call for help but was spotted by planes flying escort which marked their position and brought help.

"It was very, very cold. I was supported by my life jacket but I spent about an hour in the water," he said.

He was pulled unconscious from the water, suffering from hypothermia. He developed spinal meningitis and lost the hearing in his right ear. He was grounded, first serving as unit secretary and then as squadron gunnery sergeant.

He did get to meet actor Jimmy Stewart, who also was Col. Jimmy Stewart during the war, when Stewart spent a day at their headquarters.

Unlike in the movies, VanBlair said they never did paint a name on their B-24.

"The one we flew overseas, we had for a few missions and then another crew crash landed it," he said. "Often you didn't get to fly in the same plane for long."

They called their original plane Heaven Can Wait but didn't name any others.

VanBlair went to Quincy College after the war and became an English teacher, first at Belleville Township High School and later became the English department head after it became Belleville West.

VanBlair wrote a book about his experiences in the war called "Looking Back: A Tail Gunner's View of WWII." It is available by order at book stores or on Amazon.com.

Hake said he spent two years in the Army. He joined in 1944 when he was working on his family's dairy farm.

"I didn't get into any combat," he said. "The closest I came was when I was on a troopship in the South Pacific. A submarine stalked us and we went around in circles to shake it."

Hake was stationed in the Philippines and training with an artillery outfit, preparing for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs dropped on Japan helped end the war.

He attended DePauw University in Indiana and taught math in Belleville at the Township, Belleville West and Belleville East high schools. He took a break in the middle of his career to farm for seven years before health problems sent him back to teaching math.

Contact reporter Wally Spiers at wspiers@bnd.com or 239-2506.

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