Between missions during World War II, buddies Dale VanBlair and Albert “Shorty” Spadafora picked out a bracelet for Shorty’s fiancée at a jewelry store in England.
“He was like a brother to me,” VanBlair said. “I really liked Shorty. Unfortunately, he lost his life” on a bombing mission in March 1944.
It was the one time VanBlair cried while in the service.
The bracelet was still at the store being engraved. Shorty had given VanBlair the receipt. Just in case.
“I had the sad duty of going in and retrieving his bracelet and sending it off to her,” VanBlair said.
VanBlair, 94, of Belleville stills keeps in contact with Shorty’s finacée, Mary Lattanzio DeAvilla. Both attended a ceremony in May last year when a memorial in Malden, Mass., was dedicated in Shorty’s memory.
Staff Sgt. VanBlair kept the receipt. It was in his pocket on his 18th mission a month after Shorty died. That was when VanBlair’s B-24 was shot down and he ended up in the North Sea with 12 crew mates.
Five didn’t survive.
“A wave caught the front of the plane, and it was like hitting a concrete wall,” he recalled.
VanBlair suffered a skull fracture and came down with spinal meningitis from exposure to the cold water. He also lost hearing in his right ear.
The injuries were enough to end his combat tour. VanBlair was awarded a Purple Heart.
VanBlair was 21 and working at the Rock Island Arsenal making parts for weapons when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force on Nov. 4, 1942.
“I was kind of a patriotic individual,” he said.
He became a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber.
“They couldn’t have paid me enough to take on the responsibility of a pilot,” VanBlair said.
Between December 1942 and April 1944, he worried that each of the 18 missions would be his last: “Is this the time I get shot at and don’t come back?”
He flew over Berlin through thick flak — shrapnel just missing his head when he leaned back for his helmet. He saw German fighters gang up on lagging B-24s. There were newly empty beds in the barracks.
His two adopted daughters and grandchild urged the retired high school English teacher to preserve his war memories by writing about them.
He said it was difficult. It’s hard to put into words “what men who were in combat had to put up with,” he said.
Finding the words to portray intense moments was challenging. He was trying to describe exactly how cold the water in the North Sea was before hypothermia caused him to pass out. His life preserver kept his head above water.
“I wanted to come as close as possible to convey what it felt like,” he said. “It was cold, because it was the North Sea. Pretty soon I didn’t feel as cold, but it didn’t dawn on me it was because my body temperature was dropping.”
As he floated he thought: “If I don’t get picked up, this will be hard on my parents.”
Once he wrote the book, his family encouraged him to get it published. VanBlair’s book “Looking Back: A Tail Gunner’s View of WWII” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
This week VanBlair had a book signing at Chick-fil-A at Green Mount Commons, a restaurant he frequents at least twice a week. He often talks to the employees about the war. He was on his fourth box of books mid-afternoon on Thursday.
Life after war
VanBlair met his wife Mary Elizabeth, who he called “Mary E,” on a blind date that was set up by a mutual friend. They married in June 1946.
“She was a great woman,” he said.
Mary E died in 2002.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Quincy College and a master’s degree in English from Drake University in Iowa. In 1956, he took a job teaching English at Belleville Township High School. He became the English department chairman in 1965 and retired in 1982.
He enjoyed the interaction with the kids. He said they were more cooperative than students he taught in Champaign and other cities before coming to Belleville.
“I didn’t talk about my war experiences much,” he said. “I was there to teach them English and not talk about myself.”
He joked that he’s now been retired as many years as he was a teacher.
Before an arthritic hip flared up, VanBlair said he was bowling four times a week, with a 190 average. He bowled two 300 games in the late 1980s.
“As I got older, it began to do down,” VanBlair said of his bowling average.
He also likes to fish, but said he can’t man-handle a boat any more.
VanBlair often reflects on the war and how God got him through it.
“I firmly believe if God hadn’t been watching over me, I would have never survived.”
VanBlair treasures two large scrapbooks he put together about the war. He has toilet paper stamped “Government property.” There are old photos, newspaper clippings and the telegram to his parents saying he’d been shot down and hurt.
“I kept everything,” he said — even the receipt for the bracelet. “That receipt has a lot of sentimental value to me, which is why I kept it.”