For 30 minutes, former WWII pilot flies back in time

Lt. Nick Radosevich had his orders. Soon he would ship out to England and begin bombing targets deep inside Nazi territory.

He sought an edge, a good-luck charm. He met a girl. They had some drinks and dinner. Her cocker spaniel had recently delivered puppies.

"That's it,'' the handsome 26-year-old pilot said.

He picked out a jet black female and named her Penelope — Penny for short. He attached a small metal cylinder to her collar that contained contact information in case Penny should get lost.

2/Lt. Nick Radosevich, 734th Squadron, 453rd Bomb Group.

For the long trip from March Field near Riverside, Calif., to Old Buckenham, Radosevich fashioned a bed for Penny between the pilot and co-pilot seats. He made a harness and small parachute to fit the dog in case of emergency.

B-24 pilots named their planes. Radosevich chose his before leaving California.

Lucky Penny.

Nick Radosevich, one of four sons to a steel worker, had never been aboard an airplane when he volunteered for the Army in 1940. He and another young man were the first to join from their hometown of Amherst, Ohio.

He stood only 5-feet-7 and weighed 135 pounds, but Nick was a solid, hard-nosed amateur boxer. And his high school education separated him from most of the other men who reported for duty at Fort Hayes in Columbus. He could read and write.

Soon his superiors saw other qualities that led them to send him to California for officers training. He wanted to fly fighter planes, but his leadership skills made him best suited to command a large crew. He would get bomber training at Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho.

Radosevich, now a second lieutenant, walked into headquarters on Day One. His squad commander looked up from his desk.

"I just started laughing,'' Radosevich recalled.

"I get that a lot,'' said 1st Lt. Jimmy Stewart. The famous actor had earned his position as an ace pilot. He would lead Radosevich through combat and many years later become a general in the Air Force Reserves.

• • •

Feb. 13, 1944. Lt. Radosevich gathered his nine crew members and the Lucky Penny soared toward France on its first mission — destroy platforms where the German army launched buzz bombs to London. The brass called this a "milk run,'' meaning it would be easy pickings compared to other targets. Only five hours, minimal opposition.

The Lucky Penny returned to Old Buckenham with 50 bullet holes. "They didn't hit anything important,'' Radosevich said.

Flying across the English Channel and into Germany and France meant enduring "Flak Alley,'' where antiaircraft guns peppered the sky. Often the B-24s flew so deep into enemy territory that fighter escorts had to turn back because they didn't have the same range. The bombers suffered terrible casualties. In three days alone over the Easter weekend 1944, the 734th Squadron lost 21 planes.

The Lucky Penny survived 13 missions before the crew earned a respite in Scotland. During that time, 10 other men took over the bomber. They were shot down and killed.

Radosevich returned to duty with another B-24, the Lucky Penny II. The crew would fly 32 missions, seven more than expected. They remained at Old Buckenham because the Allied invasion kept getting delayed.

Finally, on June 6, thousands of ships and planes headed toward Normandy. The Lucky Penny II pounded Omaha Beach to soften it for the landing. It returned to England for more bombs before heading back to France to drop them on St. Lo, headquarters of the Luftwaffe.

The crew survived several close calls, dodging an exploding B-24 on its wing over Berlin. On one raid over France, flak destroyed two of the plane's four engines, but Radosevich managed to coax it back over the channel to England.

After the final mission, the crew got out of the bomber, greeted by their commander.

"You're going home, boys,'' said Jimmy Stewart. Radosevich would later train a B-29 crew in Great Bend, Kan., assigned to prepare an atomic attack on Japan.

He was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for heroism.

Before leaving England, Radosevich took his cocker spaniel over to a family he had befriended in Attleborough. They had a 4-year-old daughter who loved the dog, "so I knew she would be in good hands.''

Another crew took over the Lucky Penny II. They were shot down, taken prisoner.

After the war, Radosevich left the service and enrolled at Ohio State University. He married (Marilyn) and took a job as a quality control manager for North American Rockwell. They had a daughter, Debra, and Radosevich settled into an ordinary life, much like thousands of other men who had survived extraordinary battles. His mother and father, who had immigrated from Russia and Serbia, celebrated him home, along with his three brothers who had also fought — Mike (Navy), Walter (Marines) and George (Army).

He excelled at bowling and golf, and even played with a pretty fair amateur teen golfer from Columbus named Jack Nicklaus.

Nick and Marilyn eventually retired to Englewood, Fla.

Then one day about three years ago, they got a call from a woman in England. Jane Lane had been a 4-year-old in Attleborough in 1944 when a bomber pilot gave her family a black cocker spaniel named Penny.

Now, more than 60 years later, she had examined the collar that her mother kept as a souvenir. She noticed for the first time that the metal cylinder attached to the collar was actually two parts, screwed together. She opened the cylinder and out fell a piece of paper with Lt. Nick Radosevich's name and squadron. She tracked him to Florida.

"We were so excited when Jane said she was coming to visit,'' said Marilyn. But Jane died before she could make it.

Jane's cousin delivered the cylinder to Nick and Marilyn, and they donated it to the historical library at Old Buckenham.

• • •

Friday afternoon at his new home in Summertree near Hudson, Nick Radosevich, 92, slipped into his old flight jacket, which still fits. Marilyn's sister, had paid $425 for a ticket so he could fly on the last remaining operable B-24. The nonprofit Collings Foundation, which renovated the plane, would be offering tours and rides at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport.

Word got around quickly that the old man with the wooden cane had flown during the war. Nick told his story to TV reporters and then climbed aboard Witchcraft. In tight quarters, he managed to pull himself past the 50-caliber waist guns and up some steps toward the cockpit. It is restricted to most visitors, but not this man.

Chris Bahan, 33, who helps fly Witchcraft around the country, helped Nick into the pilot's seat. Outside on the tarmac, Marilyn beamed as she watched her husband reaquaint himself with an old friend. He hadn't been in a cockpit in some 65 years. He sat there for a half-hour, explaining all the gadgets, recalling some battles.

"This is why we do this,'' offered Bahan. "We fly every day, and sometimes we think of this as just a job. But then you see a man like this come aboard, and you know he is the real thing. He went to war. He flew this plane.''

Nick and Marilyn strapped on seat belts and the B-24 roared down the runway, heading west over the Gulf of Mexico. A half-hour later, it returned to the airport.

Nick Radosevich beamed. Others surrounded him, wondering about such things as memories and emotions.

"I forgot how loud it was. That's why I wear these,'' he said with a smile, pointing to his twin hearing aids.

"This was a good plane. We did a lot of damage.''

For 30 minutes, former WWII pilot flies back in time 01/30/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 31, 2010 10:46am]

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