FREMONT - Bob Chudzinski didn't think too much of it at the time, but he and nine crew mates could have died in the skies over New Guinea that day in May, 1945.
Mr. Chudzinski, a tail gunner for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his comrades were flying a B-24 toward Rabaul, New Guinea, with orders to drop a pair of 2,000-pound bombs on the Japanese-held port. Everything went according to plan until the plane's rear bay doors rolled open over the city at 8,000 feet.
One of the bombs dropped out of the plane, but the other failed to come loose from both of the cables holding it inside the craft. Instead, the 2,000-pound warhead dangled, fuse-down, two or three feet out of the aircraft.
The plane couldn't be landed that way, so the crew had two options: Break the bomb loose, or bail out of the craft into the New Guinea jungle.
Grabbing a crank used to manually lower the plane's landing gear in case of a hydraulic failure, Mr. Chudzinski edged onto a narrow catwalk. Balancing himself against a thin aluminum rail, as the wind whipped his pants against his skin, he used the six-foot metal piece to snap the cable, sending the bomb hurtling harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. Chudzinski, then an 18-year-old sergeant, received no official recognition for his brave, potentially life-saving act - until now. Tonight, in a ceremony at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in downtown Fremont, he will accept the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the top awards given to U.S. military personnel for heroism during aerial combat, from U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Old Fort).
Mr. Chudzinski, 78, said it didn't occur to him to approach his superiors about the award after returning safely from the harrowing mission.
"I never thought anything about it," he said. "It was just a job to do."
But last winter, Mr. Chudzinski and his wife, Mary, were in Florida when they saw an article in the Tampa Tribune about a World War II veteran who had been belatedly honored for popping loose two bombs that got stuck during an air raid.
"I thought, 'Heck, I did the same darn thing,'●" Mr. Chudzinski said.
He contacted John Kelley, veterans service officer for Sandusky County, who applied to the Department of the Air Force for the medal. Mr. Kelley included statements from the five other crewmen on the mission who are still living.
But the Air Force personnel center at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas rejected the application in May, citing a lack of official documentation. Most of Mr. Chudzinski's service records, along with those of millions of other servicemen, had been destroyed on July 12, 1973, by a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
Mr. Kelley filed an appeal with the Department of the Air Force in Washington and asked Mr. Gillmor to help shepherd the application through the bureaucracy.
"We have a lot of members of the military, particularly from the World War II and Korea eras, who earned medals and for one reason or another didn't receive those medals," Mr. Gillmor said.
Finally, last month, Mr. Chudzinski got a letter informing him that his service record would be "corrected" to state that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on June 1, 1945, adding to several other medals he received for his service.
"I opened that envelope from Andrews Air Force Base, and you know what - I hate to admit this - but some tears came out of my eyes," Mr. Chudzinski said. "It gets you deep inside. Inside, you feel so proud, so humble. You're thankful for your family, that they can remember this."
After being honorably discharged from the service in 1946, Mr. Chudzinski went to work at Prairie Market, which his grandfather opened in 1883.
Mr. Chudzinski bought out his father in 1949 and ran the store at Lime Street and Napoleon Road until the early 1990s, when he turned it over to his son, Mike.
Mike Chudzinski said his father periodically told family members the story of how he dislodged the bomb, but they never expected any official recognition.
"He has talked about it, but we thought, 'Well, that's no big deal.' We didn't seriously understand it," he said. "If he hadn't done that, I might not be here."
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