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A Kentucky Airman Cheats Death High Over France: Bill Hack Visits Flak City
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Chester W. “Bill” Hack of Paducah, Kentucky, had survived bloody air combat, the fiery crash of a B-17 bomber into the English Channel, and the deadly first air raid on Schweinfurt, Germany. Hack was back stateside teaching aerial gunnery at Drew Army Airfield in sunny Tampa, Florida, when, he said, “I lost my mind—I volunteered to go back and fly combat missions again.”1 Hack flew four more missions—in addition to his first twenty-five—before the end of World War II, including air-dropping food to Dutch civilians shortly before the war in Europe ended. His service proves that he was a genuine war hero, though like most heroes, he insists he was just doing his duty.

Nazi fighters and antiaircraft fire claimed Hack’s bomber on May 29, 1943. “When we ditched in the English Channel, I was dazed. But when I smelled my hair burning, it gave me the strength to live.”2 He had just turned twenty-two when he went down with his plane, a big four-engine heavy bomber the Army Air Force called a “Flying Fortress.” It was only his third mission. He flew twenty-six more before the war ended, including the bloody Schweinfurt-Regensburg raid of August 17, 1943, in which the enemy destroyed sixty B-17s.3

Hack crashed in the sea aboard B-17F, number 42-29742. The crew had affectionately nicknamed her Barrel House Bessie from Basin Street, a moniker painted on the nose of the plane. “I think there was a song about Barrel House Bessie from Basin Street in New Orleans,” said Hack, who after the war worked for forty-three years with Iron-workers Union Local 782 in Paducah, retiring in 1989 as a business agent. He lives in the house on Bloom Street in which he was born on May 6, 1921.4

Hack grew up during the Great Depression. His parents divorced; when he was fourteen, his mother remarried and moved to Detroit. Like many Kentuckians, she and her new husband sought work at the automobile plants. Hack said that he was supposed to be living with his father, but instead he “roamed the streets” of Paducah and slept on mats at the Broadway Methodist Church, where he enjoyed swimming in the church pool with his buddies. Ultimately, Hack and his cousin, Feltner Travis, decided to go to Detroit to be with Hack’s mother, so they hopped a northbound freight train, stowing away in a boxcar loaded with bananas. “The train stopped in Chicago,” Hack remembered. “Feltner got really sick from eating the bananas.”5

The cousins had enough money between them to buy bus tickets to Detroit, where they arrived none the worse for wear. Hack continued his schooling for a while. But at age sixteen, he quit school to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, created by Congress in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Called FDR’s “Tree Army,” the CCC provided jobs for thousands of unemployed men of military age. They lived in camps like soldiers and planted trees, built and improved state and national parks, and did other natural-resource conservation work.6 “You were supposed to be seventeen to get in, but I had a fake birth certificate,” he said. Hack went to a camp at Sidnaw, on the Michigan Upper Peninsula. “In the CCC you got paid thirty dollars a month. You sent twenty-two dollars home to your parents and kept the rest. I’d use some of the money to buy a sack of tobacco to last me the month.”7

After a while, Hack earned a ten-day furlough to visit his mother. “I started out hitch-hiking and slept in a haystack, but when I got to the ferry, I found out it cost twenty-five cents to ride and I didn’t have the money.” The ferry captain told Hack he could come aboard if he would shovel coal to fire the engine. “I said I would do anything for a ride,” Hack recalled. Back on the mainland, he caught a southbound freight train, climbing atop a boxcar. “I laid down on the...

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