William J. “Bill” Cullerton, the leading air ace from Chicago during World War II, died this week at age 89.
Cullerton volunteered for service and arrived for action in Europe on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Part of the 355th Fighter Group based at Steeple Morden Airfield in England, Cullerton was among the first group of US pilots to fly the P-51 Mustang, among the most iconic aircraft of the war.
During less than a year of combat action, he shot down eight enemy aircraft and destroyed another 21 on the ground.
On Nov. 2, 1944, Cullerton destroyed eight Nazi planes. He would go on to finish the war as the top ace from Chicago, according to the book The Last Dragoon from Steeple Morden, which recounts Cullerton’s last dramatic weeks of action.
On April 8, 1945, with the war in Europe just a month from being over, Cullerton was shot down by ground fire behind German lines.
After hiding for a couple of days, he promptly ran down a hill “right into a whole mess of stormtroopers,” he recalled while telling his story for photographer Dennis Manarchy’s “Vanishing Cultures” project, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“(The troopers) had a short meeting, and the guy came back to me, holding my gun in his hand, and he said to me, ‘For you, the ‘war’ is over’ – and he shot me in the belly,” Cullerton recalled.
Cullerton lay on the ground for two or three days, with the bullet having pierced his liver.
“… I woke up with this [civilian] going through my wallet … he thought I was a German pilot, and he thought he could get some money for me if he turned me in to a German hospital.”
Things improved little at the hospital.
German soldiers “came about every two or three days, and they would take me away from the doctor and the sisters, and they kicked me down the stairs,” he recalled. “And the doctor would come out, they’d say to him, ‘He fell down the stairs.’”
The doctor, however, saved Cullerton’s life: “He leaned over to me, and he whispered into my ear. He said, ‘I’m a Jew,’” Cullerton recounted. “He helped me escape from his own hospital.”
The doctor instructed him to jump out of a particular window because a pile of sheep manure underneath would cushion his fall. He did – and fled, according to the Sun-Times.
But Cullerton’s worries weren’t over yet.
“When the Allies found him hiding under a bridge near the town of Feuchtwangen – out of uniform – they weren’t sure if they had a German soldier or a Yank,” the paper wrote. “His survival hinged on his answer to a question from an American soldier”:
“Who is Ted Williams?’’
When Cullerton correctly identified the Boston Red Sox slugger, the Americans welcomed him.
After the war, Cullerton, like so many men who fought in World War II, wasted little time getting his life in order once he got home. He married his fiancée Elaine Stephen within a few weeks and started a family.
Cullerton’s grandfather, Bill Jamison, had founded a noted company that made fishing lures. Cullerton himself started his own firm, the Cullerton Co., a manufacturers’ representative for fishing and outdoor products.
For 20 years he hosted “The Great Outdoors” show on WGN Radio before retiring in late 1999, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Cullerton was a founding member of the Illinois Conservation Foundation and was elected to the Outdoor Hall of Fame and the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
(Above: The P-51 Mustang of Bill Cullerton after it was shot down over Germany in April 1945. The plane was named “Miss Steve” for Cullerton’s fiancée Elaine Stephen.)