Shot Down in a Hail of Flak in an A-20 Bomber
And never mentioning it ever again
Hurtling headlong into a vertical hail of razor-sharp shrapnel from the constant drum of enemy ack-ack, the Douglas A-20G light bomber crew wrestles the flight controls as their aircraft bucks wildly on turbulent eruptions of rising hot air at impossibly low altitude.
It’s Oct. 16, 1944 over Bologna, Italy.
Gunner and observer Staff Sgt. Ray Trzeciak tries to steady himself inside the plane so he can identify targets flashing below at more than 200 miles per hour. Blinding fire leaps at them from the ground, then disappears behind them. The plane bucks at irregular intervals from an occasional minor hit. Until one of the rising enemy shells hits an engine.
A-20G. Raymond M. Trzeciak photo
Flash forward 73 years in Dearborn, Michigan.
Mark Trzeciak is a lifelong friend of mine. A family man. Educated, with a master’s degree in education. Two kids and a beautiful wife. He lives in my neighborhood. Teaches at a local school.
Trzeciak is a practical and industrious man. He can fix anything, teach anything. A civic leader in the local Maltese community, he is a great American.
“Hey, I think I have a story for you for Memorial Day,” he told me recently. “My grandfather was on a bomber crew in World War II. Got an award for parachuting out.”
Raymond M. Trzeciak in 1944. Raymond M. Trzeciak photo
I meet Mark at his house. On the dining room table lies a weathered leather satchel. It sat hidden in a corner in an attic behind the Christmas decorations. Dust fell on it when a new roof was put on the house. After Mark’s grandfather Raymond M. Trzeciak died in 1999, the family finally opened the case and examined the contents.
Back in 1944, the first thing you need is altitude. Enough height to bail out. Never turn into a dead engine, it’s fatal.
The fire spreads backward through the engine nacelle as Trzeciak and his crewmates claw altitude. The airspeed unwinds. Only one engine fighting to pull them up, up. They need to get to at least 2,500 feet. If their A-20G stalls, there’s not enough room to recover.
An A-20 from Trzeciak’s unit, with mission markings. Raymond M. Trzeciak photo
Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich, commander of the German 1st Fallschirmjäger-Division, is a battle-hardened elite Luftwaffe paratrooper. He wears the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords for heroism and daring in service of the Third Reich.
Heidrich’s men have tried desperately to hold Bologna against the Allies. Trzeciak has been flying air cover for the Allied advance — dangerous, low-altitude bombing and reconnaissance missions nearly every day.
The maintenance crews can barely keep up. On June 14, 1944, Trzeciak makes an ominous two-word entry into his mission diary. “2:15, two explosions, :50, engine trouble.”
Trzeciak’s log book. Raymond M. Trzeciak photo
The missions continue. A low-level strafing mission targeting trucks. A nighttime bombing raid. A reconnaissance mission to locate German convoys.
But on Oct. 16, 1944, as the tempo of Allied air strikes on Heidrich’s paratroopers escalate, Trzeciak’s plane crashes.
“He never talked about it,” Mark Trzeciak tells me in 2017. “Never said a word.”
Earlier that year in 1944, the elder Trzeciak received the Air Medal for surviving 10 sorties over enemy territory. He went on to receive two Oak Leaf Clusters for his Air Medal. His terse notes reflect his crew’s casual attitude toward their daily relationship with low-altitude aerial combat.
Any one of these missions involves enough risk and sensation to fill a book. But Trzeciak summarizes them on his notepad in terse, one-line entries.
There is no record of the crash. Few records of the parachute escape. Trzeciak is awarded a certificate as a member of the “Caterpillar Club,” a fraternity of airmen whose lives have been saved by a silk parachute. Trzeciak’s parachute was manufactured by the National Automotive Fibers Company, Ltd.
After their parachute escape from their crashing A-20, Trzeciak’s crew receives another aircraft and returns to combat on Nov. 12, 1944, hitting targets outside Milan.
He returns home after the war with a leather satchel filled with papers and photos. He goes to work as an electrician with Local 58, an electrician’s union. He raises six children, one of whom is my friend Mark Trzeciak’s father.
His hearing is very poor, likely from his .50-caliber machine gun echoing in the small gun compartment of his aircraft. Two years before he dies in 1999, he receives two hearing aids. The first time since the war he can hear anything.
Mark Trzeciak, grandson of Raymond M. Trzeciak, holds a photo of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt taken by his grandfather. Photo via the author
Mark takes me into a bedroom to show me a drawing on the wall. But we must be quiet, he says. His son Thomas, only 18 months old, is sleeping.
The drawing depicts a sailboat bobbing in an Italian bay. It’s based on a photo that the elder Trzeciak snapped in a rare peaceful moment during the war. Young Thomas sleeps under it.