Escaping Death, Twice

By: Laura Gibbs
By: Laura Gibbs

Veterans’ Day was formally known as Armistice Day marking the anniversary of the ending of World War I. Veterans’ Day has been observed annually on this date since 1978. But what happened in the past is never forgotten and on this day one veteran is lucky to be alive.

It fits just like it did back in the 1940's and to this day World War II Air Force pilot Bill Retzlaff wishes he had one more mission. Retzlaff says, "I don't have any regrets. I have memories sure a lot of them but no regrets."

During his 17th mission, Bill and his crew were crossing over the border of Yugoslavia and Austria when two in-board engines were struck. Retzlaff stated, "I had to decide what to do, stay or leave the formation. I was already dropping and couldn't keep up with them."

He chose to break away meaning his B-24 heavy bomber was all alone in foreign territory. But not for long as 3 German planes quickly appeared and shots were flying. Retzlaff and his crew jumped out on the plane. He recalls, "Over half the crew became POW’s because they jumped into the arms of the German army. I was fortunate since we landed in a field."

But being fortunate did not mean he was free. He goes on to say, "For a week I traveled by myself and one afternoon I was captured by Gorillas."

Retzlaff was saved by Yugoslavian allies and traveled with them for 2 months. These new friends provided him with the opportunity to fly back to his base in Italy and then eventually back home to the United States. Now 87-year-old Retzlaff is recovering from a different type of battle. Just 7 weeks ago he had a heart valve replaced at the UW Hospital in Madison. His wife Iris is sure glad someone was looking out for his all that time. The two have been married for 58 years and she says everyday his patience and perseverance amaze her. Iris says, "He's himself. He's determined to fix it or to succeed. You can't hold him down for long." Iris hopes her husband will someday write a book so others know how the past lead up to the present.


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