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News / Clark County News

Off Beat: Airborne salute begins WWII tale of survival

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter
Published: July 1, 2018, 4:29pm

Don Millar, a B-17 tail gunner during World War II, shared his story about the last flight of the “Screwball Express” in 2015.

Three years ago.

He was the first crewman to parachute from the dying aircraft on April 5, 1945; pilot Joe Hourtal was the last man to make it out of the plane alive.

Hourtal was in bad shape when they found him, dangling from a tree in his parachute harness and missing both legs. The injured pilot wanted Carlos Whitehead, the bombardier, to give his wife a final message: “Tell Mary I love her.”

As Whitehead wrote in his WWII diary, he had another option for Hourtal’s message to Mary: “… he could tell her hisself.”

And, as Millar noted in the last two words of that 2015 Columbian story, “Hourtal did.”

Millar died on May 14, 2017. But the rest of the story was provided by Hourtal’s niece, Judy Wester, after she came across the “Screwball Express” article.

The Massachusetts woman also provided an unexpected opening chapter to the B-17 crew’s journey to the air war over Germany.

Mary was staying with Hourtal’s folks in Jersey City, N.J., during the war.

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“Before flying to Europe, my uncle and his crew dipped their wings over my grandparents’ house as a good-bye gesture,” Wester said.

That airborne salute was in stark contrast to Hourtal’s last flight on the “Screwball Express.”

As Whitehead walked through a marsh to reach his pilot, “Carlos saw two boots in the water with legs in them,” Wester said. “When Joe landed in the trees, his legs hit a branch and snapped off below the knees. Carlos used parachute cord for tourniquets.

“Uncle Joe’s crew did not expect him to live after he lost his legs,” Wester said. “When one of the crew returned home after the war, he called my grandparents to express condolences” for the death of their son.

They asked if he wanted to talk to Joe himself, and put their son on the phone.

“Imagine his surprise,” she said of the crewman.

The caller did eventually visit Hourtal. The man was able to find his way around, Wester said, because he had a pretty good idea where the Hourtals lived.

“The crew member had relied upon his memory of the fly-over years earlier to navigate the streets of Jersey City.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.

Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter