Don Hurst joined the United States Army Air Corps in 1944 at the height of World War II, and his wartime service turned out to be more dramatic than he could have imagined.
Don, who’s now 92 and a resident at The Summit of Uptown, decided to enlist because he had a learning disability that made school a challenge.
Less than six months after arriving in the European theater, Don fought in the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. But the most memorable event of his service came in early 1945, when his B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down over Germany.
It was his 12th air mission, and he was serving as a replacement gunner, filling in for another crew member on a brand-new aircraft that hadn’t been named yet. The mission was a bombing raid of a ball bearing factory in Stuttgart, Germany.
After the plane dropped its bombs, it was surrounded by German fighter planes, which critically wounded the American aircraft. The Americans shot down two of the German planes before the plane crash-landed in a field near a dozen German soldiers and two military vehicles. While the plane was losing power and the pilot searched for a place to land, Don secured his machine gun by tying it to a bomb rack and inflated the life raft to soften the landing.
Once the plane came to a stop, the co-pilot was dead, and the rest of the crew was injured. Using the life raft, Don dragged his injured comrades to safety, one by one, and fought off several German soldiers with his weapon as the plane went up in flames.
The two surviving Germans surrendered and helped Don get the wounded airmen – disguised in German uniforms – to a neutral zone to rendezvous with the American Office of Strategic Services.
Don’s bravery earned him the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross medals. The commendation certificate for the Silver Star was signed by President Harry S. Truman. The certificate cited Don’s “extraordinary bravery” in killing 10 enemy soldiers and saving eight wounded crew members from the wreckage.
In 2007, Don self-published a memoir about his military experiences called “It Was Either Them or Us.”
Don, who was a bodybuilder for many years, also enjoys walking and swimming, but many of his favorite activities have been curtailed this year due to the pandemic.
His daughter often picks him up and takes him for a drive but they rarely get a chance to indulge in one of their favorite activities, dining out at restaurants, because many of them are closed as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.
Several times a week, Don, who still drives his own car, travels the 12 blocks to the cemetery where his wife Lillian is buried. Lillian died five years ago, and he visits her grave as often as he can.
And two years ago, a life-size statue of Don was erected in his hometown of Park Ridge, Ill. The 6-foot bronze statue re-creates Don in aviator cap and goggles, and a belt of ammunition for his Browning machine gun draped over his shoulder.
After the war, Don was discharged from the military, but he enlisted in the Air Force in 1947, serving a total of 11½ years in the armed forces.
He says people often approach him to thank him for his service. He says he is glad to have done his part to help his country during such an important moment in history.
“I’m proud of the fact that I contributed something in the world,” he said.