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Brothers in arms: Elgin-area family sent five sons to Air Force

Wesley (left) Harmony Dick Hitzeroth Burlingtare two five brothers who all served U.S. Air Force either WWII or Korea. November

Wesley (left) of Harmony and Dick Hitzeroth of Burlington are two of five brothers who all served in the U.S. Air Force, in either WWII or Korea. November 8, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:34AM

BURLINGTON — Seventy years ago this week, five Iowa brothers named Sullivan died together when their ship, the antiaircraft cruiser Juneau, was sunk in shark-infested waters near the Pacific island of Guadalcanal.

Back in the Fox Valley, a family named Hitzeroth sent five of its sons to fight, too, also all in the same branch of service, in either World War II or the Korean War. One ended up in a Nazi POW camp while one of his brothers flew overhead in a B-17 bomber. But they all came back alive.

“Everybody in America had heard about the Sullivan Brothers,” Dick Hitzeroth, 84, of Burlington said as he and his brother Wesley, 82, who now lives in Harmony, were interviewed Thursday. “We went to see the movie made about them. But we never served together.”

“It would have been nice to see your brother every day during the war,” Wes said. “But it’s not a good idea. If you all get killed, it would be just too heart-breaking for your parents.”

A third brother, Douglas “Mike” Hitzeroth of Geneva, now 87, is still alive but was out of town this week. The two oldest brothers, Frank and Roger, have died.

Dick and Wes said their family had no real military tradition.

“Our grandpa had been pastor of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Plato Township,” Wes said. “But we grew up in Wayne — on the north side of town, the poor side. Our father, Otto Hitzeroth, managed the Morton Sand and Gravel Co. quarry near our house. But he was too young to get into World War I and when we got into World War II, he was too old to be drafted and had five sons.”

In those days of empty countryside, they said, kids from Wayne had the choice of attending either Elgin High School or Wheaton (now Wheaton Central) High School. All except Wes chose Elgin High.

During the world war, virtually every able-bodied man could expect to be drafted unless he beat Selective Service to the punch by enlisting, as the five Sullivans did into the Navy. The first three Hitzeroths all waited to be drafted.

Frank, the oldest Hitzeroth, had graduated from Elgin High and was working as a truck driver when he was drafted into the Army in the 1942. The Army then assigned him to the Army Air Forces, which did not become the independent U.S. Air Force until two years after the war.

Frank was trained to be a radio operator and waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. In August 1943 he arrived in England to serve with the Eighth Air Force, which then was then suffering ruinous casualties in daylight attacks against German-occupied Europe.

Less than a month later, Dick said, Frank was sent on his first and only mission.

“Their target was a ball-bearing factory in France,” Dick said. “An antiaircraft shell knocked out one of the plane’s engines, which caused them to fall behind the other bombers. Then six FW-190 fighters jumped them and shot out two more engines. They just made it to the English Channel and crash-landed in the water.”

“They saw some planes coming from the direction of England, so they shot up a flare. But then they realized the planes were German. After dark, a German boat came and shined a light on them, and a sailor called out, ‘English? American?’”

The men in their life rafts shouted, “American!” That was a wise move, they found out later. The German sailors hated British bomber crews, who indiscriminately bombed civilians in cities during night raids.

“Frank found out the Germans knew more about the Eighth Air Force than they did,” Dick said. “The Germans knew where they had flown out of, who their commanding officer was, who the leaders of each flight were and everything.”

Frank and his crewmates ended up in a POW camp in Austria. They stayed there almost two years, until freed by American troops in the war’s final days.

Back home, the family was told where Frank was being held and were able to send him “CARE packages” of things like baked goods. They received occasional postcards back from Frank.

As they reached draft age, Roger and Mike also were conscripted and also, by sheer chance, were assigned to the Air Forces. Roger trained to become a mechanic fixing P-38 fighter planes. He was sent to the Philippines, on the other side of the planet from that prison camp. But Mike became a tail gunner on a B-17, was assigned to a bomber base in Italy and found himself often flying directly over the camp.

“They used the POW camp as a turning point on their missions into Germany,” Wes said. “Mike said he flew over the camp eight times.”

By now, German resistance to the bombing was weakening. Mike flew 27 missions and earned a Purple Heart for a minor wound, but came home intact.

Dick said the war had barely ended and he was still a 17-year-old senior at Elgin High when, on a whim, he and a friend named Lloyd dropped in at the Air Forces recruiting office and enlisted. He was so young, that required his parents’ permission and he had trouble convincing his mother. But he couldn’t back out of it without being embarrassed in front of his friend.

“A month later, I was in the Air Force but Lloyd had failed the physical!” Dick recalls.

Trained to be a radar technician, Dick’s unit was sent to England to support cargo planes ferrying food and fuel into West Berlin during the 1948 Soviet blockade. Then, a year after he left the Air Force in 1949, the Korean War broke out and he was remobilized, serving a year and a half in Japan and often flying into the Korean war zone aboard transport planes.

Returning to that Japanese air base 30 years later, Dick found the buildings still standing, though their roofs had rotted and caved in. Speaking with a Japanese man working nearby, Dick discovered that during the Korean War, the man had known Sgt. Bill Reque of West Dundee.

Wes, the youngest Hitzeroth, enlisted in March 1951. Working on fighter jets on the ground, he was assigned to a base at what is now O’Hare Airport, defending Chicago against a possible Soviet bomber attack. Then he was deployed to Korea.

After their wars, Frank worked for McGraw-Edison/Toastmaster, moved to Missouri and died of a lung embolism about 15 years ago.

Roger and Mike both worked for the Chicago & Western Illinois Railroad. Roger died of esophageal cancer about 10 years ago. Dick became a plumber and Wes a carpenter.

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