A plane piloted by a young George Levkulich, Jr., screams over enemy territory.
Levkulich never flew a plane before he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 20. Aircraft will eventually become part of his life when he opens his own crop dusting/charter business in Craig.
But, the young first lieutenant in the Eighth Air Force is focused on more immediate matters. He’s a fighter pilot in World War II, and his plane has just been hit.
“The airplane was whistlin,’” Levkulich would say decades later in a conversation with Craig resident Larry Pletcher. “God, it would drive you nuts, (a) real loud whistle.”
Levkulich returned to base unscathed. The prop on his plane, though, wasn’t so intact.
“There was a hole right through the prop,” Levkulich said in the interview with Pletcher. “It was like they drilled it. You could stick your thumb through it.”
Levkulich died in 2006, but his story survives in book form, thanks to Pletcher, 72, of Craig.
Pletcher has gathered the firsthand accounts of more than 20 Craig-area World War II veterans. The project began in the 1990s, when Pletcher got involved with a joint effort to record the oral histories of residents in the area.
When other participants discussed focusing on World War II veterans specifically, Pletcher jumped at the chance.
“I thought, ‘I can do that,’” he said. 'That’s something I’d like to do.'"
Most of the veterans Pletcher interviewed enlisted in the service, he said, but added that even if they were drafted, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference to them. They were willing to
“They knew that there was a threat to their way of life and that that their country really needed them, (and) they didn’t hesitate to join,” he said.
Pletcher’s interview with Levkulich, which took place about 10 years ago, traces the latter’s experiences from the time he enlisted in 1942 through his missions as a fighter pilot with the Eighth Air Force, Sixth Fighter Group, which was stationed in England and was tasked with protecting bombers from German fighter planes.
Levkulich’s description of his time in the service is peppered with anecdotes about life as a fighter pilot.
The P47 he flew weighed 17,000 pounds when loaded, Levkulich said in the interview, and was heavily armored, making it more cumbersome than the lighter German fighter planes.
“We had two airplanes that they flew that they took two guns out, and they took all the armor plating out,” he said. “And when they took ‘em up, man, that thing flew. … But when you get loaded down, you barely get up to altitude, and it’s like flying a crowbar.”
He also makes reference to Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, who led the retaliatory bombardment of Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Doolittle, I think it was Doolittle, they said he hit a telephone pole or something down there, and he came back with a big old piece of pole in his wing,” Levkulich said. “I don’t know if it is true or not.
“Probably is, knowing him.”
Firsthand accounts like these are vital to preserving an accurate record of history, Pletcher said. But, as he’s found from experience, they can be lost in an instant.
“My wife and I had visited my grandparents, and I had a tape recorder in the car and didn’t bring it in to record my grandfather,” he said. “He always had some really interesting stories.
“That was the last time we ever saw him,” he said. “He died shortly after that.”
Since then, members of his family have tried to reconstruct his grandfather’s stories. But this, Pletcher found, is impossible.
“We can never quite put those stories back together,” he said.
It’s understandable then if Pletcher has a sense of urgency about this project.
“There’s not many World War II veterans still alive today,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the work is easy or quick.
Of all the veterans Pletcher has interviewed, the stories of a few of them, including Levkulich, have made it into print. The rest are still works in progress, Pletcher said.
Once all the oral histories are finished, they’ll be sent to Library of Congress, where they can be preserved. The veteran’s family members also get a copy.
Since he works on the oral histories in his spare time, it can take years to complete them.
But, in his eyes, they’re well worth the effort.
“I think (World War II veterans) really need to be recognized for the attitude that they had — that we were going to stand together as a nation and they were going to do the hard part,” he said.
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