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Chester County Press

World War II flight engineer: 'I am no hero'

07/05/2016 01:14PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

In the Oxford home he shares with his son, Bill Fili speaks about his experiences as a flight engineer in World War II with the clarity of a lecturer. His storytelling is lacquered with perfect pitch and pauses, in a voice that does not want willingly accept that it is now 92 years old.
He has told his story often, at air shows, at libraries and schools, and in three books dedicated to his experiences as a war veteran and a prisoner of war in Romania in 1944. That he is still here to tell it is a gift of oral history that is now in its very last vestiges. The Greatest Generation is now a vastly dwindling one; of the 16.1 million World War II veterans, fewer than 1.5 million are still alive, and they are dying at a rate of more than 600 a day.
Therefore, every one of his sentences clings and sticks with a particular kind of fervency. As Fili spins the tale of what happened to him nearly eight decades ago – as he brushes off history and resurrects facts – something magical happens, in the form of an unseen but undeniable presence that permeates the still air of a story well told. Slowly, word by word, the white-haired man sitting before the visitor is no longer there. He has been replaced by the 18-year-old Bill Fili from Philadelphia, and the kid from Fishtown takes over from where the old man left off, into a black-and-white film reel of his life.
William J. Fili was born on Dec. 17, 1923, to family of seven siblings, whose father owned a business that installed heating systems. He was also an alcoholic, and proceeded to drink his business into oblivion, denying his eight children many of the basic necessities needed to survive the Great Depression. Dinner was frequently a sliced tomato sandwich and a glass of ice water, with ice coming from what the children stole off of a passing ice wagon. A good day was finding a piece of cardboard that could fit into his shoes and prevent his feet from getting wet.
“It all began to hit me when my first year in high school, because that's when I decided I couldn't take it anymore,” he said. “During recess in my freshman year at Roman Catholic High School, I would go off into a corner and keep to myself, because I didn't have anything to take for lunch.”
On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Fili awoke to find everyone in the family gathered around the radio. His brother turned to him and said, “The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!” he said. A few days later, Fili walked down to his local recruiting station and enlisted in the United States Military. His apprenticeship to be a steam-fitter would have to wait. He was 17 years old.
In the Spring of 1943, the recruiting station contacted him, telling Fili that they wanted him to become an airplane pilot.
“I barely knew what an airplane looked like, but I saw a movie called 'Air Force' with John Garfield once, and he was a mechanic on a B-17, and I told them that I want to do what John Garfield did in that movie,” he said. “Train me to be a mechanic.”
On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1943, he was told to report to Independence Hall, where he was sworn in as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps. He turned to his mother and other members of his family who had accompanied them, said good-bye, and boarded a bus to Fort Mead, Md., where he would train to be a top turret gunner and engineer
Eventually, he arrived in Tunisia, and then to southern Italy, as a member of the 15 AF 450th Bomb Group. There, he participated in more than 34 missions aboard a B-24 Liberator plane, intended to bombing Nazi petroleum centers throughout Germany and Romania. World War II historians have pointed to the air battles over Nazi occupied Europe as one of the most effective strategies of dismantling Hitler's artillery, but it was one that was met with tremendous retaliation by Nazi fighter planes. From his gunner turret, Fili and his colleagues fought the war of the skies, from a distance of nearly four miles off the ground.
The last ten missions were on a plane named “Destiny Deb.” On Aug. 24, 1944, his third mission over the Ploesti oil refineries in Romania, Fili boarded the lead plane of the mission, just to the right of the general's wing. Behind Destiny Deb, there were 300 other bomber planes prepared for the same mission.
“Up there in the sky, it's as smooth as can be,” Fili said. “You're gliding on ice, and we used to fly in a very tight formation. A rear gunner said he could see small white specks out on the horizon behind us. Suddenly, I saw the specks in front of us. It looked like the entire German Air Force, and they directly at us, at eye level. I could see and feel the bullets fly right past me, and I did everything but freeze on my guns. I knew that some of my bullets went into them, but they kept right on coming.”
Six tons of bombs then dropped from Destiny Deb onto their intended target.
Fili looked up. Gas began to pour out of the plane like a waterfall. A piece of a wing had fallen. The Number Two engine was severely damaged. Destiny Deb was heading rapidly to the ground. A shell hit Fili's turret and knocked him out. When he came to, he saw that the plane's navigator was repeatedly slapping him in the face, to make sure that he was conscious. He then pulled Fili out of the turret, and slapped a parachute on him.
“We've gotta bail out,” the navigator told Fili. Eventually, Fili was over the skies of Romania, cascading down. He turned to face the skies above one last time, and saw Destiny Deb going down in flames in the distance.
“I landed on the side of a hill in an orchard,” he said. “I was a bloody mess from the shell that hit my turret. We were told that if we ever landed in Romania, to tell them that you're an American. If they think you're a Russian, they will kill you.”
In the field, he was approached by a Romania woman, who walked past Fili and began to pound on a man's chest who stood behind Fili. He turned around and saw that the man was holding an axe, about to plant it in Fili's skull. After the woman convinced the man to retreat, she began to clean the blood from Fili's face.
Romanian soldiers then began to capture the American troops one by one in the field, and took them to a village jail. There, Fili was reunited with the man who had attempted to kill him. Through an interpreter, the man said that a week before, there was a fierce air battle over the village. From the skies, shrapnel and parts of planes had fallen all over the village. Some of it had fallen on his two children, killing them instantly.
“I didn't have the courage to tell him that I was on that mission, one so fierce that I ran out of ammunition,” he said. “I didn't want to tell him, because maybe, I thought, it was my bullets that killed his two children. I later found out that the woman was his wife, and the mother of those children.
“I thought that she had saved my life, and maybe I killed their children...and I have never forgotten that.”
Fili spent the next five months as a prisoner of war in a Romanian camp, one of 1,100 American servicemen. Although they suffered no atrocities, the prisoners were covered with lice, and regularly interrogated by Romanians officers intent on acquiring information about upcoming American missions in Romania. One ordered Fili to fill out a form, which he did, providing only his name, rank and serial number. He ordered Fili again to fill out the form. Fili refused. The officer then held a gun to Fili's head.
“I can't do it, and you know I can't do it!” Fili told the officer. The officer slowly pulled the gun away.
In January 1945, Fili and his fellow POWs were rescued by American pilots who flew B-17s to Bucharest, Romania at the Popesti Airdrome, 400 miles behind the German battle lines, and transported the POWs – without a single casualty –  to Italy.
After the war, Fili remained in the Air Force Reserves, and was recalled during the Korean Conflict as a flight engineer on a Boeing C-97 Stratocruiser. He then founded a manufacturing business and operated it for more than a quarter of a century, before retiring with his wife Lillian, who died last year. Together, they had two children, Bill, Jr., who lives with his father, and Carolyn, who lives in Cochranville.
On May 8, 1845, the Allied Forces of World War II accepted Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender of its armed forces. In 71 years that have followed, the voices of those who served in the United States military remained solemn and quiet. They chose to leave their part in history to the historians, authors and filmmakers to tell it for them and, consequently, generations of families have grown up with only a faint knowledge that the older man at reunions and Thanksgiving Dinner tables served nobly somewhere and some time, thousands of miles away. The story, sadly, was never shared, but rather, stored in the framed collage of medals that were hung almost apologetically, in a back room or tucked in a closet.
For the last several decades, Fili has gone against that mighty grain. He lectures frequently. He regularly writes commentary about the need to honor veterans. A portion on the media room at the New Garden Flying Field's new visitors center houses Fili's flight jacket, various plaques, and a scale model replica of Destiny Deb. He has donated his papers and research about the war to the Kennett Library. A representative from the library recently called Fili and invited him to speak there.
At the end of Fili's lectures, through the narrative of his own experiences, he asks those in attendance if they understand the concepts of freedom.
“The people here in this country do not realize what that war was about,” he said. “I try to tell them that. I tell them that they should appreciate what they have. I tell them that the people in other countries do not have the degree of freedom that we have.”
Fili is reminded of the fact that he was part of a 16 million-person contingent of men and women – grunts, mostly, teenagers from small towns and big cities like him – who, through their selfless dedication and unbridled courage, saved the world from the scourge of dictatorship and sure ruin.
He shakes his head back and forth, then stares at the floor.
“I am no hero,” he said.
There is a black-and-white photograph that was taken of Fili in 1945. In it, he is seconds from boarding the B-17 rescue plane that will soon take him and eleven hundred American soldiers to freedom. He waves toward the camera, and offers a reassuring smile, as if to say, “I am an American. That's enough to know that everything is going to be okay, and that I am free.”
Fili is the author of three books about World War II: “Of Lice and Men” (1973); “Passage to Valhalla” (1991); and “Passage to Valhalla II” (2009).
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].