Native fighter pilot to unveil memorial at Ashford, England
Bernard Sledzik once referred to himself as “a hick from a small coal mining town” — Coal Run.
He was an underweight junior at Indiana High School when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
But he became a combat fighter pilot, shot down enemy planes and helped win a war, all before he was old enough to drink.
Sledzik this weekend is back where he lived some of his glory days, at Ashford, England.
Seventy years ago, Sledzik was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot assigned to the U.S. Ninth Air Force, 406th Fighter Group, 514th Fighter Squadron. He and his squadron mates flew from the grass fields of a farm near Ashford.
“That farm has been sold and is being developed into a new town,” Sledzik said this week from his retirement community home near Timonium, Md. “And that town is laying out the streets and they’re naming each of the streets after a fighter pilot who had been killed during the war. And that includes Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force and our fighter group from the United States.”
Ashford officials nine months ago invited Sledzik to attend and participate in two days of dedication and memorial ceremonies.
“I am the only fighter pilot who actually flew from that base who is able to attend,” said Sledzik, now 90. As a guest of honor, he will unveil the memorial. His wife, Pauline “Brink,” is traveling with him on their week-long return to England.
Sledzik’s fascination with flying began as a child.
“Every time an airplane came over I’d run outside to look at it,” he said.
Before he enlisted to be an Army aviation cadet, he had only flown once. An aunt took him for a ride from the Indiana Airport in an old Ford Tri-Motor airplane.
During the ride he looked down at Indiana and thought, “This is heaven. That hooked me,” he said.
After Army basic and advanced flight training in Texas, Sledzik sailed to Europe on the Queen Mary and arrived at the grass airfield at Ashford in April 1944. He was one of five pilots from Pennsylvania sent there to be replacements for the 514th even before the squadron flew its first combat mission.
He had many memorable — and harrowing — days in the cockpit.
During a training mission near Shrewsbury to practice combat formation flying, Sledzik and three other Thunderbolt pilots climbed through thick clouds to 24,000 feet. Some instruments failed and the pilots became disoriented and two of the planes crashed. Sledzik and one other pilot were the only survivors.
On another mission his P-47’s engine lost power and as the plane dropped Sledzik made a hasty emergency landing at an airfield. He avoided a truck parked on the landing strip but the Thunderbolt flipped upside down.
“And they dragged me out. Not a scratch,” he said.
He was also a witness to and participant in some of the war’s biggest battles.
His squadron flew cover for the allies’ D-Day invasion of France.
“As we flew over the English Channel I looked down at the most amazing sight the world had ever seen,” Sledzik wrote in his war-time memoirs. “There were thousands of ships of all sizes and shapes heading for Normandy. My first thought was that I had a ringside seat … I also thought that if my engine failed and I had to bail out of the plane, the chances were better than 50-50 that I would land on a ship.”
In the days after the invasion, Sledzik and other Thunderbolt pilots dive-bombed and strafed German troops and equipment. During one bombing run on a marshaling yard, Sledzik flew low over the target as the bombs from another Thunderbolt exploded. He returned to his base with 87 bomb fragment holes in his plane.
Some of the ground attack missions started with takeoff at dusk, and it was dark when they arrived at their targets. They had to fly through tracers from 20 mm and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns.
“The fireworks were really scary. I mean really scary,” he said.
Sledzik flew 67 missions over Germany and shot down two enemy fighters.
A news release from the U.S. War Department published in the Feb. 26, 1945, Indiana Evening Gazette, described one his aerial victories on Dec. 23 while his squadron was attacking German convoys in support of the besieged 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge. The Thunderbolts were jumped by a dozen German Me-109 fighters.
“I maneuvered my plane onto the tail of one of them, fired, and saw strikes on him which caused a fire, but the fire went out in a few seconds and the plane was smoking badly,” Sledzik was quoted in the wartime Gazette story. “I gave him another burst and the pilot turned the plane over on its back and bailed out.”
Sledzik was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a mission on Sept. 1, 1944, when — despite heavy anti-aircraft fire — he strafed and destroyed a German plane on the ground and then attacked an ammunition and supply train.
“It was a fantastic experience,” he said of his time at Ashford. “There were many experiences that we all had that were life-threatening. For the five of us from Pennsylvania, it was amazing that all five of us came back alive.”
After the war Sledzik returned to his parents’ home in Coal Run and in 1951 earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Institute of Technology. He next worked many years in the aerospace business as a flight test engineer, helping develop aircraft instruments, navigation systems and piloting displays.
Sledzik was offered the opportunity to make some comments during the dedication ceremony at Ashford, and decided to do so.
He said cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy must memorize the poem “High Flight,” written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England in WW II.
Magee was killed when his British Spitfire fighter collided with another plane over England on Dec. 11, 1941. When he died Magee was only 19, the same age Sledzik was when he arrived at Ashford to be a combat pilot.
The poem, Sledzik said, will be an appropriate ending for his comments honoring all the pilots at Ashford who had so much responsibility cast upon them at such a young age.