Tony’s Secret War : The Redondo pier’s godfather and his unheralded heroics in WWII
[this article was originally published on January 19, 2011]
by Mark McDermott
The letter was handwritten in a carefully printed script in the dark of night.
Like so many members of his generation, Tony Trutanich was a devoted correspondent to his loved ones. But in a letter written to his newlywed wife, Doris, from a U.S. Army Air Force base in England late on August 18, 1944, Trutanich wrote about a topic he would remain largely silent about for the rest of his life.
He wrote about the war. Trutanich was a 21 year old lieutenant and lead navigator for a squadron of bombers, sometimes leading thousands of men into airborne combat from which many would not return. On this night, he’d just returned from a mission that had gone horribly awry.
“Dear Darling,” Trutanich wrote. “Just got back about two hours ago – it’s dark out and everyone is tired – and sad, very sad, too. Today I led another mission – as usual, we got up very early, and most anxious to get in another mission, which would mean a mission nearer home. But it didn’t work out that way.”
He and the other men of the B-24 dubbed The Hit Parade had just made a high speed “hot landing” in their battered plane. At this point in the war, bomber crew members were assigned no more than 25 missions due to the physical and mental duress of the undertaking. It was not an easily attained number – the life expectancy of the average crew was 14 missions, according to U.S. Army statistics.
Lt. Trutanich and his pilot, Capt. John Blair, were already among the most accomplished flyers in the European Theater of Operations. They had played a key role in the strategic bombing campaign aimed at liberating France. They led bombing runs on key military and industrial targets in Germany and occupied France that required flying straight into the heavy flak of the famously accurate German anti-aircraft artillery fire and into the teeth of the mighty Luftwaffe. On D-Day — June 6, 1944 – they led the invasion of Normandy. Trutanich, Blair, and their crew were the lead plane in the lead squadron and flew not only one, but two missions. Trutanich, as navigator, in a real sense led the air assault.
Trutanich was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in D-Day. “Boy, what a show!” he told his hometown newspaper, the San Pedro News Pilot.. “The biggest thrill of my life.” He had already earned the Air Medal for “coolness, courage, and skill” as a navigator in attacks on Nazi installations prior to D-Day.
But on this day in August, only 10 weeks later, the crew of The Hit Parade was badly shaken. It was a so-called “Pathfinder” mission – missions flown only by the most elite crews of the U.S. Eighth Air Force and the British Royal Air Force – on which, in addition to bombing, they were to find and mark targets with flares for the rest of the bombing force to follow.
“It was a job for the Pathfinders, and it was to be a milk run,” Trutanich wrote. “And so it was, up to the target, where we were told we would meet some 40 105 mm ack ack [artillery] guns. A few seconds beyond our bomb run, the flak came – we were glad to know it was low and out at 9 o’clock – but it didn’t take them long to step it up and kill our course. Moe Wender kept the flak plotted for me, and I gave ol’ skipper headings around the flak bursts – just a little evasive action.”
But all hell was about to break loose.
“Then we got hit, and we were lifted up some 100 ft.,” Trutanich continued. “The plane off our right peeled off and we could see his engines, #2 and #1, burning – he never made it back…In that minute flak was very heavy, and Moe didn’t come out on the interphone as he usually does with ‘Make it good, dago.’ Bombs were away, and our formation peeled off to the right – then I got a taste of religion – my desk was blown from beneath me and my equipment and instruments shot away…”
Trutanich would hear his buddy Wender’s voice for the rest of his life. But he would never see him again.
Take us home, dago
Trutanich abhorred the glorification of war and through much his life all but refused to talk about his experiences in WWII. But the experience nonetheless lingered with him.
“He was just shy about it,” said his wife, Jeannie, whom he married after the war. “He only talked about it later in life.”
“Every time I brought it up with him, his eyes would tear up,” said his son, Tony Jr.. “He’d say, ‘We were just kids. We just did what we were told to do, son.’”
He returned to his home in San Pedro in 1945 and became, like so many members of his family before him, a fisherman. He skippered his own boat and eventually found himself going further and further away in search of fish, sometimes as far as Central and South America. When he’d filled his holds his crew often repeated the words that his bombing crews had used in the skies of Europe. “Take us home, dago,” they’d say, echoing Moe Wender.
Dago was, of course, a derogatory term used for those of Italian ancestry – Trutanich’s parents came from Italy and Yugoslavia. But his men used it with utmost affection. He had earned their deep trust with his uncanny ability to get them home safely.
All Trutanich had ever wanted to do was play baseball. From an early age, however, other responsibilities called him away from the game. His father was injured in a fishing accident when Tony was still a teenager, and he was forced to leave the game – he had had professional aspirations –to work and help care for his family. He was drafted into service in August, 1942, and received his commission as an officer on Christmas Eve, 1943.
Trutanich was good with numbers. A story he later told his son-in-law Bob Savilla – who painstakingly attempted to document Tony’s war experiences – explained how he became a navigator.
“He hated to talk about the war,” Savilla said. “I had to drag it out of him.”
At a screening after he was drafted, he was given a math test. He brought the test, completed, to the officer at the front of the room.
“What are you doing?” the officer asked him.
“I’m done,” Trutanich said.
“That’s impossible,” the officer responded. “This test is designed for you not to be able to finish.”
His ability to calculate quickly would astonish those around him the rest of his life. Savilla also learned how Trutanich earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross – he would earn four of the medals – by impressing a superior who was on one his missions (as the lead plane, Trutanich’s bomber always carried a high-ranking command officer aboard).
The plane was lost in cloud cover near its target.
“Where is the target! Where is the target!” the commander asked.
Trutanich used an old method of celestial navigation – he calculated their bearings by using his thumb and forefinger as an impromptu quadrant of a sort, and successfully located the target.
“Take us home, dago,” said the commander, duly impressed with the skinny, uncommonly cool-headed kid.
Later in life, Trutanich would use his navigation skills to win free bottles of champagne when he and his family were aboard jetliners heading for Hawaii. The airline had a contest – they’d give passengers the estimated speed of the airplane, the miles of the flight, and the headwind, and ask those aboard to guess its exact time of arrival.
“It was uncanny,” Tony Jr. said. “He’d get it right within a minute every time.”
“We won that bottle of champagne every trip,” Jeannie said. “I don’t know how he figured it out. He didn’t start using a calculator or computer until he was probably 70 years old. He just did math in his head. It was something that just came to him.”
A commendation written at the end of WWII by the Army’s Air Executive Officer, Lt. Col. Eugene LaBailly, remarked upon his uncommon abilities.
“Immediately upon reaching this theater, when the best crews were needed for our lead crews (the crews that lead the Group on all its combat missions), Lt. Trutanich was one of the first men chosen as lead navigator,” LaBailly wrote. “In this position, he has led the Group, successfully, on 30 combat missions into Germany and occupied European countries.”
The Army wanted Trutanich to become a pilot. But he instead chose to leave the military behind and return home to become a fisherman. After fishing started taking him too far from his beloved South Bay, Trutanich came to the Redondo Beach pier in 1953 and started a little restaurant called Tony’s on the Pier. He operated Tony’s – the most successful restaurant in local history – for over five decades. Three years before passing away in 2007 from complications related to Alzheimer’s, he gave a long interview to the Easy Reader. When the topic of the war came up, he stayed a reporter’s hand from taking notes.
It didn’t stop his lifelong friend Bobby Mezin, a fellow WWII veteran whom he’d known since grade school in San Pedro, from speaking up.
“He didn’t want to be a hero,” Mezin said. “He was a hero.”
It was a term Trutanich was always uncomfortable with. His memories of D-Day were difficult to bear. He felt that he bore the brunt of responsibility not only for what had gone right – he led 300 planes that day, or 3,000 men – but what had gone wrong.
“You know, he used to break down, because, he said, ‘I remember, it wasn’t just the Nazis we bombed.’ We bombed our own guys by accident because the weather was so bad,’” his son, Tony Jr., recalled. “It’s not really happy history.”
When his son would pester him for war stories, he would staunchly dismiss any characterization of his experience as having anything to do with heroism. But he would do so with characteristic good humor.
“My dad said he wouldn’t want anybody to go through what he went through,” Tony Jr. said. “He always emphasized that they were just kids. He said if he were older and wiser, he would have enlisted in the Army and shot himself in the foot the first day.”
“I got religion”
The front of the plane was largely destroyed. That second round of flak they’d run into had done serious damage. Trutanich’s equipment panel was gone, and the window a foot from his head was blown apart.
“I felt, like buck shot, the glass and splinters hit me, but none was effective, and my flak suit stopped plenty,” he wrote. “My radio operator had a piece of glass in his eye, from my window too.”
Trutanich told Capt. Blair that all his equipment was gone and he’d have to get Moe Wender to help navigate visually. But as he made his way to the nose turret below the cockpit – where Wender should have been – he made two discoveries: the officer from central command, a major, was dead, and Wender was in deep trouble.
Typically, he didn’t write his wife the next part of what happened. He described it to his son-in-law, reluctantly, years later. Moe was hanging out of the front of the plane. His leg had been blown off.
“All I remember was red, red everywhere,” Tony told his son-in-law, “You think about your life, but you see your friend hanging out of the plane, and the wind is 300 mph…All I did was reach out and grab him. He said, ‘Don’t let go, don’t let go.” I used all the strength I could and pulled him back into the plane so the wind wouldn’t sweep him away.”
The bombardier, Lt. Lawrence Underwood – known as “Undy” by the rest of the crew – administered first aid while Trutanich got on the radio and used surrounding planes for navigational aid. The dead major was in the seat next to him.
“The major lay next to me, bent like a hairpin,” he wrote. “It made me kind of sick.”
Their engineer, W.W. Scott, hand-cranked the bomb bay doors shut. “It was a risky job, on a catwalk, with no shute [parachute] and at 22,000 ft.,” Trutanich wrote.
They managed to get the plane back to England, but they had no hydraulics, no breaks, and no flaps. The nearest base had an emergency runway 3.5 miles long for just such instances. The crew couldn’t clear Wender from the nose, so the landing had to somehow be made smooth, or he could be crushed. Everybody that could made their way to the tail of the plane to lighten the load up front and give Wender his best chance at survival. The B-24 landed going 160 mph with parachutes tied to the waist of the plane in order to help slow it.
“Capt. made a lovely landing, and we took half the runway to stop – tail skid was worn out, ball turret, and it began to wear out the very tail,” Trutanich wrote. “That’s how long we dragged to stop it, but it finally stopped, and glad too.”
RAF medics pulled Wender out of the nose of the plane. It took an hour.
“It wasn’t easy to clear him out, and the blood was up, down, everywhere,” Trutanich wrote. “Undy had no tourniquet, so we held Moe’s leg with a grip, his hands…Moe took it swell, too – even joked – he was given a shot of morphine and passed out. We were told he hadn’t a chance of saving his leg. Also, we were told we were lucky more of us weren’t hit – and lucky to be alive – we admitted as such, and will never know why the ship didn’t blow, with bomb bays full of flames.”
Fifty years later, Trutanich told his son-in-law that he had one regret regarding the incident – that he never saw Wender again. He and the crew continued to fly missions – including at the battle at Merseburg in November of that year, considered by many to be the bloodiest air battle in the European theater, with 750 Luftwaffe fighters attacking 1,100 American bombers. Whenever a crew member was lost, the remaining men had little choice but to keep moving forward and think as little as possible about what had happened in order to keep some semblance of sanity.
“Tonight, we got religion, and we don’t talk much of what happened,” he wrote in the conclusion of his letter. “We just look at our right leg, to make sure it’s still there, and give prayers we’re still okay….Honey, if you could see that ship – on its tail – or the guys tonight…Please, don’t tell my folks of it – promise – gotta go now honey – had to tell someone this – that’s how I feel.”
“Today marks a new day for me,” he finished. “I got religion.” B