World War II vet raises 12th Man flag, recalls 50 air missions over Europe

Nov 17, 2018, 6:41 AM
flying fortress...
The B-17 Flying Fortress. (wikimedia commons)

Army Staff Sgt. Art Unruh of Arlington, WA was just 20 years old when he knowingly traveled directly into danger, the European theatre of war in World War II.

And 76 years later, the Seahawks honored the 96-year-old veteran by inviting him to raise the 12th Man flag at Thursday’s home game against the Green Bay Packers, designated as Salute to Service night.

“If I have to look up [at the flag], I’m going to fall over backward,” he laughed.

Still as sharp and jovial as ever, Unruh joked that he needed WD-40 on his joints to get up the stairs and that his “golden years have turned to aluminum” when speaking with KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson during the Seahawks pregame show. Dori had what he called one of the “most touching interviews of my career.”

RELATED: Local World War II fighter pilot’s heart-racing story of survival

Unruh, who is the author of World War II memoir “The Shadow Casters,” recalled that after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into the war, the young Americans were eager to aid their country and “get into the fight” against the Axis Powers.

“This ugly situation had reared its ugly head over there with Mussolini and Hitler and of course the Japanese, but we went over there, took care of it, and we came home and grew up,” he said. “And for my buddies who did not get to come home and grow up like I did, my flag goes up every day. I will not forget them.”

The young soldier first flew six missions as a tail gunner in a B-17 Flying Fortress, meaning that it was his task to patrol the back end of the plane.

Even more dangerous were the 44 missions that Unruh flew as waist gunner.

“There were more waist gunners who were killed and wounded than anybody on an airplane,” he said, the reason being that waist gunners must stand, making them more of a target.

To this day, Unruh does not know how he made it through 50 missions alive, but noted that he and his compatriots took each day at a time, giving thanks for the gift of life each time they touched back down.

“You’d go out in the morning, you’d say, ‘Uncle Sam, here is my life,’ you’d go up and do your mission, you’d come back and he gives it back to you,” he said. “Next day you go out — ‘here’s my life again.’ And you just would be very fortunate if you don’t get hit.”

The young soldiers were up against a nightmare of a scene, especially against the Nazis’ 88-millimeter Flak gun, which “throws a shell that weighs 22 pounds up to 30,000 feet, and it’s done with radar — 10 to 15 shells every minute that they fire out of each gun.”

“They have 200 guns on the ground, you’re in a curtain of steel up there,” Unruh recalled. “We brought back B-17s that were butchered, there was nothing left, but they got you home.”

It was a sense of love and pride for their country that propelled the men into those fiery skies; on the back of Unruh’s veteran’s hat are the words, “Served with pride.” This selfless passion for one’s homeland is missing among today’s youth, Unruh believes.

“That’s what we need in this country today, we need more pride,” he said. “Back in those days, it was ‘we’ and ‘us,’ and now it’s ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘my’ over here. Things have changed so drastically.”

And with 96 years of wisdom in his belt, Unruh certainly knows of which he speaks. He offers those who are younger four tips for living life to the fullest:

  1. “Stay well — because if you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.”
  2. “Be happy — don’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder all the time, be happy and enjoy your life, enjoy every minute of it because it’s a lot shorter than you think it is.”
  3. “Enjoy your freedom because so many people have paid dearly for the freedom that we have.”
  4. “Take real good care of today because today is all that you’ve got. Yesterday’s gone and it never will be here again. Tomorrow’s not here yet and it might not ever get here. You just take care of today and everything is going to be fine.”

Dori Monson on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM
  • listen to dori monsonTune in to KIRO Radio weekdays at 12 noon for The Dori Monson Show.

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World War II vet raises 12th Man flag, recalls 50 air missions over Europe