The difference between death and survival in war can be little more than a nod of the head.
Don Block of Jackson Township, a pilot of a B-26 bomber over Europe during World War II, had leaned forward at the moment a piece of “spent flak” had dropped through his aircraft’s windshield.
“It hit me on my parachute buckle and bounced off into the armor behind my seat,” recalled Block. “If I hadn’t moved, it might have hit me in the head.”
The term “spent flak” referred to the pieces of metal that had lost their momentum and were falling through the sky.
“Flak is a very unassuming thing in the sky. It just shows up as a black puff,” said Block. “It’s really an 88-millimeter shell exploding, spreading shrapnel all over.”
Block recalled the first time he saw the air bursts. He was on his first mission, a 19-year-old flying in the co-pilot’s seat so he could learn the battle skills he would need to fly in the pilot’s seat.
“A plane in the flight ahead of us got hit right in the wing,” he said. “It kind of burst into flames and went down. My first thought — up until this time it had been fun and games — was ‘This is for keeps.’ I was chewing gum at the time and my mouth dried up pretty quickly.”
Still, when the shock of seeing the plane go down wore off, he also was drained of his fear of the flak.
“After that it didn’t bother me. After that it was just an area you had to fly through. You learned real quick to just forget about flak. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t turn around and go home. You see it up there. It’s bursting all around you. But, you think, ‘It’s not going to hit me.’”
Block had graduated from high school in Chicago in June 1942 before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Months of training prepared him to be a pilot and he was sent overseas in May 1944.
“Flying that airplane over was my most pleasurable flight of the war,” said Block. “You’ve got a new airplane and you’re flying over the ocean.”
For the remainder of the war he flew battle missions, and few of them were “milk runs” in which the enemy was absent.
“The B-24 was a medium bomber and I flew tactical missions for troop support,” said Block. “Our main targets were bridges, troop concentrations, railroad marshaling yards and ammo dumps.”
Block earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for action over Germany — for successfully completing a mission to bomb on a German target despite losing power in one of the bomber’s two engines.
Block flew 65 missions before he returned to the United States after the war ended in Europe in 1945. Fear seldom flew with him, he repeated.
“The main feeling was ‘Let’s get the mission over with and get home.’”
REUNITED WITH FAMILY
Block’s parents had moved to Michigan while he was in the service, so that’s where he settled after World War II. That’s also where he met his wife-to-be, Gloria, who at the request of Block’s mother had written to him during the war.
“When I got back, I had to see who was at the end of those letters,” said Block. “It just grew from there.”
In July, the couple will have been married 66 years. They raised four children: son, Jim, and three daughters, Linda, Patty and Amy.
The family moved to Akron when Block, schooled in aeronautical engineering, got a job with what was then Goodyear Aircraft. Block stayed with the company, moving to Jackson Township early in the 1950s, working mostly with Goodyear’s lighter-than-air products — blimps. He retired in 1989, after 41 years of employment.
In recent years, Block joined MAPS Air Museum, serving as a tour guide and participating in other museum activities.
One of the most recently dedicated restored aircraft at MAPS was of personal interest to Block. Its nickname is a “Martin Marauder.”
Block knows it well as a B-26 bomber.