Back On the B-24

Writer Mitch Utterback helps a fellow veteran almost twice his age reconnect with the past.

WORDS Mitch Utterback
November 2019

Photos courtesy Mitch Utterback

I’m a 58-year-old retired U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few years ago I became close with fellow veteran, John Sekulich. John turns 103 years old this month and fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium during World War II with the 114th Signal Radio Intelligence Company. He and his men strung miles of American communication wire under the noses of the Germans. I call John “Sarge” and visit with him and his wife Charlotte about once a month. We consider ourselves “Army buddies,” despite our wars being separated by 56 years.

Just as WWII drew to a close, John received a telegram stating that his father was very ill, and John should get back to Colorado immediately. Waiting with thousands of other GIs in France for a troopship back to the States wasn’t going to work. Fortunately he’d made friends along his journey to Europe, and was able to use those friendships to hitch a ride on a four-engine B-24 Liberator bomber headed back to New York City. Somewhere over the North Atlantic, John’s luck changed when two of the plane’s engines failed. He readied himself for the worst, but sturdy B-24s could fly on two engines and the crew was able to nurse the plane to a stateside airfield.

Sergeant John Sekulich. / Photo courtesy John Sekulich

When I learned earlier this year that I could get John back on a B-24 through the Wish of a Lifetime foundation, a nonprofit that grants wishes to seniors, I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about it. To my surprise, as well as his wife Charlotte’s, he was eager to hop on board. Given his age, John needs a bit of assistance from time to time, but as we slowly crossed the tarmac at the airfield in Lincoln, Nebraska, and approached Diamond Lil, one of only two B-24s still flying in the world, John was in awe and full of energy. “Look at that thing!” he said smiling. “Look at the size of those tires!”

After a briefing by the crew under the wing, we carefully ascended the steps into the plane. John moved steadily and deliberately, intent on climbing up and through the door by himself. “I’ll make it,” he said. And he did.

Once inside we eased our way through the bomb bay to our seats just below the flight deck. While the crew readied the old girl for flight I watched John and wondered if he was thinking about the war. I decided not to ask. Sometimes you just want to be alone with thoughts of your wartime service.

Sergeant John Sekulich with Utterback.

The mighty bomber roared to full power and the pilot released the brakes. Diamond Lil raced down the runway and John’s face lit up. When we left the ground I gave him a thumbs up and his smile broadened wider than I’d ever seen.

We flew for 30 minutes and watched the Nebraska countryside slip under us from small, open windows. It was hot, too loud to talk and smelled of hydraulic fluid—a reminder she was built for war, not passenger comfort. As we came in for landing, we both watched the airfield surface through the nosewheel well and waited for the tires to chirp. On the tarmac, family and friends waited for us, eager to hear about John’s experience.

“Boy that was really something,” he said. “I’m not as agile as the last time I was in one! They made those things for younger guys to move around in, didn’t they?” And there it was. With that humble statement, John told us he’d been thinking about his long life and his wartime service. Younger guys indeed, John. You and all of them—heroes. Thank you for your service.


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