The United States is losing almost 2,000 World War II and Korean veterans a day. Along with the, far too many of their stories are lost forever as well.
Less than one percent of the American population serves our country in this capacity, yet everyone in our country benefits from their service. Our veterans have unique experiences that when shared, offer future generations a perspective they will not see or hear anywhere else.
The Alaska Veterans Museum collects the oral histories of our veterans to honor their service and sacrifice, educate future generations, and inspire our community.
This is the story of Lieutenant Colonel Theodore “Ted” Heller, who passed away in April 2017, at age 93 years young.
Ted wanted to fly. He enlisted in August 1942 and was selected as an Aviation Cadet. However, the Army found they had way too many, so Ted guaranteed himself a spot by enlisting as a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortresses.
He took training at Buckley Field (then Lowry Field, CO.) Next came Buckingham Field, Fort Myers, FL for more training and graduation. Then came two weeks leave before going to Salt Lake City for crew build up and on to Alamogordo for B-24 training. Next on to South Carolina then to Mitchell Field in New York to pick up their B-24J to fly to Africa.
They flew the southern route through South America to Ascension Island then on to Africa where he was assigned to the 449th Bombardment Group. After, he went on to Italy for an assignment with the 99th Bombardment Group of The Fifteenth Air Force.
Ted now was crew on B-17s, where he participated in missions to Germany, Austria, France and the Balkans. Ted’s hairiest missions were raids on the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania. They had to fly so low when they came home they found corn stalks stuck in the bomb bays.
The best performing B-17 Ted was in was “Flak Happy” as it just bounced up to altitude (31,000 feet), but his favorite B-17 was “Sweater Girl,” she had 111 missions and 27 bogies to her credit.
Ted was especially proud of hitting a Messerschmitt Bf 109 which caused the German fighter pilot to peel away, allowing seven crew members to parachute out of the stricken bomber he had strafed. Ted went on to become a gunnery officer.
The crews were called in the wee hours of the morning by a man known as “The Skull” due to his bald head and lean, chiseled face. He would honk the Jeep horn and yell “H-Hour.” The crews would get up and go to breakfast and briefings before heading to their bombers for the mission. Most missions lasted 8-10 hours.
Ted’s last mission was to Belgrade Yugoslavia on 3 Sep 1944, his 50th mission. He was 19 years old.
He returned to the United States and the Army again put him through gunnery school, as they again had too many men and couldn’t discharge them fast enough. He was slated to fly a B-24 against Japan, but the war ended before he had to ship out. Ted was finally discharged at Fort Dix, NJ.
Once discharged, Ted immediately joined the Reserves as he had found the military was for him. He was recalled to active duty for the Korean Conflict where he became a navigator.
He did a three-year stint in Germany then was a fighter squadron supply officer in Delaware. His assignments varied: he was an Assistant Base Supply Officer; then assigned to the San Bernadino Air Material Area where he and his Colonel were called into the General’s office, where Ted was told he was to clean up what the general expected was a real mess with improprieties relating to these “mothballed” WW II aircraft in the “Boneyard.”
While walking the grounds and becoming “spun up” on how matters were handled, he found an aircraft he knew from Italy. This was the pink (painted that way for desert camouflage) B-24D Liberator bomber named, “Strawberry Bitch.” In World War II the men painted beautiful ladies on their planes and gave them good names.
Ted was instrumental in getting that B-24D flight ready for her entry into the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base where she is on display. She flew 62 missions and brought 62 crews safely home. Ted was to be on board the day she took that flight, but instead, Ted was reporting into Ladd Field for reassignment.
Lt Col Ted Heller retired in 1969, served the State of Alaska, and served as the Base Retiree Officer for over 30 years. His tradition of service before self continued until his last breath.
Rest in Peace, my friend and mentor.