Lawrence A. 'Larry' Hilte Sr., World War II ball turret gunner aboard bomber

Lawrence A. "Larry" Hilte Sr., a World War II ball turret gunner who flew combat missions in Europe aboard a Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, died Saturday of prostate cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The Towson resident was 91.

The son of Joseph A. Hilte, a baker, and Mary Peacock Hilte, a homemaker, Lawrence Andrew Hilte Sr. was born at home on Chapel Street and raised on Hazelwood Avenue in Hamiiton.

He was graduate of Clifton Park High School and was an 18-year-old working for Miller Metal Products, when he was drafted into the Army Air Forces in November 1943.

"He wanted to be a pilot and was an aviation cadet, but then they said during training they had enough pilots and he could either join the infantry or become a turret gunner," said his wife of 17 years, the former Carmela "CeCe" DiGiorgio Brooks.

Ball turret gunners were small of stature because of the confining nature of the turret. During takeoffs, the turret was recessed inside the 67-foot-long plane; once airborne, the turret was lowered from the belly of the bomber, and it was then that Mr. Hilte climbed inside and took up his position with the two 50-caliber machine guns.

"I got the job because I could fit in the space," Mr. Hilte told the Towson Times in a 2012 interview.

"I was 5 foot 5 and 124 pounds soaking wet. There wasn't room for anything more than me and machine guns. My parachute was up in the plane. I took off my flak jacket and sat on it," he said. "I didn't know enough to be scared. That's just the way it was."

After completing training in Alabama and Florida, Mr. Hilte joined the crew of the B-24 Liberator "Pleasure Bent," which they flew from Mount Home, Idaho, to Italy, where they joined the 15th Army Air Forces 460th Bomb Group.

After landing in Italy, their plane was given to the lead crew because it was the newest B-24, and they were assigned the "Yugo Kid."

His first mission was on Valentine's Day 1945, when Mr. Hilte and a crew of eight departed Spinazzola airfield in Italy on a bombing run to Vienna.

What worried Mr. Hilte were the enemy planes that flew under the B-24 Liberators. "They were so close I could see the crew."

On one mission, "Yugo Kid" was hit by enemy flak from anti-aircraft guns. "You could stick your finger through the holes in the plane," Mr. Hilte recalled in the 2012 article.

During missions, they were often accompanied by the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the only African-American unit in the Army Air Forces. They were known for painting the tails of their fighter planes red, which earned them the nickname "Red Tails."

"We always felt safe when we saw those red tails," Mr. Hilte said in the interview.

He flew his last mission on April 26, 1945, which took the "Yugo Kid" to Mestre, near Venice in northeatern Italy.

Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, and by war's end, he had flown 25 combat missions. He was discharged in December 1945 with the rank of corporal.

He returned to Baltimore, and when he went to a bar for a glass of beer, the bartender refused to serve him because he was only 20 years old.

"This little guy from Baltimore got to see so much of the world and experience so much," he said in the interview. "After I told him where I'd been and what I'd done, I got my beer."

From 1945 to 1981, Mr. Hilte worked as a salesman for National Floors and Ceilings, and in 1981, established L.A. Hilte & Associates, which specialized in the construction of schools and hospitals. He operated the business until 1992.

Seventy years after he had lost his Roman Missal, a Catholic prayer book, after it fell from his plane during a 1945 mission, Mr. Hilte's grandson, Brandon Hilte, was contacted through Facebook by Chris Cornelissen, a Belgian who was trying to locate its owner.

While visiting Bastogne, Belgium, which was one of the major battlegrounds of the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Cornelissen had visited a flea market.

"At a small bookstand in the middle of one of the rooms, a Dutch lady was selling old field manuals, songbooks, pocket Bibles and prayer books," Mr. Cornelissen wrote in an email to Mr. Hilte's grandson.

"After looking through some of them, I picked up a small black prayer book. It was not in perfect condition, but there was something else [that] made me instantly interested," he wrote.

"On the first page I found a name and address for Joseph Frank Hilte. Who was this man? Was he a soldier? Where did he fight? Would he still be alive? No doubt about it, I just had to buy it and start a research," he wrote.

The book had been given to Mr. Hilte's older brother by their mother for his first Communion in 1930, and their mother had written his name and address in it. After his brother returned from duty in the South Pacific, he gave the book to Mr. Hilte before he was deployed to Italy.

Mr. Hilte told the Towson Times in 2015 that it probably fell from his top pocket while he was wrestling waist gunners in the body of the plane to pass the time, and it fell through an opening in the plane's midsection some 30,000 feet over Europe.

When the book arrived at Mr. Hilte's home, he told the Towson Times, "I recognized my mother's handwriting right away. I couldn't believe it."

A longtime Timonium resident who later moved to Towson, Mr. Hilte enjoyed attending air shows that featured World War II aircaft.

He also liked playing golf and poker, reading, gardening and travel.

Mr. Hilte left his body to the Maryland Anatomy Board.

He was a communicant of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 105 Church Lane, Cockeysville, where a memorial Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. May 17.

In addtion to his wife, he is survived by his son, Lawrence A. Hilte Jr. of Cub Hill; a daughter, Deborah Wagner of Stevensville; two stepdaughters, Megan Lindley of Cockeysville and Molly Helmstetter of Abbottstown, Pa.; a brother, Frank Delano Roosevelt Hilte of Middle River; a sister, Rita Sargis of Scottsdale, Ariz.; four other grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His first wife, the former Irma Elane Ensor, died in 1993 after 46 years of marriage.

frasmussen@baltsun.com

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