Bernard J. “Bernie” Sledzik, a decorated fighter pilot who flew 67 combat missions over Europe during World War II, died Sunday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital from complications of a fall. The Mercy Ridge resident was 95.
Bernard Joseph Sledzik, was born and raised in Coal Run, Pennsylvania, the son of Polish immigrants, Peter J. Sledzik, a supervisor at R & P Coal Co., and his wife, Mary Salva Sledzik, a homemaker. He was a 17-year-old junior at Indiana High School in Indiana, Pennsylvania, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school,” he wrote in a memoir, “406th Fighter Group, United States Ninth Air Force Europe 1943 to 1945.”
“I had always been fascinated by airplanes flying overhead, building model airplanes, and reading magazines about planes, and I set my goal to complete my high school education and join the Army as an aviation cadet,” he wrote.
Mr. Sledzik’s road to becoming a pilot was a bumpy one. He failed the physical examination in Altoona, Pennsylvania, because he was five pounds underweight. An Army sergeant told him they would hold his application for a week and to come back for another weigh-in.
“During the week, I stuffed myself with everything I could think of including many bananas,” he wrote. “One week later I returned to Altoona, stepped on the scale and it read 125 pounds. The sergeant, God bless him, looked at the scale and said, ‘I’ll be damned, you just made it,’ marked down 128 pounds and I was accepted to become an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps.”
After completing initial testing at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center in Texas, Mr. Sledzik was accepted in 1943 for pilot training at Coleman, Texas, where he climbed into a Fairchild PT-19, a low-wing monoplane with an instructor, “and I was nervous,” he recalled in his memoir.
“I had been in an airplane once in my life, a Ford Tri-Motor, that took my Aunt Catherine and me for a ride around Indiana [Pennsylvania] from the Indiana Airport, now Jimmy Stewart Airport,” he wrote.
During his initial PT-19 flight, Mr. Sledzik admitted to being “a bit woozy and close to chucking up,” but after 9½ hours in the air doing landings, take-offs and modest aerial maneuvers, he was given control of the plane.
After landing, the instructor asked him if he was ready to fly by himself, he replied " ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘She’s all yours, son, good luck!’ ”
“I soloed today. It was May 3, 1943, one day before my 19th birthday,” he wrote.
Mr. Sledzik, who learned to fly Curtiss P-40 Warhawks and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, was sent to the European war zone aboard Cunard Line’s RMS Queen Mary, landing in Greenock, Scotland, in January 1944.
On April 28, 1944, he joined the 514th Fighter Squadron’s 406th Fighter Group, and on May 12 flew his first combat mission over France from a base in Ashford, England, but failed to make contact with the German Luftwaffe.
“I had just turned 20 years old on May 4,” he wrote.
At two o’clock in the morning on June 6, 1944, Mr. Seldzik’s squadron was alerted that they would be flying to offer cover for the historic invasion of Normandy. At 4:30 a.m., the engine of his P-47 roared to life as he prepared to take off and steer his plane toward France in the gathering dawn.
“I was on this first mission of the day. As we flew over the English Channel, I looked down at the most amazing sight the world had ever seen,” he wrote. “There were thousands of ships of all sizes and shapes heading for Normandy. My thought was that i had a ringside seat above the greatest spectacle the world had ever seen. I also thought that if my engine failed and I had to bail out of the plane, the chances were better than 50-50 that I would land on a ship.”
Mr. Sledzik repeated the mission on June 7.
He continued flying combat missions and helped protect the right flank of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army in the liberation of Paris in August 1944, which resulted in plaudits from General Patton, who said: “The superior efficiency and cooperation afforded the Army by the Air Force is the best example of the combined use of air and ground troops I have ever witnessed.”
The Battle of the Bulge commenced on Dec. 17, 1944, as Mr. Sledzik and his fellow aviators learned that the 101st Airborne Division had moved into Bastogne and was surrounded by German troops.
On Dec. 23, Mr. Sledzik was in a flight of six aircraft that went to the relief of the 101st, and while over Bastogne, he shot down an enemy Messerchmitt Bf 109, one of two.
“I maneuvered my plane onto the tail of one them, fired, and saw strikes on him which caused a fire, but the fire was out in a few seconds, and the plane was smoking badly,” he wrote. "I gave him another burst and the pilot turned the plane over on its back and bailed out."
The second Messerchmitt then rode Mr. Sledzik’s tail until a fellow pilot shot it down.
“I saw two tracers hit the Messerchmitt 109 and it exploded in the air. The pilot did not survive,” he wrote.
Walter Cronkite, then a United Press war correspondent, wrote, “Airmen of the 9th Tactical Air Force were credited today with one of their greatest bags of the war in Christmas Day strikes at the German spearhead in Belgium, knocking out more than 1,100 vehicles and 35 planes.”
Mr. Sledzik departed Europe in a convoy and stepped off a train in Pittsburgh on Feb. 12, 1945. He had sent his duffel bags ahead to the Pennsylvania Railroad station in his hometown of Indiana, across the street from a hardware store owned by actor Jimmy Stewart’s father.
When Mr. Sledzik went to the station to retrieve his bags, Mr. Stewart, whose son was flying B-17s in Europe, noticed him, and dashed across the street, insisting that he carry the returning warrior’s luggage in tribute to his wartime service.
Mr. Sledzik was discharged in 1946. His decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals with 12 Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citation with Cluster, European Theater Medal with five battle stars and the Belgium Forreguerre.
In 1951, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical-aeronautical engineering from what is now Carnegie Mellon University. After working in the aircraft industry in Texas and Connecticut, he changed careers and came to Baltimore in 1975 to work for the brokerage firm of Blyth Eastman Dillon as a vice president.
After the firm was sold to Paine Webber, he joined A. G. Edwards & Sons Inc. as a corporate vice president, responsible for opening new offices for the firm.
In 1953, he married Pauline “Brink” Brickmeyer, a former Air Force flight nurse who served with the 495th Medical Group in Wiesbaden, Germany, whom he had met at earlier Carswell Air Force in Texas, while working as a test pilot.
The former Lutherville resident, who moved to Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in 2009, retired in 1997.
He was an avid golfer and a member of the Towson Golf and Country Club. When he was living in Connecticut, he liked building stone walls, family members said.
Mr. Sledzik donated his military records and other memorabilia from his world War II days to the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, which houses the 406th Historical Archive.
A celebration of life service for Mr. Sledzik will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Ruck Towson Funeral home, 1050 York Road. Interment with full military honors will be at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery, 11501 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills.
In additioin to his wife, Mr. Sledzik is survived by three sons, Michael B. Sledzik of White Hall, Paul R. Sledzik of Stafford Springs, Connecticut, and Dave A. Sledzik of Spring Grove, Pennsylvania; two brothers, Herman B. Sledzik and Edward B. Sledzik, both of Indiana, Pennsylvania; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.