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Course Adjustment

World War II aviator Phil Podulka lived to tell about his near miss.

Phil Podulka (EB50) has made the most of his second chance.

The Glenview, Ill., resident built a successful career in investment securities. He and his wife, Fran Thomas Podulka (GC57), raised four children and enjoy their 10 grandchildren.

He'll tell you he's had a good life. But after more than 60 years, Podulka still vividly remembers the day he nearly died.

Inducted by the U.S. Army Air Force in March 1943, he and his nine fellow crewmen joined the 34th Bombardment Group in Mendlesham, England, in July 1944, shortly after the Allies' invasion on D-Day.

In his first seven missions the B-17 navigator had seen his share of close calls. On his fifth mission — eight days after his 21st birthday — he watched shrapnel shred the maps of Germany on the floor beside him.

On Oct. 6, 1944, Podulka and his crew embarked on their eighth mission, to bomb Berlin. During the flight, two of the bomber's four engines were hit by antiaircraft fire over Germany, near Hamburg.

The most direct course back to England would have required them to fly due west, parallel to the coast of Germany and Holland, which was occupied by the Germans. The bomber would have been easy prey for two or three German fighters. So the crew decided to fly directly north, then northwest and then west in an arc toward Great Yarmouth, England.

"It was guesswork, a lot of guesswork," Podulka says. "I think we probably made 15 or 20 course changes. The winds were very strong. It was a nasty day. If you bailed out, you'd last three, four, five minutes in the cold waters of the North Sea."

After a stressful 2½-hour flight, the bomber crossed the English coastline at a low altitude. Then one of the smoking engines exploded into fire. In a few harrowing seconds, the crew bailed out as the plane went down. When Podulka exited the plane, his parachute did not immediately open.

"Everything seemed to happen in a matter of seconds," he says. "I can remember swinging wildly," as the parachute opened, "and I was probably this way," indicating his body parallel to the ground. "And I happened by luck to catch sight of the plane on fire, and then I smashed into the ground, breaking my right arm."

The strong winds continued pulling his chute, dragging Podulka for a couple hundred yards. He finally came to a stop when he grabbed some bushes with his good left arm.

"When the ambulance arrived," Podulka says, "I didn't want to take that shot of morphine. As a kid I saw a lot of these Chinese movies with these guys in opium dens. I have to admit that was going through my mind, that I was going to be a drug addict. But the medics gave me the morphine, and I passed out."

The entire crew survived. A British pilot later reported that the B-17 had exploded before impact.

Podulka had broken his right humerus, an upper arm bone, near the shoulder. The bone severed three main nerves, leaving his right arm paralyzed. After more than 2½ years of hospitalization, including surgery and rehabilitation, he regained almost all function.

Discharged in May 1947 with a Purple Heart and an Air Medal, Podulka returned home to Chicago and came to Northwestern to inquire about admission. It took him three trips to Evanston, but eventually he convinced School of Commerce dean Homer Vanderblue to admit him.

Podulka started classes that fall and spent as much as an hour and a half commuting each way by streetcar and el from his parents' home on the Near West Side of Chicago. "It was not much fun," he says.

One day Podulka spotted an article in the Daily Northwestern about the creation of a group called Men off Campus. He went to the MOC meeting and spoke up in favor of forming an intramural football team. By the end of the meeting he had become the group's first president.

MOC tripled in size under Podulka's leadership. Within a few years it became the largest social and service organization at Northwestern.

In 2000 Podulka joined forces with Mel Long (EB50) and Bob Miller (WCAS52, KSM59) to organize an alumni organization of MOCs and WOCs, or Women off Campus. The group has more than 500 members.

"The MOCs turned out better than I could have ever imagined," Podulka says. "My time at Northwestern was great — a lot of hard work, a lot of laughs and, best of all, many good friends. I had a great time."

Sean Hargadon is senior editor of Northwestern magazine.

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Phil Podulka now
Phil Podulka was a navigator on a B-17 during World War II.Photo by Jerry Lai (WCAS04)
Podulka in 1944
Podulka returned to Chicago for Christmas in December 1944.