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Joe Balach on top of the B-26 he flew over Europe during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Joe Balach)

As D-Day's 70th anniversary nears, Duluth man recalls flying bombing missions to support invasion

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Joe Balach, age “92 and a half,” signed up for the Aviation Cadet Program in 1942 at age 20. He was taking advantage of a new rule that said would-be pilots didn’t need college degrees, just a high school diploma.

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“I threw up my lunch every day for nine weeks,” he said of his initial training to fly U.S. Army Air Force planes. The lifetime resident of Gary-New Duluth found himself over Europe a little more than a year later, flying the Martin B-26 bomber.

On June 5, 1944, he received his orders to bomb Utah Beach across the English Channel from England — to clear the way for the long-awaited land invasion. D-Day had arrived.

Balach said last week that he had become accustomed to bombing missions, and the historic nature of that day, which has its 70th anniversary on Friday, was but a mere notion in the whole scope of the war to reclaim Europe from Germany.

“It was always the same,” he said of the orders. “The whole picture.”

The import of the invasion is evident in Balach’s war journal, which provides insight on the hours just before and after the invasion began, written after Balach woke up after collapsing in bed following the “longest day.”

The sky was dirty “Invasion Day. Attacked Cherbourg peninsula. Low level,” Balach wrote. “We knew this was it.

“The Allies were going to make their bid. Paratroops were already there. Naval shelling begun and the 344th would open the air attack for the 9th (Army Air Force). We were to be over the target at 6:09 (a.m.), the troops were to land at 6:30. We were hitting guns on the Cherbourg peninsula. It was raining like hell at 3:00 and the sky was dirty with low cloud.”

Zero minute “Then at 4:00 the first box roared down the runway. (Fifty-three) planes followed and it was hell trying to join up with something you couldn’t see. Dawn started breaking. We were over the coast and circled until zero minute. … The channel was full of boats. Haze obscured the target area. It looked like sure death.”

Planes filled the sky “The crew cursed, Jo looked at the sky, trying to wish the clouds up a thousand feet. Jones pulled his flight behind us and we came in. … The Navy was blowing (the) hell out of the beach. We didn’t see anything shot at us. Fighters swarmed in the sky and the boys had to be cautioned against trigger itch over the target. Light stuff started flying through the formation. (Mac’s plane) was hit — three chutes came out and the (plane) blew up. (Another) lost an engine. We turned right and left the coast when fighters jumped us — a devastating pattern of fire converged on them — they left. The flight back across the channel was an eternity. Planes filled the sky. We finally got down. After interrogation, rode back to the hut and passed out on my bunk. Slept straight through to 5:00 supper, came in and packed up Mac’s stuff. Wrote a letter before I went to bed.”

70 years later “You could have walked across the North Sea on the ships,” Balach said of the traffic that day. “It was quite a sight.”

Balach flew a Martin B-26 “Marauder” twin-engine plane. It was adorned with the name of his wife, Shirley Ann. The planes held six or seven men, bombardiers and radio techs.

When the invasion was complete, Balach knew the Allies had gained significant ground.

“We had control. The German air crew didn’t have a chance by then.”

He spoke about the war from his kitchen table last week.

“We opened it up,” he said of clearing the far-west beach used in the Normandy invasion. “We dropped the first bombs that I know of.”

His group hit the beach three times. Balach made one pass and “didn’t waste time” bugging out. Because of the ceiling that day, the group was flying close to the earth, he said.

There were four Balach brothers involved in World War II. Joe flew over infantryman and older brother George during the Battle of the Bulge late in 1944 and into 1945. George visited his brother after that battle at a base just northeast of Paris. It was one of many “small world” meet-ups during the war, Joe said.

Balach remembers “all of northern Europe covered in a fog” that winter, when some of the deadliest combat of the war took place.

By February 1945, Balach got his orders. He was going home. On the day he got the news, the Shirley Ann, now with a new pilot, went down in Germany. Pieces of it were found just a few years ago. Joe recalls that he was home by April and received the news of President Roosevelt’s death in Duluth. He later tested out planes in California and one time delivered one to the war zone in the Pacific.

Steve Balach, 90, was in the Navy and joined Joe at the kitchen table last week. He was in the Mediterranean Sea and recalls getting orders to “get the hell out of there” during D-Day. Steve and his shipmates knew nothing of what was going on until a few days later, he said. He later served in the Pacific and was part of the plans to invade Japan before the atomic bombs were dropped and the war in the Pacific ended.

Steve enlisted when he was 16, fudging on his age, Joe said. He joined the Naval Reserves and was one of a pioneer group of Duluthians to train on the USS Paducah in 1940. Steve will be part of that group’s 74th reunion June 19.

There was also Milan, a Navy gunner. Youngest brother Bob served in Korea. George was seriously wounded but each brother survived war. Milan and George have since died.

Joe Balach recalls August 1945 and being told to come back from a test flight because the news had just broken that the Japanese had surrendered.

“I red-lined it,” he said with a smile. “Four-hundred and 53 miles per hour.”

He would only fly a few times after that, the last in 1981. Balach worked as a dentist when he was home for good. He and Steve have been active in veterans groups over the years, and Joe said he’s never shy about telling his war stories. But don’t thank him. World War II was an effort by everyone, home and abroad, he said.

“Thanks? Hell. Our whole generation was tied up in this,” he said.

Would he fly again?

“Like riding a bicycle,” he said. “Now? The right plane, yeah. I’m still alive.”

And how does the 70th anniversary of D-Day strike him?

“I might crack a bottle of Champagne,” he said. “We had a lot of it over there.”

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