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Ace in the fold

As the world focused on Normandy, Fort Wayne celebrated the surprise return of a lost war hero.

By BOB CAYLOR of The News-Sentinel

Walter and Esther Curdes lived the summer of 1943 in a glare of reflected

glory. Their son, Louis E. Curdes, was Fort Wayne's first ace of the war, and his exploits made headlines.

On May 13, 1943, during his first combat mission, he singlehandedly tackled five Messerschmitt 109 fighters over the Bay of Tunis. He shot down three, damaged one and sent the fifth running for home.

"Three Messerschmitts!" his mother told a reporter. "We are awfully proud of him."

A week later, he shot down two more German planes, then later an Italian. Lt. Curdes was an ace, a bona fide newsreel hero with Errol Flynn good looks to match.

Curdes, now 74, lives in a Perry Township subdivision dotted with houses he built after he retired from the Air Force in 1963. He became a developer and builder, like his father and his grandfather, Louis F. Curdes, who built Forest Park Boulevard and developed the Lakeside area.

He laughs now when he thinks about that kid who took to the air in a P-38 Lockheed Lightning fighter.

Army flight instructors and officers "taught you that you were invincible . . . you could win the war all on your own," he says. "We were so stupid and so dumb we believed it."

That summer, Curdes logged 200 hours of combat flying on 44 missions. On August 27, he and 35 other fighter pilots escorted 36 Mitchell bombers on a run against targets in Benevento, Italy, 40 miles inland from Naples. All 72 planes executed the raid unscathed.

Then another flier radioed for help. Curdes found him under attack by five or six German 109s. Curdes engaged the planes in a dogfight and shot down two of them, but his own plane was crippled in the fight, and he crashed. That was the last his parents heard of him. He was missing in action.


In reality, the Italians and Germans knew right where he was - at least for a month. Curdes had crash-landed on the Italian coast and was captured within minutes. He was taken to an old monastery that confined prisoners of war. "I didn't like the food, so I escaped," he jokes now.

As he tells it, it seems hardly more complicated than that. He and half a dozen other prisoners tried to escape a week after his capture, but they were recaptured. Three weeks after that attempt, Curdes and a dozen others escaped for good.

They jimmied the lock in their cell door so that it wouldn't latch and, with the cooperation of one of their captors, made it out.

What proved far more difficult was the eight months he spent moving south to rejoin Allied forces. The escapees gradually split into smaller groups as they worked their way toward battle lines. Moving at night, they slept in caves, animal pens and huts to which Italian partisans directed them. They scrounged what food they could. "We were hungry almost all the time, but we got enough to live on," he says.

Weapons were available from the resistance fighters who helped them, but they never carried more than handguns. Even those they carried reluctantly.

"If they caught you with a weapon, they'd shoot you as a spy," he remembers.


Meanwhile, back in Fort Wayne, Curdes' parents began receiving a few cautious letters of tribute and condolence from his comrades and superior officers. These letters hedged and held out hope, but they described Lou Curdes in the past tense.

"I've never seen him go out on a mission when he wasn't confident of returning, when he wasn't always the happy-go-lucky kid whose skilled hands drove the best fighter plane the Luftwaffe could throw against us. He was always the first to pitch into a fight, always the last to leave," wrote Capt. Robert B. Fisher, the intelligence officer in Curdes' fighter group.

"We had given him up, you know," Curdes' mother told a reporter in 1944. "When we first heard he had been shot down last August, from all . . . we could gather, we had to come to the conclusion that he had fallen into the Mediterranean."

In March 1944, they found their first cause for hope. By talking to an escaped prisoner held at the same monastery with Curdes, Walter Curdes learned his son had been alive as of October.


The sounds of a fierce battle nearby woke Curdes and few of his fellow escapes on the morning of May 27, 1944. They'd spent the night bedded down in a goat pen.

Curdes split from the other escapees and headed for the noise of the battle. En route he met a British officer and some scouts from the 8th Army, and they directed him to safety behind Allied lines.

On June 9, word that he was safe reached his parents.

"I could come home 'presto,' but I've been asked to make a lecture tour for a few days, and I've decided to stay," he wrote them. "If I can be of any help to those that may be in the same shoes in the future . . . it will be worthwhile. I know that you would feel the same." wrote Lt. Curdes, Fort Wayne's first World War II ace.


Curdes announced his return to the United States with a bouquet of roses for his mother with a card that read, "Home Again - Lou" that arrived June 15.

Early the next day, he telephoned them from Chicago. His father asked what his last nine months had been like, and Curdes told him, "I can't talk about that, Dad. Let's just say it was a grand vacation."

When he returned home late June 16, the newspapers seemed to cover the ace's every step. His reunion with the family at the Pennsylvania Railroad station. His first cup of coffee in the family home on Florida Drive. His first welcome-home fishing trip with his father.

Mayor Harry Baals said the city wasn't able to stage a parade for him, but the neighborhood children put together a tiny, comical model of a P-38 with two cheese boxes for engines and an old barrel for the fuselage. They mounted Curdes on the "plane" and pulled him along Florida Drive.


Curdes enjoyed his leave that summer, but he volunteered for combat flying in the South Pacific that fall. There he made a decision that separates him from every other American aviator in World War II. On Feb. 10, 1945, Curdes and three other men flew their P-51 Mustangs over a suspected Japanese airstrip in the Batan Islands, 150 miles southeast of Formosa.

Curdes and his group strafed the airfield and several planes there. But gunners on the ground hit them hard and shot one of the Americans down. As other fighters continued strafing the Japanese ground positions to cover the downed flier, Curdes turned out to sea and saw a familiar aircraft lumbering toward him.

It was an American C-47 transport, heading for a landing at the enemy airfield he'd just shot up. Later he would learn that it was lost, its radio was out and it was nearly out of fuel. Its pilot believed the strip he'd spotted lay in American-held territory.

Curdes flew in front of the C-47 twice to try to make it turn away, but its pilot refused. He knew of only one other way to stop the disaster-bound craft. He dropped behind the C-47, which now was curving toward the island on its final approach. He cut loose with his six .50-caliber machine guns and destroyed one of its two engines.

Then he dropped behind it again, crossed to the other side and destroyed its other engine. The transport crashed into the sea. But Curdes' shooting had been so precise that he hadn't struck the plane's fuselage or harmed the dozen Americans, including two nurses, inside.

Curdes scrawled a note, flew above the rafts at an altitude of 50 feet, and dropped them the message: "For God's sake, keep away from shore. Japs there."

The Americans were rescued by seaplanes the next morning. A few days later, Curdes received his second Distinguished Flying Cross and became the only U.S. flier in the war to be decorated for shooting down another U.S. plane in combat.

Adding an American flag to the rising sun, the Italian crest and the seven swastikas on his plane's nose made him a double ace. As he's fond of pointing out, he's also the only American in WWII credited with downing the aircraft of four countries.

"I don't dwell on it, but it's wonderful to have had a full life," he says.