In May of 1944, Al Ftacek, a soldier from the town of Ottawa in Illinois, was sent to England to be part of a six-month bombing mission to Germany.
In Cleaveland, Ohio, young Penny Strazinsky was helping the war effort as Rosie the Riveter.
They did not know each other then. Romance was not even a twinkle in their eyes. At least, for each other. Al was, at that time, engaged to a drum majorette. Penny was just 16 years old and completely commitment-free.
But fate conspired to get the soldier and his Rosie the Riveter together after the war.
Neither did not even know at the time that the “bomber bay door gadgets” Penny was assembling at the defense plant where she worked were for the bomber planes that Al and his crew flew to Germany in a total of 35 missions during World War II. Penny learned about it only three years ago.
Her contribution to the war effort was not limited to working at a defense plant called Weatherbees. She also wrote letters that brought cheers and news from home to a lonely soldier overseas. That Army man would later become her husband.
The correspondence was not planned. Penny was simply doing one of her brothers, John, a favor. Al and John were friends. When her brother joined the Army - he was stationed in Texas where he was involved in training other soldiers drive tanks for the war effort - she sent a note to Al giving him her brother’s new mailing address.
After that first missive, Al “continued writing to me,” recalled Penny. All their wartime letters were purely platonic, the couple maintains to this day. Love bloomed between them only after the war, when Al visited Penny’s brother and the two were introduced for the first time in person. It was a love that produced 10 children — two of whom have passed on — in a marriage that marked 65 years this year, and counting.
They were married at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Cleaveland, Ohio. She was 20, he was 24. Oh, they also share the same birthday — on tax day, April 15.
They moved to Manteca in the early 1960s when Libbey-Owens-Ford Company closed in Ohio and opened the glass plant in Lathrop where Al continued to work. It was a move that delighted Penny who had always dreamed of living in the Golden State.
A radioman for B-24 bomber D-Day Patches
Al was radioman for the bomber plane they christened D-Day Patches, so named because it was all shot up full of holes — “like a Swiss cheese,” Al said — on D-Day when it had a different name and a different crew.
In all of the 35 missions of D-Day Patches, the bomber carrying a crew of 10 — Al was seated behind the co-pilot - was hit only a couple of times “but not seriously” prompting emergency landings at different places in England.
On the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., is a photograph of Albert E. “Abe” Ftacek honoring him for his heroism during the war. Beneath the title, “Activity During WWII,” is the inscription that reads: “8th Air Force, 389th bomb group, 565th Bomb Squad, B-24 Radio Operator. Flew 33 bombing missions over Germany and France with the Lloyd L. Allen Crew and 2 with another crew. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 4 Oak Leaf Clusters, Good Conduct Medal and European Theater of Operations Medal with four Combat Stars.”
Al’s uniform, his medals, a black-and-white photograph of his bombing crew complete with their corresponding names written in pencil, and a picture of D-Day Patches are all gathered in a shadow-box large frame displayed in the family’s living room. Al has also framed a color map of Europe. On it, he traced each individual bombing mission with a pencil from England to their various destinations in Germany and France.