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Al Ftacek: Decorated WWII hero takes off on his last flying mission
Decorated World War II hero Al Ftacek and wife Penny are pictured at their home in Manteca with a shadow-box frame that contains his war uniform, his Distinguished Flying Cross medals, and other war mementoes. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

On the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., is a photograph of Albert E. “Abe” Ftacek of Manteca. Beneath the title, “Activity During WWII,” is an 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 Ftacek just turned 19 when he flew 33 bombing missions over enemy lines in Germany and France during World War II. The missions – 31 of them to Germany – were conducted during a six-month period starting in May of 1944.

On Friday, shortly after nine o’clock in the morning, this brave American hero took off for his final flight, this time to a destination beyond mere mortals’ home, slipping the surly bonds of earth and dancing the skies on laughter-silvered wings (to borrow some of the words from the sonnet, “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a Second World War American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force who was killed on Dec. 11, 1941 during a training flight from an airfield at the age of 19).

I learned about Al’s passing at the age of 90 in an email posted by his oldest son, Steve, who lives in Ontario in Southern California, via the family’s newsletter, The Bird’s Eye, that he founded and continues to edit. I’m not a member of the family, but they have generously included me in the “subscription” list since Penny, Al’s devoted wife of 66 years – they would have been married 67 years on Nov. 25 – started giving me hard copies of the newsletter years ago. The Bird’s Eye is now primarily online.

Through the years, my family and I have been privileged to know Al. When I first met him at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church where he was the sacristan, I didn’t have any inkling that he was a soldier, a decorated war hero, who fought in the European Theater in World War II. Penny said her husband hardly ever talked about his war experiences, even to his family. Later, I learned about some of them when he agreed to be interviewed by me for a Manteca Bulletin story.

Together with a crew of 10, they flew in a B-24 bomber plane into dangerous enemy territories. He was the radio operator, seated right behind the co-pilot.

Their bomber plane was called D-Day Patches. Al said it was so named because “it was all shot up full of holes on D-Day…, looking like Swiss cheese.” During the time it flew on D-Day, it was being flown by a different crew and the plane had a different name, but he could not recall what it was.

His crew went on bombing missions “sometimes every day,” he said, “Our plane was hit a couple of times but not seriously. We had to make an emergency landing at different places in England.”

It was not luck but prayers which made him survive those dangerous missions, recalled Al who came from a deeply religious Catholic family. “I think my parents prayed really hard for me. In fact, for all of us, because all of us (brothers) came back safe and sound after the war.”

Four of Al’s brothers – from a family of 10 children – also fought in World War II overseas. They all signed up to serve; Al was drafted. His oldest brother, John, was in the South Pacific stationed in New Guinea most of the time. Brother Joe was in the Army. Brother Andy who was in the Army Air Corps was a bombardier on a B-21 bomber plane in the Pacific. A younger brother, Jimmy, was in the Navy.

At the Ftaceks’ home in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood that Al and Penny called home since 1962 when they moved to Manteca, is a large shadow-box picture frame. Inside are priceless treasures – Al’s World War II uniform, his medals including Distinguished Flying Cross medals, a black-and-white photograph taken of Al’s bombing crew with the members’ names inscribed below each soldier in Al’s own handwriting (they posed for the photo in front of their D-Day Patches plane) – and a photograph of their bomber plane in flight. Not in the shadow box is a framed color map of Europe, with 33 lines tracking the bombing missions Al took part in from England to Germany and France. Al drew those lines himself.

The Distinguished Flying Cross is a military medal awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

• • •

Al and Penny – a love story for all time

The romance of Al and Penny Ftacek is a World War II story all by itself. It’s one for the books that could be titled, “The Love Story of a World War II hero and Rosie the Riveter.”

If only it could be that simple. This is one instance where reality is far, far better than fiction.

During the war, they were pen pals. They had never seen each other in person. Penny knew of him through her brother, John, the older of her two siblings who also fought in the war overseas. Al and John were good friends. When John was sent overseas, she wrote a letter to Al giving him her brother’s address. Al wrote her back and that was the beginning of their war-time correspondence which, Penny said, was all platonic since Al was already engaged with a girl back home at the time.

Years later, Penny learned that the “bomb bay door gadgets” that she made at the defense plant where she worked as Rosie the Riveter were for the bomber plane that Al flew during his bombing missions. She learned about it only three years ago. She started working at the defense plant called Weatherbees when she was 16 years old to earn money for her family.

The war pen pals finally met when Al went to visit his friend, John, after the war. Penny never forgot that moment.

“I was standing by an ironing board, with a cigarette hanging from my mouth. I don’t know how that could have impressed him,” Penny remembered, laughing through the tears as we talked on the phone just a few hours after her husband breathed his last at Kaiser Hospital in Manteca where he was taken three days ago. He had been in a coma since he was taken by ambulance to the hospital on Tuesday.

Amazingly enough, “he never mentioned anything about the cigarette. I’m thinking, how in the world did he ever get impressed? He probably thought I was a grandma,” Penny said with a small laugh. She was at her brother’s and sister-in-law’s house helping them by doing the ironing because her sister-in-law just had surgery.

For her part, Penny said the first thing that she noticed about Al was his “nice wavy hair.” Immediately, she thought, “Oh, boy, that’s good. My girls would have curly hair if we got married. I really had good thoughts about him, still do; he was a good man.”

And, as it turned out, their girls did have curly hair. They had 10 children all together – five boys and five girls. Al came from a large family as well with 10 children. “I think that’s why he wanted a big family, too,” said Penny who was also enamored by the fact they shared the same birth date – April 15 – with Al older by four years.

They came to California when the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass plant opened in Lathrop in 1962. Al worked there as a foreman. After he retired, he became sacristan at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church where the family worshipped. He was there for many years, and only gave it up when it became physically hard for him to do all of the duties required. My family will always remember him as the kind and patient man who cheerfully trained our younger son, Anthony, to become an altar server. We were just one family among the countless others he helped through the years he served at St. Anthony’s.

Funeral services are set for Tuesday, 10 a.m., at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Manteca.