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William J. Bingham, WWII Vet, firefighter, dies at age 89

William J. Bingham

William J. Bingham

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Updated: October 22, 2013 6:15AM



Growing up the oldest in a family of 16 kids may have helped Bill Bingham develop the calm that saw him through many harrowing moments, including parachuting behind enemy lines in World War II — and taking the first panicked calls to the Fire Department about Chicago’s Our Lady of the Angels Fire, which killed 92 children and three nuns.

He kept the silk parachute that saved his life in the war, and he and his fiancé, Kate, had it made into her wedding gown. They were married 67 years.

Today, his children marvel at his patience and imperturbability.

“He worked two jobs — when did he ever sleep?” asked his son, Dennis Bingham. Yet, he raised seven kids, coached baseball, and started a girls’ softball league in an era when they were encouraged to mostly play with dolls.

“He never punished us if you did something wrong — he would just give you this look of disappointment, and you would just melt — ‘Ok, punish me. Take my allowance.’ Because you would feel so bad,” Dennis Bingham added.

Mr. Bingham, 89, died last month in Florida, where he retired in 1990.

He grew up west of Chicago in Sterling., Ill., where his family had a farm. When he was about 8, they moved to Chicago, and his father started a job as a streetcar operator.

By the time they expanded to 16 kids, newspapers were featuring the Binghams on St. Patrick’s Day as “Chicago’s largest Irish family,” his son said.

Before enlisting in the Army Air Forces, he met Kate McMillin, a girl from his Brighton Park neighborhood. After that, there was no one else, his son said. “There’s my mom, and he said it was like Roger Rabbit, the eyes coming out, B-O-I-N-G!”

In the war, he served as a radio operator and gunner on a B-24 Liberator that bombed supply lines, refineries and chemical plants.

On March 4, 1945, one of the bomber’s engines exploded. The crew parachuted out.

“It was pitch black, and he bails out and he has no idea where the heck he is,” Dennis Bingham said. “ ‘Which direction should I go? If I go here, I could be a POW.’ ’’

The 20-year-old began loping across Italian farms on a broken leg.

“What was real scary was the dogs,” his son said. “He would hear the [farm] dogs. Sometimes they were far; sometimes they were close. He thought they would blow his cover.”

But a kind Italian farmer fed him and helped reunite him with American forces. He used the episode to teach his children. “ ‘The Italians were enemies, but everybody wasn’t bad,’ ” he said.

He shared another teachable moment from the hospital where he recovered.

“He kept refusing morphine, because he would see some of the other crewmen he knew getting addicted,” his son said. “It was sort of like a lesson to [us] kids.”

Back in Chicago, he began a 40-year career with the Chicago Fire Department. In 1955, he helped carry survivors down ladders from the Barton Hotel, a so-called flophouse where a blaze killed at least 20. The flames were so hot, they burned off the front of his helmet, “leaving only the outline,” said Kate Bingham. After that, “The city changed the material used in constructing fire helmets.”

He joined the Fire Communications department, and at 2:42 p.m. on Dec. 1, 1958, the call came in that would change school safety codes across the country. It was described in the book “To Sleep with the Angels.”

“There’s a fire in our building,” a woman shouted. “Send help!” Bingham started dispatching trucks to Our Lady of the Angels School, 909 N. Avers. The phones began ringing off the hooks, the book said. “Bingham answered one call from a woman who ‘sounded like she was describing the Hindenburg disaster.’ ’’

After that blaze, he held at-home fire drills for his kids, encouraging them to throw a chair through a window if they needed to, to get out.

When he wasn’t working, he was coaching baseball and football, said Mike Moyzis, former head baseball coach at St. Rita High School and general manager of operations for Chicago White Sox academies.

“Mr. Bingham was Mr. Baseball on Chicago’s South Side,” said Johnny Dalcamo, his son-in-law. “He was a second father to many.”

The tensions of the late 1960s once encroached on his ballfields, when police evacuated Marquette Park due to rumors of a racial rumble. Ever calm, Mr. Bingham gathered his little ballplayers for an exit. “He then jammed my brother Tim, several other 9-year-olds, and a few bicycles into his station wagon,” Dennis Bingham said.

But on the way home, “He notices a gang of white teenagers chasing a black child,” his son said. “My dad pulls in front of the terrified kid, and says, ‘Hey, looks like you need a ride.’ The kid jumps in. My dad drives away, and my brother remembers angry shouts [from the street toughs]. He brings the kid home and gives him something to drink and calls his dad.”

It was another teachable moment, Dennis Bingham said: “ ‘Hey, just treat everybody the same.’ ”

Everyone called him “Coach,” even at work, where he rose to be a Senior Fire Alarm Operator. He used his referee persona to defuse tension, said Paul Brennan, a retired coordinator of Fire Communications. “If you sent the wrong second engine, or said something goofy as a dispatcher, he’d throw us out, like a baseball umpire: ‘You’re outta here!’ ’’

“This man would never get upset. ‘We have a job to do, just keep focusing and refocusing,’ sometimes for hours,” Brennan said.

“He was the best boss that I ever had,” said John Kilkenny, a retired senior Fire Alarm Operator. Despite the stress of a place that works a little like Air Traffic Control—only with fire trucks—“It was a pleasure to go to work” on Bingham’s watch.

In addition to his wife, Kate, and his sons, Timothy and Dennis, Mr. Bingham is also survived by his daughters, Kathleen Geary and Mary Eileen Dalcamo; his sons, Patrick, William F. and Michael; several brothers and sisters, 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services were held.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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