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William J. Cullerton, Chicago’s top flying ace of World War II, dies at 89

Mr. William J. Cullertwith his wife Elaine 'Steve' Cullert1990's. | Provided Family photos

Mr. William J. Cullerton with his wife, Elaine "Steve" Cullerton in the 1990's. | Provided Family photos

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Updated: February 16, 2013 6:30AM

Bill Cullerton may have owed his life to baseball.

Mr. Cullerton, Chicago’s top fighter ace during World War II, was downed behind enemy lines and shot by stormtroopers at point-blank range.

When the Allies found him hiding under a bridge near the town of Feuchtwangen — out of uniform — they weren’t sure if they had a German soldier or a Yank.

His survival hinged on his answer to a question from an American soldier.

“Who is Ted Williams?’’

When he correctly identified the “Splendid Splinter” of the Boston Red Sox, the Americans welcomed him.

He collapsed in their arms.

Mr. Cullerton, who built a loyal fan base as the host of WGN radio’s “Great Outdoors” show, died Saturday at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. He was 89.

The Fenwick High School graduate was related to the political dynasty that traces its roots to 1871, when Edward “Foxy” Cullerton served in the City Council. Its members include Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton (D-Chicago), Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th) and P.J. “Parky” Cullerton, assessor under Mayor Richard J. Daley.

But during World War II, Capt. Cullerton was better known as a heavily decorated flyboy whose exploits riveted the city. The newspapers were filled with stories of “Chicago’s leading army ace,” who named his plane “Miss Steve” after his fiance, Elaine Stephen.

The headlines said it all:

“Chicago Pilot Bags Eight Nazi Planes in One Day’s Fights.”

“Cullerton has 18 ‘Kills.’ ’’

“Germans Find Chicago Ace Too Hot to Handle.”

“Capt. Cullerton’s Return Hailed as Near Miracle.”

Mr. Cullerton’s youthful duck-hunting, nurtured by an outdoorsy family, made him an especially skilled pilot, according to his son, Bill.

“When you shoot a duck that’s going at a high rate of speed, you don’t shoot the duck — you shoot ahead of it. It’s called ‘leading the duck,’ ’’ he said. “But in this case, it’s called ‘leading the plane.’ ’’

With 21 kills, he ranked as the third-highest strafing ace in the 8th Air Force, and flew for the 355th fighter group, said John J. Kevil Jr., who wrote a book about Mr. Cullerton, “The Last Dragon of Steeple Morden.” The dragon was the symbol of Mr. Cullerton’s squadron, which flew out of the English town of Steeple Morden.

Kevil said Mr. Cullerton was “the last living member of the Dragon Squadron.”

Mr. Cullerton recapped his story in a YouTube video from photographer Dennis Manarchy’s “Vanishing Cultures” project.

After being shot down behind German lines in April 1945, Mr. Cullerton “ran down the hill right into a whole mess of stormtroopers,” he said in the film.

“They had a short meeting, and the guy came back to me, holding my gun in his hand, and he said to me, ‘For you, the ‘war’ is over’ — and he shot me in the belly,” he recalled.

“They left me there thinking I was going to die, and I woke up with this [civilian] going through my wallet . . . he thought I was a German pilot, and he thought he could get some money for me if he turned me in to a German hospital.”

But at the hospital, German soldiers “came about every two or three days, and they would take me away from the doctor and the sisters, and they kicked me down the stairs. And the doctor would come out, they’d say to him, ‘He fell down the stairs.’ ’’

His doctor became Mr. Cullerton’s savior. “He leaned over to me, and he whispered into my ear. He said, ‘I’m a Jew,’ ’’ Mr. Cullerton said. “He helped me escape from his own hospital.”

The doctor instructed him to jump out of a particular window because a pile of sheep manure underneath would cushion his fall. He did — and fled.

After returning home, he wed Elaine. The city’s newspapers featured stories saying, “Chicago’s Army Ace is Downed by Cupid’s Dart.”

They raised their family in Elmhurst.

Mr. Cullerton’s grandfather, Bill Jamison, founded a company that made fishing lures that today are prized collectibles. He started his own firm, the Cullerton Co., a manufacturers’ representative for fishing and outdoor products.

Mr. Cullerton was a founding member of the Illinois Conservation Foundation and was elected to the Outdoor Hall of Fame and the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, said Brent Manning, former head of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cullerton is survived by his daughters, Pamela Brinkman, Cynthia Giesche and Christine Picchietti; his sons, Bill and Marc; 19 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Adams-Winterfield & Sullivan Funeral Home, 4343 Main St., Downers Grove. His funeral is at 10 a.m. Thursday at Ascension of Our Lord Church, 1 S. 314 Summit Ave., Oakbrook Terrace.

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