Heart finally finds a home: Award earned 49 years ago
(Excerpted from a story by Sue Webber, Crystal/Robbinsdale,
New Hope/Golden Valley Sun-Post, June 29, 1994)
"Better late than never" is an expression that's taken on new meaning
for Ray Prozinski. On June 23, 1994, the US Air Force awarded the
68-year-old Golden Valley man a Purple Heart. It was earned on April
17, 1945, for wounds Prozinski received in action when he was a
tail gunner on a B-17 bomber on a mission to Dresden, Germany.
The Purple Heart is given to people who have received wounds in
action against an armed enemy, during wartime.
Prozinski recounts the details of that day 49 years ago, on his
13th mission: "The flak was unusually intense, and the plane was
shot up considerably. A piece of flak went through the side of the
tail, where I had just put on a steel helmet with ear flaps. I hadn't
even brought my arms down when a piece glanced off the side of my
helmet. If I hadn't been wearing that helmet, it surely would have
gone right through my brain."
He describes the "goodly cut" he received this way: "It was the
kind of cut you might get while shaving with a serious hangover.
But it drew blood, and technically I was eligible for the Purple
Heart." The pilot recommended Prozinski for a Purple Heart, but
in the rush to get home after World War II was over, nothing happened.
"I never gave it much thought through the years. But in 1981, I
thought, 'I earned it, and I'm going to pursue it.'" He contacted
an Anoka County veterans' service office where things got rolling,
but then it hit what looked like a dead end. Prozinski took matters
into his own hands, and contacted now-Congressman Jim Ramstad.
"I had the co-pilot's diary and the navigator's diary. I wrote
to the navigator, and he gave me a beautiful statement. He's a retired
bank president in Alabama." But Prozinski's application for the
Purple Heart award was rejected because he didn't have medical records.
"I didn't go on sick call, so there were no medical records. I
just wanted to fly my missions and go home."
He obtained a doctor's statement from a Robbinsdale physician who
testified to the physical evidence of a wound above Prozinski's
right ear. "I sent his statement in and thought nothing more about
it," Prozinski said.
On June 17, the Purple Heart award arrived in the mail, just three
weeks after Prozinski had told his story during an 8th Air Force
Memorial Day symposium at Planes of Fame Museum in Eden Prairie.
Minnesota's 10-year-old wing of the 8th Air Force Historical Society
is one of 40 chapters across the country.
A native of north Minneapolis, Prozinski graduated from Patrick
Henry High School. It wasn't long after high school that he enlisted
in the Army Air Corps. "I was a week past 19 when I flew my first
mission." He flew 14 missions, totaling 110 hours of combat time
over enemy territory. "A tour was 30 missions, so I got in half
of my tour before the war ended."
On the mission in which he was wounded, Prozinski was the youngest
crew member. "The engineer was the oldest at 27. The pilot was 26.
The co-pilot was three months older than I was."
Prozinski believes the engineer saved the co-pilot's life that
day. Flak had cut the co-pilot's oxygen line, and the engineer gave
his oxygen mask to the co-pilot. "The engineer maybe saved all our
lives that day," Prozinski said. "He was recommended for a Distinguished
Flying Cross, but it was turned down. They said he was just doing
his duty, that it would take more than that for an award."
After the war was over, Prozinski spent a winter wagon-jobbing
hand tools in North Dakota. But then a buddy talked him into going
back to school. He joined ROTC at the University of Minnesota, to
earn an additional $27 a month.
When he graduated in 1950, he got a reserve commission and pursued
Air Force pilot training. "I flew the first American jet fighter,
but I wanted the multi-engine plane I cut my teeth on in World War
II, so we parted company." Another two years of service followed--as
a post exchange officer in Korea--and then nine years in the Air
His service days aren't forgotten. Prozinski's home has ample evidence
of his military career. Framed medals and patches, photographs of
his bomber crew and a picture of the airplane they flew are on his
living room wall. Two leather bomber jackets are in the closet.
Prozinski has maintained contact with some of his buddies during
the last 49 years. "I have great camaraderie and closeness with
all the people I was in pilot's training with-Class '52 Charlie."
All but two of his original B-17 bomber crew showed up for a reunion
in Mountain View, Ark. in 1989.