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Eight Air Force Historical Society - Minnesota Chapter - Ray Prozinski Story

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Elusive Purple 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 Force Reserves.

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.

 

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