I believe strongly in guardian angels. I am sure we had one on each wing tip and maybe one on the top gun turret. I never even had to shut down an engine.
There are aging heroes living quietly and anonymously among us, and Glade Jorgensen is one of them. He is old and gray and slow, and nobody would guess his exploits. Nobody would guess that he flew into clouds of flak and dodged enemy fighters while trying to stop the Nazis.
World War II vets are a dying breed, of course. Catch them while you can. Step right up, folks, and meet the citizen-soldiers — carpenters, businessmen, teachers, musicians — who saved the world from evil. This is what draws you to men like Jorgensen.
He had planned to be a musician; fate and war turned him into a pilot. Instead of playing gigs at the Hotel Utah and Lagoon, he found himself dropping bombs on Nazi boats in Europe. He earned not one, but two Silver Stars for valor in battle. You pretty much have to die to get a medal higher than the Silver Star.
He never did return to that music career.
"I feel it was right," he says. "It turned out the way it should have been all along."
He sits on a couch in a house he built with his own hands and decorated with guitars and harps that he built with his own hands. Jorgensen still drives a car and mows and gardens the acre of land on which his house rests. He is 96.
"He's always busy," says Alice, his wife of nearly 70 years. Jorgensen likes to say Alice is the best thing he brought home from the war years. They met while he was training for the Air Corps in California. She was 18, he 25.
Jorgensen is thumbing through one of the many scrapbooks that chronicle nearly a century of living. He narrates his story as he turns the pages.
He grew up in a tiny home just a few blocks from here. They were a family of 11 living in a two-room house and sleeping three or four to a bed. His father was a farmer and a sheepherder, and money was tight. Jorgensen took up music in the fifth grade. His father eventually scraped up enough money to buy him a trombone.
Jorgensen played in and arranged music for several dance bands, playing at venues in Salt Lake City and Provo. He paid his way through BYU with his music and managed to save a whopping $15 for a new suit of clothes to replace the hand-me-downs he was wearing. He wound up giving $8 to help his father and the clothes had to wait. He hoped to make a living with his music — he earned a music degree at BYU — but those dreams ended when he was drafted into the Air Corps in the summer of 1941. He was a company clerk until he volunteered for pilot training and was accepted. He started in a PT-13 biplane and graduated to the B-24 bomber after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
He logged 300 hours of combat duty, assigned to the 343rd Bomb Squadron, 98th Bomb Group. They were based in, at various times, Egypt, Palestine and Libya, where the pilots lived in tents and landed on dirt runways. The squadron's was tasked to bomb tankers that were bringing oil to the infamous Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, aka the Desert Fox.
Jorgensen earned his first Silver Star during an attack on Navarino Bay, Greece, on Oct. 3, 1942 – an event that was chronicled by war correspondent Henry Gorrell in his book, "Soldier of the Press, Covering the Front in Europe and North Africa." Gorrell was a passenger on the plane that day and was awarded the Air Medal for rendering lifesaving aid to a wounded member of Jorgensen's crew while under heavy enemy fire. The squadron was attacked by Nazi fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire.
Four months later, Jorgensen piloted his B-24 on another mission that eventually earned him a second Silver Star. His plane was one of 39 B-24s dispatched to bomb tankers in Naples Harbor, Italy. Only four planes completed the mission and only two returned to base. Because of heavy weather, the other planes were forced to turn back or diverted to alternate targets. According to the Silver Star citation, "Jorgensen courageously flew his aircraft through devastating flak from enemy anti-aircraft artillery fire from the ground and numerous attacks by enemy fighters in the air. His flying skill and professional competence contributed immeasurably to the success of this critical mission."
Back home in Riverside, Calif., Alice saw a photo of Jorgensen in the local newspaper and, without reading the story that accompanied it, ran to tell her father that he had died. "I can't read it," she said. "I just know he's dead." Her father found the paper and read the story. "He's not dead," he said. "He's a hero."
It would be 57 years before Jorgensen received the Silver Star for the Naples mission. "One of the co-pilots met with his congressman about it. I think the military wanted to sweep that mission under the rug because of how unsuccessful it was."
He was the first of the five Jorgensen brothers to go to war. They all came home without a scratch on them.
"I believe strongly in guardian angels," he says. "I am sure we had one on each wing tip and maybe one on the top gun turret. I never even had to shut down an engine."
On his trip from the war back to the states, Jorgensen sent Alice a telegram: "Arrived Miami last night. On my way to a wedding." They married in California. He finished the war by instructing B-24 pilots in the States. After the war ended, he flew jets for TWA for 31 years.
During their years together, Glade and Alice, who raised four daughters, have lived in six houses, three he built from the ground up. During layovers in his airline travels, he read how-to books to learn the next step of building a house — electrical, heating, masonry, flooring, concrete, roofing.
He never returned to music and rarely played an instrument after the war, but he did perhaps the next best thing. About 50 years ago he saw an ad in Popular Mechanics magazine for a book about building guitars. He sent for the book and began making the instruments. He has built 22 guitars, plus 19 folk harps, a ukulele and a banjo. He has made an instrument for all of his children and grandchildren. If he couldn't play music, he would make the instruments that produced the music.
"He's always making something," says Alice.
Jorgensen is working on guitar No. 23 now and doting on Alice when he isn't caring for his yard. Looking back, he says, "It's been an interesting life. I've enjoyed all of it. I'm glad I had the chance to serve my country and fly combat missions. It was a long time ago."