100 year-old Henrico veteran reflects on missions during WWII: 'The memories are still there'

Posted at 9:16 AM, Apr 05, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-05 09:16:50-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Music has a way of taking us back. The melody of Dan Dorchak’s family heirloom melts away the years.

“I guess I was about 7 years old. My Dad taught me,” says Dan. “It meant a lot to me when I was playing with it. I loved playing with my dad.”

A century old concertina as old as the man playing.

“This was our entertainment. This really was,” says Dan.

But this would not be the only instrument the musician from Henrico would master.

Growing up poor in Pittsburgh during the Depression Dan always kept looking skyward as a form of escape.

“But it was just fascinating to watch an airplane. I just wanted to fly,” says Dan.

With WWII raging the high school graduate joins the new U.S. Army Air Corps. He was 18.

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As part of 425th Bomb Squadron - 308th Bomb Group Dan and his fellow airmen fly to the Pacific Theatre to fight the Japanese.

“The sent me to Kunming, China the headquarters of the Flying Tigers. All my life I wanted to be a Flying Tiger and then I was one,” says Dan.

As a bombardier in a B-24 Dan is charged with hitting targets using top-secret technology.

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“The Norden Bombsight was one of the first computers. I had extended vision,” says Dan.

The instrument proves to be a game changer for American crews.

“There was a lot of pressure,” says Dan. “So it was most crucial that you knew what you were doing.”

Missions require Dan and his crew to fly over the so-called hump of the Himalayas. One of the most inhospitable and dangerous places on earth.

”Unfortunately or fortunately at 21 years old you don’t think anything is going to get you. You’re almost indestructible,” says Dan.

Sheets of enemy anti-aircraft fire devastate the squadron.

“Flak is like a hand grenade going off and you have to go through it,” says Dan. “We flew one mission at night it was like flying through the Fourth of July celebration. Oh it was scary. But we did it.”

Close friends who disappear take their toll on the young airman.

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“We went into a cloud and only two of us came out. We never knew what happened to the other one. They were lost,” says Dan. “Yes. Ten Men. Gone.”

Dan was tasked with sending personal effects and footlockers home to the families of the fallen.

“It was traumatic. I didn’t like it but it was part of my job,” says Dan.

The 20-year-old always flew with a sense of immortality.

“I was never going to be shot down. I knew that. I was never going to be wounded. I felt that way,” says Dan.“I thought I was going to escape it until I got shot.”

On May 16th, 1945, Dan nearly perishes when enemy fire pierces his plane killing the pilot instantly and hitting Dan.

“Ping. Ping. Ping. Man, they peppered our plane with rifles. One of the bullets came into the cockpit and went right through his head and caught me in the neck,” says Dan.

The young navigator spends a week in the hospital.

”When I came too I realized what had happened. He was dead. I said, ‘God if you let me live I’ll be a good Catholic the rest of my life. And I tried. I’ve been lucky,” says Dan.

Two weeks later the 1st Lieutenant is back flying. Dan displays the very bullet doctors remove from his neck along with his flight jacket.

”This is my log book that has every mission I was ever on,” says Dan. ”It takes me back in memory,” 
1st Lt. Dorchack also cherishes his hand-written diary detailing his experiences in the air.

”I knocked out three bridges that day,” says Dan. “I wanted to remember what we went through so I could remember it in years to come and here it is.”

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After reaching the required 35 missions Dan could have chosen to return to the States. Dan refuses. Instead signing up for another tour.

Dan notches 52 missions in total.

“Yeah. That was my calling. I did the whole war bit,” says Dan. “That was a long time ago.”

Following the fighting. Dan studies to become a mortician. The father of one works for Bliley’s Funeral Home in Richmond for fifty years. Major Dorchak also retired from the Air National Guard.

This month marks Dan’s 100th birthday. Music can bring you back. But the man who reached for the sky as a child is always looking ahead.

“Great memories,” says Dan. “I’ve been very lucky.”

He may be grounded these days, but Dan Dorchak is setting his sights on one more mission.

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“I would like to be the oldest WWII veteran living so I got a good shot at that,” Dan says chuckling. “I got to keep going about 12 more years.

For this WWII veteran. Life is always looking up.

“The memories are still there,” says Dan. “I thank the good lord that I survived it.”

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