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Heroes of Flight to be Honored

April 10, 2002
By JOEL ZLOTNIK
The Orange County Register

DANA POINT – There’s a war story connected with each little bronze cross minted with a four- bladed propeller. And behind every tale lies an act of heroism in the sky worthy of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Retired Air Force Capt. Al Ciurczak, 81, hopes the men and women awarded those medals will forever be honored with a monument he proposed for Pines Park.

The Capistrano Beach resident said the monument, which the City Council unanimously approved Tuesday night, will be the first in the nation.

In 1994, Ciurczak established the Distinguished Flying Cross Society, which now has nearly 3,000 members nationwide. They come from all military branches and span the generations from WWII to the Vietnam War to Kosovo.

“It was founded in this house on Camino Capistrano, and it’s perfect because the park is right down the street,” Ciurczak said.

The monument, expected to cost about $3,000, will be funded by the society. A bronze plaque explaining the medal and telling its history will rest upon a 3-foot-tall cement base.

“It’s not too big and it’s not too bold, but it’s something that will always be there,” Ciurczak said.

No records are kept of who has received the award.

Ciurczak estimates as many as 60,000 have received the medal since it was first awarded to Charles Lindbergh for his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

“People received DFCs and put them in bottom drawers and never talked about them and never told their children about it,” he said. “Look in that bottom drawer and talk about what you did and who you did it with.”

Dana Point Mayor Joe Snyder, a former Marine, thinks the monument is a good idea.

“There is never enough to commemorate the sacrifices veterans have made over the 200-plus-year history of the United States,” Snyder said. “These are people that put their lives on the line every day.”

Event Photos

A photographer in WWII, Ciurczak was twice awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary achievement and heroism in aerial flight.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, 1943, Ciurczak was aboard a B-24 on a bombing mission from the Aleutian Islands to Paramushiru in Japan’s northern islands. Every available B-24 and B-25 of the 11th Air Force division – about two dozen – were involved.

After dropping the bombs, Ciurczak’s B-24 was attacked by Japanese fighter planes. Ciurczak watched as the bomber on his right wing, carrying friend and fellow photographer Walter Feuer, was shot down and crashed into the ocean.

Ciurczak’s bomber also was hit hard. A shell blasted through the front windshield striking the co-pilot in the face and the pilot in the arm. Ciurczak pulled the co-pilot out of his seat and used everything he could find to stop the bleeding – including the winter underwear he was wearing.

Another shell hit the cockpit, setting the bomber’s felt lining on fire. Ciurczak said he pulled off the lining and was able to extinguish the fire. The Japanese fighters retreated and the one-armed pilot with help from the engineer was able to return the plane to safety.

Ciurczak’s second cross was awarded to him for the numerous missions he flew in the Aleutian Islands during his yearlong duty from May 1943 to April 1944.

Master Sgt. Nick Colluci, an Air Force recruiter based in Mission Viejo, said it’s courageous actions like Ciurczak’s and those of other medal recipients that he talks about with young people.

“Those kind of honors don’t come easily. There’s a lot of sacrifice,” he said. “It’s about service to the country.”

The Distinguished Flying Cross medal was authorized by Congress July 2, 1926. It’s the highest award given for military flying and ranks just below the Silver Star in military awards.

Charles Lindbergh, a member of the Army Corps Reserve, was the first person to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross medal, in 1927. The cross was first awarded to Navy Commander Richard E. Byrd for his flight over the North Pole in 1926 — but the medal hadn’t been minted yet.

The medal is awarded to military personnel for acts of heroism accomplished while participating in aerial flight. During wartime, members of the armed forces of friendly nations serving with the United States are also eligible. Flight instructors and military student fliers are also eligible for the award.

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart was the first civilian to receive the DFC. It has since been awarded to civilians on a select basis.

Other Notable Recipients:

  • Former President George Bush
  • Jimmy Stewart
  • Clark Gable
  • Chuck Yeager
  • Adm. Jim Stockdale
  • Baseball announcer Jerry Coleman