Henry J. “Hank” Rutkowski Sr. is a longtime fixture in Chicago’s Archer Heights neighborhood.
He is well known in St. Bruno Parish and is a proud VFW member at the P.F.C Ted Stempien Post on Chicago’s south side.
But the 89-year-old resident is also known for his past accomplishments. Rutkowski is a decorated World War II veteran and former prisoner of war.
Rutkowski was just 19 at the time, he was a crew member on a B-17 bomber and on Dec. 6, 1944, he and his eight other crew members took off from England on their first and last mission over Germany.
“We made our bomb run, dropped our bombs, made our turn to go back to the airbase and then got hit by anti-aircraft fire flak,” he said.
The flak tore through the right wing, rupturing a fuel tank, causing them to lose speed and altitude. Their flying fortress, “Blanco Diablo,” was going down. The nine men bailed out over Nazi-occupied Holland.
“It was the first time any of us had ever jumped out of a plane,” said Rutkowski.
He was captured as soon as he landed.
“Just saying my prayers coming down,” he said.
Rutkowski would spend the next five months in a German POW camp until the end of the war. Eight members of the nine-man crew would survive that ordeal; only 19-year-old Joe Marlowe was killed jumping from the plane when his parachute did not open. Seventy years later, of all those guys, only Rutkowski is still alive.
“I’ve been very fortunate getting through the war and the rest of my life here,” he said.
Because of his service to country and his south side neighborhood, the city has dedicated a street in his honor.
Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel were on hand to recognize Rutkowski, along with neighbors and relatives.
The honorary street sign hangs along the 4800 block of South Harding Avenue near St. Bruno. The dedication was held on the anniversary of his plane being shot down.
Rutkowski received the Good Conduct Medal, the Air Medal, the European Theatre of War Medal and the POW Medal.
Following the war, Rutkowski worked for 40 years for Schulze & Birch at 1133 W. 35th St., Chicago, and retired in 1993.
Rutkowski said he was overwhelmed. Known for his humility, he said it is a great honor but the real heroes are “the ones that didn’t come back.”