In Bill Zugelder’s defense, etiquette has yet to devise a subtle way to interrupt a conversation and say, “Yes, I once was catapulted from a plane in midair and woke up in the mud of a farm field bleeding, with broken bones, listening to the grunts of pigs.”
Still, Larry Miller, John Hays, Faith Freeman and others who have sat with Zugelder during the five years he’s volunteered at the front desk of the Heritage Center of Clark County, wonder why they never heard the story until someone else brought it up this month.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Ardath Dellapina, director of education for the Heritage Center. “I didn’t even know he’d been in the service.”
Zugelder himself had seen no reason to bring it up. Of the many memorable moments he had in earning three 1,000-hour pins flying transport planes during 30 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, the collision isn’t one of them. “I don’t even remember the plane hitting,” said Zugelder. “That’s all lost.”
Drafted into the U.S. Army on June 2, 1945, (the day after he’d graduated from Catholic Central High School), Zugelder always thought he’d been taken into the wrong branch of service.
“I loved to fly,” he said.
So in 1955, having started what would become a 42-year career at then-International Harvester Co., Zugelder enlisted his friend Bob Schutte’s help and wrangled his way into the Air Force Reserve.
“I wanted to fly but I had no aircraft experience, so they let me join as an automotive mechanic in the air police squadron,” he said.
As soon as he was accepted, Zugelder put in a request to cross-train as an aircraft mechanic. Over the next year, Schutte visited the various desks on which Zugelder’s transfer had made stops.
But once the request was approved, all went well.
“I was mechanically inclined, so (the work) came to me very easily,” Zugelder said.
He worked his way from being a mechanic to a flight engineer for Air Force transport planes.
The job required him to look after the general health of the so-called “Flying Boxcars,” first C-119s, then later C-123s and C-130s. He ensured the cargo area and flight deck stayed warm during flight, visually checked the landing gears before touchdown, refueled the plane and kept an eye on things so the pilots could do their jobs.
“For the most part, my seat was in the cockpit,” just back from and between the pilot and co-pilot, Zugelder said.
“I loved it all,” he added, including the slightly nonregulation moments when tired pilots invited him to sit in their seats.
“You get a little stick time — not legally, but everybody did it,” Zugelder said.
Zugelder had been flying seven years when his unit at then-Clinton County Air Force Base near Wilmington was visited April 18, 1964, for an Operation Readiness Inspection.
During those inspections, high command drops by to determine whether reserve units are prepared should an emergency arise.
The nine C-119s with their Green Berets and other passengers were returning to base in close formation at 8:53 p.m. when things went wrong.
The front page
The official account of what happened appeared on the front pages of the April 20 and 21, 1964, Springfield newspapers. Seventeen men were killed and two C-119 transport planes destroyed near the Warren County hamlet of Melvin, 10 miles from the Wilmington base.
Among the dead was Lt. Donald B. Becker, brother of Mrs. Robert B. Smith of Miracle Mile in Springfield.
The news reports said that S.Sgt. Zugelder, then 37, of 1504 S. Fountain Ave., was in fair condition at Clinton Memorial Hospital “with two broken shoulder blades, a broken nose, fractured clavicle, along with cuts and bruises.”
The other survivor, Sgt. 1st Class William Kremer, “a 32-year-old Columbus fireman in civilian life, was found wandering about a plowed field in a dazed condition,” a story added.
Kremer “later reported that he was sitting on the left side of the plane near the exit door when ‘all at once, I was sitting outside in the darkness with the feeling of falling, the wind going past my ears.’”
Into thin air
Seated in the volunteer room at the Heritage Center, Zugelder recalled that as it entered clouds, his plane was in a three-plane formation.
Once inside the clouds, the plane in front “lost reference,” went to instrument flight and leveled off, he said. “That took us right into their wing. From that point on, for the next minute, maybe, I don’t remember what happened.”
In the accident report, Zugelder learned the windshield of his plane struck the outboard flap of the plane in front, peeling off the top of his aircraft.
That apparently catapulted Zugelder and Kremer into thin air, as Kremer described in the newspaper story.
“The next thing I knew,” Zugelder said, “I could feel pressure from my legs from the parachute, and I could see my parachute collapse on the ground.”
Just as he has forgotten everything else in those moments, he doesn’t remember pulling the D-ring to open his parachute. His survival suggests he must have.
“From where I was on the ground, I could see the other wreckage burning,” Zugelder said. He also could hear pigs “rooting in their feeders” nearby.
A field ambulance took Zugelder to a civilian ambulance parked on a nearby road, and he was whisked to the hospital. There followed a 12-week recovery.
During a convalescent leave home, Zugelder returned to the Clinton County airport, “just to see if I was going to be psychologically affected,” he said.
The flight he took “didn’t bother me at all,” and so he continued flying in the Air Force Reserve for 21 years.
Just as he missed work after retiring from IH, Zugelder missed the Reserve when he left in 1985.
Among his good memories are a trip to Vietnam; a dozen trips to Panama; trips to Nicaragua and Honduras; and search and rescue missions in Venezuela and off the Venezuelan coast.
Still a certified air frame and power mechanic with inspection authorization (“I can inspect someone else’s work”), Zugelder, at 85, looks fit and remains active.
He’s now training to run in an Air Force 10K the same day his granddaughter, whom he’s training with, will run a half-marathon.
Like all those flights he took in the Air Force Reserve, Zugelder will savor the memory of that day — something that’s possible because he survived a few moments that have eluded memory for nearly 48 years.