Let us now praise famous men, our ancestors of generations past. – Sirach 44:1
I recently spent a few days in a small French village that, like ours, has probably never had more than 1,000 citizens. Over the centuries the people of Eguisheim have gone about their business (in this case, viniculture), living and letting live. It is a quiet, lovely, pastoral town, unremarkable but for a significant claim to fame – one of their favorite sons, Bruno of Eguisheim, became Pope Leo IX, a man of considerable influence in his time and who was named a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Nearly a thousand years have passed since Pope Leo IX’s death, but his town still celebrates his memory with statues and festivals.
As near as I can tell, our village has no once or future Popes (yet), but we have had our share of ambitious men and women who have achieved fame in the outside world. I have mentioned some of them in the past – Frank Richtig (knife maker), Frank Powolny (Hollywood studio photographer), Frank Folda (head of a banking empire), and Frank Schulz (professional baseball player), to name a few. And there are many others, some not even named Frank!
This week I’ll take up the interesting life of Milo Blecha, a local farm boy who went from humble beginnings to great wartime adventure and a career as an influential educator. He lived in the Clarkson area for over 30 years, from 1921 until the mid-1950s, and you can still find people in town who remember him with fondness and respect.
Milo Kasal Blecha was born on December 6, 1921 to Joseph and Rose Kasal Blecha, the 4th of six children: Libbie (1913-1980), Joseph (1916-1962), Frank (1918-1993), Milo (1921-2013), Lambert (1923-2004), and Helen. Milo’s father Joseph attended the University of Nebraska; he and his sister Fannie were members of the Komensky Club in 1909. In the 1920s Joseph was instrumental in promoting the Colfax County Livestock Show and Agricultural Exhibit in Schuyler (later the Colfax County Fair in Leigh).
Milo Blecha grew up on the family farm at the bottom of the hill west of the Clarkson cemetery and, like his siblings, walked to school. It is said that all the Blechas were good athletes; Milo’s older brother Frank was a member of the 1936 and 1937 CHS basketball teams that competed well in the Class B state tournament.
After high school graduation in 1940, Milo enrolled at nearby Wayne State Teachers College. His last year at Wayne State was interrupted by World War II. Milo volunteered to serve as a B-17 pilot, arrived in England in December 1943, and in the remaining months of the war flew more than 35 missions over Europe.
Blecha crew, 710th Bombardment Squadron based at Rattlesden Airfield, Suffolk on October 25, 1944
Standing: Lt Milo K. Blecha, Lt George R. Barnes, F/O Eugene F. Billington
Kneeling: Sgt John T. Murray, Cpl William H. Gaylord, Cpl Quincy A. Edwards, Cpl Larman D. Johnson, Cpl Billy J. McCarty, and Cpl Joseph A. Mildjian
B-17 dropping bombs over Europe. http://www.447bg.com/aircraft%20gallery6.pdf
We’ve all seen the war movies of bombers flying over their targets, being attacked relentlessly by enemy fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft flak. It was hazardous duty. In the course of the war Blecha’s 447th Bombardment Group flew 257 missions out of Rattlesden air field and lost 97 planes. The average life expectancy of a B-17 bomber crew was about 15 missions; Milo Blecha’s crews managed to complete 35 missions.
Christmas Eve, 1944 – a B-17 falls out of formation, plummeting to earth with its left wing on fire. Only two members of the crew survived. Source: http://www.447bg.com/aircraft%20gallery6.pdf
In addition to the obvious dangers of enemy attack, there were less well known hazards:
“Men went aloft in bulky flying suits that poorly insulated them from temperatures that could fall to 50 below zero at cruising altitudes. Fliers frequently suffered from frostbite or went woozy or even passed out from hypoxia when moisture froze in the tubes of their oxygen masks or when airsickness or fear caused them to vomit into their mouthpieces. Crews often returned with uniforms befouled from long missions that precluded any chance to urinate or defecate. Fear was the aircrew’s companion from the moment of takeoff. The difficulty of flying off hundreds of aircraft within minutes of one another, then assembling them in the sky into their huge formations – high, middle, and low squadrons of up to sixteen planes each, endless streams of fully laden bombers laboriously circling upward for nearly three quarters of an hour to operational altitude – resulted in frequent mid-air collisions even before the big convoys headed across the channel. Accidents claimed nearly as many airmen’s lives (approximately thirty-six thousand) as did combat (approximately forty-nine thousand).“ (Kennedy 2001)
The skill required to get your airplane off the ground with a full load of fuel and bombs cannot be overestimated. For example, in one story I heard third- or fourth-hand, Milo’s B-17 was the last of three overloaded planes trying to take off from Rattlesden air field for a bombing mission. They watched as the first two bombers were unable to gain sufficient altitude and crashed on takeoff. When it was his turn, Blecha gunned the engines of his plane and got off the ground safely, to the cheers of his crew.
Royal Air Force Station (RAF) Rattlesden, Suffolk, England – home base of the 447th Bombardment Group, U.S. 8th Army Air Corps
Service in a bomber crew was a terrifying and often deadly experience, the kind of shared experience that binds a crew together for a lifetime. Although Milo was reluctant to relive his wartime experiences, he participated in the periodic reunions of his crews in London.
After completing his tour of duty in Europe Milo returned home from the war to marry his sweetheart and finish his education. While training to be a pilot at Moorhead State Teachers College (MSTC) in Minnesota he met the love of his life, Evelyn Montgomery, at the Crystal Ballroom in nearby Fargo, ND.
An excellent basketball player and class valedictorian, Evelyn was studying to be a nurse at MSTC. After their meeting she wrote to him every day. He left Europe for home on June 30, 1945 and they were married on July 19, 1945. Their marriage lasted 68 years. Evelyn Blecha completed her degree and practiced nursing briefly before taking on a full-time role as homemaker, wife, and mother. She can be seen assisting with a blood drive in the Clarkson City Hall/basketball gym in this photo:
After the war Milo returned to Wayne State to finish his studies, and with a teaching degree in hand, he returned to his home town to teach Industrial Arts and coach basketball at Clarkson High School.
Prior to the completion of the new high school, CHS basketball was played in the City Hall. If you’ve been inside the City Hall, you know that it is a small space, with scarcely enough room for a basketball court, let alone fans. The crowd sat around the floor on benches; one of their biggest fans, Mrs. Mary Filipi, would arrive around 5 o’clock for a 7 PM game. (You can see the basketball hoop and benches in the blood drive photo above).
Dick Moore, who played on the excellent 1952 team, remembers playing in the City Hall. “The visiting school was on the east side upstairs and Clarkson was on the west side. We would dress in the old high school and run down to the city hall to play our game. The visiting team would go into the kitchen and dress and go back there at half time. The last few years a shower was put in for the visiting team and Clarkson would go up to the old high school and shower. At half time Clarkson went down in the furnace room, which was not too big. There were steps going down and the only heat for upstairs was from the register above the furnace. About 8 foot square and sometimes got pretty hot. [The City Hall was once the building that housed Clarkson’s coal-fired power plant, and the basement where the players congregated was the old coal storage bin.] Once coach Milo Blecha was chewing someone out and, to emphasize his point, took the basketball and bounced it hard off the floor. It ricocheted upwards like a rocket and wedged itself in the rafters. That took care of his speech. Everyone started laughing and we went up to start the second half. When we got in the new gym it could seat about 1000 people. Maybe the city hall would sit around 50 or 75 people.”
Roland Loseke of Leigh HS remembers playing at Clarkson’s City Hall during the Blecha Era. He recalls that at halftime they’d open a door in the floor and the teams would climb down for their coach’s instructions and pep talk. Loseke heard a lot of yelling from Clarkson’s coach.
[Think about this scene for a moment. At halftime, a door in the floor opens up and the poor players descend into a heated room to have their faults and errors pointed out to them, to be “read the Riot Act.” The door to the Underworld closes, and from below their feet, basketball fans could feel the heat and hear murmurings and muffled shouting. Am I the only one reminded of a scene from Dante’s Inferno?]
Evidently the yelling paid off. His teams were disciplined, and they won the Mid-State Conference title three times. The 1953 CHS basketball team compiled a 26-1 record, the only loss being to Chappell in the final round of the Class C State Tournament.
Coach Milo Blecha’s 1953 squad included Alden Bos, Dale Jindra, Dale Reznicek, Jerry Thalken, Dean Houfek, Joe Houfek, Dick Moore, Bob Moore, and Glenn Swoboda. Louis Pavel was Assistant Coach and Gene Cinfel was Student Manager.
The Class of 1954 dedicated their yearbook to Milo K. Blecha, the superintendent of Clarkson schools and high school coach for the previous eight years. They wrote “During his tenure as superintendent, a new $265,000 high school building was constructed, the grade school renovated, and a hot lunch program adopted for pupils. His teams won the Mid-State Conference title three times and the Red Devils were runnerup in the state tournament in 1953… He has been attending graduate school at the University of Nebraska during summers and will begin a year of residency at the university this summer to complete work for his doctorate. After that he plans to return to work in public schools.”
Milo Blecha didn’t return to Clarkson after completing his Doctorate of Education from the University of Nebraska. Dr. Blecha next went on to teach at Butler University in Indianapolis and then moved to the University of Arizona in Tucson where he taught science education for 27 years and served as Head of the Department of Elementary Education for 22 years. He received many awards and citations for the work in his field and served as Senior Author of a national best-selling elementary and junior high textbook science series.
In 1983 Milo and Evelyn Blecha retired to Sonoita, AZ where he enjoyed gardening, fishing, traveling, golfing and especially enjoyed having time to spend in nature as he watched the changing weather patterns of the Southwest, the sunsets and the always present wildlife which included tangling with a few rattlesnakes. He was active in a number of civic and volunteer organizations. His children wrote that Milo’s first love was always his family and his greatest accomplishment was being a wonderful husband and father.
Those of you who are familiar with the Czech language know that the word “blecha” means “flea.” Milo K. Blecha, who risked his life serving his country in WWII, then went on to become an inspiring coach, educator, and published science writer, certainly outgrew his surname.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction. – Sirach 44:3-4
Acknowledgements: I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Milo Blecha, so I am indebted to Dick Moore, Roly and Ele Loseke, Robert Prazak, and Jerome Jaroska for their memories of him. The Blecha Family genealogy can be found at http://randallblecha.com/familygroup.php?familyID=F135956&tree=tree1 The photos associated with Blecha’s experiences as a B-17 pilot were taken from the comprehensive website of the 447th Bomb Group Association – http://www.447bg.com/index.htm Descriptions of the experiences of B-17 bomber crews were taken from David Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Freedom from Fear” (Kennedy 2001).
Evelyn Blecha obituary – http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tucson/obituary.aspx?pid=174028779
Milo Blecha obituary – http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tucson/obituary.aspx?pid=168025986