Gilbert Koritan

Mr. Koritan, top row center, is standing with his crew in front of their plane “Target for the Night”

  • Branch of Military: U.S. Army Air Corps
  • Wars involved in: WWII
  • Years of service: 19xx-1945
  • Theater of Operation: European Theater
  • Position: Navigator

This is an article written 50 years afte the Batle of the Bulge in which Mr. Koritan recunts the role he played on that day.

Veteran recalls heroes, horror of Bastogne

From Dec. 23, 1994

Tenor, poet, developer, and WWII navigator Gilbert Koritan still get emotional when he talks about the war and the part he played in the liberation of Europe 50 years ago. Most of all he remembers Dec. 23, 1944 when after several days of impenetrable fog and cloud banks over Bastogne Belgium, the airspace cleared allowing allied bombers to aid ground troops surrounded by German panzer units.

More than 600,000 Americans took part in the Battle of the Bulge which is considered one of the bloodiest land battles of WWII. The battle took place during December and January in the Ardennes forest of Belgium and Luxembourg, near the German border. American casualties numbered 81,000 including 19,000 deaths. The Germans suffered some 90,000 casualties.

“This was Hitler’s last stand,” Gil said. “The bulge got bigger and bigger and our ground troops were encircled by Gen. Hasso Von Manteuffel’s panzer unit. When the general demanded that (Brig. Gen. Anthony C.) McAuliffe surrender, McAuliffe sent a message back saying ‘Nuts!’”

The general’s action set in motion a siege by the Germans that threatened to starve American troops. “On Dec. 23, the weather cleared,” Gil said. “The allied forces began demolishing the panzers as Gen. Patton’s Fourth Armored smashed its way northward to relieve armies trapped in the bulge. I was a member of the mighty 8th Air Force and navigator of the 385th bomb group. We divided our groups into three squadrons and went in to bomb supply and ammunition dumps.”

Fifty years ago today Gil’s navigational skill helped shorten the war. “It was the break in the weather we had all been waiting for,” he said. “We all wanted to go up. It was a day even cowards could fly. I thought of my friend Irv Lopoten lying seriously wounded in the hospital, I was an angry guy.”

In 1958 Gil wrote a poem dedicated to the men lost in the Bastogne battle. That poem has been published in numerous newspapers and appeared last week in the Scottsdale Progress Tribune. “Every Christmas my thoughts turn back to that day,” he said. “The war was a very tragic time for me.”

The veteran navigator doesn’t feel he did anything extraordinary in the war but apparently the United States Congress did. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for demonstrating “courageous devotion to duty, expert navigational skill, and exceptional proficiency in guiding formations.”

Life Spared Twice

Gil’s life was spared two or more times and he, in turn, attempted to save the life of a buddy. “During a bombing run to Merseburg we got shot up pretty badly,” he recounted. “The waist gunner called the pilot to tell him that our radioman bob (Heddington) got hit. I had taken pre-med in college, so I grabbed the medical kit and went through the bomb bay catwalk. We were up at 25,000 feet and we needed oxygen. He had a gaping head wound and all we had was sulfa. While I was bandaging him, the oxygen gave out. I passed out. The radioman died. I was rescued by Skip Hoyt, the copilot. Skip and I became very close friends.”

There surely must have been a guardian angel looking after Gil. On the B-17 bomber, Target for the Night, he had placed a 3-foot-square steel plate beneath his navigator’s chair. On the morning of a key bombing raid over Berlin he and the crew learned they would have to take a different plane.

“There was no time to replace my steel plate,” Gil related. “We’re on the run, under radio silence except for the navigator, bombardier and first pilot. I wanted to make sure the bombardier saw the target so I got up out of my seat and pointed to the spot on his map to reassure him he was on target. Then I sat back down. Next thin, the pilot called and asked me ‘Are you alright?’ I took a look at the Plexiglass above me and saw a jagged one-inch hole. Then I looked at my seat and there was the same jagged hole. Shrapnel had penetrated the center of my seat and clear through the plexiglass above.”

Upon returning home after the war, Gil’s father, Jacob Goldberg, informed him the family’s surname wasn’t Goldberg at all but Koritansky which had been changed when the elder Goldberg had immigrated from Russia in 1912.

“I told him I’d be glad to change my name but I wanted to Americanize it to Koritan,” Gil said.

With a new last name, he engaged in property development in Philadelphia from 1946 to 1963 moving here [Arizona] in 1964 where he developed a portion of Payson Chalet Village and Lake Havasu Estates of Colorado. An operatic tenor, he appeared with the Apollo Opera Co. in Philadelphia and on television and radio there.

After moving to Arizona Gil became president of Park Water Co. Inc. He also sang Russian folk Songs throughout the Phoenix area and performed with his son Baruch Koritan, who is a voice teacher and cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Shalom in Sun City. His daughter-in-law Ruth Dubinbaum is an operatic vocalist and voice teacher.

This is the poem mentioned in the article above.

Battle of the Bulge

My thoughts had turned to Christmas in December ’44.
The war was going well for Satan and no one more.
The fox-holed men questioned God for the war they didn’t want
Then the fog closed in on the Bastogne front.
Till then our troops gained ground from France to this dammed place
And was it any wonder with our Air Corps in the race?
But now the fog would turn the tide, for birds could hardly fly.
For Hitler’s aim was desperate – his heil was do or die.
The hell coughed contagion as the enemy out-flanked us.
Our airplane’s engines slept, while the devil sneered and thanked us.
Meanwhile, across the sea, I knew of this in my anxious Nissen place.
In an airfield somewhere in England my squadron had its base.
The deadly mist took its grip on still another day.
The bulge grew deep in my brother’s blood; men cursed or knelt to pray.
My eyes looked up but made no wish for skates, a car or pie.
Imagine me, my Christmas wish – for just a cloudless sky.
Then, as if I’d gotten through somehow, as though I were the one to thank,
I was hardly asleep that doubtful night when I awoke to “Get Up, Yank.”
With a beard for clothes, I rushed outside – “Thank God, a clearing sky”
The rest, my friend, is history – ‘twas the day even cowards could fly.
By dawn great flocks of metal birds began to swarm, like the locusts of Salt Lake City.
The angry mass droned across the sea with an air of restrained pity
My earphones spoke German now, “Achtungs” shrieked down below.
And then, when we knew the time was right, our pregnant bomb bays let go.
The way I saw the battle then, that day was criteria.
In retrospect, I could have been there, or else in Siberia.
In Peace, one stich in time you save when you are still alive.
Freedom’s price is faith and strength if your creed is to survive.
I manned a plane in yesterwar, but today I have a son.
Though I’ve aged, I’d fight again to see the boy lift books and not the cursed gun.

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