Centenarian celebration planned
RANTOUL — Walter Tatar Sr. was 2 years old when he and his mother boarded a ship in their native Poland and headed to America to meet his father.
Just three years earlier a ship by the name of Titanic took the same northern route but never made it.
"It was during World War I," Tatar said. "We took the northern route to dodge the German submarines, and we landed at Ellis Island."
Walter (born Waldek Jakob Tatar) was too young to remember any of it. His mother told him "we had to take all our clothes off, and they showered us down to kill the germs," he said. "But those who were sick couldn't enter (the country).
"They had to go back where they came from."
Tatar, who will be honored this weekend for his 100th birthday, has lived through the tumultuous times of the 20th century, and despite his age, has the memory of someone half as young.
His trip across the Atlantic wouldn't be the last time he would cruise the great ocean. He would later do a round trip to Europe to help fight the Nazis
His is a life that included enduring the Great Depression, working in the Civilian Conservation Corps, escaping death when a bomb-laden B-17 bomber blew up not far from him during World War II, running two businesses and fathering nine children.
Tatar himself was part of an even larger family, the first of 16 brothers and sisters, but the only one not born in this country.
From New York, his mother and father journeyed to Wisconsin, where his father farmed but soon left because his father "didn't like that type of farming," Tatar said.
"So, he moved us back to New York, and we had a farm."
Fittingly, the farm was near Warsaw, N.Y.
It was there that Tatar went to school. As the student living nearest to the one-room schoolhouse where he took his lessons, he was charged with going there every morning when it was cold to start the fire in the stove. He rode there bareback on a horse.
"It was a one-room schoolhouse and one teacher and six or seven students," Tatar said.
He didn't make it through high school — having to quit to help support his family during the Great Depression.
But jobs were scarce, so he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that began in 1933 for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families, ages 18-25. Men could only work in CCC for two years.
From Buffalo, N.Y., Tatar was sent to Montana to do cleanup work on a lake plus other CCC projects. He later joined the Army to become assigned to the Army Air Corps. He was sent to Chanute Field, where he received training, in 1940.
Tatar said Chanute wasn't too impressive when he arrived. It was called "tent city" because there weren't many buildings.
Uptown Rantoul wasn't so hot either, he said.
"There were only four streets, and it was more of a meeting place for farmers," Tatar said.
But with the United States' involvement in World War II looming, Chanute quickly grew.
"There were hundreds and hundreds of us there," he said. "The Army got together to put up buildings to house the troops."
Tatar and others in the 846th Air Engineering Squadron were convinced they were headed to the Pacific because they had received training in jungle warfare.
But three days after shipping out they were told they were headed to Europe.
"Woah! We're going the wrong way," he remembers thinking.
He later learned why they had received the jungle warfare training. After the war in Europe had ended, they were to be sent to invade Japan.
But before that they were shipped to England, where he repaired planes and loaded them with bombs.
"I spent my time in harm's way for 2 years," Tatar said. "Every day we were in harm's way from the German bombers, the German fighters and the buzz bombs. The buzz bombs were the biggest threats. They used to come over by the hundreds, and we couldn't get them all. Some of them got through into places like London."
Tatar recalls one upper turret gunner who was short (5-foot-2) like Tatar. The gunner had to sit on a cushion to see out of the turret and fire at approaching German fighter planes.
One day the gunner was angry because someone had taken his cushion. But when his plane returned to base, he kissed the ground.
"He said, 'I don't know who took my cushion. He saved my life.'"
A German shell had burst through the turret and creased his helmet down the middle, splitting it open. If the gunner had been on the cushion, the shell would have hit him in the face.
Tatar was injured when, while working on the wing of a B-17 bomber, another B-17 loaded with bombs exploded about 200 feet from him, killing all the crew and injuring many support personnel.
"Dad was blown off the wing and ... his back was broken," his son, Walter Jr., said
He said his father still suffers from back pain and has had several back surgeries.
The Rantoul man was one of seven boys born to his parents, and six of them saw duty in World War II. None, however, was killed.
"My mother must have had some prayers," he said.
After the Germans surrendered in May 1945, his unit was sent back stateside and given leave before heading to the Pacific, but the Japanese surrendered before they were sent out, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Returning to Illinois, he met his future wife, Dolores Trimble, at a dinner in Danville, where she was a waitress. They had nine children together.
Walter Jr. said his parents "loved each other very much."
"They worked together ... and were married 52 years," Walter Jr. said.
He and his wife would open a shoe repair business at Chanute, which they operated for 35 years — Tatar Shoe Repair. Dolores worked the front and Walter Sr. and children the back shop. After retiring from that business, the Tatars opened D&W Fishing and Campground in Champaign, which is owned by their daughter Rose.
Mrs. Tatar died in 1999.
The Tatars liked to cut a rug. They started the Circle R square dance club in Rantoul.
Walter now resides in an independent living unit at Brookstone Estates in Rantoul.
He will be honored at a party set from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Rantoul.
His grandson's band, The Boat Drunks, will provide entertainment. The party is open to everyone.
The family asks that, instead of cards, people send a donation to the Henry J. Smith tuition assistance fund at St. Malachy School, Rantoul, or to the school.
Asked about his hopes for the future, Tatar said, "I'm hoping to carry on, hoping the good Lord will give me a couple more years to spend on this planet Earth."