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Dan Wegmueller: Stories can come from unlikely sources
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I have to tell you, that these are the articles I most enjoy writing. A couple weeks ago I concocted a "rest of the story" themed expose about a lawyer for Al Capone. This lawyer had a son, whose bravery and selflessness as a World War II pilot earned him the Medal of Honor. So extraordinary were the actions of this pilot, that he even has an airport named after him - Chicago O'Hare, formally known as Orchard Field.

Like I said, these are the articles I most enjoy writing. Immediately following my article about Orchard Field, a Monroe man contacted me. He had a story about the small military airport, long before it became one of the busiest hubs on the planet. Let's go back in time to the mid-1940s, at a time when Dr. John Irvin was a medical officer at Colorado Springs.

At this time, you could graduate from medical school in six years: three years pre-med, three years med school. At the conclusion of which, as part of the Army's Specialized Training Program, you owed the government two years of active duty. John Irvin was given his permanent assignment at Colorado Springs. Christmas time, 1944, Irvin was offered the chance to fly home to Wauwatosa for the holidays.

Flying from Colorado to Wisconsin in 1944 was not as easy as getting on an airplane and falling asleep to a soothing selection of in-flight entertainment. Irvin's trek from Colorado Springs to Milwaukee was made aboard a B-25 Mitchell, one of the most widely used allied planes of World War II. Although versatile and heavily armored, the B-25 was a terribly uncomfortable aircraft in which to ride. On the medium-range bomber, four enlisted men joined Irvin.

Irvin and the enlisted men sat in back, while the pilot and copilot flew the aircraft. With no seats on which to sit, the men made cushions of their parachutes. There was absolutely no communication - the twin engines were so loud, that talking was out of the question. No radios were available to the passengers. Over Nebraska, the B-25 ran into a storm, so immense that the pilot landed in Lincoln. Says Irvin, over Nebraska the airplane made a sudden dive. He looked out the window to see land rushing past as they dove. Cattle stampeded out of the way as the B-25 screamed low over a house. Near the house, a group of people was smiling and waving; turns out the copilot was a rancher from Nebraska, and they decided to buzz his house. Irvin noticed something else in the darkening skies - one of the engines was belching flames. Not to worry, he was informed, that was normal for the B-25.

As the crew made their way to Milwaukee, another storm and poor visibility diverted them to Chicago. This is John's connection to Orchard Field, then nothing more than a small military airstrip. After spending the night at the Officers' Quarters at Orchard Field, Irvin and the B-25 crew made its way to Milwaukee. Over the city, the bomber made another dive. Coming in low, just over the rooftops, Irvin looked out the window to see his house zooming past. In sheer coincidence, the pilot lived only two blocks from Irvin and decided to buzz his own house (author's note: try doing this today).

Thanks, to Dr. John Irvin for sharing his story. When it comes to the unique history of Chicago O'Hare, there is something we can all enjoy. Next time you get your ticket stub, notice the three-letter international airport code for O'Hare. Now you know why it is "ORD".

Speaking of local stories of historical interest, I also received a newspaper clipping from an Olga Wolfe, of Albany. Her father was a veteran of the First World War, who purchased 80 acres of farmland in Marathon County, near Texas, Wisconsin. Mrs. Wolfe remembers her father having to blast out huge pine stumps, to make the ground tillable. At the back end of the farm was a place in the Trappe River called "Ox Hole"; two animals had drowned there. Adjacent was an old campground of sorts, where Olga found a nickel dated 1783.

During the summer, Olga walked an old railroad track to a blueberry marsh, very close to Harrison Hills of northern Lincoln County. This is noteworthy, because in Harrison Hills there was an abandoned farm almost totally hidden on a wooded hillside. Only three roads gave access to the farm, and all three were barricaded. For a short time, this hidden enclave was the site of a quite successful, albeit illegal, moonshine operation owned by Al Capone. Water was piped from a river, electricity supplied on site, and a huge boiler fitted into the barn. Although smokestacks cut through the roof of the barn, no smoke was ever seen, thanks to the stealthy nature of burning coke. Every ten days, a truckload of 99 percent pure alcohol left the premises, a shipment worth about $20,000, bound for Chicago.

Alas, the moonshine operation screeched to a halt when state officers raided and destroyed the site. The crew was arrested, and the alcohol and mash dumped into the creek (subsequently, cows drinking downstream went down in milk).

Like I started out saying, these are the articles I enjoy the most. It amazes me, how random but interesting tidbits of information can open doors to local insights and experiences.