A secret elopement . . .
a mom and dad to be . . . and a free ticket
to Germany on Flying Tiger 923 !
Thomas Koltak and his wife, Judy, have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary! That happens to be some three or four months shy of the 50th anniversary of the ditching of Flying Tiger 923. They married while he was home on leave after basic training, not knowing he would be getting a free ticket to Germany.
Judy had just graduated from college, having studied teaching and was living at home. Her parents were having a graduation party for her to celebrate while her boyfriend Tom was home on leave. Tom and Judy had a secret. They had eloped from Morgantown, West Virginia where the legal age for marriage was 21, to nearby Oakland, Maryland, where the marriage age was 18. Their wedding plans were aided by their local Catholic priest, who performed the ceremony that day in nearby Maryland.
One day before her graduation party, which would draw dozens of relatives and friends,
the newly married couple got up the courage to tell their secret to Judy’s parents. More to celebrate! The graduation party became a family “double-header,” a graduation and a wedding party.
By the fateful day of September 23, immediately after Thomas completed his advanced Army training and an additional four weeks at paratrooper school, the newlyweds knew of Judy’s pregnancy. Then came the sudden change of military plans. Tom would be shipping off to Germany on very short notice. Needless to say, the news of the crash of Flying Tiger 923 in the stormy north Atlantic came as a horrible shock.
Fifty years later, in telling of his recollections on the ditching, Koltack said:
“It’s incredible. I remember walking down the runway looking at that airplane, a Flying Tiger, and talking to all of the other guys, and thinking, “that plane is never going to make it.” It didn’t look in very good condition to me.”
Koltack’s parents lived in Morgantown at the time of the ditching. The Army sent a telegram to the family notifying them of the disaster and that their son was missing. He recalls that the telegram had no street address, but simply a street number. Someone at the post office was able to identify the family home and got word to them. Judy got the news through his parents.
It is very likely that the crash affected Judy as much as Tom and maybe even more, especially during those long hours of waiting for confirmation of his survival. She wouldn’t fly after the tragedy and never joined him in Germany. She had a teaching job at home and once she recovered from the shock, she was able to cope with the good fortune that saved his life.
When Tom was asked by this reporter what he thought about while going through the ditching drills aboard the Flying Tiger, he said, “My thoughts at that time were mainly on prayers.” The ditching drills were just going on around him.
Tom sat on the left side of the plane where the rows consisted of two-seat rows, a window and isle only, no middle seat. He was next to the escape hatch, sitting next to Master Sgt. Dan Foley, a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper returning home from an assignment in the states. Immediately after the big “thud,” Tom was up and ready to get out of the aircraft. He found Foley fussing around in that initial bewildering moment and pushed him out into the water.
He was one of the first survivors to find the life raft, having exited on the left side of the plane toward the tail which placed him close to the rear exit from which the only surviving life raft was launched. He was able to help pull others in. He was also one of the last survivors to get out of the life raft after the harrowing six-hours of drifting in the gale force winds. He was able to help others get out of the raft.
Koltack stayed with the Swiss rescue ship, the Celerina, until it docked in Antwerp, Belgium and was then sent the next day to a hospital in Frankfort.
Koltack tells us that once he got settled into Army life in Germany an officer asked him, “Who was it that helped save you?”
He remembers the incident well. The officer seemed serious about his question. Koltack remembers answering tersely and as seriously, “You’re looking at the fxxxxr! Sir!”
That sounds like something a paratrooper of the time would say and pretty much summarized his experience. Many others will agree that survival that night of September 23, 1962 was pretty much a fight for one’s own life.
Although he does little reminiscing on the crash and recovery, Koltack knows that many others were involved in his survival and is appreciative of everyone’s contributions. He readily admits his entire live was very much influenced by the ditching and his near death. Some two-and-a-half years after the incident, when he was soon to be rotated back to the states, he learned that he might be eligible to get out of the Army early to go to college on “an early out.” He took advantage of the opportunity and got out two months early and reenrolled in college.
One month after he got out (early), his entire unit was sent to Vietnam. By then, already discharged from service and as a married man with a family, he felt pretty safe military reactivation for Viet Nam.
Koltack says that the ditching experience influenced his pursuit of a career and his college studies. He felt that he wanted pursue a line of work where he help others and could do good for his community. He studied “social services” on his return to college and after completing his schooling, he found a job with the WMCA in Pittsburg, PA. He was helping the less fortunate and feeling good about it.
After a few years, the WMCA was forced to cut costs. He found himself out of a job helping the less fortunate, however he remained true to his commitment. He moved on to a community group home for handicapped persons. After 20 years of group home services, he finally moved on with his family to South Carolina.
Koltack continued with social services for two more years in South Carolina. By that time he had given 25 years to social services and began to look further into the future. He realized that while he was helping others he had not been preparing well enough for his own family’s financial future. He got a job in the insurance business and from that time on started doing quite well.
He lives near the South Carolina ocean coast in a place called Pawleys Island. He is happy to be alive to celebrate two great 50th anniversaries in the same year!
(Congratulations Tom and Judy, from everyone! Both of you are obviously survivors!)