"I grew up wanting to play baseball for the Braves," said Elijah "Joe" Ostrander, 90, of his hometown team. "That plan was changed by the war."
Instead of playing professional baseball, Ostrander instead enlisted in the Air Force at age 19. He served in Italy during World War II with the 741st Bomb Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force.
"I loved to fly," said Ostrander, who taught for years at Deerfield High School and now lives in Lindenhurst, Ill. "That was all I wanted to do."
He left the comforts of home in January 1943. He flew a B-24 from Kansas to Italy, where he was stationed.
Long Journey Into the War Zone
"That long flight across the Atlantic for a navigator was challenging and exciting," Ostrander said.
Once in battle, however, the realities, the hardships and the casualties of war took effect.
"All those people who died - seeing it just took your breath away," Ostrander recalled, choking back emotion.
He flew frequent missions, until a fateful assignment to go into Poland to bomb some oil refineries.
"We were in the air, and our bombadier said 'Bombs away!'" Ostrander said. "Right then, we were hit. We had significant damage in the front of the plane. That was the beginning of the end of our flying. An anti-aircraft shell had hit the front of the plane, right where I normally sat. Two of our crew were killed instantly."
They somehow managed to fly a little further, but knew they were living on borrowed time.
"We were going to have to bail out of that plane," he said. "Eight of us jumped out."
Life on the Run
In October 1944, Ostrander jumped out of his plane and landed alone in a forested area. That saved his life. The trees became his hiding place.
"I climbed up high in a tree," he said. "I knew people were coming after us with machine guns. A soldier and his German Shepherd walked right underneath my perch in the tree. They didn't find me."
He later learned that four of his crew were captured and executed by SS soldiers.
Ostrander spent four nights walking through the forest and hiding in barns and even in a haystack near Bleiburg, Austria.
He eventually was captured and put in a jail cell before he was picked up by the Germans.
"They transferred me to another prison camp, Stalag3," he said. "There were thousands of us in that camp. It was safe for us there."
That didn't last for long.
"The Polish soldiers to the north and the Allies were all advancing, so we had to move," he said. "We started marching at 2 a.m. We marched for 9 days in the winter."
Ostrander said the POWs finally ended up on a German frieght car, packed in tight like pretzel sticks standing up.
From Bad to Worse
"We were taken to Moosburg, Austria to Stalag VIIA. It was a terrible camp, a terrible situation," Ostrander said. "There were about 100,000 prisoners from nearly every Allied country there. There was almost no food available. We were all hungry and in bad shape."
Ostrander had been a POW for seven months. Still, he said others had it much worse.
"I met a British guy who hadn't been home in 12 years," he said.
The battle moved closer and closer to the camp.
Rescued At Last
"We could hear the guns. The battle was going on all around us," Ostrander said. "Finally, the day came. We saw tanks coming down the road to liberate us. Gen. Patton rode in on a tank."
The POWs knew they were going to be rescued.
"Our guys were going crazy!" Ostrander said. "Gen. Patton came in on a Jeep and looked around and said, 'You men will be out of here in 24 hours.'"
And they were.
Long Journey Home
"We boarded a Red Cross Transport Ship that crossed the Atlantic in four or five days," Ostrander said. At the end of that journey, he said one sight stood out.
"I was looking west, and saw the Statue of Liberty come into view," he recalled. "It was the most thrilling day of my life."
Ostrander and the other veterans returned to stateside life. He returned to the south side of Milwaukee after leaving the service, and attended Marquette University.
He married Janet, a woman whom he met in Bible class. They have been married for more than 60 years and they have two sons. Jim Ostrander lives in Barrington, and John Ostrander lives in Lake Villa.
Joe Ostrander taught at Deerfield High School for 32 years until he retired in 1988.
Ostrander was officially recognized for his service some 65 years later. He was taken by Honor Flight Chicago to Washington D.C. with several other veterans from Illinois earlier this year.
The Honor Flight mission according to their website is to: honor and thank those veterans - especially now our WWII veterans by bringing them to Washington DC, at no cost to them, for a day of honor.
"That was amazing!" Ostrander said of his Honor Flight. "They took such good care of us. If I were the King of England, I couldn't have been treated any better."
He said there were hundreds of people lined up at O'Hare at 11:30 p.m., to applaud and thank the veterans as they returned from their Honor Flight adventure. His friends and family members were among those cheering.
"It was a homecoming that was absolutely spectacular!" he said. "What a day that was! I am a lucky man."