For some World War II veterans, saving the world from fascism became the single defining moment of their lives. For others, it was but one early chapter, a time they mostly kept in the past as they moved on to the rest of their lives.
For Major Gen. John R. Dolny, who served as a fighter pilot with the Army Air Corps in the European theater of World War II before moving on to a distinguished 39-year military career, it was both: A moment of valor when a 20-something became a war hero, and a jumping-off point for a full life that encompassed an untold number of military missions as well as rounds of golf, horseback riding with his two kids and joyful family moments with his nine siblings born to a Czech immigrant family in the working-class Minneapolis neighborhood of Bohemian Flats.
Dolny died this week in Arizona, where he had wintered with his wife, Gisela. He was 99.
When Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, Dolny was 20 years old, a recent graduate of Dunwoody College in mechanical drafting and machine design. He signed up for the Army Air Corps the next week, and by February 1943 he had received his wings and commission and shipped off to North Africa and then Italy, where he flew an A-36 fighter bomber version of the P-51 Mustang. He flew 135 combat missions during his World War II years — in North Africa, Italy, France and then the final push into Germany — and received, among many medals, a Purple Heart.
The favorite war story he would tell his two adopted children, Keith Dolny and Patti McGuire, was when he was shot down in March 1944 while on a bombing run during the Battle of Anzio. His fighter was hit with groundfire near Rome. He flew the plane west for as long as he could, then bailed at 500 feet. Dolny broke his leg when he hit the ground. Thinking he was still behind enemy lines, he bundled up his parachute and hid in the bushes. He saw a Nazi staff car coming up the road.
"His luck: It was being driven by a bunch of U.S. servicemen," his son said. "He came out, they found him, they got him back to his unit and patched him up. He was back to flying within two weeks."
Instead of returning to the United States, Dolny volunteered for another tour, and became the commander of his own squadron, with 35 pilots and 300 more personnel, at age 23. After the war he joined the Minnesota Air National Guard, becoming a full colonel at 29 and serving for a quarter-century at Minneapolis-St. Paul Joint Air Reserve Station as the commander of the 133rd Airlift Wing.
"There were a lot of guys who were World War II veterans, and it didn't feel like such a big deal at that time," said Lew Wolf, who served under Dolny and later made an exhibit on Dolny at the Minnesota Air National Guard Museum. "But now, 50 years later, with almost all the other guys gone, when you look at what they did in the war as these young men, it's really awesome."
Dolny's work took him all over the world, especially during Vietnam. He piloted frequent, exhausting 10-day C-97 cargo runs to Vietnam. When he was home, he'd frequently be fiddling with his Cadillac or taking family road trips to places like dude ranches.
"He was gone a lot growing up, but as soon as he got home, he was an all-in father," said his daughter. "He'd bring us cool stuff from all around the world. I had doll collections from all these countries: China, Japan, Venezuela, Spain, Scotland, Egypt. I was blessed — so blessed."
Dolny is survived by his wife, Gisela; his daughter, son and daughter-in-law; two brothers, Raymond and Leonard; five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. His first wife, Ida Mae, preceded him in death. Memorial services will be held at a later date.