The Medal of Honor is awarded for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” and only 3,468 medals have been awarded. The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
“I said I didn’t care about the medals; I just wanted to get through,” Matthiejetz said. “When I was asked to fly, I flew. I didn’t miss one mission.”
Matthiejetz said he couldn’t recall the circumstances for earning those particular awards, but he has plenty of memories left from the 50 missions he flew in 1943-44. His flights as an engineer gunner on B-17 bombers with the 444th squadron took him all over Europe.
While in flight it was his job to shoot, but shooting from a B-17 isn’t comparable to shooting at a shooting range. He said his seat was similar to a bicycle seat, but it was in a very cramped space.
“I don’t care how tight you had security on you, there was enough give that when the plane bounced I would hit the ceiling,” Matthiejetz said.
Close quarters also meant some close calls for Matthiejetz, with everything from engines catching on fire mid-flight to blockbusters not releasing.
The closest he came to getting hit in combat was when a piece of shrapnel the size of a baseball hit the rib cage of his plane, causing the steel to bend all the way up against him. Had the shrapnel impacted four inches in either direction it would have struck him from inside the plane.
“It was hectic,” Matthiejetz said. “I didn’t get a scratch, but I was so close that four of my crew never made it.”
Matthiejetz is now the last surviving member of his crew, but losing men isn’t something new for the 97-year-old veteran.
“Sometimes you left with a couple thousand planes and then came back with 60 missing,” Matthiejetz said. “The day I finished we had just got back from Berlin, and the next day four from my crew got shot down in France. That tore me up.”
His final flight was before the invasion of Normandy, and he flew over the English channel.
“You could see all of Normandy under there; the English Channel looked like it was on fire,” Matthiejetz said. “Most of the World War II guys are gone.”
Matthiejetz continued to serve his country after fighting overseas by repairing engines for about a year before ending his three-and-a-half years of active duty. Afterward, he worked at a filling station in Three Rivers for about 14 years, then farmed 150 acres about three miles north of Three Rivers with his brother, John, for about 44 years before retiring at 86 years old.
He attends every Veteran’s Day program held at Three Rivers High School and has handed out copies of the Constitution.
“That was 50 years ago. They ought to teach them what was going on then,” Matthiejetz said.