Eugene Girman – Sergeant, United States Army Air Forces

A local Indiana man with an illustrious military history will be buried today at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Gene “Beano” Girman, 80, of Highland and formerly of Whiting, died March 3 at Veterans Administration West Side Hospital in Chicago.

Girman's daughter, Heidi, said the family was extremely proud of the World War II veteran for a number of reasons.

A real estate broker for 35 years, Girman served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and was a radio operator and gunner on a B-17.

Heidi Girman said when her father was stationed in Molesworth, England, his aircraft was shot down over Mersberg, Germany, on August 24, 1944, and he became a prisoner of war for nine months.

“He was awarded a Purple Heart,” she said. “I remember seeing it when I was a little girl. He was one of only two survivors on the plane.”

Several years later, Girman said her father was thrilled to find out that a photograph of him and his crew would be on display at the Smithsonian Museum's Air and Space Museum, opened in 1976, with the mural “Fortress Under Fire.”

Girman said it was very exciting.

“We used to tease him about being the Forrest Gump of World War II,” she said. “Before that, he never talked about the war much.”

Girman said the air museum in Texas brought a B-17 craft back to the United States in 1983, the last one to fly back under its own steam. It also took the same route as the previous plane took, she said.

“During that trip, my father met President Ronald Reagan,” she said, adding that the base her father was stationed at in England is still an active Air Force base.

During a trip in 1997, Girman said her father met many other people, including a man named Brian McGuire at the Molesworth base, who helped him to find his old prison camp and the prison hospital that he stayed in.

Girman said McGuire and Keith Ferris, the artist who painted the mural at the Smithsonian, will be among several people attending the burial at Arlington Cemetery.


“Fortress Under Fire” by Keith Ferris, 1976
Courtesy of the Smithsonian

Entering the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum's World War II gallery, a visitor is plunged into a time warp by a wall sized mural. Suddenly it's August 15, 1944. A Messerschmitt and several Focke-Wulf fighters roar through the blue sky 25,000 feet over Germany, trying to shoot down four Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses that have just bombed a Luftwaffe airfield at Wiesbaden. Snowy white contrails stretch behind the aircraft, providing a contrast to the black puffs of flak that dot the sky. Guns poised and Wright Cyclone engines roaring, the lead airplane Thunder Bird, seems ready to fly out of the wall into three-dimensional reality.

The 75 by 25 foot oil mural, titled “Fortress Under Fire,” was painted by aviation artist Keith Ferris. In 1975, the Museum commissioned Ferris to paint a mural on World War II aerial bombardment. B-17's were to be the subject, but the Museum did not specify any particular craft or mission to be depicted. Says Ferris, ” That just wasn't my way of doing things. I like to paint a specific moment in time.” So he enlisted the help of aviation historian Jeff Ethell, and they chose the mission Ferris finally portrayed.

Thanks to careful research by Ferris and Ethell, the painting is historically accurate down to the number of bombs – signifying completed missions – painted on Thunder Bird's nose. Ferris chose that particular airplane, a B-17G from the Eighth Air Force's 303rd Bomb Group, as his subject because it was a suitably battle-scared veteran and because its nose art was tasteful enough for display in the Museum (some bomber crews painted pretty risque illustrations on their aircraft). Working from slides and photographs, some supplied by a neighbor whose brother had once flown Thunder Bird, Ferris painted the mural in 75 days.

That August bombing raid was Thunder Bird's 72nd mission of an eventual 116. In 1945 the airplane was declared war-weary and scrapped. “They made pots and pans out of her,” says Ferris.

Last summer Thunder Bird returned to the United States – at least in spirit. Another B-17G, bearing the same name and the same red, white, and black artwork on it's nose, left England for a new home – the Lone Star Flight Museum in Houston, Texas. The airplane, which had been used by the French government after the war for photo-mapping, had been sold to the Texas museum by a vintage-aircraft dealer in England.

Glenn MacDonald, the Lone Star Museum's director at the time, found the airplane in poor condition when he arrived in England to complete the purchase. Before he flew it back to the States, the aircraft received much-needed repair work – and a new identity. According to present Lone Star director James E. Fausz, the airplane was modeled after Thunder Bird fort he same reasons Ferris had used it for the mural; the paint scheme and history of the original aircraft were both rather dramatic.

Repaired, painted, and newly certified for airworthiness, Thunder Bird flew from Duxford, England, to Prestwick, Scotland – which had been the site of an Eighth Air Force base during World War II. From there MacDonald flew to former bomber bases in Iceland and Greenland, as well as several cities in Canada and the United States. After arriving at Teterboro, New Jersey, Thunder Bird made a flight around the statue of Liberty with Keith Ferris aboard as a passenger. “It was a real thrill because of my association with the airplane,” says Ferris.

During the week-long trip from England to Houston, the new Thunder Bird proved as trustworthy as the original. “We didn't have any trouble at all,” MacDonald says. “It purred like a kitten.” Thunder Bird had made it home one more time.

article by Diane Tedesshi, Editorial Assistant
Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine. December 1987 – January 1988. Vol 2, No. 5

Gene “Beano” Girman of Highland, formerly of Whiting, passed away Wednesday, March 3, 2004. He is survived by his loving wife of fifty-seven years, Corlis; son Scott (Carrie) Girman and granddaughters, Hannah and Maria Girman, all of Indianapolis; one daughter, Heidi Girman of Indianapolis; two brothers, James (Eleanor) of St. John and Jack (Diane) of Highland; many nieces and nephews.

Preceded in death by his parents, Frances and Stephen Girman; brothers Robert and Lawrence and sisters, Catherine Judson and Patricia Holda.

Gene was a real estate broker for thirty-five years.

Gene and his wife enjoyed traveling and visited 48 of 50 States and 61 Foreign Countries.

Gene served in the 8th Air Force during World War II and was a radio man on a B-17. Station in Molesworth, England, he was shot down over Mersberg, Germany, August 24, 1944 and was a POW for nine months and a recipient of the Purple Heart. He was very proud that a photo of him and his crew is on display at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum with the mural “Fortress under Fire”.

Gene was a member of the Elks Club; 303rd Bomb Group Assocition and American Ex-Prisioners of War Association. Friends may visit with the family Saturday, March 6, 2004 from 1:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. at the Solan-Pruzin Funeral Home (corner of Main and Kennedy), Schererville/Highland. Cremation to follow. Burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In lieu of flowers, donations to “Mighty 8th Air Force Museum”, P.O. Box 1992, Savannah, Georgia 31402 in his name would be appreciated.

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