The stories that stick, the memories that matter most to World War II and Korean War Air Force veteran Burton “Bud” Shulhafer as he approaches his 102nd birthday, are the decades-long love affair he had with his wife, Carolyn, and the photos he took
– hundreds of them – documenting the dramatic and historic events he witnessed during his service.
Burton was 20 when he joined the Army Air Corps, and WWII had already started. The question of why he joined surprises him because the answer is seemingly obvious. “It’s a strange question,” he says, shrugging. “Because I wanted to. The war was starting, and I felt a sense of duty.”
He wanted to follow his father’s footsteps and join the Navy; however, the Navy wouldn’t take him because he had some broken teeth. “So, I walked across the street and joined the Air Corps,” he remembers.
During WWII, Shulhafer served in the European and Pacific Theaters, and had the job of aerial reconnaissance photographer. He spent much of that time assigned to the 313th Photo Lab, on Tinian Island in the Pacific. The faded black and white photos of his fellow airmen in shirtsleeves working in the lab, B-29s stationed on the island after the United States Marines captured it in 1944, and aerial reconnaissance photos of the destruction wrought by bombing, are the first ones Shulhafer shows during a recent interview in his Community Living Center room at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, Ill.
His daughters Joan Osika and Donna Holmes joined him in his CLC room, covering his bed with tattered letters and photos and peppering him with questions about his military service, their mother, and other events in his life, all captured for the ages on film. His youngest child, daughter Linda Bingham, wasn’t present. His oldest child, Richard Shulhafer, passed away, as well as his wife after 71 years of marriage.
“This is the first time we’re hearing some of these things,” Holmes says. “It’s exciting.”
Carolyn’s presence was everywhere in Shulhafer’s room, most vividly in the letters the two wrote to each other every single day they were apart. The boxes of love letters their parents penned during WWII are heartfelt, romantic and represent “a really truly amazing love story,” Holmes said. Some of them are so sexy it makes Osika and Holmes blush to even talk about them.
The couple met in a bakery before the war, when both were on blind dates with others. “That was the beginning,” Shulhafer says. “I asked her to wait for me, and she waited. Not one day was missed. We wrote every day.”
One framed photo collage on display in his room includes a photo of Shulhafer in uniform writing one of the love letters and a glam photo of Carolyn that the daughters agree their Mom “touched up. She drew lines to make herself look svelte,” Osika says, smiling as she gazes at the photo.
“It was early Photoshopping,” Shulhafer says, noting that his wife was ahead of the times.
His daughters say Shulhafer, himself, was ahead of his time “technology-wise,” because among his things they found actual voice-recorded messages he sent their mother. “They are just these little spools of wire,” Holmes says incredulously. “We need to do something with those,” she tells her sister during the interview.
Although tape recorders existed at that time, wire recorders – which allowed sound to be magnetically recorded on thin steel wire – were more prevalent. Based on that technology, the Navy contracted out development of a portable (wire) sound recorder during WWII, mostly for use by journalists in the field.
Shulhafer’s photo reconnaissance job in WWII included taking aerial photos of plane crashes, as well as “after” photos of bombed areas. Among the photos Shulhafer took is one titled “The Last One.” It depicts the destruction of the Marifu Rail Yards at Iwakuni, on Honshu Island, Japan, Aug. 14, 1945, by two Bomb Groups of the 313th Bomb Wing. It was the “final raid before hostilities ceased.”
He is proud of the fact that he was involved in testing the use of airborne radar to detect enemy ships and planes during WWII. Later, he trained others to use radar technology.
In a case of being in the right place at the right time in history, Shulhafer became an officer during WWII. “There were three of us on the train,” he remembers. “All had some qualifications, but they only needed one officer, and I got it.” He credits his prior experience in junior ROTC in high school, and his love of photography, as well as his good record, for leading to his selection.
Twice during WWII, the planes he was in were shot at and forced to land – not crash, he specifies. He got his pilot’s license during the war and remembers flying home one time and surprising his wife. After the war, he joined the Air Force Reserve, and he and Carolyn married and first lived in Chicago with relatives because there wasn’t enough housing for returning GIs. Later, they lived in Glenview for many years.
Shulhafer served in the Korean War as an Air Force major, and says his job was navigation but offers no other details. In civilian life, he worked in sales with Pivan Investment Engineering, and later with his son’s company New Horizons.
At one point before he retired as a lieutenant colonel, he was part of the Air National Guard’s 126th Air Refueling Wing, stationed at O’Hare Airport. He also worked at Military Entrance Processing Command in Des Plaines, where he says he enjoyed donning his uniform to swear the young people in who were joining the military.
In February of this year, he moved into a room on the “Courage” floor in the Lovell FHCC Community Living Center, where his ready smile, sense of humor and friendliness have earned him many new friends.
“He’s very pleasant, just a joy” says Courage Clinical Nurse Manager Tania Smith. “He is fascinating with great stories to share.”