He chose the Army Air Corps. A year later, on Sept. 8, 1944, he was a nose-gunner on a B-24 Liberator, making strategic bombing missions over Europe out of southern Italy.
He would fly 35 such missions before the war ended, but on this day it seemed certain the war would end for him at hardly half that many. This particular mission, his 17th, involved the bombing of a German oil field, Ploesti.
The mission was accomplished, but at a terrible price. German anti-aircraft artillery and fighter planes were waiting for the lumbering bombers.
“We were like sitting ducks,” Diles said.
Many of the B-24 crews never finished the mission. They died when their planes crashed in the mountainous Balkans of Yugoslavia. Many parachuted into the unknown and some who survived became German POWs.
The 19-year-old Diles, his plane badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire, bailed out with his crew over Yugoslavia, behind enemy lines.
American intelligence had warned the bomber crews that if they were shot down over Yugoslavia, to avoid the Serbs, who reportedly were collaborating with the Germans.
Not true at all, says Diles.
“Guerrilla fighters with the Serbian Chetnik Resistance Army picked me up and saved my life,” he said. “They hid us from the Germans. I have supported the Serbians ever since. I subscribe to their newspaper. I have intense loyalty to them even today.”
One of Diles’ crew members, the radio operator, was captured by the Germans. Diles and the other six were rescued by local villagers and members of the Serbian Chetnik Resistance Army, led by Gen. Draza Mihailovich.
Back home at 3153 Walnut St. in Portsmouth, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Curtis Diles, wrung their hands in anxiety as a war department message told them only that their son was missing in action since a flight on Sept. 8.
The Serbs kept them hidden and fed them and, working with U.S. Intelligence forces, made arrangements that saw Diles and his crew members, along with other American fliers who had been shot down and rescued by the Serbs, picked up by an American C-47. They were back at their home base within 10 days after they were shot down.
“We walked from Belgrade to the makeshift airstrip where the plane would pick us up. It must have been 150 miles though woods and over hills. We slept in a hayloft of a barn that final night. The C-47 picked us up on Sept. 17, 1944, and brought us out of there,” Diles said.
He learned that it was not just his crew that Guerrilla fighters with the Serbian Chetnik Resistance Army had helped. First, they heard of 50 others, then they learned that there were hundreds of other American flyers who had bailed out of their crippled planes and were protected from the Germans by the Serbs.
The United States sent in OSS agents on a daring rescue mission known as Operation Halyard. What started as a 10-day mission lasted nearly six months and the C-47s, landing one by one on a runway built by the Americans and the Serbs, brought out nearly 500 downed American flyers.
“It was a covert operation. The Air Force had four or five men assigned to this shuttle service, flying from Italy to the airstrip in Serbia, picking up a load, and flying them back to Italy,” Diles said.
While the rescue was taking place, Diles said, the U.S. and Great Britain abandoned Mihailovich, accusing him of collaborating with the Germans. They began backing instead communist leader Gen. Josip Tito.
Diles said he and other rescued airmen felt the U.S. government didn’t give Mihailovich credit for helping them and relied on false information in turning against him.
The man who Time Magazine voted Man of the Year in 1941 was put on trial by Tito when the war ended, found guilty of being a traitor, and executed by firing squad.
According to Diles, hundreds of American airmen who had been rescued with Mihailovich’s help were angry and devastated over not being allowed to testify on his behalf.
“I have yet to hear a rational explanation as to why our government abandoned the Serbians or neglected to intervene in the trial of Mihailovich,” Diles said.
At any rate, once back at their home base in southern Italy, Diles and his crew were assigned another B-24 and were soon back helping to bomb Germany into submission.
“Up until that time, if you were shot down and survived, you went home, the entire crew, but I had to go back and fly some more,” he said, no doubt because the U.S. had lost so many bombers on these strategic bombing flights over Europe.
He made 18 more missions. He had a few shrapnel wounds but nothing serious enough to keep him out of action.
The Purple Heart is among the medals he won for his year in combat.
“A lot of men who received that medal died, and I didn’t really feel right about accepting it. But they said I had earned it, and I should take it,” he said.
He also was awarded the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in or with the U.S. Army, distinguishes himself by “meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”
“I believe one cluster was awarded to the medal for each 10 missions flown, something like that,” Diles said.
Discharged in November 1945, Diles returned to Portsmouth to find a job and get on with his life. He married Inez Pruitt of Vanceburg, Ky., in 1948. They have lived in the Dayton area — Huber Heights — for the past 36 years. They have three sons and a daughter, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
An event taking place 10 years ago in the Dayton area brought to life again those 10 days Diles and his B-24 crew members spent in the mountains of Yugoslavia with the people who saved their lives, the Serbian Chetnik Guerrilla fighters.
His 12-year-old grandson, Adam Harlow, checked a book out of the school library for a class reading assignment at his junior high school.
The Time-Life book, written in 1978 by Ronald Bailey, had a photograph taken Sept. 17, 1944, by Life magazine photo journalist J.B. Allin, of five American flyers sleeping in a hayloft.
Harlow’s mother, Teresa, thumbing through the book, discovered the photo on page 188. Diles, then 19, was in the middle, and she recognized him immediately. She rushed to show Adam his grandfather, immortalized now in a 32-year-old Time-Life history book about World War II.
The Life magazine photographer had accompanied the C-47 that flew Dials and the others to safety, and learned from the Serbs of the American flyers hidden in the barn loft.
“That’s my grandpa!” Adam told his teachers and classmates, opening the book to the photograph.
Diles worked for more than 31 years as an automotive machinist with Wolford Machine Shop in Portsmouth. All the time he was trying to get a job at the steel mill in New Boston (first going by Cyclops, then Empire Detroit Steel), which was the best paying job around.
Finally, when he was past 50, he got on there.
“They never hired anybody past 40, but the federal government had a new law about age discrimination, and they could not refuse to hire me because of my age,” Diles said.
He worked there 18 months, until the mill, already on its downward spiral, closed its doors forever in 1980.
“We sold our Portsmouth house, moved to Dayton, and I started life all over at past 50,” Diles said.
“I have subscribed to the Portsmouth Times for more than 60 years,” he said. “I was a Times carrier in 1940-41. My route was in eastern Portsmouth and western New Boston.
“In 1968, my only son, Dennis Diles, had the same route for two years. He saved enough money from his carrier job and a part-time job with K-Mart in Huber Heights to pay his first year’s tuition at Wright State University, where he eventually graduated with a degree in chemistry and was employed by Cargill Corp. in Dayton. Today he’s with Cargill’s Minneapolis Division as a computer chemical engineer.”
Curtis Diles said he did get his PHS diploma after the war.
“I failed to graduate from Portsmouth because I had not taken a required history course. After the war I returned to PHS in order to make up the lost credits and get my diploma,” he said. “I was elated when the principal told me, ‘Diles, you MADE history, (so) I see no need for you to take any course in history.’ All I could say was ‘Thank you, sir!’”
Speaking in response to his interview by a Daily Times reporter for this story, he said, “Your prompting has caused me to review the past 65 years and I find I have had a full enjoyable life with one son, three daughters, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and still enjoy every day.
“My wife, Inez, and I are still maintaining our independent lifestyle with little help from anyone except for the love of our family and friends.”
He said his two years with the Army Air Force and the nine days he was in Serbia had a life-long effect on him.
“When our national leaders abandoned our ally, Serbia, it was devastating to see my life-saving friends abandoned to the Communist regime,” he said. “I still support my Serbian friends in any way I can.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.