On Monday, World War II bomber pilot Gerald “Jerry” Solheid of San Diego marked his 103rd birthday with his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Family members who gathered to visit Solheid at Nazareth House in Mission Valley were grateful for the arrival of the vaccine. But if anyone could get by without the much-anticipated shot, it might be Solheid. In December, he survived a bout with COVID-19; in 2009, he beat lymphoma; and in 1944, he escaped four B-24 bomber crash landings with little more than a scratch.
“He’s a very religious man, so we have always said he has an angel on his shoulder,” daughter-in-law Susan Solheid said on Monday.
Because of COVID-19 safety rules at Solheid’s assisted living center, his family couldn’t have a party for him. They delivered cake, cards and balloons to the center, but were only able to speak to him through the window of his room. Dementia has robbed Solheid of his short- and long-term memories, but Susan said he still recognizes his family members and was in very good spirits on Monday.
“He was very happy to see us all,” she said.
Solheid, his late wife, Addie, and their three children moved to San Diego in 1956 when he was hired as a flight test engineer for General Dynamics’ missile program. After 67 years of marriage, Addie died in 2011, but all of Solheid’s children — Roger Solheid, Cheryl Staples and Vicki Streetman — live close by. Solheid moved into assisted living in 2015 after he broke his hip while gardening.
Susan said that when her husband, Roger, and his sisters were growing up, their father never talked much about his experiences in the war. It was only in 1999, when he sat for a recorded interview with Vicki’s father-in-law, Joe Streetman, that he shared the stories from his flying career. Solheid told Streetman that when he first arrived in Southern Italy, in mid-1944, the casualty rate for B-24 Liberator heavy bomber crews like his own was high. Only about 50 percent of the planes made it back. But his background as both a test pilot and an airplane mechanic may have provided the flying skills he needed to bring back all of his crews alive.
A native of Fort Madison, Iowa, Solheid initially studied for the priesthood, but his real dream was to fly planes. So in February 1941, armed with his credits from a Catholic divinity school, he joined the Army. Initially he was trained as an airplane mechanic and later worked as an instructor. But after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, he started pilot training in California, and later in New Mexico, where he met his future wife.
His first real brush with death came during pilot training on July 4, 1944. While practicing formation flying with two other B-24s in the skies over Palm Springs, the plane flying beneath Solheid’s struck the bottom of his plane at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Solheid and his co-pilot were able to pull their crippled plane out of a spin and give the crew enough time to parachute to safety before they landed safely near Palm Springs.
Assigned to the Ninth Air Force, 464th Bombardment Group, Solheid was shipped to Italy, where he and his crew were assigned to bomb bridges and marshalling yards to disrupt Germany’s ability to get its troops and planes back to safety within its borders. During two months in fall 1944, Solheid went on multiple bombing runs to Vienna, Austria, where his plane was repeatedly hit with flak shells by anti-aircraft artillery guns. In his interview with Streetman, Solheid said the Germans would blanket the skies over Vienna with exploding shells that were impossible to avoid.
“You had to fly right through that black box. That was where the target was,” he told Streetman. “The night before you used to sweat blood, but on the run you didn’t have any thought at all. You just went and did it.”
During three of those missions, flak took out one or more of his engines, so he had to find a place to force-land the planes either behind enemy lines in Austria or in what is now Croatia. In one of those ill-fated runs on Oct. 17, 1944, the plane’s windshield was shot out and a piece of flak slashed Solheid’s chin: “It just went right on by. If it’d been a little closer, it would have decapitated me,” he said.
Solheid would finish out the war as an air inspector in charge of bomber maintenance. Then he spent six months as a test pilot in Trinidad before returning to the United States where he trained at Air Force colleges in Orlando and Alabama. But because there was little work for military pilots after the war, he decided to leave the service and he earned a degree in physics from DePaul University in Chicago. Then married with a son, Solheid moved his family west to Portland, Ore., where their two daughters were born. He was later drawn to San Diego in the mid-1950s because his widowed mother and several siblings had relocated here.
In San Diego, Solheid worked for General Dynamics and then ran his own AAMCO transmission shop on Kettner Boulevard. Addie worked as a physical education teacher. They retired in their mid-50s and spent their retirement years traveling the Southwest and Baja on camping, hunting and fishing trips. Susan said her father-in-law has always been a positive, upbeat person who makes the best of his life.
“He is very happy where he lives, never a complainer, with a good upbeat attitude. Everyone likes him and says what a dear man he is,” she said.
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