Stan Dolbinski intended to join the Marines, but a workplace accident in high school sent him down a different path.
The honors student worked late into the night at a Chicago factory. One day on the job, he accidentally poured hot tar onto his arm. The scar is still visible on the 92-year-old.
The wound didn’t heal well enough in time to join the Marines, so he and a friend enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942.
“Maybe it saved my life,” Dolbinski said of the accident, though he’ll never know what his fate might have been if he had become a Marine.
The Army Air Corps had him performing radar countermeasures, maintaining transmitters and receivers on planes, and jamming enemy radar.
Training took took him to Boca Raton, Fla., to a facility surrounded by barbed wire.
“It was very hush-hush,” he said. “You couldn’t take any paper in or out of that classroom.”
He recalls taking off in Brazil en route to India and immediately making a loop back to the airstrip as gasoline poured from the plane’s engine. Someone, apparently, had forgotten to secure the cap on the fuel tank.
It seemed like an accident at the time. But Dolbinski has since read up on the war, learning that some Brazilians leaned toward Germany. It wasn’t uncommon for locals to disrupt American military efforts by trying to sneak sugar into a plane’s fuel supply, he said. He now wonders whether the incident with the cap was intentional.
Nevertheless, Dolbinski landed in India, where he stayed for much of the war. India housed a number of American B-29 bombers, which flew supplies from Calcutta to China. Once stockpiled in China, the bombs transported from India were dropped over Japan.
To remain undetected by enemy radar, the Americans packed soda straws covered with strips of aluminum into the planes, each as long as a quarter of the wavelength of the radar. When a plane let them drop, the enemy could not tell which was the plane and which were the straws.
Eventually, orders came to relocate to Tinian, one of the Pacific’s Mariana Islands that contained several airstrips.
En route on a ship south of Australia during May 1945, the captain came over the public address system to inform the soldiers that the war in Germany was over.
“We all cheered,” Dolbinski recalled.
But the war continued in Japan.
Dolbinski was stationed on the same island as the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima, though he did not know it at the time. A pilot took off with it in a B-29 from Tinian’s North Field on Aug. 6, 1945.
“We didn’t know anything about it until (President Harry) Truman came on the air and said a bomb was dropped on Japan,” he recalled.
At war’s end, he returned to the United States on a ship that harbored in San Francisco. He received one ticket for a homecoming meal he has never forgotten. German POWs captured in Africa worked the mess line, preparing steaks, chops, cakes, milk and more -- “stuff you didn’t get overseas at all,” Dolbinski said.
While in India and Tinian, his diet consisted of frozen mutton.
“I lost a lot of weight,” he said. “I can’t stand sheep meat.”
After Dolbinski returned home, he attended the University of Wisconsin to study electrical engineering. He later found employment with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Bismarck, later known as the Western Area Power Administration. He spent his career building a system of transmission lines and substations carrying power from the Garrison Dam throughout North Dakota.
The work was a natural fit after having spent so much time with electronics during the war.
“It was tied into what I was doing with the Army,” he said.
The friend with whom he enlisted, Joseph C. Patla, never made it back. Only recently did Dolbinski learn the details of his death when he asked a relative on a fishing trip to try to find the information online.
Patla reportedly died near Yap Island east of the Philippines after engine trouble with his plane forced the crew to abandon it and take their chances on life rafts in the ocean.
“In the morning, they couldn’t see him,” Dolbinski said. “They figured he was probably picked up by the Japanese.”
Decades after his friend’s death, he keeps a printout of the webpage that explains what happened.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he said.
In April 2010, Dolbinski and 93 others from North Dakota boarded an honor flight in Bismarck with a send-off from honor guards and Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, then commander of the North Dakota National Guard.
They arrived in Washington, where they attended a banquet honoring the veterans’ service, toured the monuments and visited Arlington National Cemetery.
He keeps a book of photos from the trip at home, which includes a picture of him at the World War II memorial standing against the pillar for Illinois, his home state.
It was a final step in his circle around the globe.