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May 19, 2024

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Chicago Airport Tower Named After
Polish American Flight Safety Crusader

The City of Chicago named one of its Control Towers after Roman Pucinski in a ceremony held on October 25 at 10:00 am at O’Hare Airport. 

Roman Pucinski, Congressman and Alderman in the City of Chicago for 32 years, was honored with the dedication of a tower in his name for his successful work in Congress  requiring “Black Boxes” on all commercial aircraft.  Pucinski died in 2002.

Pucinski introduced legislation requiring voice recorders in airplanes based on his experience as a bombardier-navigator in World War II.  “If anything went wrong, or if anti-aircraft flak was coming at us it could be total chaos in the cockpit,” Pucinski said. “When we went in for de-briefing there would be a dozen variations on what happened and how.  I realized that we needed a neutral record of events so that we could stay safe and improve our aircraft.”

This equipment is almost universally in use today, and the number of lives saved by improved aircraft production, maintenance, and use cannot be estimated.  Famously called “Black Boxes” although they are actually bright orange, this equipment is the single most important piece of evidence when researching the cause of aircraft accidents.

“Our family is very grateful Mayor Emanuel,  Ald. Ed Burke and the City of Chicago for honoring Dad this way.  O’Hare Airport was in his Congressional District and in his ward, and he followed its impact on the residents of the City of Chicago very closely.  Besides his lifelong interest in aviation, his experience during the War persuaded him that accurate records of accident events were essential for modern aviation. ” said his daughter, Illinois Appellate Court Justice Aurelia Pucinski.

The Pucinski Tower is between the Hilton and terminal 2. The event was held outside at the base of the tower on the ground or arrivals level of the airport.

Remarks of Aurelia Pucinski, Dedication of Roman Pucinski Tower
O’Hare Airport, Chicago, Illinois, October 25,2018

May 19, 1944

“2nd Lt. Roman Pucinski B -17 bombardier and 2nd Lt. Garson Hertzel, navigator of the same aircraft, were on the ramp under the nose of the plane picking up their equipment.  A big sea of flames engulfed the back of the refueling unit and spread rapidly to the nose of the plane aided by high wind.  Lt. Pucinski ran through the flames with Cpl. John Maier.  Upon reaching a safe area Lt. Pucinski removed Cpl. John Maier’s clothes which were on fire.   Cpl. Maier was dispatched to the hospital in the first ambulance.  Lt. Pucinski directed the second ambulance to Lt. Hertzel, and they were both taken to the hospital.  Lt. Pucinski suffered first and second degree burns on his face, and both hands.” Army Air Field, Great Bend, Kansas – training accident report.

July 16, 1964

The Federal Aviation Agency issued an order that all air lines must install crash proof tape recorders in their aircraft by January 1, 1967.  This order is the culmination of a three-year fight waged by Rep. Roman Pucinski, a former bomber pilot who has been fighting as hard as he knew how to get the FAA to move on his proposal.  Pucinski should be congratulated for not giving up in the face of bureaucratic lethargy. Chicago Sun Times.

Father Torba, Commissioner Reed, Ald. Burke, Ald, O’Connor, Friends,

The Pucinski Family is deeply grateful that Mayor Emanuel and the City Council have chosen to honor my father by dedicating this Tower in his name.

It is a tribute not just to Roman Pucinski, but to the idea that when something important needs to be done it only takes one man with courage and tenacity to see it through. 

Dad was born into the generation raised by immigrant mothers who taught their sons to work hard, face obstacles without rancor, fight for what is right and remain fiercely patriotic.  They got through the Depression, saved the world for Democracy, and built modern America.  Some people call Dad’s generation the greatest, but I would argue that the mothers who raised those sons deserve a lot of the credit.

In his careers as a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, as a Member of Congress, and as an Alderman, he worked tirelessly for truth and fairness.  He loved helping people and was relentless when something got snagged in red tape.   

He wrote legislation that would have established the first information and data retrieval center so that people could communicate quickly.

He wrote and sheparded to passage legislation that to this day is funding America’s schools and libraries so that every school can be exceptional,  promoting vocational education so that every student graduates with a marketable skill,  urging heritage studies so that in this mosaic we call America we can understand and respect each other, and set the installation of “Black Boxes’ in motion.

Since 1964—– 25,209,308,000.80 — more than 25 billion passengers in the United States alone have traveled on commercial air planes that have benefitted from the mechanical and technical information gleaned after accidents by those Black Boxes.

It was a source of great pride to him, as he watched the planes landing and taking off over his house from O’Hare, that the information he fought so hard to get was available to continually improve air safety.

After training Dad was shipped to Saipan.  He flew more than 40 missions and knew first hand that with flak coming in and things going wrong the crew was doing everything they could just to get home safely. “All hell would break loose,” he said. “By the time we landed it was hard to debrief the crew to find out what happened.” The determination to get reliable, neutral information was set into his heart and he never gave up.

He was from the generation of gentlemen and gentlelady politicians.  He could work a room searching for compromise, conciliation, and agreement, the way a maestro works a symphony orchestra.  He was thrilled when he could achieve it, but did not hold a grudge when he couldn’t.  The good news for us is that more often than not he was successful.

His collegiality was informed by his passion for being fair.

His determination was informed by Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for the man who in time of crisis seeks to steer a neutral course.”

Dad would be humbled by your kindness today.

I hope that Roman Pucinski Tower will stand as a symbol to every person who sees it that flights today are safer because of the determination of one Chicago Congressman who knew how to get things done.

The Pucinski family thanks you.

Justice Aurelia Pucinski and her family dedicated Roman Pucinski Tower at O’Hare Airport in Chicago

ROMAN PUCINSKI (1919 – 2002)

By Aurelia Pucinski 

Roman Pucinski always had good ideas.

While attending Wells High School, at which he was the class president (1938), he went to Bloomer’s Chocolate after school to buy chocolate bars at wholesale prices.  Then he would go to the Loop and sell the confection to office workers – who at the time did not enjoy the “coffee breaks” we have today.  His commitment to helping his single mother, Lidia Pucinska, and his two siblings was strong and he continued to help with family finances by working any job he could find.

Pucinski was a child of the depression.  During those hard years his father left his mother and moved to another city.  He often recalled how embarrassing it was to wear “Depression Shoes” which had very thick soles and were made of sturdy leather to last a long time but were a dead give-away that the family was poor.  His mother, Lidia, was a radio personality at the time (and for the next 50 years) on a brokered station:  that meant that Lidia could only be on the air if she paid for her time and then went out, found sponsors, and collected money from them. Any profit was hers to keep.  Some weeks the money was so tight the whole family dug through every pocket, every couch cushion, every chest of drawers to gather any loose change to help pay the station.  One day Lidia had the money for the station but was short one penny for the bus to get to work.  She prayed and looked down and found the one penny she needed.  She never forgot the power of prayer, instilling it in her children and grandchildren, leading them in short impromptu prayers, often for safety, or guidance, or just help being thankful for our blessings.  She also often told her family: “Respect that penny; it could save your family one day!”

As soon as Poland was invaded by Germany in 1939, Pucinski enlisted in the Illinois National Guard.  He joined the famous “Black Horse Troop” cavalry unit.  He knew he needed to get training for the big war to follow, and was, like so many of his Polish American friends, eager for America to join the war.  When the Black Horse Troop was mechanized and the horses traded in for motorcycles he told his family: “If I am going to get killed it won’t be on one of those two wheel things – I am going to be a flier!”

Once war was declared he enlisted in the U.S. Army, and as soon as possible transferred for training to the Army Air Corps.  He eventually became a navigator/bombardier stationed in Saipan flying B-29’s over Japan, primarily Tokyo.  While in training he was involved in an airplane fire.  He later said that: “All hell broke loose; getting the facts was complicated by the confusion.”  Pucinski suffered burns to his face and hands while he pulled a fellow crew member out of the fire.  Later, on flights engaged in active combat Pucinski saw the potential dangers of any confusion in the aircraft and witnessed firsthand the difficult challenge faced by officers who later “de-briefed” the crew.  With so many different perspectives and opinions it was often impossible to tell exactly what happened on those planes. These experiences proved invaluable when, in Congress, Pucinski sponsored legislation to require voice recorders on all commercial aircraft, to provide data in case of emergencies.  That was the beginning of the “Black Boxes” we all know about.  In 1998 Pucinski received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Silver Medal of Distinguished Service for this accomplishment

We have all heard war -movie airplane and ship captains say something like: “Take the Con.”  In fighting aircraft it is the signal from the pilot to the bombardier that the latter has control of the aircraft during a bomb run, since the bombardier has the target in sight and has to correct control of the plane for wind, speed, weather, etc.  Pucinski was a successful bombardier, a fact that he later prayed over daily, knowing that his work in the war was effective against the enemy but also cost horrible civilian casualties.  He was also a well respected navigator, and after he had flown more than 40 missions over Japan he was assigned as a navigator-trainer for the duration of the war.  When the war ended Pucinski crewed in aircraft dropping humanitarian supplies to POW and civilian sites. Pucinski was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Air Medal and Air Medal with Clusters.

During the war he wrote often and lovingly to Aurelia Bordin.  His first note to her was a postcard from Saipan at Christmas.  On its back he wrote: “Regards, Roman.” He later teased that he had extra postcards and went through his entire address list then decided on a whim to send one to the vivacious Aurelia.  The rest is history.  Being a good patriotic young woman, and also totally enchanted by the handsome dark haired officer, Aurelia wrote back, and love was clearly in the future.

While stationed on Saipan Pucinski knew that his brother, Wes, had been captured by the Germans after the D-Day invasion.  Of course, the whole family, especially Lidia, was worried sick because they did not know if Wes was alive or dead.  The letter in which Pucinski told Aurelia that he learned Wes was alive and “safe” in a POW camp is a poignant reminder that so many families suffered such great heartache during those dark days of war.

Lidia, patriotic in the very best sense, sold $766,374.50 in war bonds through her radio show; it was enough to theoretically purchase a B-29, according to a letter from the United States Treasury Department.   

He often recalled his flights, long and tense, over open water, and the barrage of anti-aircraft fire coming at their plane.  His plane was just getting ready for its bomb run over Osaka when word came to pull out, the war was over.

Aurelia Bordin and Roman Pucinski were married at St. Hyacinth Church in Chicago on December 26, 1945 shortly after Pucinski’s return from the war.  The couple had two children, Aurelia Marie and Roman Bordin “Christopher.”

Pucinski graduated from Northwestern University and John Marshall Law School.

Pucinski had been a cub reporter for the Chicago Sun before the war and when he returned the paper offered him a job as a reporter.  He covered local stories, the criminal courts, and did investigative reporting as well.  When he was told he would get his first by-line story the editor asked what name he wanted to use.  “Pucinski, of course, that’s my name,” Pucinski answered.  The editor suggested using a last name like Palmer or Porter, “something more American.” Pucinski would have none of it.  “Pooch” was proud of his Polish heritage and proud of his name, and that was that.

In the presidential campaign of 1948 Pucinski was assigned to be the editor of the newspaper’s straw poll.  This was long before computer algorithms.  Instead Pucinski created a simple paper “ballot” with the candidates’ names and party.  He recruited reliable colleagues and college students to spread out throughout Cook County with a number of paper ballots and a simple box which was secure and had an opening for the ballot.  The number of ballots assigned to each location was determined by a statistical formula he developed.  When the boxes were all returned at the end of the day, Pucinski and some colleagues counted them.  The Chicago Sun Times straw poll was the only one in America that correctly predicted that Harry Truman would win the presidency. 

In one instance he and a female reporter posed as a young married couple and went to dozens of apartments doing research for a story about how landlords were gouging returning soldiers and their families.  The landlords would offer the apartment for a low rent but insist that cheap furniture installed for the purpose be bought at an exorbitant price to seal the deal.

Pucinski researched an entire series and wrote a story about drugstores artificially inflating prices on medications.  The first story ran in the early edition, but the editor pulled it out of the later editions and killed the series. He told Pucinski that the drugstores were so incensed that they were throwing all the newspapers in the gutter or in the trash and that the paper couldn’t take the loss of circulation!

Pucinski famously wrote a series of articles exposing the horrible conditions at juvenile court and the juvenile detention center.

He also helped solve one murder when, after interviewing neighbors,  he realized that the woman victim had been visited by a main claiming to be a door to door photographer, seen by other women in the neighborhood that day.  The “photographer” gained entry to the house under false pretenses and killed the poor woman.

In one of his most exciting newspaper capers, Pucinski snuck into the attic of the criminal court building over Judge Abe Marovitz’s jury room.  The jury was deliberating the notorious Moretti murder.  Pucinski heard that the jury was hung and threw a note to his pal Irv Kupcinet who was walking by.  Kupcinet walked into the judge’s chambers and told the surprised judge he had a hung jury.  The judge was furious and ordered the sheriff to search the building.  It was only his thin frame that saved Pucinski:  while the sheriffs searched the attic with flashlights he slipped between two rafters and was not found.  Many years later – well after the statute of limitations ran— Pucinski told Judge Marovitz that story.  The judge kindly forgave him and for many, many years the two were good friends and recalled the incident fondly.

Those were the days of scoops, dogged investigating, and simultaneous rebuttal.  No reporter was permitted to write anything negative about anyone unless he had a simultaneous rebuttal from the person for the story.  Years later Pucinski would lament the end of that tradition in news reporting.

Pucinski was fluently bilingual: English and Polish were languages both spoken at home and in his community. In 1951 the U.S. Congress decided to investigate the Katyn Forest Massacre of 15,000 Polish officers.  The Chairman of the Select Committee, Congressman John Kluczynski, invited Pucinski, an accomplished investigative reporter by then, to join their work as the lead investigator.

Pucinski spent the next two years travelling throughout Europe and America to find witnesses.

His work resulted in the U.S. Congress concluding in a massive report that in spite of the Russians claiming for years that it was a “Nazi atrocity” it was, in fact,  the Communists who had killed those victims.  The Katyn Forest Massacre would become a genocide that was little discussed during the cold war because high level U.S. policy makers felt that Russia had been an ally in World War II, and later because tensions with Russia were already high and those in diplomatic and military circles did not want to exacerbate the situation. 

Returning from his work for the committee, Pucinski knew that he had a destiny in Congress.  He told his family that he wanted to run for Congress, but his father in law, an immigrant from Poland, was vehemently opposed, saying: “Politics!  No, horrible, terrible!!!…No son of mine will be one of those cheating politicians!”  Of course, Sylvester Bordin had grown up in Poland where corruption was rife and his view of government workers was shared by most of his generation of immigrants.  Pucinski did not run for Congress in 1954 out of respect for Sylvester.  However, after the death of this father in law Pucinski did run in 1956, only to lose to the incumbent, Republican Congressman Tim Sheehan.  In l958, riding a wave of democrats to Congress, Pucinski was elected.  He was one of the first candidates to use television commercials in his campaign.  Tim Sheehan went on to start a bank and later told Pucinski that it was the best thing that ever happened to him.  The two remained friends and often spoke fondly of those days in Congress, when both parties cooperated in compromise.