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Robert Brouk’s every move in 1942 made front-page news. He was an early U.S. World War II hero and Brouk’s community of Cicero burst with pride over their hometown hero, a 1937 Morton College graduate.
The exploits of his aerial outfit, the Flying Tigers, was made into a movie that year with John Wayne in the starring role.
Cicero honored him on August 2nd in a parade where “all of Cicero was expected to turn out.” The LIFE Newspapers wrote about the day as “a community-rousing idea which grew to immense proportions under the direction of a committee of civic-minded leaders…to honor a national hero and native son.
“Nothing has been overlooked in making this day one which will live long not only in the memories of the hero and his parents, but also in the hearts of all residents of the area.”
Morton College’s alumni group postponed a swimming party to attend the Brouk parade. They, too, wanted to be part of the event and did so in carrying signs like “Japs Say: War No Joke When Fought by Bob Brouk” and “Send Those Japs Woe From Cicero.”
The LIFE Newspapers put together a day in his honor. Companies wanted to be associated with Brouk.
The Sears store located on the corner of Cermak and Austin that employed Brouk took out a full-page ad in The LIFE, noting, “He’s a Sears Man – and we’re mighty proud of Bob Brouk, an American hero.”
The Sears ad further described Brouk, who also attended Wilson School and Morton High School, as “having a distinguished record as a high-flying, straight-shooting ace in the AVG (American Volunteer Group).
“As long as young Americans like Bob Brouk are ready to step cheerfully and loyally into the hard jobs that produce heroes, our nation and our way of life will be safe.”
Brouk, who grew up at 2120 South 59th Court in Cicero, made the rounds to civic and community organizations eager for details of his Flying Tiger exploits. The day’s leading radio personalities, Bob Elson and Jack Brickhouse, both later recipients of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award as the voices of the White Sox and Cubs, respectively, interviewed Brouk.
And Brouk didn’t disappoint. He displayed a great sense of humor. The 1937 Morton College Pioneer yearbook described Brouk as “athletic, scholastic and sociable.” At Morton College, Brouk was a pre-engineering major and member of the wrestling team.
After Brouk shot down his first enemy aircraft in a flight over Ragoon, Burma, on Christmas Day of 1941, he sent a cable (think of a text that had to be hand-delivered by a messenger) to his parents in Cicero that he was “sending them a Jap plane as a Christmas present.”
Addressing the Cicero Lions Club, Brouk recalled that Christmas encounter where he tangled with 80 Japanese bombers and 40 fighter planes. Brouk noted the “only thing that hurt me was that I only got one.” The Joliet Herald News said his interview with Elson at a USO event in Joliet was the “hit of the evening.”
The LIFE’s Pearl Harbor one-year anniversary supplement in December of 1942 described Brouk as the “most colorful hero the community has had yet” and that the Flying Tigers were the “most romantic group the war has produced to date.”
He won the heart of Virginia Scharer, the reigning 1941 “Hello Charley Girl” beauty queen from Western Electric, and they married after a whirlwind three-month courtship. They had met at a war bond rally sponsored by Western Electric where Brouk was the honored guest.
Scharer was among several Western Electric “girls” chosen to be part of a welcoming committee, according to The LIFE, which added, “Friends of the couple said their meeting was practically ‘love at first sight.’”
News of their “surprise engagement” two weeks prior to their wedding received headline treatment in The LIFE. After all, it was the community’s version of a royal wedding. Think of Charles and Diana or Grace Kelly and Rainier III.
Their November wedding at the First Congregational Church of Oak Park attracted 1,400 friends and well-wishers, according to one published report. Six of Scharer’s Western Electric co-workers served as bridesmaids.
In today’s world, Brouk, just 25 years old, would be a social media hero with record numbers of Twitter and Facebook followers. His gunning down of a Japanese plane probably would have made Brouk a YouTube sensation.
Who were the Flying Tigers?
They were a group of U.S. pilots headed to China three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 to be part of a flying foreign legion called the American Volunteer Group or AVG. China and Japan were at war for almost four years and Japanese war planes bombed Chinese cities at will.
China sought Air Corps captain Claire Chennault to develop a Chinese air force. The Flying Tigers were together about a year before they were disbanded in July of 1942.
Money, according to a 1942 Life Magazine article, may have been a motivating factor. The pay was $600 to $750 per month, more than twice they would have been paid in the military. A $500 bounty for each Japanese plane shot down provided a nice incentive.
RT Smith, a pilot with the Flying Tigers, provided his own rationale in the “History of the Flying Tigers” website.
Smith felt a very few may have been “enticed by a bigger paycheck, but not many would willingly stick their necks out to that extent simply for a few extra dollars.
“Many of us, at least to a degree, were idealists who knew we would be fighting for a just cause. Most wanted to prove to themselves that they had both the courage and ability to engage an enemy in battle and beat him."
“Some felt they were in a rut, dissatisfied with their military assignments in the US, wanting to be fighter pilots instead of being restricted to the limited horizons of flying bombers or training planes. So there were a number of reasons, and I believe that a combination of these prompted most of us to sign up with the AVG.”
Being a Flying Tiger was glamorous, but every mission came with great risk. Brouk suffered shrapnel wounds in his legs and hands that kept him in a hospital for a month, according to a July 19, 1942 Chicago Tribune article.
Brouk left the Army Air Corps to join the AVG. After his honorable discharge from the AVG, Brouk reenlisted with Army Air Corps to train pilots in Florida.
Brouk survived a number of dangerous encounters, but died while an Army pursuit plane he was piloting crashed in mid-air with a fellow pursuit plane during flight maneuvers. The crash was described a “secure routine task.”
It was six days before Christmas and just three weeks after his marriage. His young wife was watching the squadron fly in while sitting on the hood of her car, according to Jennifer Holik’s book, The Tiger’s Widow.
His body was brought back home. Brouk lie in state at Chrastka Funeral Home on the corner of Highland and Cermak in Berwyn. Thousands paid their respects and many stood for hours in the chapel to witness the ceremony. Three autos were needed to carry all the floral wreaths to the cemetery.
The previous month, Rev. Albert Buckner Coe performed Brouk’s wedding ceremony. Now, Rev. Coe had to prepare Brouk’s eulogy for a service the day after Christmas.
The LIFE delayed printing the Sunday paper to cover Brouk’s funeral. The editor made the right call in assigning Orv Lifka to cover the difficult story of covering a man’s funeral who was only two years younger than the reporter at age 27.
Lifka, who spent 55 years at The LIFE, didn’t miss a detail. He probably only had a few hours to get back to the office and file his story as the presses were on hold.
“Services at the funeral home were witnessed by thousands of spectators. Many of them standing silently for several hours as they shared the deep grief of Mrs. Virginia Scherer [ sic] Brouk, bride of less than a month and his parents and brother.”
The widow collapsed while leaving the chapel and had to be carried into a waiting limousine. Lifka followed the procession to Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park for interment. He wrote, “Ft. Sheridan post chaplain … conducted a graveside ceremony. A salute was fired, and taps were sounded during the solemn ritual which was punctuated by the sobs of members of Bob’s immediate family.”
Virginia entered the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps on her 21st birthday on April 5, 1943. She was stationed in Cairo, Egypt, where Virginia met her second husband, Harvey. They were married after the war and enjoyed 57 years together. She is now 94 and in good health.
Virginia’s “Hello Charley Girl” plaque from Western Electric can be viewed in Morton College’s Hawthorne Works Museum.
According to Holik’s book, Stories of the Lost, after Brouk’s death, no one in the family knew what happened to Virginia. The rest of the story went untold until 2005 when Holik and Virginia were connected through a post Holik made on a Flying Tiger message board that Virginia’s grandson noticed.
Virginia sent Holik Robert’s war diary and several photos of him in Burma during 1941 and 1942. Four years later, Holik started working on Brouk’s story. Holik spoke to Virginia and conducted additional research on Brouk through sources such as newspapers, military records, Western Electric records, Army accident reports and interviews with a few surviving Flying Tigers.
In 2011, Brouk’s story was published in Holik’s book, “To Soar with the Tigers.” It was later updated and republished in her book, “Stories of the Lost.” Both versions contained Brouk’s complete war diary, photographs, and chapters on his homecoming to Cicero, his marriage, death and remembrances.
Holik later met with Virginia, and after conducting additional research, she wrote and published her story in 2014, The Tiger’s Widow. This describes the love Robert and Virginia shared and how she took up his fight a few months after his death, according to Holik.
“Through both books, Robert and Virginia’s memories and contributions to our freedom will be remembered,” Holik said.
Editor’s note: This year marked the 100th anniversary of Brouk’s birth on September 2, 1917. His grave at Woodlawn is in the Birchwood Lot 331-N PT 3 Grave 3.