Unbowed: The Story of Art Jurado
In the flak-torn skies above Linz, Austria, on 25 April 1945, Lieutenant John M. Smidl, commanding a B-24 Liberator in the 743rd Bomb Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, sat to the left of a man about whom he had initially had serious reservations.
Copilot Art Jurado should not have been there, and by all rights was lucky to be alive at all. Born in Los Angeles in 1923, Jurado was a natural athlete and a superb physical specimen, as comfortable walking on his hands as he was on his feet. In 1942, the wiry, five-feet, eight-inch Mexican American enlisted in the AAF, and two years later he earned a pair of gold second lieutenant bars and a set of pilot’s wings.
Jurado had all the natural ability and swagger to be a fighter pilot, but, one day in training, his cockiness got the best of him. Jurado buzzed a lake in his P-47 Thunderbolt, flying so low that the bottom of the plane brushed the surface. The fighter cracked up, knocking young Art nearly unconscious. He treaded water for two hours before help came, by which time he was so dazed that he swam away from his rescuers. Jurado was washed out of fighter training and ended up as copilot on Smidl’s bomber crew in Italy.
“I sure was not very impressed with him,” Smidl recalled of his early encounters with Jurado. He had a knack for trouble and a fondness for finding and exploiting loopholes in Army rules. Though bitter at having lost his chance to fly fighters, Art poured his seemingly limitless energy into physical conditioning. He swam, boxed with local Italians, and did heavy calisthenics. One day, Jurado came back from a trip into Cerignola with a fifty-foot rope over his shoulder.
“Hey Art, what’s with the rope?” Smidl asked.
“It’s for climbing—builds arm muscles, also great for stamina,” Jurado replied. “I’ll hang it up and work out every day.”
In his haste to conceive of a new way to sculpt his body, Jurado had apparently forgotten that the olive trees on their air base were neither tall nor stout enough to support such a workout.
“Hey Art,” Smidl needled, “why don’t you tie it onto the trunk and pull yourself along the ground?” It was the last the crew saw of the rope.
Smidl and Jurado became close friends and capably led the men of their crew into battle over Linz. Sergeant Bill Jacobus, manning a waist gun, was one of those men. Jacobus, whom the crew called “Jake,” had been on missions to Linz and groaned that morning when the briefer told them it was their target. He recollected:
"When you went over Linz, when they were shooting flak up there, it seemed like it was right at your level, right off the bat. Boy, those guys could shoot. I don’t know, there was just something about the artillery. You flew over Munich and they’d shoot up a huge barrage and miss. In Linz, they were sure accurate."
Watching out his waist gun window, Jacobus saw planes get hit and leave the formation as flak exploded close aboard. He was scared stiff.
Within two months of Victory in Europe Day, most of the personnel of the Fifteenth Air Force had departed for the United States. In late July 1945, many of the remaining stragglers of the 455th Bomb Group struck their tents at San Giovanni field and set out in trucks for Naples, where they would await for orders to return to America. Lieutenants John Smidl and Art Jurado acquired a two-day pass and ventured to the Isle of Capri together, knowing that their unit was due to ship out any day. As the pilot and copilot walked to the dock to take the last boat out, Jurado suddenly decided to stay on Capri for one more day, and Smidl went back to Naples without him.
The next morning, the 455th’s men left Italy, and Jurado, behind, and Art was forced to hitch several rides. In Dakar, Senegal, he finally caught up with his skipper. For the next leg of the journey, Smidl flew as copilot on one bomber while Jurado flew as a passenger on another. Hours into the journey, Smidl heard Jurado’s ship issue a Mayday. The B-17 had developed engine trouble over the Atlantic and could not stay airborne.
During his Stateside flight training, Jurado’s aerial antics had sent him and his P-47 tumbling into a lake. Now, with the war behind him, Jurado again went into the water in an airplane. It was 15 September 1945.
The impact of the ditching fractured Jurado’s spine near its base. As the Flying Fortress took on water, Art found himself buckled to his seat and unable to move his legs. With cold Atlantic water rising above his knees, Jurado finally managed to get free of his restraints and inflate his Mae West life preserver. The B-17 slipped beneath the waves just seconds after Jurado bobbed out of the radio room hatch. He would float, in shock and paralyzed from the waist down, for hours before a rescue boat reached him and the other survivors.
Art Jurado didn't give up. Paralyzed from the waist down, the pilot’s flying days were over, but his spirit was unbowed. Ever the physical conditioning enthusiast, Jurado hit the weights while still in the hospital and developed immense upper body strength. In 1949, he played the role of “The Great Jurado” on the cast of Fun on Wheels, a musical variety show featuring men in wheelchairs performing acrobatic tricks and “dancing” with beautiful women.
The next year, Jurado co-starred in the big screen debut of a relatively unknown actor named Marlon Brando in The Men, a movie about a paralyzed war veteran and the challenges he faces as he tries to re-enter society. Jurado played Angel Lopez, an upbeat kid whose spinal cord injury becomes infected, causing his sudden death. In 1963, at the age of 39, The Great Jurado went to fly with the angels.
Sources: - John Smidl, “The Men,” Cerignola Connection, Spring 2001. - Bruce Conner, “Art Jurado of ‘The Men’,” Strength & Health Magazine, December 1950. - William Jacobus interview with Mike Croissant, 14 May 2013.
- Alfred Asch, Hugh R. Graff, and Thomas A. Raimey, Flight of the Vulgar Vultures: The Story of the Four Hundred and Fifty-Fifth Bomb Group (H) WWII (Appleton, WI: Graphic Communications Center, Inc., 1991).
Photo credit: The Rudy Munoz Parra family