George N. Wirtanen, 82, military pilot and decorator

January 01, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

George N. Wirtanen, an Army Air Forces pilot who dropped paratroopers into Normandy during the D-Day invasion, died of cancer yesterday at Fort Howard Hospice Center. He was 82.

Mr. Wirtanen lived in Parkville for the past 60 years, where he owned the Hillcrest Painting and Decorating Co.

Born in Hurley, Wis., where his Finnish parents had immigrated, Mr. Wirtanen grew up in Catskill, N. Y., He got his first taste of flying when he was 11, after a pilot in a small plane ran out of fuel and landed on the family farm.

The youngster kept an eye on the stranded plane while the pilot got more fuel, and the grateful pilot took Mr. Wirtanen on a three-minute ride. He didn't tell his parents about this until years later, but his first airplane ride inspired his love of flying.

After high school, Mr. Wirtanen moved to Baltimore to paint houses with an older brother, and worked odd jobs at Curtis Wright Airfield in exchange for flying lessons. In 1942, he joined the Army Air Forces and, after flight training, was sent overseas to fly C-47s. He flew 17 combat missions over France, Italy and North Africa and flew Bob Hope to USO performances.

On June 6, 1944, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, he dropped paratroopers into France. Mr. Wirtanen was part of the 442nd Troop Carrier Group, 304th Squadron; he and eight pilots flew over Ste. Mere Eglise to drop members of the 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborn Division. Five of the nine planes were shot down, and three sustained damage. Mr. Wirtanen completed the mission with his plane unscathed.

Mr. Wirtanen also served during the Korean War, remained active with the reserves, and retired as a captain in the 1970s. After the Korean War, he started Hillcrest Painting and Decorating Co. and attended night school at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where he earned a degree in interior decorating. He ran the painting company until he was 80. He also worked for many years as a real estate agent with Grempler Real Estate Co. in Towson.

Mr. Wirtanen was president of the Parkville Optimists Club, governor of the Maryland chapter of the Silver Wings Fraternity, and a longtime member of the Maryland Antique Arms Association. He served as a Boy Scout leader at Grace Lutheran Church in Hamilton and was a leader of the Sea Scout Unit at Aisquith Presbyterian Church in Parkville.

A memorial service will be held 11 a.m. Jan. 8 at Calvary Lutheran Church, 2625 E. Northern Parkway, Baltimore.

Mr. Wirtanen's wife, Dorothy Earley Wirtanen, died in 1992; they had been married 49 years. He is survived by a son, the Rev. G. Neale Wirtanen Jr. of Aberdeen; a daughter, Regina W. Buker of Hamilton; and four granddaughters.

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