By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Active in war, accomplished in life

Thousand Oaks' Dave Hessler is an artist, a veteran and a friend


Monday, May 26, 2008
Ventura County Star

With artistic backgrounds on both sides of his family, Dave Hessler was always pretty good at art growing up.

So when he retired in 1990 from a career in graphic design, he decided to stay busy doing something other than what he had been doing for a living for 40 years.

"So, I did clown paintings, aircraft paintings, model ship building, wood carvings, woodworking — anything different," said Hessler, 83, of Thousand Oaks, who is constructing a violin and whose sculpture of a sailing ship from the 1700s is on display at the Newbury Park Library.

"My satisfaction in all these endeavors is the sense of accomplishment in a new field, and always looking for new interests," he said.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Hessler decided to pursue a future in commercial art and design after his military career.

"I served as a gunner on a B-24 bomber, stationed in Italy," he said. "There were 10 men on the crew, and we flew bombing missions all over southern Europe."

Evaded capture in Italy

On their fourth mission, they had to bail out short of their camp because of damage incurred over the target.

"We all got down safely, a pretty rough landing, though," Hessler recalled. "We went along till we got to mission No. 20, and we were shot down again, but this time over enemy territory in north Italy."

Hessler and another gunner got together and evaded capture until they met up with Italian partisans, who found them spots to hide for six months.

"Finally, we were liberated by the American Army in their final drive to end the war," said Hessler, who sent all his excess earnings as a graphic artist to the aging Italian farmers in appreciation for helping him to survive the war.

After his service, Hessler went to college in St. Louis for two years to start earning a living as an artist.

He moved to California in 1968 after being offered a job as a graphic designer from a company that was opening a new office in Thousand Oaks.

Married to his wife, Bette, for 59 years, Hessler has seven children, 14 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Today, he is considered one of the greatest artists of his generation, said Len Zerlin of Thousand Oaks, who met Hessler about five years ago when Hessler joined the war veterans group that meets at Denny's on Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks a few times a year.

"His work is so superb," said Zerlin, 84. "He has a group of paintings of Kelly the clown of great value. His sculptures are magnificent works of art. His paintings of antique motorcycles are so real, they appear like photos. He's so unaware of his genius."

He is so quiet and unassuming, Zerlin said, that "when I got to know of his exploits and his amazing talent, I chose to really become friendly, and we visit almost weekly."

Ball turret gunner on B-24

Hessler was a ball turret gunner in the war, Zerlin said, because he fit into the small belly turret. His job on a B-24 bomber has little value without understanding the dangers of flying missions in World War II, Zerlin said.

A ball turret is on the underbelly of the aircraft, and the gunner is virtually locked in by his crew members.

"He must be of small stature to fit into this bubble," Zerlin said. "Temperatures are 20 to 30 degrees below zero for all crew members, and communication is only through earphones. Oxygen is required, and sometimes the face masks freeze from the frigid temperatures.

"The best films depicting this are Memphis Belle' or Twelve O'clock High,'" he said. "The loss of young lives and the emotions of the period will live with those of us that participated."

Hessler was forced to jump from his disabled plane on his fourth mission; luckily, he landed in his home territory in Italy.

"He jumped on his 20th mission in Italy, only this area was occupied by the Germans," Zerlin said. "He was rescued by partisan Italians who risked their lives in protecting him. He survived for over six months, in numerous farmhouses, living in concealed attics and haystacks.

"He is a great American hero and should be honored," Zerlin said.

There were 16 million in World War II and fewer than 3.5 million are still alive, Zerlin added.

"We are losing 1,200 per day. The history of this period is fast fading."

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