Junjek, A Shot at Freedom - Win or Lose
by Peter Stekel
The face looking out from the Italian immigration service DOCUMENTO D’IDENTIFICAZIONE is gaunt, the eyes tired, the thick mop of curly hair barely kempt. He is wearing a tired black sports coat and a rumpled white shirt open at the collar. He has been sleeping in these clothes for several days and it looks like it. The date of arrival on the documento says 23.9.1963 - September 9, 1963.
(Left) is the face of a 19 year old refugee named Zvonimir Djundje, late of Croatia. We know him as Bill Junjek.
Bill Junjek was born
December 4, 1943 about nine miles from the town of Zagreb, state of
Croatia, country of Yugoslavia. It was the middle of World War II. His
father fought with the partisans against the German army - and others -
and was killed when Bill was still a babe in arms.
Zagreb has been a major European intersection and World War II was no
different. Many Allied bombers based in Italy flew over Zagreb on their
way to bomb the oil fields of Romania or to bomb parts of Germany. It’s
probable that people in the
United States don’t understand the struggle for life Europeans
experienced during that time of war. As Bill puts it, “It’s because
they weren’t there. It didn’t happen here in the United States.” For
somebody who lived through the aftermath of World War II, Bill sees the
involvement of the United States as “a kind act, a responsible act”
for helping end the war.
After Bill’s father
was killed, he and his mother moved in with Bill’s maternal grandmother.
“Later, my mother ran off to the world to make a living. That was the
end of that.” He never saw her again. Times were tough and Bill’s
grandmother couldn’t support both herself and a child so it was, “From
one orphanage to another orphanage until I finally got on my own.” As a
teenager, and living independently, Bill Junjek found himself in a
three-year program, studying to be an aircraft mechanic.
At this point it’s
important to take a step back and recall what Yugoslav life was like in
the twenty or so years following World War II. The Soviet economic model
following the war had foreign trade controlled entirely by the state.
Though many products could be imported for less than it cost to produce
them domestically, trade with Western industrialized countries was minimal
and internal industrial development consumed most domestic resources.
Marshal Josip Broz
Tito (who largely led Yugoslavia between 1943 and his death in 1980) ruled
the country with a strong hand. As Bill tells it, “In order to
accomplish what he did, I don’t think it was an unreasonable thing to
do. Ruling the country the way he did was different from Soviet rule and
definitely different than Western rule. He was quite successful in
rebuilding Yugoslavia after the war. The living was much better than in
Russia and some of the other eastern countries.”
Bill grew up
experiencing the severe impacts from the war. “Yugoslavia lost 1.8
million people out of a population of 12 million. There were gas chambers
and concentration camps. Belgrade didn’t have one building still
standing after the war; not one. After twenty years it was still possible
to walk through the town and see entire blocks unchanged since the war.
They had not been rebuilt. Yugoslavian people paid a high price for their
Politically, Tito had
somewhat warm relations with both the USSR and the USA. He had a policy.
“If Russians wanted to give him a bunch of MiGs and Il-14s, and tractors
and old tanks, he took them. The US gave him a bunch of F-86 Sabres. Tito
said, ‘That’s OK. Thank you. But I don’t owe you anything and I
don’t owe the Russians anything. I’m still going to do it my
In school, Bill
learned not to forget the suffering and sacrifices made by the Yugoslav
people in their fight against fascism. Then, after the war, “Yugoslavia
became an innocent bystander between fascism and communism.” Yugoslavia
was nominally a communist government but, “It wasn’t Russian
communism.” Following the war Yugoslavia did promote communism, “to a
point,” but, “if you dig into it there is a right, and a good part, of
the communist system.” There were some good ideas: take care of your
people, everybody has a job, universal health care. “Where the problem
arises is people take advantage of it. And you can’t do that. You
can’t take advantage of any system.” As for Tito, “He picked the
good things out of communism and that’s what made him successful,” in
uniting the country after the horrible physical devastation of the world
independent-living 17 year old Junjek, studying to be an aircraft mechanic
in 1960 meant long hours of study and work. “It was six days a week,
working for six hours. And in the afternoon you went to school for four
hours.” As for flying, which is what Bill wanted to do all along, “If
you were Tito’s nephew - maybe you could have gotten into the air
force!” The Yugoslav Air Force consisted of “a tight, tight group
which was very small.” There was no way to learn to fly in Yugoslavia.
“There were no private airplanes and there were no flight schools.”
After the challenge
and excitement of completing his schooling, Bill had an airplane
mechanic’s licence and a place to work in Belgrade, Serbia. “Then, the
days became the same.” He would overhaul the center section of a Pratt
& Whitney R-1830 1000 horsepower radial engine and, “I would be
doing that one after another, one after another, one after another. One of
my thoughts was: Is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my
The work was less than
exciting, tedious, repetitious, and monotonous. At that time the entire
Yugoslav air transport fleet consisted of 12 DC-3s, two Convairs, and four
Russian Ilyushin Il-14s. The Il-14 (NATO called them the
"Crate") was the Soviet Union’s answer to the DC-3. A
twin-engine commercial and military personnel and cargo transport
aircraft, it entered commercial service in 1954 and soldiered on until the
1980s. “We could only keep two of them in the air because they were
breaking down so much.” And, “If you rode in one, the wind would
whistle through the windows. The stewardess would meet your needs by
bringing you a piece of candy. That was the luxury flight!”
The Il-14 operated in
lots of poorer countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe in a military
capacity. The Algerian Air Force phased out its last Il-14 in 1997 as did
the Congolese Air Force. Bill had nothing to do with Yugoslav military
aircraft. “The air force was there - we knew about it, didn’t see it;
it was not public information.”
The 1963 earthquake in
Skopje, in the Yugoslav state of Macedonia, exposed Bill to the
possibilities of how to spend the rest of his life. And remaining in
Yugoslavia was not part of the plan. Sent daily from Belgrade to Skopje,
as part of the earthquake relief team, Bill worked on keeping the Yugoslav
Air Transport in the air so that medical personnel and supplies along with
food and shelter could be brought in.
“In the next couple
of days, relief airplanes started arriving from Italy, across the
Adriatic,” and, “some of these airplanes didn’t leave empty.” They
left with people wanting to get out of Yugoslavia. That got Bill to
thinking about his future. “I’d had opportunities to read different
magazines and different books and get information about the rest of the
world and I thought, how far ahead is everybody in the West from us? How
far behind are we?”
Around that time 707s
were stopping over at the new Belgrade airport on their way to Greece and
Turkey. Pan American put an advertisement in the local newspaper offering
$600/month to perform pre-flight inspections on these 707s. “At the same
time, I was working for $30/month. What this person making $600 could do
in one year would take me twenty years to do.” That got him thinking.
Not long after that
Bill went to the train station one morning instead of going to work and
rode to Zagreb from Belgrade. From Zagreb he took a bus towards the
Italian border. Near the end of the line, Bill got off the bus and started
walking 15 miles to the frontier. He had no passport; no possessions -
only what he had in his pockets. When he reached a barbed wire fence, Bill
knew he was where he wanted to be. “I managed to crawl underneath and
get to the other side.” Walking down the road to Trieste he was picked
up by the Carabiniere and taken to an immigration camp. “I was dirty and
muddy and I looked like a refugee,” and he had about $100 to his name
along with the clothes on his back.
At the camp Bill was
confined for two days while INTERPOL did a background check to insure he
was not an escaped criminal. After three days of hard, exhausting travel,
he didn’t mind. “It was a shot at freedom - win or lose - completely.
I felt good, making it across. That felt good.” Bill spent those next
two days sleeping.
Released from the
camp, Bill got his first document of freedom from the Italian government,
his DOCUMENTO D’IDENTIFICAZIONE. He worked in Italy as a day
laborer for a year before immigrating to the United States. His first job,
from 1964-1965, was in Point Barrow, Alaska, working as an aircraft
mechanic at the Arctic Research Station, operated by the University of
Alaska. That’s where Zvonimir Djundje, late of Croatia, became Bill
In Point Barrow, “My
job was keeping the airplanes flying - and flying with the airplanes in
order to fix them if they broke down.” Bill worked on two DC-3s and four
Cessna 180s (on wheels, skis, or floats), and one Cessna 195. There was
also a Bell helo to play with.
Bill also started
flying. “I didn’t have a license but during long flights in the arctic
I was given plenty of opportunity to fly the airplane. Even without basic
instruction I did a pretty decent job of it! Five hours here, four hours
there, and different flights for a year and a half.”
Then one day during a
long flight, sitting in the right seat of a DC-3 and looking down at
Arctic Ocean icebergs that resembled ice cubes, Bill had a thought.
“What the hell am I doing here?” It recalled the last time he’d had
such a thought while living in Yugoslavia. “What the hell am I doing in
this country? It’s time to get out.”
The very next day he
was on a flight from Point Barrow to Seattle! It was the mid-1960s.
Aviation was booming, and there were loads of older aircraft that needed
work. There were plenty of start-up companies as well. They all needed
experienced mechanics and Bill didn’t have trouble getting a job. Among
other employers over the years he worked at Renton Aviation and Aerodyne.
In the mid-1990s Bill was losing interest in aviation mechanics and needed
something new and challenging and different. That’s when he moved to
Renton Coil Spring. Their high performance springs are custom designed for
auto racing, motorcycles, mountain bikes and snowmobiles. They also make
titanium springs for aerospace and their product is integral to the Mars
and lunar rovers.
After formal flying
lessons at Renton Aviation ($350 in 1965!) Bill’s first contact with
Cascade Warbirds waited until his purchase of an old Navion in 1999. “I
kept running into Cascade Warbirds at fly-ins.” Along the way Bill got
his commercial license - financed, like his private license, solely on his
own hook. The great thing about the commercial license is that it allowed
Bill the opportunity to fly in the right seat of a DC-3, taking
Smokejumpers to forest fires in the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains. “It
was quite an experience and that was probably the most fortunate thing
that ever happened to me with airplanes!”
Today, Bill is happily
retired. He’s never had any interest in returning to Yugoslavia, not
even to visit; all of his family is here. He’s been married 39 years to
Laura; they have two adult children, Mark and Marie. He feels fortunate to
have “two good kids.”
Looking back on his
life, Bill appreciates the advantages he gained by immigrating to the US.
He says he can sum up the differences he sees in the world with one word.
And that word is: Choice. “You can live under the overpass in this
country or you can live like Bill Gates does. The choice is there.
Opportunities are here. I didn’t have that in Yugoslavia in the old
country, where I grew up.” Here, “It’s up to you what you want to do
and how far you want to go. It’s how much effort you put into it.”