Bill 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.

Throughout history 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 freedom.”

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 way.’”

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 war.

For the 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 life?”

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 Junjek.

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.”

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Bill in Alaska in April 1965 with a partially dug out airplane
Bill and a bear in April 1965
Bill flying his Navion