Brothers who rescued pilot shot-down in WWII want to find him — and they need help

Swift Aire chief pilot John D. Hurst shot down nine German aircraft as a P-38 fighter pilot during World War II. His plane went down over Italy, and he was rescued by two brothers.
Swift Aire chief pilot John D. Hurst shot down nine German aircraft as a P-38 fighter pilot during World War II. His plane went down over Italy, and he was rescued by two brothers.

In 1945, Arroyo Grande pilot John D. Hurst was rescued by a pair of brothers after his plane was shot down over Italy during World War II.

Seventy-three years later, those same brothers are trying to reconnect with Hurst — but they need some help.

Jim Upton, a military researcher working out of Tennessee, has spent the last 18 years reaching out to veterans who spent time in Italy during the war. Most of the time, his connections in Italy send him dog tags found around the countryside, and he tracks down the serviceman or woman or their families to return them.

In 2015, he returned a fighter pilot helmet to the brother of a California man who died after his plane was shot down. That helmet is now on display at the Museum of the Forgotten Warriors in Yuba City.

Now Upton is trying to find Hurst or his family, after being contacted by the brothers who rescued him.

“They want to get in touch with a relative — or him — to start a communication to tell the relative exactly what happened in Italy,” Upton said in a phone interview with The Tribune on Wednesday. “I don’t know if it’s going to work or not.”

Upton said so far it’s been difficult to track down current information on Hurst: He’s not even sure if he is still alive or if his family is in the area.

“I can’t find any new records on him,” Upton said. “I’ve called all the local mortuaries and nothing.”

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If alive, Hurst would be about 99 years old. Upton said he knew Hurst’s wife’s name was Mary, and they had three daughters and five grandchildren. Their last known residence was at Linda Drive in Arroyo Grande.

According to a 1969 Telegram-Tribune article, after leaving the Air Force in 1964, Hurst returned to the Central Coast, where he became chief pilot for San Luis Obispo-based Swift Aire Lines. Swift merged with Golden Gate Airlines in 1981, and soon after the company shut down.

In 1969, John Hurst was the chief pilot for Swift Aire, whose “Executive” plane is seen here in a photo published March 18, 1969, on the flight line for San Luis Obispo duty. Telegram-Tribune

In the 1969 article, Hurst describes the incident in Italy.

“I had led my squadron on a bombing run and had dumped all but one of my bombs,” he said. “That baby was hanging loose by my right engine. But I saw a row of eucalyptus trees which I though might be hiding some Germans, so I ordered my boys to go in after it.

“There were Germans there alright. The trees were full of guns and they knocked out my right engine — with the bomb hanging right by it. I climbed to 1,500 feet and bailed out.”

According to the article, Hurst spent the next week with Italian partisans — part of a resistance group that opposed the occupying German forces — before being picked up by an Australian convoy that took him to Venice.

“Boy, did we have a time in that hotel,” he said. (The reporter noted he said that “with a grin.”)

There are no further Tribune records of Hurst.

Upton is asking for anyone who knows what happened to Hurst, and who could put him in contact with the family, to call him at 865-640-5440.

“Tell them this is not a crank,” he said in the phone interview with The Tribune. “This is real.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie
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