William Durkin was born in Oil City in 1916, son of Thomas and Ethel Durkin. He would grow up to be a war hero, but that was not what brought him national fame.
Durkin enlisted in the Marines in 1936. When World War II broke out, Master Sgt. Durkin served as ordnance chief for a dive-bomb squadron at Guadalcanal, where, he later told The News-Herald, ants and rats occupied soldiers, which were in addition to the Japanese and mosquitoes.
He lived through 87 air attacks in seven months at Henderson Field. On April 19, 1943, a Japanese incendiary bomb set fire to a parked plane, and that plane was loaded with a 1,000-pound bomb.
Durkin climbed into the plane and extinguished the fire. He was sent back to the states to recover from malaria. At the time, Durkin lived in El Toro, California, and that's where fame found him.
It was July 7, 1946. Durkin was, according to most news reports, on his way to a date. Jack Lait, writing in Walter Winchell's column, said Durkin was napping, but sprang awake when he heard a plane that his trained ear knew was "off key."
It was an experimental plane, and its pilot tried to make it to the fairway of the Los Angeles Country Club, but instead crashed into several houses. Durkin rushed to the wreck. As he described it in his written report to police:
"The very next moment I saw a hand move through the fire and smoke not more than four feet in front of me. At the same time I heard a scream of agony, and I knew a man was burning to death."
Durkin dragged the pilot from the plane, later describing the man as bleeding from his nose and mouth, conscious but badly banged up.
The pilot that Durkin had rescued was Howard Hughes, badly injured and burned over almost three-quarters of his body. Doctors told reporters that only a few seconds more in the wreck and Hughes would have died.
Durkin went to the hospital to check on Hughes, who struggled on the brink for several days. Hughes' biographers often cite the accident as the event that led to the aviator's withdrawal from the world, but by December of 1946 he was feeling well enough to reach out to his rescuer.
By that time, Durkin (who somewhere along the way had apparently acquired the nickname "Red") had been deployed with the First Marine air wing to China, and Hughes expressed his regret that he "did not have the opportunity of thanking you both personally and on the behalf of my company."
Hughes told Durkin that if he ever left the Marines, to come see Hughes, who would set him up in a job. Until then, Hughes proposed to send Durkin a monthly check.
"I will always be grateful for your courageous action," Hughes concluded, "and am glad that you were uninjured."
Durkin turned down the offer and said he would not take money just for doing the right thing. But for the rest of his life, he was followed by the rumor that he had been hugely paid by the reclusive millionaire.
His daughter said years later, "There was a lot of talk over the years that he rewarded him with gazillions of dollars, which is just not true. They were friends. They cavorted with each other for many years. He never got any big payoff because he wouldn't take it."
Preston Sturges gave Durkin a lifetime pass to his West Hollywood night club. Durkin retired from the Marines with the rank of captain, and then went to work in the food and beverage industry. He retired to Palm Springs, where it seems he led an unremarkable life.
He lived long enough to see the 2004 movie "The Aviator," in which Hughes is shown getting himself out of the plane before a character listed only as "Marine" runs in to finish the rescue. (The character was played by Keith Campbell, who works mostly as a stunt coordinator, most recently on "13 Reasons Why").
Durkin passed away in 2006, and the obituary for the man who saved Howard Hughes ran in newspapers across the country. In 2009, Durkin's archive of papers related to the crash, including a copy of his account of the crash, were auctioned off with an estimated price of $40,000-$60,000, one last mark left by the Oil City native who altered the course of one small piece of U.S. history.
Peter Greene resides in Franklin and is a retired Franklin High School English teacher. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.