Who We Are: Bill Hirsch – A life worth living
Ryan Summerlin March 5, 2011
After more than nine decades, Breckenridge resident Bill Hirsch has seen and accomplished more than most.
The retired architect and World War II veteran retains an upbeat and active approach to life. On most mornings you can catch the 91-year-old on the upstairs track at the Breckenridge Recreation Center, logging his doctor-recommended mile a day and entertaining all those who pass by. The outgoing Hirsch is never shy when asked about his life experiences, mixing tales of WWII history with spot-on impressions of many of the leading figures from the 20th century.
“Ask not what the Breckenridge Recreation Center can do for you, ask what you can do for the Breckenridge Recreation Center,” drolled Hirsch in his best New England accent as he placed a local touch on Pres. John F. Kennedy’s iconic phrase.
Hirsch was raised in New York and attended Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he earned a degree in architecture. Following graduation, he received a commission from the U.S. Navy.
“I was lucky; I went in as an officer. As an officer, I wasn’t a snotty little brat,” Hirsch joked. “It was another adventure. I went right in from Georgia Tech. They gave me a commission. I thought, ‘Well great.'”
The new officer was assigned to the newly created photo intelligence division and was sent to New York City for training. His job was to instantly identify German and Japanese planes and ships from brief looks at photographs.
“In other words we would look at all kinds of pictures of planes,” Hirsch said. “We had to identify any plane that came over like this,” (as he snapped his finger three time quickly).
His stay in New York was brief, but not so short that he didn’t pick up the basics of the navy.
“I wasn’t a 90-day wonder. … They said we don’t have enough time, so only about 30-60 days,” Hirsch said with a smile.
“I did learn all this about the navy: I learned port and starboard, fore and aft and which subway to take to Time Square,” Hirsch said.
From New York, the newly minted officer was stationed in Anacostia, in Washington, D.C., where he was to continue to learn about photo intelligence. But his stay in Anacostia, just like in New York, was brief. Hirsch said he was supposed to spend several weeks in Washington, receiving additional training but was cut short by the need for photo intelligence officers in the Pacific theater.
“Skip Annapolis man says, ‘All right now, we have 21 positions: seven for Alaska, seven for New Zealand and seven for Australia,'” Hirsch said. “Can you imagine asking me where I wanted to go?
“My buddy and I from Georgia Tech, I looked at him and said, ‘You know what? Alaska is too cold.’ Another thing is I said, ‘I know the Japanese are getting close to Australia, and beside I saw a travel log about Melrose Gardens. Let’s go to New Zealand,'” Hirsch said.
During his time in the South Pacific, Hirsch joked that the accommodations were fine and the lunches were exceptional since a cook made pastries daily. There was only one problem: the Japanese insisted on bombing daily during the noon hour.
“The Japanese would bomb us every day at lunch, which kind of made me angry,” Hirsch said.
During his tour Hirsch experienced a couple of close scrapes that he feels he was fortunate to come through in one piece.
“But the funny thing about it is I was destined to come out alive. I was predestined, I think,” Hirsch said.
He relayed an experience while flying over Guadalcanal as it was being bombed by the Japanese. He said that even though his plane was in view of the enemy airships they were not engaged. Hirsch also spoke of a near miss three times by a Japanese sniper that made him reassess his routine.
The ever affable Hirsch said through friendships he developed with two girls in Washington, D.C., who took care of orders, he was able to get himself stationed in Europe. The only hitch was he was originally ordered to Norfolk, Va., where they were preparing for the invasion of Europe.
“They said ‘Well Bill,’ … You were in the Pacific, you thought you’d like the Atlantic.’ Can you imagine that kind of personal attention during the war?” Hirsch said.
After a stint in Pennsylvania, Hirsch was sent again to the Pacific theater and was stationed in Hawaii and New Guinea. Eventually Hirsch was assigned to the Army’s Fifth Bomber Command, moving from island to island through the Philippines. It was while in the Philippines that he had his three near misses by the Japanese sniper.
Toward the end of the war, Hirsch was transferred to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where he finished his tour of duty.
“If I had any money I could have bought property there. That was the place where they have the spaceships. But I didn’t have any money,” Hirsch said.
Following the war, Hirsch moved back to Atlanta and began working. His stay in Georgia was short lived, though, as he took advantage of the GI Bill to study for 10 months in France. He studied architecture in Fontainebleau and painting in Paris.
“People should go to Europe. It’s a great thing,” Hirsch said.
When back in the States, Hirsch eventually moved to California, where he resumed his career as an architect and married his second wife, Sara, who remains by his side 30 years later.
“She is the best in the world,” Hirsch said.
While in Los Angeles, Hirsch also dabbled in voice-overs and made an album impersonating Pres. Kennedy.
Fifteen years ago during a recession and when his government contracts began to dry up, Hirsch and his wife decided to relocate permanently to a condo they had previously purchased in Breckenridge. They have called Summit County home ever since.
Hirsch became engaged in the community and appeared in local theatre productions including “Guys and Dolls” where he played Big Jule.
Today, Hirsch remains active, visiting the rec center for his daily stroll and helping his wife at her needlepoint shop, Sara’s of Breckenridge.
Hirsch, ever the comedian, always has a smile on his face and an anecdote on his tongue.