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Artist Norman Ulrich, held in 'Great Escape' POW camp in WWII, dead at 95

WWII pilot Norman U. Ulrich. / Family photo

Norman Ulrich learned to speak German from his mother, which came in handy when he saved his crew by deliberately crash-landing their damaged B-17 in a potato field in Germany in World War II.

After Nazi aircraft fire raked their bomber — taking out an engine and blowing off the B-17’s nose — another group of German fighters came at him. Mr. Ulrich lowered the landing gear to signal surrender.

Five of his crewmen were wounded. Two more were left unconscious. But all 10 survived the landing, he said in a family history.

On the ground, a German officer demanded Mr. Ulrich’s jacket to prove he’d downed a famed “Flying Fortress” with four engines, said his son, Kurt.

The pilot delivered a plucky response in German. “Only three engines. One was already blown out” from the first aerial Nazi encounter, Mr. Ulrich replied. “You can only have credit for three!”

The airmen became POWs in Stalag Luft III in May 1944, two months after the famed breakout by 76 Allied prisoners immortalized in the 1963 Steve McQueen movie “The Great Escape.” Mr. Ulrich was held captive there for 11 months. The conditions were awful. Prisoners had to endure marches that finished off the weak and injured.

Pilot Norman A. Ulrich, a hero to his crew in a POW camp in World War II.

Mr. Ulrich made it home and went on to become a successful commercial artist who operated his own studio in Oak Park. He died Jan. 14 in La Grange Park at 95.

Growing up in Western Springs, Norm Ulrich picked up German from his German-American mother. He learned drawing from his dad, a sign painter.

A standout artist at Lyons Township High School — where he is enshrined in the alumni Hall of Fame — he won a scholarship that allowed him to take lessons in Chicago with Disney designers who’d worked on the kaleidoscopic 1940 film “Fantasia,” according to his daughter, Pamella Christensen.

He completed flight training at Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana, where he met Ella May Newkirk, who would become his wife of 70 years.

At Stalag Luft III, he would tell people, survival depended on skill, fortitude and prayer. Mr. Ulrich used the knowledge of baking he picked up from his mother and artistic ability passed on from his father. He introduced a way to re-purpose nearly inedible, grain-heavy crusts from bread rations by cubing and baking them, according to another daughter, Penelope Stickney. With sugar and reconstituted powdered milk, Mr. Ulrich and a friend dubbed the cereal “Kriege Krunchies,” from a German term for prisoner of war, “Kriegsgefangener.”

With Red Cross art supplies, Mr. Ulrich helped create signs that promoted the cereal. Though it eliminated hunger pangs, it tended to make prisoners gassy — a fact celebrated in the POW ad campaign, which proclaimed: “Eat Kriege Krunchies and Be Jet-Propelled.”

“The only reason God had me become a pilot was so that I could get shot down and get into prison camp, invent Kriege Krunchies and do an ad,” Mr. Ulrich said in his memoir. He figured that, thanks to the added nutrition provided by the cereal, “Maybe six guys got home.”

On a forced march, he met an orphaned 4-year-old German boy being raised by his grandmother. He gave the boy a piece of chocolate. Moved by his generosity, the grandmother presented him with a St. Christopher medal, saying it would protect him until he got home. He always kept it with his dog tags, Penelope Stickney said.

After the war, Lt. Ulrich recounted his experiences to a group that included a woman who was moved by his stories. Her husband hired him as an artist at R.R. Donnelley. Mr. Ulrich later became a president of the Art Directors Club of Chicago, where he promoted equal opportunities for African-American artists, his children said. And he served as a president of the National Society of Art Directors.

He is also survived by a brother, Wendell; a sister, Niobe; 10 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.