Obituary: James A. Theys / Decorated WWII pilot and Heinz engineer

Sept. 5, 1921 - May 18, 2014

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James Theys was in his 80s before his family learned that he had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits as a B-17 pilot in World War II.

One day about 10 years ago he received a letter from Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, saying he would be inducted into the Hall of Valor for 2005 and discussing the decoration.

His two sons, Jeffri and Jay, were incredulous. They knew he'd been in combat, but this?

"We said, 'You got a DFC?" said Jay Theys, 61, of New Brighton, Beaver County. "He said, 'Oh. Yeah.' We said, 'For what?' He said, 'Oh, nothing.' He just said, 'Well, you know, it was not really much of anything.' That was just Dad. That was the way he was."

Mr. Theys earned the honor for bravery in flying 35 bombing missions over Europe, often returning with a shot-up plane but never losing a crew member.

His nickname was "Two-Engine Theys" because his plane usually limped home from white-knuckle runs with only two of the four engines running.

Yet for most of his life, he rarely said much about the war. He came home, earned an engineering degree, raised a family in Osborne and built a career at H.J. Heinz, rising to senior vice president of engineering services and later traveling the world as a consultant.

Mr. Theys died Sunday at 92. He lived in an assisted living facility in Cranberry but spent most of his life in Osborne, where he was a long-standing member of Sewickley-area institutions and even mayor of Osborne for a time.

A whiz at math, Mr. Theys was a can-do type, capable at everything he tried.

"He was like a human calculator," said his son. "He did carpentry, electrical work, plumbing. He could sketch anything."

He was involved in designing and building two tomato-processing plants for Heinz in California in the 1950s and '60s and later was in charge of engineering at all Heinz plants across the U.S.

"His big thing was ketchup," said Jay. "He was one of the few people who knew the recipe for the ketchup. But he never divulged it."

After retiring, he used his engineering skills at home.

When the "Nine-O-Nine," a famous restored B-17, crashed during an air show in Beaver County in 1987, he was involved in the renovation efforts to return it to flying condition.

Born in 1921, Mr. Theys was the only son of a coal miner and homemaker in Beaverdale, a Cambria County coal town.

He didn't want to be a miner and was working at American Bridge Co. in Ambridge when the war started. He wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill for his education and enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1942 with the intention of being a navigator.

He became a pilot instead and shipped off with the 351st Bomb Group, based in Polebrook, England.

He flew most of his missions aboard "April Girl II," known as a lucky plane because it always came back despite significant damage.

"His plane got shot to dog meat every second to third mission," said his son.

Second Lt. Theys bombed Hamburg, Berlin and many other targets in Germany and German-occupied countries. During one fearful run over Schweinfurt, when dozens of B-17s were blasted from the sky, his plane caught fire and he dove hard to extinguish the flames.

After 35 missions, he returned to the United States in April 1945 and worked as an instructor in Texas.

He earned the Purple Heart and four air medals in addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross. The medal was for "extraordinary achievement," according to his Hall of Valor citation at Soldiers & Sailors, not for any specific mission.

Returning home, he married Marjorie Wagner in 1946 and attended the University of Cincinnati, earning his degree in mechanical engineering in 1949.

The couple moved back to Pittsburgh that year, and Mr. Theys went to work at Heinz. He built a small house in Osborne, where he and his wife raised their boys, and Mr. Theys steadily rose through the ranks at the company. He retired in 1987.

He continued working as a consultant for Heinz, traveling extensively in Europe and Asia with his wife. In Europe, they visited many of the places he'd flown over during the war as well as two former concentration camps.

Visitation will be from 2 to 8 p.m. today at Copeland Funeral Home in Sewickley. A service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday in Sewickley United Methodist Church, followed by burial with full military honors at Sewickley Cemetery.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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