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Iron Range WWII vet getting red carpet treatment at movie premiere

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It was a big deal when Pecky Smilanich and his teammates won a state basketball championship for Buhl High back in 1942.

But the U.S. premiere of a Hollywood blockbuster might be a new level of fanfare for the 92-year-old who now goes by George Smilanich.

There aren't many people who can describe first-hand what it's like to drive a Sherman tank behind enemy lines during World War II. Smilanich, now living in Hibbing, did that this summer when he served as a consultant to the producers of the new Brad Pitt movie "Fury."

Smilanich told the Hibbing Daily Tribune about his expense-paid trip to Hollywood to meet with Pitt and the other stars of the movie, which focuses on a tank crew stranded in enemy territory during the waning days of World War II.

During three years as a tank driver, Smilanich saw action at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. He told the Tribune this summer he was in three tanks that were destroyed by enemy fire during the war. In one incident he pulled his wounded commander from the flames of the burning tank and was later awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

These days Smilanich is clearly no movie buff, telling the Tribune and KARE 11 he didn't know who Brad Pitt was until he was approached about consulting on "Fury."

When he was discharged from Patton's army, Smilanich returned to the Iron Range and became a high school social studies teacher. An article about his new Hollywood connection that appeared in Hometown News last week was penned by one of his former students.

Smilanich told Hometown News the details of his three-day Hollywood trip are somewhat of a blur, adding "The whole thing was like a fairy tale."

But he told of sitting around a table with a few other veterans answering questions from the "Fury" cast and producers about the particulars of life on a tank crew.

The following day he sat down in front of a camera for a one-on-one interview about his experiences. Smilanich told the Hibbing Tribune:

“A gal came and powdered my face and combed my hair… I had to sit like they were taking a portrait of me. I kind of felt like I was in the hot seat, but they made me feel comfortable."

Smilanich says once he got talking about his days in a tank the memories flowed easily and his two hour interview turned into three.

Hell on Wheels unit

Smilanich served with the 67th Armored Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division, a unit that was known as Hell on Wheels.

It was the editor of the Hell on Wheels Bulletin, Jack Slattery, who recommended Smilanich to the makers of "Fury" and the publication covered the Hollywood trip this summer.

Memories and photos of the 2nd Armored Division are also featured on their Facebook page.

Another page, called Lest We Forget 1944, is maintained in France and is dedicated to the Hell on Wheels soldiers who fought at Normandy.

There's more on the unit's role among World War II tanks in the video below.

"Fury" had its world premiere in England, where it was filmed. Wednesday evening George Smilanich, his wife Mary, and their daughter Susan will be among those attending the U.S. premiere at the Newseum theater in Washington, D.C.

And, yes, back when he was known as Pecky Smilanich he really did lead Buhl High School to an undefeated season and a second straight state basketball championship.

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