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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: Thomas A. Watson
Interviewer: Alan Bliss
Date: March 7, 2000
B: The date is March 7, 2000. I am in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the home of
Thomas Watson. Please tell us your full name, including your middle name.
W: Thomas Albert Watson.
B: And where and when were you born?
W: I was born May 21, 1917, in Winona Lake, Indiana.
B: Who were your parents?
W: Ralph and Bertha Watson.
B: And were they from Indiana as well?
W: No. They had moved there because of the evangelistic nature of the town.
B: Where did they move from?
W: Columbus, Ohio.
B: Did you have siblings and what were their names?
W: I had two sisters, Marion and Drusilla.
B: Were they younger or older than you?
W: They were quite a bit older. I think the youngest was eight years older than I.
B: So that made you the youngest in the family, by a fair margin.
W: That is right. And I had a half-brother and cousin, the same person, because my
father had married my mother's sister, and she ran off. He took the boy back to
her family, where he met my mother. His name was Ralph, named after my
B: What was his age, relative to you?
W: He was seventeen years older than I was.
B: Are any of your siblings still living?
B: Where did you spent your childhood years, then?
W: I spent them in Winona Lake, which is the greatest place in the world to be a
B: Why is that?
W: Well, it is not only a great lake, but it had chautauqua. At chautauqua, I met
people that you never dreamed of. I walked down the street talking to Will Rogers
[American humorist]. I saw John Phillip Sousa [bandleader], Admiral Byrd [Arctic
explorer]. All kinds of celebrities were on the chautauqua stage.
B: That was part of a network of the news, where these people would come to make
appearances before organized audiences, is that right?
B: During what years were those people coming to Winona Lake? That would have
been your very early childhood?
B: How about up into your teen years?
W: Yes. It was the home of Billy Sunday [evangelical preacher], which attracted all
the other evangelists.
B: How long did that continue at Winona Lake, that series of events, chautauqua
W: I am guessing, but to the 1950s?
B: Where did you go to school, first?
W: Grade school?
W: Just outside of Winona, East Wing School. A country school. I went through my
elementary grades there.
B: And then where from that school?
W: My seventh and eighth grade, because my mother and sisters moved to Miami, I
went to Ponce De Leon High School in Coral Gables. It was not a high school; it
was a middle school and a high school, combined.
B: What was your age when you moved down there with them?
B: Why move to Miami?
W: My sisters were in college, and they moved down there to go to the University of
Miami, which was, at that time, a cardboard college in an old hotel in downtown
Coral Gables. It was known as the cardboard college because the rooms were
divided with paperboard.
B: That would have been in the late 1920s, about 1929?
W: That is right.
B: So, at that time, the Florida real estate boom was over and done with, and I
guess an old hotel in Miami was looking for other ways to use its property.
W: Well, the Miami Biltmore, which was in Coral Gables, was closed. Beautiful
grounds. We used to use it as a playground. They had a pool which they still
operated, but we never went there. We had a Boy Scout troop with a cabin on
the golf course.
B: What a luxury, for a Boy Scout troop. Where did you live? Were you living in the
town of Coral Gables?
W: Yes. We lived about two blocks from the college in an apartment house.
B: And did your father make this move?
W: No. My father never lived at home. He traveled.
B: I see. So, he traveled to Miami, then, after...
W: I do not believe he ever came down there.
B: What was his occupation?
W: He was a membership man for the United States Chamber of Commerce. My
father was a very interesting man. He never went to school.
B: Any school?
W: Any school. He used to say, I went to school one day to take my brother's place,
and the teacher was absent. He made a lot of money as a young man, he and
another salesman for Carson, Pirie, & Scott [(clothing manufacturer), selling
ladies' ready-to-wear. They were looking for a store they could buy and build up
and sell for a lot of money, which they did. He made over $100,000 in that
venture, and he did not go to work again until after World War I.
B: Was that in Columbus that he was in the store business?
W: It was in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.
B: What was it that led him to Columbus, which was where they lived before coming
to Winona Lake?
W: He was married at the time he lived in Chambersburg. He lived in Columbus
B: How long did your parents live?
W: My father committed suicide in 1933. He came home on Christmas. The
Roosevelt era was getting started and the Chamber was going down, and they
sent him a wire not to come back to work. He went out and threw himself under a
train, so that his family would have $5,000 of life insurance.
B: Was that your first experience of life insurance?
W: That was my first experience with life insurance.
B: You were living in Florida at the time?
W: No, we were living at Winona Lake.
B: You had moved back to Winona Lake from Florida?
W: Yes, you are right.
B: Had your sisters come back from college at the University of Miami as well?
B: Did you finish high school in Florida?
W: No. I finished high school in Warsaw, Indiana, which was the school for Winona
B: What year did you graduate from high school?
B: What activities did you participate in, in high school, any particular events or
competitions or athletics?
W: Practically none.
B: Any musical instruments or anything?
W: Mainly girls.
B: Did you have any plans for yourself after high school?
W: I wanted to go to college. I thought I wanted to be an architect and so I went to
Purdue, but all of the architectural students were coming back to get jobs through
the college; none of them had jobs. I decided that there was not a great future in
it, and I transferred to Indiana.
B: This was all during 1935, the year that you graduated from high school?
W: Well, beyond there.
B: So how long did you stay at Purdue?
W: One semester.
B: That might have taken you up to 1936, then.
B: And in the depths of the Depression, jobs would have been hard to come by for
just about any specialty.
B: So when you made the decision to move to IU, what major did you pursue there?
W: I went into pre-law.
B: What was your reasoning for deciding to go into pre-law?
W: Trying to reconstruct it, I cannot tell you. I was probably enthralled by some
lawyers I knew.
B: And did you stick with pre-law through your career at IU?
W: No. I was supposed to go in the business school for two years and then two
years to law school, but they made a rule in-between that you could not work
over three hours a day and still be in law school. I could not get along on three
hours a day. I was completely self-sufficient in college.
B: You paid your own tuition and living expenses?
B: And that was true right from the beginning when you went to Purdue?
W: No, my mother financed it at first. It cost me $500 a year to go to college. My
mother financed the first year, and my third semester, I borrowed some money
from my brother, who was in the Navy at the time. From there on, I was
B: Where did you live when you were going to IU, on campus or off?
W: On campus. Generally, I lived in private homes, but I lived in the fraternity house
a couple of semesters.
B: What fraternity?
W: SAE [Sigma Alpha Epsilon].
B: Did you finish IU straight through, in the regular four-year prescribed sequence?
W: No, I finished in three and a half years. When I finished my seventh semester, I
needed two hours, which I had taken at Purdue but [the credits] had not
transferred because it was mechanical drawing. I had found in the bulletin that
they had a course now that was business engineering, which you took two years
at Purdue and two years at IU, and in the course was the two hours of
mechanical drawing which they had not given. So, I went to the dean and pointed
that out to him, and I graduated in three and a half years.
B: Which was when?
B: And that was with a bachelor of science. In what specialty?
W: General business.
B: And what were your plans as you were drawing close to graduation? Did you
have any thoughts of going to graduate school, or were you thinking about work?
W: Nobody thought of going to graduate school in those days unless it was law
school or medicine. In fact, I do not even remember that there were any graduate
B: Not at IU, evidently.
W: There are now, but there were not then.
B: How about at Purdue?
B: Unless, as you said, it would have been law or medicine, the different colleges.
W: Right. Indiana had a law school, but I was ruled out of that.
B: Did you want to go to IU Law?
W: Oh yes.
B: So how do you figure you were ruled out of that?
W: Well, the fact that they would not let me work. I worked in the summertime for the
chautauqua. I swept out the buildings and mowed the lawns and that sort of
B: And lived at home?
W: And lived at home. I took big showcard boards around and put them in windows
in little towns, advertising the chautauqua. Then, my brother-in-law, who had
promised me some money, reneged, and I told my boss I was not going back to
college and told him why. He said, you know, Ward Biddle, who is the controller
of the college, was in high school with me; let me call him and see if I can get you
a job. He called him and got me a job in the bookstore four hours a day, which
made it possible for me to go back.
B: Five days a week, so a half-time job, if you consider a forty-hour week as
W: Yes. That was not the only job I had. I had an NYA [National Youth
B: Was that part of the New Deal alphabet soup?
W: That is right. I worked in the business library. I was the librarian of this business
library. There was only one person there.
B: That being the college of business administration?
W: Yes, right. Then, another fellow and I had a dry-cleaning business, where one of
us picked the dry-cleaning up from the fraternity houses in the morning and the
other one delivered them that night.
B: Where did you take it?
W: We took it to a commercial dry-cleaner.
B: Did one of you have a vehicle?
W: Oh yes, he had an old Chevrolet Coach.
B: And how about you? Did you have a car then?
W: Well, I had the family car, which was a Ford.
B: Could you take that with you to IU?
W: Yes, because my mother could not drive.
B: And your sisters did not depend on it?
W: They were married by that time.
B: And the brother-in-law with whom you had the financial arrangement that did not
work out, was that the husband of one of your sisters?
W: Yes. He was a doctor in the Navy.
B: So he was a naval officer. A career Navy man?
W: Yes. He ended up an admiral.
B: Do you recall seeing airplanes as a child growing up, in Indiana or in Florida?
W: I recall one incident. Do you recognize the name Homer Rodehaver?
B: It rings a bell, but I do not know why.
W: He was Billy Sunday's song-and-dance man. His brother was a wild youth and
flew airplanes. I remember when I was about six or seven years old, we were just
about to get on a streetcar that ran between Warsaw and Winona, and
somebody said, oh, look at that, and there was a flash in the sky. The airplane
blew up, and he was killed in midair.
B: What kind of aircraft was that?
W: I have no idea.
B: Do you know why it blew up?
W: All I remember about it was that Homer Rodehaver wore a black band around his
arm for about two months.
B: About what age would you have been then?
W: About six. I can remember, the planes used to come in and land on the golf
course and take rides between Winona and Warsaw.
B: Did you ever have a chance to go up for a ride?
W: No, I never did.
B: Would those have been barnstorming pilots?
W: Yes. I can remember their straining their gasolines through chamois. They would
buy gasoline from local filling stations and strained it through chamois before
they put it into the planes.
B: Do you remember what kind of aircraft they were?
B: Were you tempted by the prospect of being able to go in one of them?
W: Oh, I would have loved to go up in one of them, if I had had the money.
B: The fact that you had seen someone's plane blow up in midair did not put you off
B: Although it must have associated flying in your mind with an activity that held out
some prospect for hazard.
W: That is right.
B: But not so much hazard that you would not undertake it yourself.
W: The funny part about that is that the B-24 was famous for blowing up in the air.
B: Did you ever think about yourself as someone who might wind up flying seriously
when you got to be an adult?
W: I do not remember when I got to be an adult, but I know if it had not been for the
war, I would have had no interest in aviation.
B: You graduated from IU in 1939, after three and a half years. Would that have
been at the end of the spring term of 1939 or the fall term of 1939?
W: I graduated in January, so it was the fall term.
B: January of 1939, so, actually, the fall term of 1938 was your last semester.
W: That is correct, yes.
B: So, you had the whole year of 1939 ahead of you and with a newly-minted
degree from IU.
W: And no job.
B: What were your plans for yourself?
W: To get a job.
B: And did you?
W: Yes. We had a fellow in Indianapolis, a fraternity brother, who was very helpful in
that regard. There were very few job interviewers as they have today, and he
sent me to a friend of his in a retail credit company who hired insurance
investigators. I got a job with him doing insurance investigations.
B: How soon after graduation was that?
W: A couple, three weeks.
B: Fast work in those days. Where were they located?
W: In Memphis.
B: How long did you stay in that job?
W: A year and a half.
B: So, that would have taken you up to 1940 or so. During that time, things were
starting to heat up in Europe, to do with Germany and France and Britain. War
was declared eventually on September 1, 1939. Were you and people your age
paying much attention to what was going on in Europe?
W: Interestingly enough, we used to sit in the IU cafeteria and listen to Hitler make
B: On the radio?
W: On the radio. It was fascinating, even though we could not translate what he was
saying because we did not know German, but his style and his inflections and
such things were quite interesting.
B: What kind of person did you make him out to be from listening to these
W: About what he was. A rabble-rouser.
B: Did you anticipate that this was a war that was going to have consequences for
the United States?
W: I do not think, at that time, we did.
B: So, something to watch from a distance but not to take too seriously as changing
your life, particularly.
W: I read a book. It was a very good book, and I do not think I have heard anything
about it since. The name of it was / Found No Peace, and it was the story of a
journalist who traveled through Europe. He was reporting that he found the
countries in very bad shape from the standpoint of disliking each other.
B: Was that before war broke out?
W: That was before war broke out.
B: Do you remember the name of the journalist?
W: I think I do, but I might not. It was Webb, as I remember. (Webb Miller, I Found
No Peace: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent [New York: Simon and
B: Did you read it before war broke out, or was that after?
W: No, I read it before war broke out. Yes.
B: So, you did not anticipate, during your first year and a half of working after
college, that you were going to wind up having to go fight a war.
B: What was your next job after you left the insurance investigation work?
W: I had interviewed with a department store in Fort Wayne, where they told me that
had nothing at the time, but they wrote me and said they now had an opening in
the credit department. So I went to Fort Wayne and went to work for the credit
B: What was it about making that change that was attractive to you?
W: I think I was a little tired of driving and typing reports and such things.
B: You were not married at this point, were you?
W: No, but I met my wife there in that department.
B: In the store at Fort Wayne, in the credit department?
B: And what was her name?
W: Ruth Ellison.
B: How long did you continue in that job?
W: About a year and a half, until I got my first raise. Then I decided that at $2.50 a
month, I was not getting raises very fast, so I looked for another job.
B: When was that?
B: Where were you and how did you first hear the news about Pearl Harbor?
W: I worked with the finance company that I went with after I left the department
store. My wife and I...
B: You were married by then?
W: Yes, we got married and lived in Lansing, Michigan, and we went home to Fort
Wayne to visit her parents. On Sunday morning, we were playing cards, and we
started to hear this disruption on the radio and stopped playing cards and heard
about the bombing in Pearl Harbor.
B: Were you all quite surprised by that development?
B: No inkling that anything like that might come?
B: Up until then, had you been growing anymore concerned about the war in
Europe, as far as having consequences for the U.S.?
W: My life was so busy, getting married and such things, that I really was not
concentrating on Europe.
B: What about after you had heard the news about Pearl Harbor?
W: Could I inject something here about my naval officer brother-in-law? They were
living in Hawaii, and on that Sunday morning, he had gotten a call. He got
dressed and told his wife that she had better load up on groceries, that he was
not sure when he would be home, but he did not tell her what had happened.
B: They were not living right at Pearl Harbor, apparently.
W: Well, they were living in the government housing on the base, yes. She thought
there was a naval exercise, and she had two sons. So she took the boys up on
the garage roof to watch the air show, and a stream of bullets went across the
garage roof and she decided she better get the hell out of there, which she did.
He operated for forty-eight hours straight.
B: In the hospital at the naval station?
W: Yes, right.
B: What kind of doctor was he?
W: He was a surgeon.
B: So, there was sign of the conflict, but she did not fully appreciate what was going
on. He evidently did and took himself off to work.
B: What was his name?
W: Tom Allman.
B: And what rank would he have held at that time? Captain or commander, perhaps,
something like that?
W: Yes. I had a high draft number. As you know, they were drafting people then.
B: Had the draft already been implemented?
B: Against the possibility of what?
B: Even though you did not have any immediate anticipation that there would be
war, at least the structure of the draft had been established.
W: I had a high draft number and I was married, two points in my favor in not going,
but my wife said to me in bed that night, you are going to have to go, aren't you?
And I said yes. So, I went down and tried to enlist in flight training. They would
not take me because it was full.
B: How soon after Pearl Harbor was this?
W: The next day.
B: And which branch did you approach?
W: The Army, which was then the Army Air Corps.
B: So, you knew right away that you wanted to fly.
B: Why was that?
W: I had always wanted to be in that program.
B: If you thought about serving in the armed forces at all, you thought about being in
the Air Corps.
B: Was there any particular type of flying that you thought was appealing to you
W: Yes, bomber, because I was very susceptible to air sickness and I did not want to
go flopping around the sky.
B: They would not take you. Why not?
W: They were full. The whole program was full. But, they told me that if I would take
civilian pilot training, they had to take me, and they gave the name of the person
to go see. So, I went and saw this person, and he gave me the name of the
ground school. I went to the ground school and took it and got into flying Piper
Cubs. I completed fifty hours of flying time and then went down and enlisted in
the Army Air Corps.
B: You paid for your flight training out of your own pocket?
W: Oh no. There was no cost at all.
B: How was that?
W: Well, it was a government thing.
B: So even though they would not take you into their program, they would fund you
if you would go out on your own account and take flight school and then solo.
B: And is that as far as you took it while you were still a civilian, to the point of solo?
B: In a Piper Cub.
B: Was that in Lansing, Michigan?
W: No, it was in Fort Wayne.
B: Had you moved back down there?
W: I was transferred back to Fort Wayne.
B: That must have been very shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
W: Yes, it was. I think a week or so.
B: How long did it take you to get to the point of completing the fifty hours and
W: About four months.
B: And then as soon as you did that, what happened next?
W: Then we were inducted into the Army Air Corps and told they would call us. In
the meantime, I was so underweight that I had to take liver shots and eat wheat
germ in order to get my weight up to where I could pass the physical.
B: What was the minimum weight for the physical?
W: I think 135 [pounds], something like that, and I weighed about 120.
B: And what was your height then?
W: Five [feet] eleven [inches].
B: Having a college degree and having learned to fly, at what rank were you
inducted into the Army Air Corps?
W: Aviation cadet.
B: You had to wait, I guess, until they told you...until what?
W: Until November. That was May when I was inducted.
B: May of 1942.
B: So, you continued working in the finance company until November?
B: Holding an aviation cadet rank in the Army Air Corps but without any duties?
B: Then what happened?
W: Then, they called me to the headquarters of the Fifth Corps area, which was
Columbus, Ohio. I went over there, got on a train, the oldest train you ever saw,
and was transported to San Antonio, Texas, where we started in pre-flight.
B: Did you have any children by this point?
B: Did your wife stay at home in Fort Wayne, which is where her parents were?
W: Yes. She stayed with her parents.
B: So you went off to San Antonio. At this point, did you have any further ideas
about what kind of flying or what kind of aircraft you were going to be involved
W: Maybe we should get into flying school before I answer that. We went from San
Antonio, where we had intensive training, pre-flight training, supposedly the
toughest training there was.
B: That is ground school.
W: Yes. I gained fifty pounds in about six weeks.
B: How did you do that?
W: Exercise. That had been my problem before. In pre-flight, you do nothing but
run-you never walk-and you do two hours of calisthenics every day before you
go to school. The pants that they issued me would not come that close to closing.
B: Well, in addition to working you, they must have fed you.
W: Yes, they did. We sat at tables of four with a loaf of bread and a jar of preserves,
and we would eat that whole thing before they served us breakfast. [Laughter.]
B: Were you living in barracks?
W: Yes, tar-paper barracks.
B: In the winter, in Texas?
B: How was that?
W: The funny thing that happened was, we had these great big overcoats which we
would go to breakfast in, in the morning, because the nights were colder than the
dickens. Wear this coat running, take the coat off, put it back on to go back to the
barracks-the sun had come out by that time-and run back with that coat on, and
it was really hot.
B: Your age at this point would have been about twenty-five years old.
B: When they sent you to this ground school of pre-flight training, were you oriented
toward bomber command or bomber operations, or was that still up in the air?
W: That was still up in the air. We went to primary, which was really what I had been
through in civilian pilot training. So, naturally, I got through that very easily. They
washed 60 percent of the participants out because they could not learn to fly.
B: Many of these people had not had the benefit of civilian training, as you had.
W: That is right. My instructor wanted me to go into pursuit [fighter aircraft].
Because of the previous training, I was doing very well in primary, but I knew
better. He used to take me up and teach me acrobatics.
B: In what sort of aircraft?
W: They were Fairchilds. They were monoplanes. They used to use Stearman
bi-planes, but I was the first class in which they used monoplanes. We got
through that training and sent on to basic training. We went from Pine Bluff,
Arkansas, where the instructor was really a good old boy in the truest sense. He
was an old crop-duster.
B: Was he a civilian employee?
W: Yes. And we went to basic, where all of our instructors were army officers.
B: You went from San Antonio to Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
B: So you went from ground school to primary flight training.
B: And then from Pine Bluff, Arkansas?
W: We went to Coffeeville, Kansas.
B: And that was for the purpose of doing what?
W: Basic training. We flew Vultee Vibrators. They were a radial-engine, single-
engine- type aircraft. Monoplanes. Low wing.
B: Single seat?
W: Well, there is another seat there, but it is unused. We took an intensive course,
and they washed out 40 percent or more of us.
B: In your experiences in San Antonio and Pine Bluff and now at Coffeeville, was
there anyone you knew from your civilian life going through any of this at the
W: Our wives came to Pine Bluff and started following us around, and she brought
with her another wife, from just across the border in Ohio named Zimmerman.
B: At this point, now, you are at Coffeeville, Kansas, and flying Vultees?
B: Was there still some question in your mind, or in the minds of the instructors, as
to whether you will go into pursuit-flying or bomber-flying?
W: Yes. We did not have to make a selection until the end of our basic course.
B: But your mind, I gather, was made up. At that point, had you seen a B-24?
B: Did you know they existed?
B: They were not really in production yet?
W: I think they were, but they were not around where we were.
B: To the extent that you thought about flying bombers, did you have a preference
for what you wound up flying?
W: Oh yes.
B: What was your idea?
W: The B-25 was the perfect plane to fly.
W: It was twin-engine, it made a lot of noise, and it was a short-flight strategic
B: Did you have any idea what theater of operations you might wind up in or prefer
to wind up in?
W: Yes. I wanted to wind up in the 8th Air Force, where the guys went to London and
had a whole bunch of women on the string.
B: So what happened at Coffeeville?
W: Obviously, I made the team. I did not wash out. We got into heavy ground
school. We got into physics, and we took weather, code and physics, and
something else but I cannot think what. I had had high school physics and why it
came back as easy as it did...I ended up tutoring about four guys in physics,
which surprises me even until this day. Fairly routine.
B: Did the training in aspects such as physics turn out to be important to your ability
as a flying officer?
W: I do not think so. I do not know whether it was mental exercise or relief from
boredom. I do not know. The only thing we really used was the weather. The
other was identification [of other aircraft].
B: Did they have good photographs or silhouette charts or both?
B: And that was in recognizing both friendly and enemy aircraft. Did you find that
preparation later to be pretty effective?
W: Yes, except when they finally introduced the P-51 in the 15th Air Force, it looked
so much like an ME-109 that a couple of our people shot down their friends.
B: At this point in your training, were you still an air cadet?
B: And when did you achieve officer rank? After completing that training?
W: No, after we went through advanced.
B: And where was that?
W: That was at Altus, Oklahoma.
B: That was advanced training in what?
W: Twin-engine airplanes.
B: At this point, you had convinced everyone that you should be operating
W: I do not know whether I convinced them or not, but I elected that.
B: So you got your wishes at this point, so far.
W: Yes. I ran across this picture the other day. The commandant at the air base had
us all in and he said, the bad news is that I do not want to be here; I want to be in
combat, and I am going to take it out on you. He was just joking, really. He said,
the good news is that we think that if you have gotten this far, you can make it all
the way; we have not washed anybody out yet; that does not mean we cannot.
This was at Altus. And, he said, about those rooms downtown with the girls
staying with you, I know they are not your wives; you are not supposed to have
your wives here; and my wife knows that they are not your wives, but she is
going to have a reception for those girls that you are living with downtown.
B: Why were wives not supposed to be living nearby?
W: They thought they were a deterrent to the learning process.
B: Was that a policy all across the Army Air Corps?
B: But apparently not very rigidly enforced.
W: No. All along, the wives had been able to get jobs and earn money. They did not
just sit in their room and pout. This group that we were in, we were all good
friends and they worked together. My wife stayed with a guy who owned jewelry
stores. He found out she had credit experience, so he hired her to clean up his
credit account, which she did.
B: What town was that in?
W: Coffeeville. Then, he took her to another town-do not ask me where-nearby
where he had another store, and she cleaned up that one for him, too.
B: Meaning she did collections?
W: Yes, right. They were all very appreciative and gave us parties when we moved
on to the next. That was not inexpensive in Kansas, because Kansas was dry.
They had to go across the border to get liquor and have a party for us.
B: So you actually had a social life with your wife outside the circle of acquaintances
to do with the training program.
B: That must have made for a richer life for her, following you around.
B: Still no children yet?
W: Still no children.
B: And she followed] you to Altus. She is living there, and the commandant makes
B: Did she find employment in Altus?
W: Yes. The utility company had overcharged their clients and were ordered by the
utility commission to make the repayments, so these gals did all the work to
make the repayments. Judging by the southern workers, the utility thought there
would probably be three classes of cadets to get the job done. Ours were going
to be there six weeks, and they were done in four. They paid them for six.
B: But they worked themselves out of a job.
B: So you spent six weeks at Altus in this training program.
W: Actually, we spent nine, I think. Each place was nine weeks.
B: Was that ground training or flight training in multi-engine at Altus?
B: And what kind of multi-engine aircraft were you flying there?
W: Twin-engine Cessna, the family-car of the air.
B: Do you remember what the model of Cessna was?
W: I used to, but I do not anymore.
B: How was that? That was your first experience flying multi-engine.
W: It was all right. The only problem we had [was], the flight instructor had a nasty
habit of pulling all the power off and having you do a power-off landing. They quit
that, however, because one of the guys... it was his job to put down the wheels
once [the instructor] pulled the power off, and he forgot to do it. As they skidded
in on the belly, the instructor said to the student, I think we will give each other
B: Each of these training cycles had been nine weeks, and you started in your
earliest training in November of 1942. So, by the time you got to Altus, I guess it
must have been sometime around the late spring or early summer of 1943. Does
that sound right?
W: Yes. We graduated in 1943 H, and H was September.
B: That is when you finished all training, and that was when you finished at Altus.
B: Is that when you attained a rank above air cadet?
B: And what was that rank?
W: Second lieutenant. Two comical things happened. Of course, since we were
getting our wings and our bars, all the families were there. Some of the cadets
had not finished their tours, which were punishment for minor infractions, and
they were out there with their families watching walking tours. The real comical
thing was that on the way to the theater where they gave us these awards, we
were marching and there were two dogs hung-up and just screaming. We had to
keep straight face and just pass over them. And all of the families were standing
there and laughing.
B: So, this is September, 1943, and you get your second lieutenant's bar.
B: Your wife is watching the graduation with a mixture of pride and apprehension.
B: What do you expect is going to come next after this development?
W: We are going to get training in combat aircraft.
B: And is that your next stop right away?
W: Yes. We were shipped to Clovis, New Mexico. When we reported there, they
asked us how long it had been since we had a leave. I had never had one, so
they gave me a week's leave. My wife, at this time, had gone home to Fort
Wayne and my mother was in California, and I was in Clovis, New Mexico,
halfway between the two. So I went to see my mother and then went back to Fort
Wayne and saw my wife. I flew in a B-24 there. Then, we were sent to Salt Lake
B: When you say you flew at Clovis, do you mean you actually operated...?
W: No, I rode.
B: Was it in a combat version of a B-24?
W: Stripped, kind of.
B: When you traveled to California from Clovis, how did you travel, by train?
W: By air. We were given a top priority.
B: That is quite a privilege in those times.
W: Yes. I got one, also, from California to Fort Wayne.
B: Did the trip to Fort Wayne come during the same leave?
W: Yes. I made the whole circuit.
B: So, at Clovis, you have your first experience of going up in a B-24. At that point,
were you still thinking of flying B-25 Mitchells?
W: I think that had been ruled out.
W: We were in B-24s. We were getting training in them.
B: That was why you had gone to Clovis.
B: If you had been assigned to B-25s, you would have gone elsewhere?
B: So, how did the decision get made, and by whom, to send you for B-24 training?
W: I do not know.
B: You had no participation in it?
B: When did you get the news?
W: I do not remember. We were just there.
B: Is that all they did flight training on at Clovis, New Mexico, the B-24s?
W: Yes, and then we went to Salt Lake City.
B: How long were you at Clovis, New Mexico?
W: About a week after I came back from the leave.
B: So you really did not have much to do there. At Salt Lake City, was that confined
strictly to B-24 operations, as well?
B: And how long were you there?
W: About a week. We formed our squadrons there. Then we flew to Langley Field,
Virginia, for permanent training in B-24s.
B: Meaning you were transported there by aircraft, not that you flew an aircraft then.
W: Oh yes, we flew an aircraft.
B: What kind?
W: A B-24.
B: So you formed a squadron and were assigned planes.
B: In which you had been trained, apparently, not very much.
W: That is right, and I flew as co-pilot with the squadron operations officer who had
been drunk the night before. He took the plane off and no more than got it off the
ground and turned it over to me and went to sleep.
B: Was he a training pilot?
B: But he had experience with B-24s.
B: Was he a combat veteran?
B: Had any of your training pilots been combat veterans so far?
W: No. The squadron commander was from Winona, Minnesota. So when we got
there, he wanted to buzz the town. I was instructed to wake my pilot up when we
got there, and I did. So he flew formation with the squadron, and they buzzed
Winona and got the altitude. Then he gave it to me again. We were going to
Detroit to stay overnight. We stayed overnight in Detroit and took off the next
morning. He gave the airplane to me with instructions to wake him when we got
B: All this is your first experience flying a B-24?
W: That is right.
B: You racked up a lot of flight hours very fast.
B: What was your reaction to the experience of climbing into this thing and flying it?
W: It was not too difficult. A B-24 is a wonderful airplane to fly. It is a tricycle landing
gear, which I will say more about as we go. It is a Davis wing, which means it
has a lot of length to the wing, but very narrow and very thick. Before it stalls, it
shakes all over and taps you on the shoulder and says, I am going to stall, I am
going to stall, and never does. I will tell you how that came in to help us in the
future. So, we landed at Langley and, for the first time, we were in great big
beautiful brick buildings. We were still on cots, but we ate off of china dishes.
Just like living uptown. They assigned me to another fellow who had more hours
than I did. They were training him to be a first pilot and me to be the co-pilot. So I
flew between the seats while he shot landings.
B: What does between the seats mean?
W: Sitting on the little seats they put between the seats with the instructor in the
right-hand seat and a guy on the left.
B: Was there anyone with you in this newly-formed squadron that you had trained
W: I do not think so.
B: Not Zimmerman?
W: No. We were all dispersed at that point.
B: Did your wife travel to Langley?
W: Not until later. She came. Her minister had gone in the Army and was a chapel
man. I do not think it was an air base. It was a training camp, close to
Washington. She came there. We finally got a place to live in Hampton, Virginia.
B: This is the winter of 1943, right?
W: Right. Well, it was getting in the fall and winter. The cadets had a lot of fun with
the southern customs. We would get in the bus and get in the backseats, and the
bus driver would not move until we got in the front seats.
B: Why did you try to test the system that way?
W: Just to annoy them.
B: As the custom was in the South, even there in Virginia, blacks would be required
to sit in the back of the bus and whites in the front. Did you share bus seats or
find yourself traveling on buses with blacks?
W: They were nowhere near us.
B: Really? Either in Army bases or in the civilian population?
W: No. We spent a week at an island in the middle of the river.
B: What river was that? The Patuxent?
W: I do not think so. Anyway, practicing gunnery, ground gunnery. Tearing down the
guns, putting them back together, firing them, that sort of thing. They were 0.50
caliber machine guns, they were pistols, everything. The boys who had never
fired guns, like the ones from New York City and such, learned that you did not
hold a shotgun away from your shoulder.
B: You had already been trained in that practice.
W: Yes, and knew that was dangerous. Then we graduated from there, we had our
crew formed, and we went to New York City to pick up our airplane.
B: This is as a squadron?
W: No, this was individual.
B: As individual flight crews?
B: Was it still intended that you were going to operate as the squadron that had
been formed out at Salt Lake City?
B: What was your flight crew assignment when you left Langley to go to New York?
B: So this is to go pick up an aircraft.
W: That is right. They were delivered to Mitchell Field, new ones, so we went to
Mitchell Field and they released us until the next morning. Somebody on the
crew had to go back to Mitchell Field every morning and find out if our plane was
there. So, we went downtown in New York. The first thing we had to do was find
a hotel room, which was not easy, but the trouble was, in the long lines of
civilians, we were motioned right up to the front, everywhere we went. You would
go into a bar, and you could not buy a drink; somebody would buy the drink for
you. I remember one night, I was talking to my wife on the telephone, and a
prostitute was trying to get me to come out of the phone booth at the same time.
B: Not, presumably, so that she could use the telephone?
W: No, I do not think that was on her mind, if she had one. So, we had, really, a
wonderful week in Manhattan. Then one morning, we got a call. Our man at
Mitchell telephoned in that our plane was ready. So we all got our gear and
reported to Mitchell Field and flew the plane to West Palm Beach, which was the
takeoff place for overseas.
B: This was a brand new B-24?
W: That is right.
B: Where was it built?
W: I think it was a Ford.
B: Which meant it would have come from Dearborn [Michigan].
W: Yes. In West Palm Beach, we had to do a fifty-hour inspection of the plane
before we took off for overseas, which we had never done but the engineer on
our crew knew how to do it and instructed us, gave us jobs.
B: When you picked up the plane at Mitchell Field, was it more or less combat-
equipped with all the instruments and weaponry that it would need to operate?
B: But not ordnance?
W: We had the guns but not the shells.
B: And who was the pilot for that aircraft when you signed on as co-pilot?
W: Sam Archibald. One of the things we had done when we were at Langley, we
flew at night; we flew all over the country. We would fly through a city and land
and take off and fly to another city. We had taken up a collection among the air
crews of the squadron to buy ourselves a long-distance radio so we could play
music when we arrived in Europe. That was before tapes and CDs, etc. So,
Sam's parents bought the radio, and we went to New York to pick it up. We had
one problem. All of the airports in New York were blacked out, and we were
blacked out. So we would turn our lights on for a minute or two, and they would
try to get a fix on us and tell us. We finally came in and landed and picked up the
radio and met Sam's parents and flew back to Langley.
B: What airport was that where you had that adventure?
W: I do not think La Guardia was built at that time. So I guess it was Mitchell.
B: Ordinarily, when you had been conducting night flight operations before, you
could rely on finding an airfield lit up at night...
W: Right. We would go west.
B: But along the coast, they could not do that.
B: By this point, is it still 1943, in the wintertime?
B: So do you remember when you picked up your new aircraft?
W: It was October or November, probably November because Christmas was on
one of the stops and New Year's was on one of the stops that we made on our
B: Not to jump too far ahead, but the aircraft that you have delivery of in New York,
is that the aircraft that you would stay with for the duration of your flying career,
or did you change later?
W: Changed later. We pulled this fifty-hour inspection, so-called, and were then
alerted that our plane and crew would take off the next morning for Berinquin
Field in Puerto Rico. We got up, got our gear on board, started to taxi out, and
the plane that was taking off crashed on the end of the runway--boom.
B: Do you know why?
W: No, and it killed the whole crew.
B: Was that the first serious fatal accident that you had seen in a B-24?
W: Yes it was.
B: And these were squadron mates of yours, I guess.
W: Yes, and we had to take off right over it.
B: Were you the next ones in rotation?
W: No, we were not the next. But actually, it helped--the lift we got, the heat of the
[burning] plane wreck. So we flew to Puerto Rico, and on the way, our radio
operator said, I do not want to go to war; I want to go home; take me home.
Harry Seiler. The funniest guy I ever knew. A little Jewish boy. He used to tell us
stories. He had two brothers who were in vaudeville, and he would tell how they
came home broke every two or three weeks, just funny as a crutch. Anyway, we
told him that he would be court-martialed if we took him home, so he decided he
would rather go to war than be court-martialed.
B: Do you think he was pretty serious about this?
W: Oh yes, very serious. Anyway, we arrived at Berinquin Field, which was
magnificent. It was a permanent base. Everything was painted white. There was
a beautiful officers' club. It sat on the edge of the Caribbean with a wall about
that high in front of you, which you used as a cocktail table. You could not even
pick up your drink. They had Navy boys who would pick up the drink and hand it
B: Were these Hispanic employees, or black?
W: They were Hispanic.
B: Was this at a hotel or at an officers' club?
W: This was the officers' club, and we all decided we did not want to go to war
either. This was fine with us. Let's stay right here.
B: Unless the war was "right here," in which case...
W: Right. But, we got up the next morning and flew. We got up very early, all of us,
so that if anything happened, we could turn around in daylight and get back.
From Puerto Rico, we flew to Georgetown, British Guiana, for Christmas Eve.
B: How was that as a place to celebrate Christmas?
W: Well, I will read to you about it: We went to a dance with some British aviators
and some flight hostesses. The Americans were usually generous souls, but the
British never bought a drink. We were told that the British were not paid very
much, which we found out the hard way. Nor did we have to fly on Christmas.
B: The British you are referring to, are they military or civilian?
W: They were military.
B: RAF [Royal Air Force]?
W: Yes. The day after, we flew to Belem, Brazil.
B: These are all daytime hops?
W: Yes, on the mouth of the Amazon.
B: For the tape, I will insert here that Tom is reading from the manuscript of his book
about his experiences both before, during and after the war, and in his later
career. Does that book have a title at this point?
B: It is a manuscript in progress.
W: One of our crew was ill the next day, so we did not have to fly then. Instead we
took a Navy boat ride up the Amazon. The following day, we flew to Fortaleza,
B: When you get delayed by illness or mechanical trouble on this series of delivery
hops, you cannot travel with your whole squadron, is that right?
W: No. Well, they were coming in and going off before and after us.
B: So, you did not travel as any kind of formation.
B: Every plane just makes the hop.
W: That is right. You are completely on your own.
B: Maybe other traffic, maybe not, depending.
W: Yes. The only thing you do not want to see is submarines. They shoot you down.
B: Would they not be as likely to be frightened of being bombed or
machined-gunned by you?
W: Oh yes, they are, too, but they take that risk.
B: Did you hear any episodes of B-24s or other aircraft being ferried that had
encounters with German submarines?
W: Up north, but not down where we were crossing.
B: In transit between Christmas and New Year's of 1943, what was your next stop?
W: We took off from there, from Fortaleza, for Africa.
B: And what was your destination in Africa?
B: Was that anticipated to be all a daylight hop?
W: Yes. A cute story I want to get in here: "We spent three days there, inspecting
our plane (this is Fortaleza) for the trip across the south Atlantic. There were
some beautiful beaches there, but they would not let us off the base. The
squadron doctor was riding with us as a passenger and went to the headman of
the base and asked why we couldn't go to the beach. He came home with a sad
story. The beaches were covered with anxious young girls, but the venereal
disease rate was 300 percent. We asked how was it that high and were told that
they had more than one disease. We were finally briefed for our trip across the
ocean. We were to start about two a. m. and watch our rpm because of fuel
usage. We had barely enough to make it. We were to land on an island about
halfway across if we thought we could not make it. The island had a very short
runway, and at the end, we would have to taxi up a hill to get out of the way of
another arrival. Fortunately, we did not have to use it."
B: Do you remember the name of that island?
W: I think it was Ascension Island.
B: So you made the hop successfully to Dakar.
W: We have not gotten to Dakar yet. At Dakar, they had a radio beam which went
out 1,000 miles into the ocean. When you picked up that radio, it would take you
right into Dakar, but our navigator did not want to use it. So, we kept the radio on
in the pilot's compartment, and he did it by dead-reckoning.
B: The navigator did?
W: The navigator, and he hit it right on.
B: Was he trying to challenge his own skills?
B: He must have been well-satisfied.
W: Quite well-satisfied.
B: Did you and the pilot have confidence in his ability, or were you monitoring the
W: We monitored the radio beam, believe me, although he was very good. We got
into Dakar. As we landed, [the control tower] came screaming on the radio, get
off the runway, get off the runway! And we tore off the runway, and just then,
another plane coming the opposite direction right at us went by. He was coming
in out of fuel and had just taken the first chance to land he could. We taxied up
to the hard stand-that is the parking place for airplanes-and they had
Senegalese soldiers there to watch over our planes. It was as hot as you can
imagine. It is just about on the equator.
B: These are Senegalese, but are they, I guess, colonial forces?
W: No, they are black, very black.
B: Is Senegal a British colony at this point?
W: They were dressed in World War I uniforms, with the high collars and the puttees
that wrapped around their legs and no shoes.
B: What about head gear?
W: I do not think they wore any, but they may have.
B: Were they armed?
W: Yes, they had rifles, but they wanted to trade money real quick.
B: Your money for what?
W: For theirs. We wanted theirs because we were making short snorters. Do you
know what short snorters are?
B: I do not.
W: They are money of every country that you have been in pasted together.
B: How did it come by the name short snorter?
W: That was long before my time.
B: Is this before New Year's still?
B: When did you arrive in Africa?
W: About the week after New Year's, because we had New Year's in South America.
B: Did you have to take off right away from Dakar, or were you able to spend a little
W: No, we took off the next day for Casablanca. In Casablanca, you had to go
through a pass in the mountains, and there was often a thunderstorm in the
mountains. So, you radioed ahead, and if there was a thunderstorm, then you
went over to a [U.S.] Navy base at Agadir. Sure enough, there was a
thunderstorm in the mountains, so we went over to Agadir.
B: Was there a weather observer stationed at that pass?
W: There was a weather station, yes.
B: Do you remember where or in what mountain range that pass was or the name of
W: No, I do not. When we arrived at Agadir, the tower told us we would have to
circle because there had been an accident on the field. It seemed that a French
pilot who was trained to be very aggressive had tried to land in front of a bomber
and had landed right on top of him, and the pilot jumped out of the plane and
took for the hills. I guess the punishment was rather severe.
B: This is the Free French Air Force?
W: Yes. So we circled and finally went into the airfield. The Navy told us that they
were all full and that they would have to take us into town.
B: For barracks?
B: So, we got into the main downtown section and a beautiful resort hotel on the
coast and signed to a room. There were four beds in the room, which the officers
took. Enlisted men slept on cots outside in the hall but used the bathroom
facilities. In the bathroom, we had a bidet, which none of the enlisted men had
ever seen and promptly messed up. We were told that there was a
government-run bawdy-house downtown, so we got our curiosity up and went
down. You would go up on the porch and the girls would pinch your testicles,
which I never thought was quite sexy.
B: Was it indeed government-run?
B: By the French government?
W: Yes. Not the American. So, we had a little boy from Xenia, Ohio, in there, Carew,
and he had a little too much wine. He passed out and the boys took him back to
bed, and we told him that he had his first sex-he was a virgin-while he was
passed out. I do not know whether they ever told him the truth or not.
It was a beautiful spot. The Arabs, in the evening, would put their prayer rugs
down by the ocean and pray. You would see a whole line of them from our
balcony. We could watch them complete their prayers and get up and leave. We
went from there to Casablanca the next day, and down the coast to Oran and
Algiers and then into Tunis, where we were to spend a month because our
airfield was not ready in Italy.
B: So did you stop at Casablanca?
W: No, we stopped in Tunis.
B: Oh, just from Agadir straight on to Tunis by the coast route.
W: Yes, but we spent nights in Casablanca, Oran and Algiers.
B: So, day-hops between each of those points until arriving at Tunis. Do you know
when you got to Tunis?
W: Sometime in January.
B: January of 1944. The base that you operated out of there, had that been
prepared by U.S. forces, or was it a former airfield from the time of the Axis?
W: It was prepared by the U.S., but it was prepared for smaller planes. Our planes'
wingtips barely missed the front of the other planes parked there. So, when we
shot landings, which the commanding officer decided we better do [to avoid]
getting too stale, we would have a man out on each wing motioning to us as we
B: So the conditions at Tunis were so far removed from any combat operations that
you really had nothing to do until your airfield in Italy was ready.
W: Right, and we lived in long tents, I mean, in tents pitched in a long line. We could
not do it wide because we did not want somebody to come in and be able to
knock us all off at once. We were practicing formation-flying. When we would
come in, we would go down and buzz the tents. If you were inside of the tent, it
would go [loud rumbling noise]. The colonel, whose name was Cool and he was,
was a former American Airlines pilot who had trained in World War I. He called
us in and he said, now, look, I do not want to ruin anybody's spirit when you are
having a lot of fun, but, he said, somebody is going to succeed, and cut it out.
B: Meaning succeed at wrecking a ship?
W: Yes. So, we did not. We spent our time building furnaces for our tents. There was
an old German dump not far from us, and we would get gas tanks and gas lines
off of the wrecked cars and then put down a brake drum and then put over it half
an oil drum. The brake drum would vaporize-it was 100 octane gasoline we were
using-the fuel, and they made very fine so we did not freeze to death.
Believe it or not, it snowed while we were there. People think that it does not
snow in North Africa, but it does.
B: Did you see much sign, when you were there, of the combat between the Afrika
Korps [German army] and the British and U.S. forces?
W: Oh yes. We were just inside the Bizerte, and there was not anything over that
high. It had been shelled from the sea, you know. We had to quit going to this
dump because somebody stepped on a mine that had been left there [and] blew
himself all to hell.
B: When you flew operations to keep yourselves fresh, did you fly over the sea or
over land or both?
W: Over land, mostly.
B: What was it like flying over North Africa? Was it rugged terrain or desert or both?
W: Both, but mostly desert. My wife said when I got home, didn't you ever do
anything in North Africa but make stoves? That is all you wrote about.
B: Well, was there any place to go off-base for recreation?
W: Yes, we could hitchhike into Tunis, and ATC, Air Transport Command, ran a
restaurant. They were the only ones who were supposed to use it, but they could
not really tell us apart, so we went there and could get a half-decent meal for
$0.05 or $0.06. They did not have to pay for the money. They just got some fresh
things from around the neighborhood with our money. Anyway, we befriended a
man who ran a bar. A bar, that is, a place to buy wine.
B: Not like a tavern?
W: No, it was just a stand in the street. We would go down and have some wine, and
he got to be a good friend of ours. So when we finally got our orders to go on to
Italy and were leaving, he had us all to dinner and had a beautiful steak dinner
that he had to buy on the black market, which just cost him a fortune.
B: Was this an American?
W: No, he was a Frenchman. He was a Tunisian lawyer, and his wife was Miss
Tunisia. She was redheaded and she sat there after dinner and sang torch songs
B: Do you remember their names?
W: No, I do not. However, being a Frenchmen, they had a fish course to start the
meal. We had a little boy from Illinois who just loved the fish, and he kept eating
and they kept being very polite and serving him. When the steaks came, he could
not eat a bite. So, we took off for Italy, and we went down around the boot and up
the east side to the plains of Foggia.
B: Is that on the Adriatic Sea?
W: No, but it is back from the Adriatic. It is much closer to the Adriatic than it is to
anything else in Italy.
B: I gather that you flew around the coastal route, mostly, instead of directly over
the peninsula. Is that because there were still combat operations going on?
W: There were but not that far south, I think mainly to avoid the mountains. There is
a spine of mountains that goes right down the center of the Italian peninsula. We
came in and landed, and at the end of the runway was a great big water hole.
The administrative officer was standing there pointing it out to us and trying to get
us to go around it. Nobody liked him, so when you got around it, you gunned your
engines and just blew the water right in his face.
B: At this point, were you still with the original air crew that you had formed up with
at Mitchell Field?
B: And you are still a second lieutenant and co-pilot of the B-24?
W: Yes. We got to our hard stand, which was anything but hard, and immediately
sunk to our bellies [in] mud.
B: Was it a rainy time?
W: I do not remember that it was that rainy.
B: A poorly drained field, at least. I gather this was a brand-new installation since
you had to wait for it to be made ready.
W: Yes, it was.
B: And prepared by the American forces to receive you.
W: It was a great big farm. It had a well and three or four barns and a manor house
that we used as an operations office. Our first line of business was to pitch our
tents, and when we got that done, then we had to help get the airplanes out of
the mud which took a couple-three days. One of the barns was used for briefing,
for missions. We were briefed one morning for a very short run. We had not
captured Rome at that time, and we were not allowed to bomb it because of the
historic value. We were told in the briefing that there was very light flak. We were
after an anti-personnel German camp north of Rome. So we came out and got
our gear aboard and got fired up and got in line for takeoff. The runway was dirt,
and when a plane took off, it left so much dirt in the air that you could not see.
We would sit and wait until it settled down, until you could see the runway, and
then you could take off, which meant you had an awful time forming a formation.
They got wise to that and finally put a tower down at the end so he could tell you
when you could go. We got up in the air, made a formation, flew to our target,
and, as you read the other day, came home veterans of foreign wars.
B: Your first combat mission.
B: Was there a danger of attack from the air by German or Italian aircraft in Foggia?
W: No, not there. They did not get that far south, and we had fields all around there.
B: Were there fighter aircraft operating at Foggia, or just B-24s?
W: Most of them were north of Foggia, and we were south. There are two places
that are useful for aircraft in Italy, the plains of Foggia and the Udine Valley,
which is right as the curve goes around the top of the Adriatic. It was just a big
valley. We had the plains of Foggia, and the Germans had the Udine. So, we
came home and got our donut and our shot of whiskey from the Red Cross
B: The Red Cross served whiskey after a mission?
B: Good whiskey?
W: How did I know, then?
B: It tasted good at the time.
W: Yes, it was wonderful.
B: Was there any enemy resistance over this target on your first mission?
W: No, nothing but the antiaircraft.
B: Was that of consequence?
W: It was not, really, but it made our gunners mad, so they were firing back at them
with the machine guns. Of course, the bullets would go down and get terminal
velocity and do no damage whatsoever. We told them not to do that after that. I
guess from there, we start the missions, and I am going to have to refer to my
notes: "Much of our material had been lost in a raid on the harbor at Bari. The
ship carrying our transportation vehicles had been sunk with everything on board.
We had one jeep for the whole squadron to use for everything. Our base was five
miles from Cerignola and about thirty miles from Foggia, where there was a
USO. After going several times, we learned that it was rather boring and very
little to do. We finally were told that the list for the first mission would be on board
that night." That is when we got [to the first one].
B: What was your reaction when you flew that first combat mission? Did you feel
detachment or apprehension, or [were you] just to busy to experience much
B: Was that pretty much the common feeling?
B: And how did you feel once you landed again, combat veterans?
B: How many missions were you expected to complete in a combat tour when you
started out operations?
B: And did that number hold for the duration of your experience?
W: Yes. "The truck trip to debriefing seemed like seconds when we met the Red
Cross girls with a shot of whiskey and a donut for each of us, but we were
questioned by the intelligence officers. There really was very little to tell, beside
the fact that we had gotten some flak. Whether or not it was light or intense, we
did not know. Obviously, it was not accurate or we would have seen some
evidence of it on the planes. After debriefing, we stumbled back to our tents and
dropped into bed."
B: How long did it take from the time you turned out in the morning until you
returned and were free to go back to your tents?
W: That varied widely, because very often we were five hours in the air, but this
particular mission, I would say, [was] two hours. We slept late and got up to our
only treat of the day, hot coffee. Coffee was made in a cut-off barrel over an open
fire. It sounds awful, but, actually, it was the best tasting coffee I have ever
tasted. We soon found out that there was nothing to do in Cerignola, and a little
more in Foggia. I saw one woman in Cerignola once, and she was running from
one house to another, which took about ten seconds. [She was] the only female I
ever saw in town.
B: I was going to ask where you went and what you did for recreation during your off
time?. I take it the pickings were pretty slim.
W: That is right. "We spent our first three days making it more pleasant around our
tents. We learned that we could have an officers' club built by taking up a
collection and giving it to the Italian builders, which we did, and when it was
done, we set up a bar using canned juice from our breakfast ration and mixing it
with local cherry brandy which was all of three days old. CB&J. We learned that
bridge was the best way of passing time. The bridge games came rather heated
and consumed many hours, the cost at $1 a point netted at very little since things
seemed to balance out. The only other pastime was traveling around the
countryside buying things for our tents. We soon learned that the local carpenters
made spaghetti tables that made excellent writing desks, and the bricklayers had
tiles that made floors for our tents that kept the rats from coming up through the
floor. We used our .45 pistols that we were issued, and the rats made good
targets. They told us never to be caught with a .45 if we went down [into town]
because we would be charged with every crime that occurred in the area."
B: By the local Italian constabulary?
W: Right. "Actually, we did not fly again for six days. We were briefed for flights to an
airfield north of Rome, but the weather was so bad we never took off. The next
day, we were to hit a target in Steyr, Austria, but it was the same story. It was
seven days before we got off the mission. The target was in the airfield north of
Rome. My notes say "moderate inaccurate flak, missed the target completely, no
fighters, no excitement."
B: You kept a journal of all your flight operations?
W: Yes. I had a little notebook that I copied this from.
B: Did you take that with you on flights or only fill it in when you got back to base?
W: I think I had it with me. We had zipper pockets in our flying suits, and I think I
kept it in there.
B: Was there any official sanction for or against that kind of practice?
B: When you were stationed at Foggia, did you see any signs of the ground war that
had been conducted through the peninsula?
W: No. Our crew members hitchhiked up to the front, which was a line across Italy
about where Monte Casino was, and met some Canadian soldiers up there who
they brought back to our camp. We took one of them on a mission. Two of them
B: What was the behavior of the Italian civilian population toward the Americans?
W: We did not see enough of them to ever know. If you went away from town, they
were very friendly, but you did not see them in town.
B: How about the people you were able to trade with for such things as tables or
bricks, were they cordial?
W: Yes, they were. "I would guess that we actually made missions that we started
about half of the time, which we aborted because of weather or engine trouble.
When we turned because of engine trouble, the engineering officer would check
the plane over and see if there was anything really wrong. Many times, when we
had troubles in the air, we could not find anything wrong on the ground, which
made it look as if we were trying to avoid the mission. If it appeared there was
something wrong, it would reflect on his ability to keep the planes in proper
working order. The major problem in the planes was overheating. When our
gauges showed that the engine was overheating, we would open the cowl flaps
a fraction more. This caused more drag and we were forced to give the engines
more gas, which caused more overheating. You could not win. Our next mission
note was number seven, which took us over Sofia, Bulgaria. We were briefed on
heavy flak and upwards of fifty fighters. It was once a city of 500,000 but reduced
to 50,000 by evacuation. No fighters were encountered, though we did get
intense flak. This was the first time we had dropped outside of Italy."
B: What was the target on that mission to Sofia?
W: It does not say.
B: Were the weather conditions in that theater challenging, particularly?
W: Oh yes.
B: What kind of weather hazards?
W: Well, you cannot fly formation in clouds, even broken clouds.
B: And there were plenty of those?
B: You started your first combat operations about when? It was soon after arriving
at Foggia, so January or February of 1944?
B: About how often would you fly a combat mission?
W: If the weather was right, we would do it every other day.
B: No more often than that?
W: No. Half of us would fly one day and half the next day.
B: If the weather kept you from keeping that schedule up, then did you stagger the
alterations back or just stay on the same day on, day off rotation?
W: No. Once we stayed down, then we would go again the next day. Certain
missions were counted double, due to their distance or difficulty.
B: Interesting. For example?
W: "Three days later, we were sent to Bucharest, Hungary, which was a double
mission. Our plane was to carry a reporter from the Stars and Stripes, the military
newspaper. We were briefed for intense flak and 100 fighters. The reporter did
not show up on time, and we started to think he was afraid, but he finally did
make it in time to take off." The article he wrote would be in here word for word,
[but] I can't find it.
B: But it did appear in Stars and Stripes.
W: Yes. My notes read "heavy flak but no fighters. We did an excellent bombing job."
B: Did you find the intelligence information to be fairly reliable, generally?
B: Although not, apparently, on this flight, as far as the fighters were concerned.
Were you pretty satisfied with the maintenance effort on the aircraft?
W: Oh yes.
B: It seems as though all that dust on the airfield you were referring to would have
been a real hazard to the engines.
W: Well, it did not necessarily blow on the aircraft when they were parked, and it
blew only a few seconds while you were taking off. "Two days later, we were
briefed on Ploesti, Romania. We were told not to damage the oilfields or the
refineries since the Russian were not far away and hoped to capture them intact.
There were to be four groups of P-38s escorting us in and out of the target area,
none over the target."
B: Was this the first time that Ploesti had been attacked by the B-24s?
W: After the low-level one, yes.
B: Yours being a high-level raid?
W: Right. "Heavy flak and 200 fighters. No mission-weather." That was the
intelligence forecast, but there was no mission. We did not have a mission
because of the weather. "Two days later, we went to Bologna, Italy. Briefed on
moderate flak and no fighters. No escort, either. Excellent bombing job. Milk-run.
Four days later, another milk-run to Parma, but there was no mission-weather.
The next day, we went to Bad Voslow, Austria. Briefed on moderate accurate
flak and 125 fighters. Picked up twenty-five to thirty fighters at our initial point."
B: You mean Allied escort?
W: No, that is enemy aircraft. "Aggressive but left us after the target. Excellent
bombing by us." We did an excellent bombing job, but the 459th-we were the
455th bomb group-did the best bomb job of the war. This counted as the twelfth
and thirteenth mission.
B: A double because of the length or the difficulty?
B: What kind of enemy fighters were they?
W: Focke-Wulfe Fwl90s and [Messerschmidt] Me-109s.
B: Both. Did you have different opinions of their capabilities toward the B-24s?
B: Both about an equal threat?
B: Was there fighter escort there, present during the bombing run, to engage the
enemy fighters, or were you on your own?
W: Over the target, nobody followed us in. Once we saw flak, they went.
B: Enemy and friendly.
B: Was your fighter escort available to pick you up, then, when you cleared the
W: Yes, we will get to that. "Four days after, we went to Bucharest, Romania, after a
marshaling yard [organizing area for railroad freight cars]. The target was
covered with heavy inaccurate flak, but we encountered thirty to thirty-five 109s
and Fw-190s, although we had an escort of P-38s and P-51s. We lost three
planes over the target. Our turret got one Me-109 coming in at one o'clock and
emptied his guns at another coming in at eleven o'clock. We bombed on radar."
Now, we get to an interesting part. "The big mystery was why were we not getting
decent pictures of any of the drops. The powers finally figured out that we were
using the relief tubes, and the urine was freezing on the lenses. After that, we
were not allowed to use the relief tubes but were to use bomb-fuse cans which
were provided. They were filled half-full with sand to give them some weight so
they would not spill. The mechanics were to empty them when we returned to
base. One time, they forgot to empty them, and I threw stale urine all over myself
getting the top off in a hurry. It soon froze and was not so bad until we started
down and it started to melt." I do not know whether you know it or not, but urine is
sterile. We were told if we did not have fluids to wash out wounds, we should
B: I guess the ammonia content is what makes it function that way.
W: Yes. "Three days later, we hit Bucharest again and encountered moderate
inaccurate flak and no fighters. This was a double mission, seventeen and
eighteen. After that time, I had flown as co-pilot. The next day, we flew to Turin,
Italy, where we bombed an airfield and an airplane plant. There was moderate
accurate flak. We had a P-47 escort. They were from the Negro group, and we
laughed when we were allowed to break radio silence and they started to chatter
B: What was the name of that outfit, do you recall?
W: I do not.
B: Was that the only time that you had that outfit as an escort?
W: I do not think so.
B: Did they seem competent?
W: Oh yes. You know, they are good athletes and they were good pilots. There were
four or five Me-109s, which were promptly taken care of by the escort. This was
my first mission as first pilot.
B: Tell me about becoming first pilot. How did that change come about?
W: Just like you would decide to go to church in the morning. One day you were,
and one day you were not.
B: Did you move to a new aircraft?
B: What had transpired to make that pilot spot open? Did somebody finish their tour
and go home?
B: So, you started flying with a crew of people who were new to you.
W: A crew of new people, yes.
B: Had you ever met any of these fellows before?
W: Oh yes.
B: So, they were not all complete strangers.
B: Was the aircraft that you took over different in any way from the one that you had
been flying co-pilot?
W: Yes, it was new and it was silver. See, they finally decided that the camouflage
on the aircraft was not necessary because they were trying to draw fighters and
shoot them down. So, they just left them silver, and we looked like an airliner
B: Meaning no paint at all?
W: No paint at all. And, you know, that paint weighed about a ton and a half.
B: Really? So, you achieved some savings in fuel consumption.
B: Was there any other mechanical difference in the ship?
W: I think the turbo-charger instruments were different. Originally, we had throttles,
mixture controls, and turbo-charger handles, all in the center console. The later
model, which mine was, had a dial on it that replaced the four turbo-chargers, so
you just dialed more.
B: These are turbo-chargers, not superchargers?
W: Yes, and you know the difference? They [turbo-chargers] were run by exhaust.
B: Do you remember the model designation of that B-24?
W: H, I think.
B: Did it have any nose art or an aircraft name?
W: Oh yes, some very ugly pictures that said "Our Love" on it.
B: With graphics associated with that.
W: Yes. Not somebody making love.
B: This nose art had been selected by the previous air crew?
W: Or the factory or something. An interesting fact was that there were little caps on
our steering wheels, and inside those caps were ten or fifteen telephone
numbers. They were the women who had built the plane [laughter].
W: Oh yes.
B: Was that a pretty common practice?
W: I guess so. We were a little far away from them, however.
B: Was it their intention that if you were able to successfully come back from flying
that aircraft, they would like to hear about it?
B: Was the plane that you were flying also built at Ford?
W: I think so.
B: When you were operating in flight operations, did you identify yourself on the
radio by the aircraft name or by a personal call sign of some sort?
W: You did not identify yourself. You were on radio silence.
B: So, there was no interplane conversation?
W: None whatsoever. "Three days later, we flew mission number twenty to San
B: This is your second mission as aircraft commander?
W: Yes. "..after an airfield. Only slight inaccurate flak. No fighters. Milk-run. Two
days later, we attacked the marshaling yards of Milan. No flak. Got the target and
no fighters. We had a P-38 escort and some slight and inaccurate flak as we flew
near Florence and Genoa on the way home." You know why we loved P-38s?
W: We could tell them [apart from other planes]. Twin booms, you know.
B: Very distinctive, yes. Were they particularly effective as fighter escort?
B: Were they considered elite, as far as a plane for their pilots to operate?
W: I do not think so. The 51 [P-51 Mustang] was really the elite plane. "We were
briefed on a raid on Ploesti, Romania, four days after that but had not mission
due to weather. The next day, we started for the same target. At the border of
Yugoslavia, our plane turned back due to engine trouble. This was the first
mission with my new crew. I lost my navigator the next day in another plane
which started back to the same place that was shot down over Yugoslavia."
B: This is a mission that you were flying in the plane that you had taken over as
aircraft commander, but, then, subsequent to that, you had a crew rotation and a
whole new crew came in.
B: Were these people who were new to your squadron?
W: I think so, yes.
B: Were they veterans?
W: I do not know. I am sure my crew was not.
B: Oh, brand-new?
B: Let me ask you this: you have briefed for [missions to] Ploesti, by this point in
your experience, it sounds like, four or five times...
B: ...but still have not made it over the target.
B: Did Ploesti have a reputation for being a particularly dangerous target?
W: Oh, yes.
B: Had other planes from your squadron been over the target?
B: Any losses?
W: I do not think so. "A few days later, we were on our way to Bucharest again.
Moderate inaccurate flak and no fighters. This was the first time my new crew
had been over a target or seen flak. On May 10, we went on our twenty-fifth and
twenty-sixth missions to Wiener Neustadt, Austria. The target was an aircraft
plant. We were briefed on the heaviest concentration of flak south of Germany.
We saw pink, blue, black and white flak. We were covered from the initial point
into the target."
B: By your own fighter cover.
W: Yes. "The lead plane was hit in the bomb bays and dropped their bombs seven
miles short of the target. All of the first section dropped on them." That was the
usual way. The only guy using a bombsight was the lead plane. The rest of them
dropped on him.
B: So, the whole section wasted its bomb load?
W: Yes. "My new silver ship got ten holes in it, and the navigator was hit in the flak
vest, not injured. We saw ten Me-109s that did not attack our formation, but the
456th lost five planes to flak and fighters. Two days later we were briefed on two
missions to northern Italy. It seemed the ground troops were making a push and
we were to fly along the lines so our troops would be happy and the enemy
would be scared. This afternoon flight was called off due to weather. The best
crack of the day was, 'this is the AAF, not the USO.' Maybe I should explain two
things at this time. The initial point is the place we start straight for the target with
no evasive maneuver. When we were first in the area, we were required to keep
radio silence until we were over the target so we would not alert the enemy. We
also had camouflaged planes that did not show up very well. At this time, we
were trying to get them to send their fighters so we could shoot them down. For
this reason, we did not keep silence and left our new planes silver."
B: When you say you were trying to shoot them down and lure them up to the
formation, did you mean use the bomber-mounted machine guns to shoot them
down or lure them up so that your own fighter escort could...
W: No, so we could shoot them down.
B: So you felt pretty confident about your own armaments ability.
B: Did your aircraft ever claim responsibility for shooting down an enemy fighter?
W: Oh yes. In fact, they claimed so much of that, that it got to be more than there
were in the air.
B: But, I mean, the aircraft that you were operating.
W: Yes, I know. What they had to do was, to get credit for shooting a plane down,
you had to have two other witnesses from your aircraft.
B: So, a total of three, including the gunner.
B: What mission came next in your sequence?
W: The next day, we were briefed to go to Bologna, Italy, but a plane from the 454th
crashed across our runway, and we had to cancel." Maybe I should explain that.
We had parallel runways, and if one of them crashed across your runway, then
you were done, too.
B: By the way, did this airfield at Foggia have runways in different directions?
W: No, two ways, [but], actually, it never did anything but one-way.
B: Were the prevailing winds pretty reliable?
W: Yes, but you had crosswinds, and if the plane bounced, you were over on the
other runway. So, you got very delicate about landing properly. "The following
day, we went to San Stefano, Italy, to bomb an airfield. This one was no flak and
fighters but undercast all the way to the target. It opened up just as we arrived.
We ran out of oil in number three engine and had to feather it. We were carrying
fragmentation bombs, which were a cluster of small bombs wired together and
used to bomb enemy troops. When we tried to drop our bombs, seven clusters
hung up in the bomb bays. The bombardier tried several times to loosen them
with pliers, but he was unsuccessful. The arming wires were out of the bombs,
and a few [arming] propellers were spinning in the airstream. The bombardier
finally chopped the wires with the crash-axe. In order to do this, he had to stand
on a walkway in an open bomb bay. I imagine the view is fantastic, if you are
willing to open your eyes. After I had made a good three-engine landing, I
recommended the bombardier for the DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross]."
B: And did he receive it?
W: I think so. Do you understand what the wires are? The wires are wired to the
plane, and they go through the propellers on the end of the bomb. When the
bombs are dropped, the wires are out and then the propellers start, and both of
these were happening.
B: That propeller on the bomb is for the purpose of arming the bomb for its fall?
B: This mission would have been about when, spring of 1944?
B: What happened next? Was the plane easily repaired from that mission?
W: Yes. "On the 22nd, we went to La Spezia, Italy. We missed the target on the first
pass, and so we went around. On the 23rd, we flew our 30th mission to Rome to
hit the troops, but the target was cloud-covered and we brought the bombs back.
Two days later, we went to Piacenza Airport in northern Italy. We lost one plane
that crash-landed behind the lines. A P-38 drove an Fw-190 into the ground."
Maybe I should explain why we took some bombs home and dropped others on
alternative targets or in the Adriatic. It was a matter of size. We could land with a
light load and small bombs. In three days, the target was Turin, Italy, marshaling
yards. The target was covered when we arrived, so we bombed the harbor at
Genoa. We were supposed to have P-51 escort, but we never saw them. On the
29th, we were to bomb Bayrehikla, Yugoslavia. It started in the afternoon since
other groups had been there in the morning."
B: Any way of telling what month these dates were from, from the notes, or can you
W: It was spring. May 30th, we went to Wells, Austria. I cannot tell what we did
there since my book does not tell. We had another mission on the 31st, but I did
not know where we went. On June 3rd, we went to Brad, Yugoslavia, but we had
no mission-weather. We went to Alexandria on the next day, but the book does
not say anything about it. It tells the password we used to call each other on the
radio but nothing more. On the 7th, we went to Genoa for the fourth time, and on
the 8th, we went somewhere, and on the 9th, we went to Munich, Germany.
B: This would have been June, I guess, by now.
W: Yes. "I did not fly again until the 23rd. By this time, I had forty-two missions and
went to rescue."
B: The D-Day landings would have occurred sometime during this period. Do you
remember hearing about them?
W: No, we did not hear while I was in Italy.
B: Really? You had no knowledge that there had been a landing?
B: I wonder why they kept that information from you.
W: I do not know. "It was rather unusual to wait that long. Some men went as early
as the twentieth mission. Most people were going to Capri or to Rome for rest. A
man who went to Rome had very little rest since they picked up a woman the first
day and lived with them the whole time they were there." I was sent to
Cantinzaro, which was Mussolini's old hunting lodge, down at the heel of the
boot. We were taken by jeep to Bari and flown from there to the lodge. When we
got there, we were told that the other plane on the field was assigned to General
Born. He was there with his Red Cross girl, and I had heard of him while he was
a football player at West Point. He had brought along his personal jeep. Rest
camp was a bust as far as I was concerned. There was a bar that served wine,
which I enjoyed, and a place about three miles where we could swim in clear
water. The only bad thing about it was that transportation to it ran only three
times a day, morning, noon, and night. If you did not want to stay that long, you
walked home. The general would take his girlfriend in his jeep and do some
swimming and then would walk in the woods. One day, someone stole the jeep
and drove back to the lodge, making the lovebirds walk. They packed up, and
after that, went home. One night, one of the resters who had been drinking wine
before dinner with the rest of us had a little too much and dove off his chair to
tackle a little skinny Italian girl who was serving. She was scared to death and
screamed like she was being murdered when she was only undergoing a rape
attempt in front of about forty people. He left suddenly, too. When I returned to
the base, I only had eight more missions before they sent me home. The first
three went very fast and uneventful. After forty-five missions, you were supposed
to be able to pick your last five, unless there was a maximum-effort. This was a
courtesy given only to those who had come over with the original group. For
some reason, rest camp had a very odd effect on me, just the opposite of what it
was supposed to have. Instead of calming me down, I had become nervous as a
kitten, and it had ruined my ability to fly formation. I was always proud of my
ability to fly formation, but when I came back from resting, I was afraid and flew
all over the sky. One day, the operations officer flew as my co-pilot to see how I
was doing, and I was awful. I always thought this was a test of promotion to
captain. As it turned out, it did not make any difference anyway."
B: Do you think that the challenge of flying formation and being nervous had to do
with the fact that you were drawing close to the end of your tour?
W: I could not figure it out. It may have. I had been promoted to first lieutenant along
this line. Why, I went from there to captain...
B: And the promotion to first lieutenant came when, before rest camp?
B: So, you were approaching the time when you would be due for consideration for
W: Yes. "On my forty-eighth mission, the target was Ploesti, Romania, a place I had
been four times before and did not want to go back, but it was a maximum-effort
so I had no choice. Three or four times during my stay in Italy, the operations
officer and I had gone to a small field south of our base to pick up replacement
crews. The field had a big muddy hole at one end of the runway and a church
steeple at the other. It was a very short runway, and we had to drop the plane in
just after the mud hole and brake hard as soon as we got down. That was a
breeze compared to taking off over the church steeple. Since the new crews had
not been near combat, we had to brief them before we took off for our field. We
told them we were liable to run into enemy planes and that they would have to
man the guns, a good story to get them used to combat. The operations officer
would replace their pilot, and their pilot would fly co-pilot for him. The co-pilot
would then fly co-pilot with me, and we would head for the base. When we were
in the air, we would fly a tight formation just like we did on a mission. This would
scare the crews to death. They had only flown practice formations, which was not
nearly as close as we were flying. Many of them arrived at the base with wet
B: How tight is a tight formation?
W: Well, we did not really put the wingtip in the waist window, but almost. "The last
few missions, I was assigned the job of flying new crews on their first mission. I
would take the first pilot as my co-pilot and fly a few missions on that basis until
we would release them on their own. The co-pilot that I had on my forty-eighth
had flown with me before and would take his wedding picture out and put it on
the pedestal so we could both see it on the way home. This young man was one
of those unfortunate men who had gone bald in his early twenties. In the picture,
his father and father-in-law were both in the same shape as he was. When we
got to the picture, I would say, not a good head of hair in the bunch. He had
started through glider-school, and when he was about to the end, they canceled
the glider program. Those who were in the proper age group could go on to
power, which he did. The double training made him an excellent pilot. Little did I
know how important that training would be on that fateful day, July 15, 1944. The
take-off and formation were uneventful. Since it was maximum-effort, there were
planes everywhere. The 24s were a little faster than 17s, and it gave us
satisfaction to pass them on the way to the target. Ploesti was noted for its flak,
and this day was no exception. When flak explodes, the smoke expands until you
swear you could not fly through it. We had an electronic jammer on board our
plane, so the enemy had to take a chance on setting their fuses to go off at
B: What was the purpose of the jammer? What was that acting against that the
enemy was using?
W: Their electronic fuse-setting.
B: I did not realize they used electronics to detonate the antiaircraft shell.
W: Yes, well, it was to set the detonation point.
B: The altitude?
B: It did not necessarily depend on being close to the metal fuselage of an aircraft?
W: No. Before we got the electronics, we used to take along a bunch a tinfoil. We
would dump it out, and it would just fly all over and throw them off.
B: To your knowledge, did the enemy have radar to detect incoming bombing
W: I do not think so. "We passed the initial point with our bomb bays open and our
propellers in high rpm." They were in rpm because bomb bays caused extra drag
when they were open, and high rpm made the plane go faster.
B: These are variable-pitch propellers, are they not?
B: Were you the lead plane in the formation?
B: So, you are dropping on the signal of another aircraft ahead of you.
W: Yes. "Just as we dropped our bombs, a shell went off just above our plane. It
crashed through my side of the windshield, took out the instruments on my side
and also took my steering wheel and the fingers on my left hand with it. It hit the
plane in many planes, but none of crew...Seven days before, one of the other
pilots-whom nobody liked, but that is another story-had gotten his head blown
completely off and rolled between the seats. The co-pilot and the engineer had a
hard time getting his body out of the seats so the engineer could help the
co-pilot. About three minutes before I was hit, one of the jokers in the back of the
plane came on the intercom and said, lieutenant, if you get your damn head
blown off, get up and get out of the seat so we won't have any trouble like those
other guys did. Naturally, that was the first thing that was on my mind. Our
planes had a pedestal in the center of the throttle supercharger controls and
mixture controls on it, and we pulled the seats forward when we flew. The control
for the seat was on the left-hand side of the seat. I remember I was very angry at
the manufacturer putting the seat controls on the side of my bad hand."
B: Which had just then become bad.
W: Right. "Somehow I managed, but I forgot the oxygen hose and the radio wires, to
say nothing of the heatsuit wires. I guess I ripped them out of the wall in my hurry
to evacuate the pilot seat."
B: Was the side of the cockpit exposed to the slipstream from the air coming
through the damaged side of the fuselage and the cockpit windshield?
B: Or was it just holes and perforations?
W: Perforations, mainly. "When I arrived on the flight deck, I opened the first aid kit,
only to find that the tourniquet would not go around the heavy flight jacket. The
navigator, who was on his first mission, helped me tear some radio wires out of
the wall, put around my arm, and pulled them together with a pair of pliers to
tighten them. About that time, I realized I did not have any oxygen mask
connected. There was a place to do so on a flight deck. After that was
accomplished, I looked down and saw the hand holding my pliers slowly
releasing it. When I looked into his eyes, I saw he was fainting. I grabbed it and
held it tight myself. About this time, I discovered that the metal had pierced my
flak suit and had gone through my leg. The wound was in such a place that we
could not get it stopped in any way. The bombardier had gotten the navigator off
the flight deck and had taken over as a nursemaid. We found a vial of morphine
in the first aid kit and gave me a shot. Then we started worrying about the plane."
B: Up until this point, had the co-pilot been flying singlehanded?
W: Yes. "The B-24 has hydraulic controls, and ours had been hit, leaving us without
control. We had left the formation by this time and were headed home. The
biggest problem was prop pitch. Being in high rpm, we used about twice the
gasoline as normal, and we could not change it. Having the bomb-bays open did
not help. We were 500 miles from home. We had a powwow and decided we
should lighten the plane every possible way. We started by throwing out all the
unused ammunition. Then we threw the guns after it. We looked around and saw
the radios and got rid of them, a decision that did not seem too smart later."
B: Could you tell whether this was making a difference in your airspeed?
W: I do not know. I was not that alert. "About this time, we saw vapor trails coming
behind us, so we said a little prayer that they were our planes. As they got closer,
we could see that they had twin booms. Ah, P-38s. They took us most of the way
home. We were keeping our eyes on the fuel tanks, which were getting empty at
a rapid rate, some sooner than others. Luckily, the gasoline transfers were
electric, so we could change gas from one tank to another. About this time, the
morphine was beginning to wear off, so he gave me another shot. We were
loosening my arm regularly and looking at my leg to see if anything could be
done, which it could not. We were almost to Yugoslavia, and we had more
decisions to make. We had a good chance the fuel would not get us across the
Adriatic. My parachute had been shot full of holes by the shot that went through
my leg, so I could not jump. The co-pilot said he would fly me across [if] the rest
of the crew wanted to bail out over Yugoslavia. We gave them that option, but no
one wanted to do other than ride it out, a decision that I questioned. The shell
that had taken out my instruments also wrecked the others in the plane, but the
co-pilot had been through glider school and he flew without instruments as well
as I could with them. Our main difficulty was the lack of radios to tell whatever
field we tried to land in that we were coming. Naturally, we chose the first field we
saw, due to our lack of fuel, that happened to be a B-17 field, and they were
coming in from the mission, too. They were in their normal landing pattern when
we approached on the course that brought us straight in. Since we had no radios,
we shot our warning flares as we approached the field. Oddly enough, they paid
absolutely no attention to them and continued their pattern. We had cranked our
landing gear down, but the nose wheel did not want to come down. Since we had
no flaps, we had to come in at normal flying speed, which we had to guess at
since we had no instruments. The next problem was how to get the plane
stopped after landing. The usual procedure was to tie a parachute to the gun
mounts on either side of the plane and throw them out just as the landing was
made. The alternative was to run everybody in the back of the plane and drag the
tail skin. We were set to do both. Unfortunately, a 17 landed just in front of us,
but since we were going at a greater speed, we had to pass him on the ground.
Fortunately, a 17 was a low-wing plane and we were a high-wing and we passed
right over his wing."
B: Were you on the same runway or an adjoining runway?
W: We were on the same runway.
B: If I understand what you said correctly, the center of gravity on a B-24 is such
that the weight of the aircrew aft of the main gear is enough to tip the tail down.
W: Right. "When they threw the parachutes out, they immediately ripped the gun
mounts out of the plane, slowing us very little. The ambulances that were always
stationed at the end of the field when planes were returning from a mission
started chasing us down the field. The second maneuver of dragging the tail
worked much better, and we finally ground to a halt. The ambulances were not
too far behind. One of the gun mounts had hit a crew member in the back, but he
was the only other person hurt. I got up and walked to the bomb bays and got
into the waiting ambulance. I was so relieved that all I wanted to do was sleep,
but the doctor would not let me. He kept waking me up to see if I was alive. We
bumped across the field to the highway to Foggia, and when we reached the
road, the doctor told the driver to give it everything it had."
B: Did you land with the nose gear up?
B: You were able to get it down somehow?
W: I thought that was in here. "I looked up and saw that they had the nosewheel
lever in a neutral position. I tried to call to them and tell them that it was and
could not make them hear, so I got up and put it in down position and almost
dropped a couple of guys out of the plane who were trying to put it down
B: So, it did not need hydraulic power to drop.
W: No, there was enough weight.
B: They just did not have it released so that gravity could do it.
B: It is a good thing you did not lose anybody from that maneuver.
W: Yes, it sure was.
B: So, as I understand it, you were the only member of that entire flight crew who
was injured by that flak.
W: That is right. "When we arrived at the hospital, I tried to get up and walk out of
the ambulance but the doctor would not let me. He made me ride into the
hospital on a stretcher. My squadron flight surgeon had been on his way to a
two-week stay at the Bari General Hospital when he heard what had happened to
me and turned around and came to Foggia, where I was. Since he had been an
obstetrician in civilian life, he did not do the surgery but he did the anesthesia. I
was very glad to see him and felt like I was in good hands. When I woke up, I
was in a room with three other men with a nurse watching over. It was the closest
thing to intensive care they could improvise. All my wounds were bandaged and
my hand was just a big bundle, so I could not see what they had done. Nothing
hurt except my ribs which were black and blue. When the operating nurse came
in, I asked her why my ribs were so sore. She told me I had died on the table and
they had to give me artificial respiration. That was scary, but she told me it was
probably due to the morphine I had already had on top of the anesthesia. They
brought another man in the room a beer, and it smelled so good that I asked for
one. When they brought it, it tasted like hell. The nurses started laughing
because they had seen that happen before. They moved me to a three-man
room a day later and brought my possessions, which were short by one Zippo
lighter and one wristwatch. I did not mind the watch so much as the lighter,
[which] was worth a fortune. The other man in the room had been there for about
a week. The doctor came in about every day to check on us to see if we were
ready to discharge back to our units. One of the men in the room had been shot
in the foot. When the doctor came in, he would get him to put weight on the foot,
which he claimed hurt a great deal. The doctor suspected that he was
gold-bricking and waited for him outside the door one night and caught him
walking normally across the hall to get a beer from the kitchen. As we expected,
the roommate was on his way back to his unit the next morning. Believe it or not,
Madeline Carroll was the Red Cross girl in this hospital." Do you remember
Madeline Carroll? She was the hot babe of the movies of the day.
B: And she was a nurse?
W: No, she was a Red Cross girl, "...came to see us every day. One day, she wrote
a letter to my wife for me. I told my wife I had injured my left hand, and we would
be coming home soon. When my wife finally got the telegram saying I had been
seriously injured, she had already received my letter and did not act too shocked,
much to the surprise of the deliverers. Back at the base, we got two cans of beer
a week. We had no showers on the base, but there was a flowing well which
started at the top of a hill at the end of the runway and flowed down the hill. The
water was so cold that it would cramp your feet if you tried to stand in it. On our
beer day, we would take the cans and put them in the water as it came out of the
ground and then take a bath downstream. The reason I tell this is that the crew
members would bring me their beer at the hospital, along with wonderful melons,
the likes of which I had never seen in this country. The crew was very good to
me, and someone came to me two or three times a week to see me."
B: That is from your own flight crew.
B: What had become of the aircraft, in the meantime? Was it able to be restored to
W: I found out later that it was, yes, and re-equipped. "The wound in my leg was not
healing, and the doctors thought I should be taken to the general hospital where
they were equipped to do an exploratory operation. After about two weeks, I was
flown to Bari General Hospital. I was put in a large ward with about 100 other
men. The hospital had been built in honor of Mussolini's daughter. It was run by a
contingent from the University of Minnesota. That answered the question of why
most of the nurses were blond. The chief surgeon was a very large orthopedist
and a wonderful guy. He operated on my leg and removed a piece of metal about
the size of a walnut. They thought that they would have trouble closing the
wound and wanted to graft a piece of skin from my stomach. I did not want them
to do it that way because I told them I did not want to be sore in another place.
They finally did it by putting two small rubber tubes down the sides of the whole
and sewing over them. This left me sore enough, but at least it was on my way to
recovery. The chief surgeon finally un-bandaged my hand, and I saw what was
left for the first time. They had removed my fingers and controlling bones and
taken the skin off my palm and closed the wound by taking it out over the top of
what was left. When he took the bandage off, there was a lot of excess dead skin
on my stump which the doctor proceeded to cut off. When we started, he tried to
hold my arm, but I was so nervous that I was shaking. He was shaking, too, and
finally said, well, let's shake together. After my operation, my squadron
commander came to visit me with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. I wasn't too
impressed until I read the order. The order read, 'Due the gallantry in action,
Lieutenant Watson gave extreme credit to himself and to the Army of the United
States.' Then, I was impressed. Several days later, one of the officers from one
of my old crews came to see me and told me that my wife had given birth to an
eight-pound baby boy, two days before the Red Cross message came, for the
second time, we had beaten them. Later that week, two things arrived on the
same day. We had ordered a quart of whiskey from somewhere at $100 a bottle
and had been waiting for over a month. The other incident concerned the
prisoners of war from Romania. The Russians had captured it from the east and
had brought the disabled prisoners to our hospital. We really had no room for
them, but we made room by pushing our beds together and putting beds down
the isle in the center of the room. Most of them were in terrible shape. If they had
been burned, they were bandaged so that the wounds grew together. Many of
them could no longer use their fingers or arms. I pulled out the bottle, took a
drink, and passed it to them. I never saw it again. Two days later, they brought in
a pilot who had crashed-landed and put him in a bed beside me. He told me that
after they had landed, he crawled out on the wing. His eye sockets were filled
with blood, so the ambulance crew had left him for dead. He yelled out, and they
picked him up. He had broken his back and was in a cast from his neck to his
knees. They had cut a hole in the stomach to let him breathe. The chief surgeon
came around to examine him and proceeded to cut part of the cast off. He said if
he had left it the way it had been, he would have tuberculosis very shortly. After a
few days, they came around and announced that all ambulatory patients would
be taken to Naples, and, from there, home. I was still limping from my leg injury,
but I wanted to get home, so I declared myself ambulatory and joined the group.
They put us in a DC-3 and flew us to Naples. I could not sit down because of my
leg wounds and stood up the whole trip. When we arrived at the hospital, I was
put in a ward with about ten officers. I was very hungry and tired and asked when
lunch came around. I was told it would come in about thirty minutes. I decided to
take a nap, and when I woke up, I asked where lunch was and it brought a great
deal of laughter. I had slept around the clock. They finally announced that we
were to be taken to the hospital ship. When we arrived at Naples Harbor, we saw
an old World War I small ship named Chateau Theirry, which was to be our new
home for about three weeks. The officers were put in a large cabin with double
berths, upper and lower. They were all officers, from lieutenants to generals. The
generals were put in the lower, and my friend with the broken back tried to get in
an upper. After the third time, the general below finally said he would trade.
Every time he got in the upper bunk, he would make fun of my friend trying to get
in the lower. The captain of the ship was a middle-aged Norwegian who had his
life on the sea and loved to dance. There were thirteen pregnant nurses on board
who made various degrees of dancing partners. The captains' favorite dance was
the polka, and he had brought along his polka records, much to the distress of
the nurses. Every night between Naples and Charleston, he would set up an old
Victrola and dance the polka. Most ships traveled in radio silence with no visible
lights. We, by contrast, kept our radios blaring and our lights ablaze so we could
be seen, that we were a hospital ship. We left Naples later that night and arrived
at Gibralter at dusk the next day. I thoroughly expected to see the Prudential sign
on the side of it. As we passed through the Straits [of Gibralter], we met a convoy
coming the other way. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
There were ships as far as you could see moving very slowly without lights. Over
them was a Navy balloon and hundreds of cables hanging over the convoy.
There were PBYs circling the perimeter. It took us over two hours to pass all the
ships. Other than the polka and the convoy, we had very little excitement, other
than the storm off the coast of the U.S. My flying time had rid me of the proclivity
for seasickness, so I was on deck, enjoying the storm. We pulled into Charleston
Harbor about noon and docked the ship."
B: Do you remember the date that you arrived in Charleston, or what month?
W: Yes, it was early September. "I remember how glad we were to be safely on dry
land. As we got off the ship, there were ladies serving fresh milk, something we
had not had since we left the States. They took us to the barracks in an old
schoolbus. We proceeded to another barracks where we all got off. When we
had unpacked, one of the workmen who was building a slide for a fire escape
came over and started asking us question. Naturally, he started with my friend in
the big cast, and when he was told that he had broken his back, he started to
moan. My friend told him it was not too bad. Then, he said, just wait a couple of
years, when you start getting arthritis. Just what he needed. Before we went
downtown, we were briefed on a couple of places that were clip joints where we
should not go. This made us feel real good about Charleston. I was assigned to a
hospital in southern Indiana, where I was taken on a DC-3 by way of Miami,
Florida. When we got off the ground in Miami, the pilots let me fly all the way to
Indianapolis. It seemed odd flying with one hand. The hospital at Camp Atterbury
was a large plastic surgery center where they rebuilt whole faces. A few days
after I was scheduled to have plastic surgery on my hand, I was wheeled into the
large operating room where Major Blocker was overseeing about six operations.
We called it, later, Major Blocker's six-ring circus. Because there were so many
nerves running to my wound, they could not get the local anesthetic to work, but
they decided to go ahead anyway. The stitching did not hurt too much, but it was
when the nurse sponged the blood so the doctor could see what he was doing. It
hurt like hell. As a diversion, I would pound the table with my good hand. The
doctor told me to take it easy or he would have to sew that one up, too. I had
been told not to see my wife until they could operate, so I made arrangements for
her to come to see me. My sister and her husband brought her down and spent
most of the time talking about our son, Tommy. I had learned to keep my hand in
my pocket all the time. Just as they were leaving, my sister, who was a very
outspoken young lady, said, take that thing out of your pocket, which I did. The
men in the hospital had every wound imaginable, from complete paralysis to
blindness. The blind man had stepped on a mine and had scar tissue over his
eyes. He was quite a character and would step on a telephone cord while walking
down the aisle and turn around and say, watch out for that cord, as though he
had seen it. We took him to a restaurant in Indianapolis one night and would tell
him the different foods on his plate, using a clock as reference. Although we
would get him a big bib, he would spread food all over the room. The people in
Indianapolis were very good to the hospital patients and would have parties
regularly for them. About a month later, I was transferred to McClosky General
Hospital in Temple, Texas."
B: What month would that have been?
W: Probably November.
B: During this time, were you able to get news about the war?
W: Oh yes.
B: You heard whatever radio news was being broadcast, so you were familiar with...
W: What was going on, yes.
B: Why the transfer from Indianapolis, relatively near your family, to Texas?
W: Well, I was to get a prosthesis for this hand.
B: And they had to move you there for that?
W: Yes. "I was to receive a prosthesis and be retired from the Army. The prosthesis
came first. There was a sculpturer in Detroit who made hands out of plastic for
those who had lost theirs. He would make a mold of the good hand, turn it
around and fit it on the left one, in my case. They took a cast of my right hand
and sent it to him. While I was waiting, I could go on convalescent leave. I went
home to Fort Wayne, and this was one of the most important trips of my future.
After arriving in Fort Wayne, one day, I was having my car greased at the filling
station where I usually had the work done and knew the owner."
B: Had you been discharged from the Army by this point?
W: No, I am on convalescent leave.
B: And the prosthesis is in the works.
W: Being made, yes. "In those days, we had our cars greased and oil changed every
1,000 miles. The owner of the station asked me what I was going to do when I
got out. When I told him I did not know, he then asked me what I wanted to do. I
told him that I would like a job back in a corner where I could use my education
and not meet the public. I was very self-conscious about my hand at that time.
He told me to go over to Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, where they
had lots of such jobs. He said it was the best place in the world to work. I went
home and told my wife what he had said, and she told me she knew a fellow who
had been there for years. She had done secretarial work for her church, and he
had been the superintendent of Sunday schools. I called him and introduced
myself and told him I was looking for a job and that Lincoln had been
recommended. He said, you graduated from college, didn't you? And I said yes.
He asked if he could call me back. In about half an hour, he called me back and
told me his boss wanted to see me at ten the next morning." That is the way I
started at Lincoln.
B: What happened with the rest of the work to do with the prosthesis?
W: I then went back to the hospital and got the prosthesis and went through the
retirement board. Things were moving too slowly, and I finally went to them and
told them I had a job but I was going to lose if I did not get home pretty soon. So,
they then retired me and sent me home.
B: What rank did you retire at?
W: First lieutenant.
B: Missed the promotion to captain.
W: Yes. Never made it. I guess they cannot promote you if you are disabled.
B: Had you started working at Lincoln before you actually retired out of the Army, or
were they just holding your job at Lincoln?
W: They were just holding the job.
B: Was Lincoln the first insurance company that you had worked for?
W: Oh yes.
B: When you started to work for Lincoln, was that a surprise to you or seem odd in
the context of what you had been thinking you might otherwise like to do after the
war? What ideas had you had up until that?
W: Not many. When I went to see this fellow, who was the other man's boss, I told
him I did not want to do anything but work inside. We chatted for quite a while.
Finally, he said, I will not hire you for the inside job we have; I want you to go out
and sell. No way. So he said, well, if I give you a series of tests and you do well
on all of them, will you go? And I said yes because I knew I would not do well on
the tests. Of course, I aced the tests and ended up selling.
B: Where were you when you heard about FDR and his death? Do you remember?
W: No, I do not.
B: How about when you learned about the peace in Europe, the surrender of the
Germans? Did that make a big impression?
W: No, but an interesting story was when I learned about the Japanese surrender.
My boss and I had gone to visit a client in Hammond, Indiana, which is right on
the border, next to Chicago. After the call on the client, we went into Chicago,
and all the way in, the car radio was getting excited and saying that peace was
being declared and describing it. When we arrived in Chicago, we put the car in a
garage and started to walk across the street. Of course, the whole town was just
going wild, and they were dumping wastebaskets out of the windows and
buildings, and an ink bottle came and landed right at my feet.
B: That would have been adding real insult to injury to be cracked in the head by an
W: Wouldn't that have been something? My boss was an alcoholic, and we went out
to Barrington to an old friend of his and he got plastered. His wife was in town.
She was visiting some friends. I drove, with their instructions, from the friend's
house to his wife's friend's house, to another city, another suburb. He passed out
on the sofa, and his wife and I listened to my war stories for a while. Then we
decided to go to bed. We had two bedrooms and a bath between behind the
fireplace that we were sitting in front of. I was sitting on the john, and his wife
came in, stark naked. I got the hell out of there as fast as I could. I learned later
that she was kind of that way.
B: So you do not remember having any particular reaction to the news that Harry
Truman had become president after FDR died?
W: No. I do remember when the European war was over. We were in the hospital, at
McClosky in Temple, Texas, and we started to celebrate it. I cannot get this really
straight, but we had a guy on a stretcher that we were taking somewhere to help
us celebrate, and we dumped him off the stretcher.
B: After returning to the United States, did you hear anything from your squadron
mates or your aircrew?
W: Never, to this day. [Except] one, and this is really a good story. About five years
after I had gone with Lincoln, I was traveling around. I had my boss' job. He had
gotten a little too alcoholic, and Lincoln did not want to put up with that. I was
visited the other offices, like I had in Chicago. I was in Philadelphia. This is
almost an unbelievable story. I do not know if you know anything about
Philadelphia, but you take a commuter train out to the north Philadelphia station
and the Pennsylvania comes in and splits there and goes to New York and to
Washington. I was standing on the upper platform, waiting for a train to Fort
Wayne, because the main line of the Pennsylvania goes right through Fort
Wayne. It was snowing like hell. A guy came up to me and he said, do you know
where I catch the train for Washington? And I looked at him, and I said, no, but I
know you. He looked back at me and reached down and pulled this hand out of
my coat pocket. It was that navigator who had fainted. They called his train and
he took off, and that is the last I have ever heard of him.
B: You have seen Tom Brokaw's book, The Greatest Generation?
W: Yes, I have read it.
B: He argues that you and your cohort of Americans your age represent the
greatest generation in this country's history because of the effort and sacrifice
W: I do not disagree with him.
B: You are comfortable with that judgement?
W: Yes, right. I will take his word for it.
B: What do you think it was that made everything come together to make it such an
effective, heroic time in this country for people of your generation?
W: I think the Depression had a lot to do with that. We learned what life could really
be like. In sociology class in college, our textbook was Twenty-thousand
Homeless Men (Edwin H. Sutherland, Twenty Thousand Homeless Men: A Study
of Unemployed Men in the Chicago Shelters, Chicago: Philadelphia, J. B.
Lippincott Company, 1936] and it was written by a guy who had lived in the
shelters in Chicago during the worst of the Depression with 20,000 other
B: So even though you were a college student for the Depression era, reasonably
secure in your situation from day to day, and had some idea where the next meal
was coming from, you still felt the impact.
W: Yes. I lost my father, and I remember my sister and her husband made $0.35 an
hour working for Woolworth's eighteen to twenty hours a day.
B: Where was that?
W: In Fort Wayne.
B: And that was during the depths of the Depression?
B: This will be a good place for us to stop, so I will close by thanking you.
[End of Interview.]