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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: William Roberts
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: May 26, 2005
P: This is May 26, 2005. This is Julian Pleasants and I'm in Gainesville, Florida. We
are going to be discussing today the military career of William F. Roberts. Tell me
when and where you were born.
R: I was born in Jacksonville, Florida, [on] February 16, 1922.
P: Talk a little bit about your upbringing. Where did you grow up? Where did you go
R: Actually, I was born at home-it was quite common at that time-out on Old King's
[break in interview]
R: I lived in Riverside and went to grammar school and junior high and ended up
graduating from Robert E. Lee High School in 1940. [I] was eighteen years old
and just right for the big event that was coming.
P: Did you at that point volunteer? Obviously this was prior to Pearl Harbor. What
were your plans when you graduated?
R: If I could just go back a bit here-when I was fourteen years old, this is the middle
of the Depression of course, I took a barnstorming flight on a Ford tri-motor
airplane with two other of my buddies, and from that point on we all three wanted
to be pilots. Of course, we never felt that would happen because we didn't expect
that to happen at that time. I'm sorry, I forgot what your other question was.
P: I asked how you got from high school into the military.
R: Well, when I graduated from high school, I really didn't know what I wanted to do.
College was not a primary concern at that time; my father had not gone to
college and he took the position of, well, I never went to school and I did good.
He was a customs broker and he said, I don't know why you have to. So you go
along with your parents at that stage, and besides, I was more interested in
having fun, getting a job, and earning enough money to go out on dates and all
that. I had been raised during the Depression, and all of a sudden at that time,
the Depression was easing out because of the effects of the war time. So I
thought, okay, my buddy and I-one of my good friends that I still keep in touch
with three times a week-we decided to get a job and that's what we were doing,
even though we were prime candidates. This was in 1940, before Pearl Harbor,
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 2
so no, we didn't have any intention of enlisting at that time. It was a time of
isolationism at that time, and my father was a big isolationist. He was very anti-
P: What job did you take prior to entering the service?
R: I ended up as an office boy for American Oil Company; that was the only job I
could get at the time, so I did that and within a year I worked way up and was in
accounts receivable. We were basically just passing time. Actually when I think
back at that time, we knew that it was troubling times and we knew something
was going to happen. There was a war going on [in Europe since 1939], so even
at that young age it was hard to make permanent plans. That was our mood on
December 7, 1941. We were playing football in Memorial Park in Jacksonville
when one of our friends came up and told us, hey, the Japs have bombed Pearl
Harbor. Of course, we didn't even know what Pearl Harbor was. We told the guy,
you're ruining a good football game. But a little bit later on we found out it was
more serious than we thought, and at that stage we all started thinking about
getting into the military.
P: Did you at that point have a service preference? Obviously you could go into the
R: I always wanted to fly, and I always wanted to be a pilot.
P: Of course, then it was the Army Air Force, but you wanted to fly.
R: Right, definitely. In fact, I was down at the Army Air Force recruiting center the
next day. We went down there and we were just looking to see how we could get
in. At that time they had certain requirements: you had to be, I think it was
twenty-years old, you had to have some college-it was either one year or two
years of college, which obviously I didn't have. But they said, well, don't worry
about it, go home and wait, that will all be changed because we need all of you
fellows. So that's what I did, I went home and waited for them to change their
rules so that I could join the Air Force.
P: How long was that?
R: It was a matter of months before I ended up going back down there. But in the
meantime, and [when] I think back this probably helped almost save my life, I had
an emergency appendectomy, and at that time an appendectomy was a little
more serious than it is today. In fact, my appendix had burst, so it was more
serious. So I went down there about a month later and they said, I'm sorry, we
can't take you for at least three months after the operation, because you're going
to go through a lot of physical exercises and you won't be able to do it. I was
disappointed because my other two buddies had gone in, and there I was left
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 3
behind. It's hard to imagine, but I was so disappointed that they went into the Air
Force like we all three wanted to do. One of them ended up getting killed; he was
a navigator on B-17's and was shot down. The second one was washed out,
[which] is what we called it when he didn't make it as a pilot, so I was the only
one of the three that eventually ended up being a pilot.
But in the meantime I had to go back home and wait. Then when I went
back to them and enlisted. Even after I enlisted they said, well, we have no room
for you because they had so many [enlistees]. They had a limited number of
training facilities and air planes and instructors, so once again they said, go
home and wait. I remember saying, the damn war is going to be over before I get
P: So where did you finally go for your training?
R: Finally, they called me to active duty in the end of January, 1943.
P: Wow, that's quite a long wait, wasn't it?
R: Yeah. It was December 41 to [January 1943].
P: That's an entire year.
R: Yeah, it was about a whole year between all of my having to wait at the house. It
was waiting for them to change the rules, waiting for my appendix [to heal], and
waiting for them to call me. That's what I said, and actually unbeknownst to me,
that was probably a good thing because the first wave that went over, the pilots,
they suffered very heavy casualties. But at least I got [into service] in early 1943.
P: And where was your training?
R: The first thing is, they sent me to Miami Beach, of all places. Miami Beach was
the place where they took [over] all the hotels on Miami Beach. You probably
heard about that, and that was where the air crewmen went. They took us down
there to teach us how to march and [develop] physical fitness, to get us in shape,
and we had to learn the Air Force song. We only spent a month there, but it was
mostly physical training, and learning to march and be a soldier, you might say,
because at that time we were basically in the Army. We were PFC's [Private First
Class], the lowest rank there was. We were aviation cadets-to-be, but you still
had a ways to go before you got there.
P: From Miami Beach, where did you go?
R: From Miami Beach, when we left there-I remember that we left early in the
morning, they put us on a train-and we thought, oh, boy, we finally got to go to
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 4
flight school. We went from there to Memphis, Tennessee, to Memphis State
College. They had what they called a college training detachment, which they
used as a holding place for the cadets, to send about for training when there was
space for them. But at least there we were studying meteorology, and navigation
and things like that. In fact, they even managed to get us a ride in a Piper Cub
airplane, so that we would feel like we were on our way to being a pilot.
P: So how long were you there?
R: About two months. From there, I thought I would stay in the Southeast, but that
was not their way of doing it. They sent me to the Central Flying Training
Command in San Antonio, Texas; Kelly Field was the name of the place. Across
the town in San Antonio is Randolph Field, which a lot of people know about. I
was sent to Kelly Field and there-we still weren't in pre-flight school yet-but
there is where they did the testing on you to determine if you would be a pilot, a
navigator, or a bombardier.
P: What would they test you on? Eyesight, reflexes?
R: They gave you written exams, and they gave you reflexes [exercises], like you
mentioned, and [tests of] eye/hand coordination. It was a lot of those type
exercises, more coordination-type exercises. In the meantime, physical training
was really, really strong. Remember, now we're into summer in San Antonio, and
it was hot. At that time, I'm sure I was in the best shape of my entire life, right
there. I weighed 175 pounds-I was normally about 150 or 155 pounds, and they
were feeding us and exercising at the same time.
P: What happened at that juncture?
R: Once again, it was about two months, believe it or not, before all the testing and
waiting and getting retested [was done]. Fortunately, I passed to the point where
I qualified for either pilot, bombardier, or navigator, and when you qualified for all
three of those, you pretty much got your choice. Although certain ones, like if
they were good in math but they're not too good with coordination [skills], they
became the navigators, and on and on it went. If they were extra good at the
manipulation of the finger, they became bombardiers and all. So, obviously I
chose to be a pilot, and then we stayed right there at Kelly Field. There was
another section of the base where the pre-flight school was.
P: So you went right into pre-flight training?
P: How long did that last, and what did you do most of the time?
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 5
R: In pre-flight it was really more intensive, like we were just getting a taste of
navigation and meteorology, and things like that while we were in [the] college
training detachment, but there we got a lot more of it. Then we started getting
things like aircraft recognition [training] where they would flash enemy aircraft-or
all aircraft-up on the screen for a fraction of a second and you had to identify
P: That might be a Messerschmitt 109.
R: Yeah, the ME 109 [Messerschmitt 109, built by the German Luftwaffe] looked a
lot like a P-51 [Army Air Force fighter plane also known as a "Mustang"], and FW-
190 [Focke-Wulf 190, a German-built fighter] looked an awful like a P-47
[Thunderbolt, an American fighter dubbed "the Jug"].
P: A FW is a Focke-Wulf, both German planes.
R: Yes. So you had to learn to distinguish between those; that was pretty important.
We also took Morse Code, so we had to go through that. I'm sure there were
other things there, but basically it was a matter of classrooms and physical
training. Unfortunately, the way they did it was physical training in the morning,
which was working out really hard-we're talking obstacle courses and all sorts of
things-and then they'd feed you this big meal and you had your classes in the
afternoon. The biggest problem was just staying awake [because] you were in
these classrooms that were one hundred degrees. Then every evening you'd put
your dress uniforms on, and you'd march and they'd lower the flag. That was our
routine for the day.
P: So when did you start to do any flying?
R: Well, that came next. After we left pre-flight, that was another couple of months,
and I was in San Antonio. Then I moved on to what we called] primary flight
training, and that was in Stanford, Texas, a small town in west Texas. That's
where we started flying. First I flew PT-19, Fairchild PT-19 airplanes.
P: Those were trainers?
R: Yeah. They were the old open cockpit, two cockpits, students sat in the front and
the instructor [sat] in the back. They actually were connected-they didn't have
radios so you couldn't talk to the ground or you couldn't talk to one another-but
they had a tube. It was a one-way tube, too, because he could talk to you, but
you couldn't say anything back to him.
P: What they were really teaching you here is stop and go, take-off, landing, to learn
how to handle controls, and that sort of thing?
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 6
R: Right, and really the whole time they're evaluating you, of course, to see whether
or not you had the ability.
P: To see how quick you would pick things up.
R: At this stage is probably where they washed out more pilots than anywhere.
When we got there they lined us up and they said, look to your right, look to your
left, and you'd look to your right and you'd look to your left, and they'd say, only
one of you will go forward to be a pilot in this Air Force. They were pretty much
right, that's about what you did. About one-third of them made it.
P: How many were in that class with you? Do you remember?
R: I'm afraid I didn't keep up with that number.
P: Was it huge, or a couple hundred probably?
R: Oh, yeah, it was probably that at least, but they were divided up into small groups
with one instructor, and these were civilian instructors mostly, although there
were some military [instructors] mixed in. They would divide you up into groups
where one instructor might have seven or eight students, and he would take you
along one at a time. He'd have a schedule, one group for flying in the morning,
one in the afternoon, the other would be going to class. You'd go up and fly for
an hour or an hour or so, until you soloed. That's another experience you never
forget, doing an Air Force solo.
P: Were you excited or scared or both?
R: Well, I kept wanting to solo. Of course, everybody wanted to solo because when
you soloed, you got to put your goggles on your cap. I forget what it is, but you
had physical symbols that people could recognize [as indicating] that you had
soloed, so everybody wanted to be the first to solo. You were excited. I don't
really remember being afraid. In fact, I don't really remember being afraid
anytime when I was training, it was just something-it must have been youth-you
know, you feel invincible.
P: But you obviously enjoyed it.
R: Oh, yeah, I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I enjoyed it more when the instructor wasn't
back there, after you soloed. I remember the time when I soloed when they took
me out to a field nearby from the main field, it was sort of a dirt field. You'd say,
we've got to shoot landings, which means just landing and take-off, landing and
take-off. We did that over and over and after one landing-which I did good, I was
landing and taking off good-and I looked in the back and he was climbing out. He
said, okay, you're on your own. I remember I said, are you sure? [Laughter] He
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 7
said, yep, you've got it. So I went around and I have to admit, that landing was
not as good, so I must have been a little bit [nervous]. I thought, uh-oh, he's
going to make me stop and that's going to be it, but he waved me around. He
kept waving me around every time I'd come in and land. I'd look over to him and
he'd wave me around, so I got better and better. Then after that I thought, I've
got it, I think I've got it.
P: At what point do they decide what plane they're going to assign you to?
R: Oh, that's much later. You've got to go through primary training, and basic
training, and then advanced training before you ever get to that point.
P: So you go through all of those.
R: The primary training was like those little airplanes that were very simple. Then
after a couple of months of that, which by the time you leave there, though,
you're flying solo and you're doing all those dumb things we did, like buzzing
around on the ground like a kid with a toy. Then you go to basic training which I
went to, it was in Greenville, Texas, which is right outside of Dallas. There we
flew a BT-13, it was Vultee, it was a company that made them that doesn't exist
anymore. I remember because we called it the Vultee Vibrator, because the
plane would vibrate so much. It was just a more powerful airplane.
P: Was it still a two-seater?
R: It was still a two-seater, but it had an enclosed cockpit now. You were getting a
little more advanced now and you felt it. When you took that airplane off you
were flying a real airplane-no more of this open cockpit with a scarf around your
neck flying in the wind. All of a sudden it was a little more complex, so you had to
pay more attention, but also we started having accidents. I saw my first buddy
get killed there in basic training.
P: What happened?
R: We were taught when we came back from a flight to line up our airplanes facing
the runway, and we would sit there and fill out the forms for the flight-how many
hours you flew, what time you took off and landed, and all that. So I was sitting
there and about two airplanes down was a buddy of mine, Donald Williams. A
plane was taking off, the next group of planes flying up, and he had his trim tag
rolled back on the airplane, which means that the nose was up and he was
stalling. He didn't know what to do about it and he just kept [going], like he was
dancing on the tail of the airplane. It swerved over toward us and we both sat
there watching this guy saying, oh that dumb jerk, he's got his trim tag back. The
next thing I knew, the plane had just sat right on top of Donald Williams' plane,
and they both burst into flames. I hadn't even moved yet and I just sat there
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 8
staring, it was like it was in slow motion. Then of course I jumped out and by that
time you could see the two bodies in there, fading away in there in the flames
and the smoke, and you could smell this [odor]. If you've ever smelled burning
P: You'll never forget it.
R: Yeah, you'll never forget it. So that was the first time I saw somebody killed in an
P: I guess that's a good object lesson for everybody that's learning, you can never
R: That's right, yeah. Those accidents do happen.
P: Or panic.
R: Another fellow, my good friend Jerry West, I remember him too, he was up there
practicing a snap roll. You'd go up there by yourself and practice snap rolls, and
slow rolls, and spins, and Emmelman, and all the different maneuvers.
P: An Emmelman is...
R: An Emmelman is where you go up to the top and you roll it over at the top; that
was a fun one. That one you liked to do over and over, it was like a roller coaster.
But he was up and the tail came off of his airplane, and he just came crashing
down. I don't know if it was true or not, but they said that the planes-due to a
lack of aluminum-they had made the tail section on some of them using plywood.
We used to always knock on the tail of the airplane before we took off.
P: Good thing.
R: If it sounded kind of hollow, we wouldn't practice spins on that trip.
P: It couldn't take the torque.
P: Then you go on to your final training.
R: At the end of the basic training they gave you a choice. You didn't always get
your choice when they gave you choices like that, but they said you could either
go to single-engine or multiple-engine. If you went to single-engine you were
going to become a fighter pilot most likely; if you went to twin-engine you were
going to become a bomber pilot. That was a tough decision.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 9
P: So if you were doing single-engines you'd do a P-38 or a P-51 or one of those
R: Yeah, or P-47.
P: Older P-47's right.
R: And if you went to twin-engine you'd end up [in a] B-25, B-26, B-17, B-24, you
know, multiple-engine airplanes. I thought over that a lot and I also second
guessed myself a lot, but I chose multiple [engine planes]. I think the reason for it
was that I liked being with other people, I liked teamwork. I was into sports a lot
in school and all, and I liked the idea of a team. Some of the guys liked being off
on their own, maybe the hot-rod [mentality]. I wasn't a hot-rod mentality.
P: You probably, based on the characteristics of flyers, made the right choice,
because it takes a certain kind of person to be a fighter pilot.
R: That's right, it takes a different type to be a fighter pilot.
P: So what did they start you with? Were there B-17's then?
R: Well, let me go back to my advanced training. Once again, that was another
couple of months at that [level of training]. When we got through with that, you
didn't really have a choice at that stage. They assigned you depending on where
they needed somebody. Remember now the war that we're talking [about]-I
graduated and got my wings in March 44, class of 44 C, we called it. At
that time they let me know that I would go to B-26's at Barksdale Field [in]
P: This is the Marauder.
R: That was the Martin Marauder. I had mixed emotions about that. It was a hot
airplane, but it also had a terrible reputation. It was called the Flying Coffin, the
B-Dash Crash, the Widow Maker. I could go on and on.
P: Everybody I've ever talked to who was a pilot said it was a very difficult plane to
R: It was very difficult to fly, I must say that.
P: What were the characteristics that made it so difficult?
R: Well, it goes back to the basic design of the airplane. They were looking for high
speed and they were looking for stability of flight, so what they did-as an
aeronautical engineer later on, I know more of this now but I didn't know it all
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 10
then-it had the highest wing loading of any airplane in the Air Force. The wing
loading means that you take the weight of the airplane and divide it by the area of
the wing, and that's how many pounds per square foot of wing. So it had the
highest wing loading, which is good for a stable platform and speed, but it's not
too good for takeoffs and landings, and that's what happened.
P: That's where the problem was, the control.
R: The problem was that it was fast. You had to get it up to a minimum of one
hundred and thirty miles per hour just to get off the ground.
P: I guess you would call this a medium bomber, right?
R: That's right, it was a medium bomber.
P: So the idea was to have a medium bomber with a higher bomb load but a higher
rate of speed. Was that the concept behind it? By the way, I heard that they
bought these without a prototype. They let the contract without ever having one
R: I think that's true.
P: They just gave it to Martin and they started building them.
R: That's because the war started right at that time. Yeah. The plane was designed
to have a range of about one thousand miles. It carried the same bomb load as a
B-17, believe it or not, a four thousand pound bomb load, but it was designed to
fly at lower altitudes, medium altitudes. The reason it was called a medium
bomber wasn't because of the two engines versus four; it was because it flew at
ten thousand to fourteen thousand feet, whereas the heaviest flew up at twenty-
five thousand to thirty thousand feet. So it was a medium altitude bomber.
P: What kind of air speed would you have on take-off?
R: We took off and landed, actually we learned to take off faster than one hundred
and thirty miles per hour because you wanted to hold it on the ground-I can go
into that a little bit-but we took off at about one hundred and thirty to one
hundred and forty miles per hour, which is the fastest of any airplane flying,
including fighter planes. I didn't go to fighter planes, but I got one that flew faster
than a fighter plane.
P: [Laughing] So you had to have long runways.
R: We had to have long runways, but that was another problem I'll get to. When we
got overseas we didn't have long runways over there. We cruised at about two
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 11
hundred and seventy miles per hour; that was pretty fast at that time, and the
maximum speed was three hundred and twenty miles per hour or something like
P: So you were faster than the B-17's.
R: Oh yeah, a lot faster.
P: And this was a five man crew?
R: [It was a] six man crew; we had a pilot, a co-pilot, a bombardier/navigator
combination-and they were all officers-and we had a radioman/gunner, and we
had an engineer/gunner, and then a tail gunner.
P: So you had a tail gun, you had a nose gun.
R: We had a tail gun, we had a nose gun, which the bombardier/navigator was
supposed to use, but a lot of the planes didn't have one. They took them out later
on-that's another story, too-but they took them out to save weight and things like
that. It got to where the bombsight-they had a bombsight and a single gun in the
nose- we had a turret gun on the top, a tail gun, and then we had two side guns.
P: Were they at least fifty caliber?
R: [They were] fifty caliber.
P: And who would operate the side guns?
R: The radioman operated the side guns and he would go from one side to the
other. He had one gun mounted on each side and he would go from one to the
other, because he could reach both of them. The engineer would operate the top
P: And the top turret, was it one of the automated turrets that would go three
hundred and sixty degrees?
R: It would swing around three hundred and sixty degrees, and it had double fifties
[fifty caliber guns].
P: So you felt fairly well protected? You didn't have an underneath gunner, say like
the B-29 did.
R: No, but we had some visibility down below from the side cell.
P: Once you started training on the B-26, where did you do that training and how
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 12
long did that last?
R: Surprisingly, that was the longest training of all. We stayed at Barksdale Field, I
stayed at Barksdale Field for five months, but remember that was a two purpose
training. One was we were learning to fly the B-26, and the other was we were
assembling crews and training as crews for combat, for flying formations and
night flying, although we didn't do much night flying when we got over there. The
B-26 was a very tough airplane to fly and at that time Barksdale Field had the
longest runway in the country, so we were using this nice, big, wide, long runway
for training and learning to land and take-off. We had accidents-I had another
buddy killed there, but we had accidents all along the way. You learned that there
was a lot of luck involved, first of all. If you got an engine failure at a certain time
on take-off, it didn't matter how good a pilot you were, you couldn't do anything.
That's another of the reasons we learned to hold it on the ground till we got up
more speed, but that had a problem too because if you had a blowout you had a
problem, and rubber was in short supply so the tires weren't too good. It put you
in a tough little spot there.
P: It's a Hobson's choice, either way you go it might be a bad choice, you don't
know. So when you finished this training, and my guess would have been that
you would have ferried one of the bombers over to Europe, right?
R: From Barksdale Field we went to Savannah, Georgia, at Hunter Field, and there
we picked up a spanking new, silver Martin B-26 that had flown down from
Baltimore. At that time, they had ladies that flew the B-26 from the factory out to
the different places where the planes were being picked up. I remember that, a
lady flew the plane from Martin in Baltimore down to Savannah, and we picked
up the plane there.
P: And at this point you already had your crew together?
R: We had the crew together, we had a full crew. So we flew overseas, the southern
route. At certain times of the year you would go the northern route and other
times you'd go the southern route, which as I recall I can almost tell you the spots
we stopped at those times. I don't know whether you want it or not.
P: Yes, go ahead.
R: We flew from Hunter Field to West Palm Beach, Morrison Field, which is now the
Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. We stayed there for an extra week because
they changed our orders right at that time. We were originally going to England,
then they ended up deciding to send us to Italy. We flew from there to Puerto
Rico, and from there to Georgetown, which was British Guyana at that time, then
to Belem, Brazil, which is right near the Amazon River, then down to Natal, which
is the farthest spot east on South America, the little point that sticks out there.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 13
We had to wait in Natal because a B-26 had a range of one thousand miles and
Ascension Island was fourteen hundred miles away, which was our next stop.
From Natal to Ascension Island was about fourteen hundred miles, so we had to
put fuel in fuel tanks in the bomb bay to make it to that little rock out in the middle
of the south Atlantic Ocean. So we flew to Ascension Island, and then from
Ascension Island to Liberia, in Africa, [then from] Liberia up to Senegal, Dakar.
R: See, we had a relatively short range.
P: Yeah, but even so, that's a long trip.
R: Yeah, it was a long trip. We flew from Dakar to Morocco, Marrakesh, and then we
were on our way to Tunisia, to Tunis, when we had an engine that was cutting
out, so we landed at Algiers and had to stay over at Algiers awhile. Then we went
on to Tunisia, [and] then from Tunisia we flew up to Naples.
P: Where was your final assignment; where were you stationed in Italy?
R: At Naples-this is interesting-we took this brand new airplane there, and then in
Naples they told us to leave the airplane, and they put us in C-47's and took us
from there. They stripped the airplane down; they took off the side guns-
incidentally that B-26 had two side guns along the [side] that the pilot could
shoot-they took those off, they took off the side armor on the airplane, it was
heavy. They took all the oxygen systems off.
P: Because you're not going to fly that high right?
R: Yeah, but today they would tell you don't fly without oxygen above ten thousand
to fourteen thousand feet, where we were, but they took them all out. The reason
[for this] was the weight. We had to get these things stripped down because the
runways we were going to be flying off of [were shorter]. They took us by C-47
over to Corsica, right below a little place called Alto, it's below Bastia. I think that
would be the northern tip of Corsica, or maybe my directions are [off], it was
more like the northeastern tip. My first base overseas-finally-the war didn't end
after all. [Laughter]
P: Now is your assignment at that point flying out of that base doing sorties [an
armed attack, especially one made from a place surrounded by enemy forces] to
Germany, Austria? How far could you get?
R: No, we were flying over Italy. At that time, we're talking about October,1944.
P: You couldn't get that far could you?
WW1l 26, William Roberts, Page 14
R: No. So the Germans are now retreating.
P: Because the Allies had already landed in Anzio.
R: Right, so the Germans are retreating up there and they are going up the Brenner
Pass back into Austria/Germany that way. Our job was to bomb them as they did
that, so we were hitting bridges in the Po Valley in northern Italy. Most of our
bombing was on Po Valley. We were hitting ammunition dumps, bridges,
occasionally we would hit a troop concentration, which was not something we
liked. I remember one particular time when we were going out on a mission for a
bridge, and at the last minute they had us take out the five hundred pounders we
normally used for bridges and put in fragmentation bombs, because we were
hitting a troop concentration down at Forli. We did that-we didn't know what army
it was-but we were [to support] them.
P: How many of those missions did you fly?
R: In Italy?
R: Actually, I was only in Italy for about six weeks before we moved up into France.
After my first mission-incidentally, when you got over there they had to check out
the pilots after flying over. We had a steel mat runway, very short, it was there for
fighters before we moved in, so they lengthened it a little bit. When you took off
to the north there was a mountain there, and as soon as you got off the ground,
you had to make a sharp right turn to avoid the mountain ahead of you. When
you took off the other direction there was a big cliff, so you should [avoid] the cliff.
They had us train for awhile before we flew our first mission to make sure we
could land and take-off on that, and on one of my training flights we blew a tire in
take-off. I was flying in the right seat because we took about five pilots up to
practice landings on that runway, and we blew a tire in take-off and it damaged
the landing gear. So we had to make a belly landing. We had an old airplane we
were flying at the time and we couldn't get the wheels to go all the way down, so
we got them all the way up and we had to do a belly landing on the dirt.
P: You had the tricycle landing gear?
P: So if that thing collapses, that's gone, right?
R: The right main gear was the one that was broken; it was like a broken leg
hanging there. We did manage to coax it up into the fuselage enough to where
we could make a decent belly landing, which we did. Here I was, I had only flown
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 15
one mission and already had a crash landing.
P: Give me some idea while you're here, of a typical day when you flew. What time
did you start, when was your briefing, all that.
R: Since I flew more missions out of France, it'd be more typical to point out one of
those missions. We haven't gotten to France; we're still in Italy, but that's okay.
P: Well, why don't you tell me at what point you went to France, and where did you
R: We went to France-we left, I remember it was around Thanksgiving time, so that
would have been November 44. The reason I remember it was--Thanksgiving
is after we landed in our new location on Thanksgiving day, we ate Spam and we
thought that was a dumb drill. We went to Dijon, France, which is about one
hundred and eighty miles southeast of Paris. Dijon was up pretty near the front at
that time in France. While we were bombing Italy, Patton [U.S. Army General
George S. Patton] was going across France. They wanted us to come up there,
and we became what they called the First Tactical Air Force. In Italy I was with
the Twelfth Air Force, and then in France we formed the First Tactical Air Force.
P: Were you part of the Eighth [division]?
P: They were separate.
R: The Eighth and the Ninth; the Ninth had a lot of B-26's and they were flying out of
England, but I was part of the Twelfth in Italy and then part of the First Tactical.
P: Were those all B-26's there?
R: Yeah. We had two bomb groups, you might call it. I was in the 320th Bomb Group
in the 443rd squadron. We had 441, 442, 443, 444; four squadrons made up a
group, and then we had two groups in a wing. The 42nd Bomb Wing was made up
of the 320th Bomb Group and the 17th Bomb Group.
P: How many planes were in a squadron?
R: It depended how many planes we were trying to get up in the air. A group would
try to get up about sixty to sixty-five airplanes. The B-26's didn't fly in the big
numbers like you heard usually of the B-17's, [which] got up to a thousand ships.
Our formations were anything from eighteen ships to combinations of maybe one
hundred ships. One hundred would be about a maximum size of ours, because
we were going out to bridges and ammunition dumps and all, you don't need to
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 16
have a thousand airplanes to do that.
P: I've talked to other pilots, one of the problems was just getting the planes off,
everybody had to circle around until you made the formation and then start. So if
you've got to get five hundred planes in the air, it takes awhile.
R: We probably had less problems, in that sense, than anybody else.
P: Somebody told me that was one of the most dangerous times, when you were
taking off and everybody was taking off, and maneuvering to get in the right
R: You probably talked to some people flying out of England where the weather was
bad when you're doing that, too. That could be very bad. We were primarily fair
weather birds; the B-26's were tough enough to fly in good weather, and we had
to see the target. We had the Norden bombsight.
P: You would have just gotten that Norden bombsight about a year or so prior to
R: It was probably the latest thing at that time, yeah. We had to see the ground, and
we flew in the daytime only-we tried to avoid night flying because we were flying
off of bad runways and a hot airplane.
P: Did you have any fighter escorts?
R: We usually had fighter escorts; we didn't always have them. On my fifth mission I
wish we had it; we didn't have it and we got attacked by fighters. We were only
an eighteen ship formation and we got hit by fighters over the Po Valley. That
was one of my most harrowing missions of all, I should go back. A twenty
millimeter cannon burst hit the nose of our airplane and knocked a big hole in the
nose, and wounded the bombardier who was up there. He was lucky [that] he
didn't have a gun, so he [was just sitting there]. He was kind of cringing back
there while the fighters were attacking. The twenty millimeter cannon burst hit
then, and we had to fly the plane back with that wind blowing through the nose
and all that. This was on my fifth mission and I was [saying], oh my gosh. Up to
that point I was pretty confident, and I always had the attitude I was going to
make it back, but I began to have doubts at that stage.
P: What kinds of fighters were they?
R: They were ME 109's.
P: Which were fast planes and very maneuverable.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 17
R: That's right.
P: At that time, they were probably better than any planes we had.
R: Yeah, they probably were. They had us outnumbered, too; there were only
eighteen of us. That was a mission-they had a bridge-and we usually packed in
close, and with eighteen planes you could take out a bridge. There were about
thirty or forty of them, and we didn't have an escort, so we were fighting them off
pretty badly. We were starting back after we dropped our bombs. They waited
until we dropped our bombs and then they started attacking; in fact, that's when
our planes got hit. A group of B-25's were coming in and they left us to go get the
B-25's, which we were glad to see.
P: Now when you flew, did you fly the standard V formation where you would have
one and then two planes, or did you have all eighteen in sort of a pyramid
R: We had what they called a V of V's, we'd have three airplanes and then three
V's, three here and three there, it'd make nine, and then you'd keep stacking
P: Right, so you had some protection, particularly if you were on the inside. Nobody
ever wanted to be the first one or the last one.
R: The last one was the worst spot, yeah. They liked that tail-end Charlie. I flew that
spot a few times; I didn't like that one.
P: Did you get any anti-aircraft fire over the target?
R: Always. People don't realize that even though the fighters were getting less
severe, because we were getting air supremacy at that time, the anti-aircraft [fire]
kept getting worse during the whole war. The Germans kept moving, their guns
back, especially the 88's.
P: Which were pretty powerful weapons, weren't they?
R: Yeah, and we were at their optimum range at ten thousand to fourteen thousand
feet. They were definitely our worst enemies, the 88's [mm, anti-aircraft guns].
P: Somebody was telling me about flying into flack, where you'd just see these
pieces the size of grapefruits or whatever they are, and it's terrifying in a way
because you're actually flying into it. Describe your feelings as you were making
an attack and had to deal with that. You can't change your position, particularly
as you came in for your bomb run.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 18
R: I guess what helps you on that is you're flying formation, and you're just so busy
flying formation that you're concentrating on that, which is good. What I did not
like if I was sitting in the co-pilot seat-we switched, by the way, we didn't keep
the same crews over there. Our group did it differently, we had a group of pilots
and we had a group of navigators, and every mission we were assigned different
people, so you never flew with the same people.
P: Wasn't that unusual?
R: It was unusual at the time, and at first I wasn't sure if I liked it, but I liked it,
actually, because you flew with a lot of different people. Part of it was necessity,
because if pilots got wounded or sick and you had to make up a crew, you didn't
want to ground a whole airplane because one of the members was [out].
[end side Al]
P: Okay, give me a typical day, a typical mission, of what you did from start to end.
R: In France we were billeted with French families; we lived in French family homes
out in little villages. My roommate and I-my buddy, my bombardier and I-we
shared a front bedroom in a little cottage in a small village when we flew out of
Dijon. We had to take our truck to the briefing and then another truck on over to
the airport to get to our airplane, but we were scattered all over the little village.
They had an officer that everyday would go around in a jeep, and would wake up
the people who were flying that day. They would post who was flying the
missions the next day; they would try to get it posted on the bulletin board before
you'd go to bed at night, but they didn't always do it or you didn't always look.
As I said, you didn't even know if you were flying as pilot or co-pilot, or
what you were doing. We mixed them up-veterans usually were mixed in with
new ones. Anyway, they would go around and wake you up. They had a map
that showed where everybody was, and I was officer of the day, so I knew how to
do that. You go around in the jeep and you go around to the back window, and
you knock on the window and you'd say, you're flying today. Usually, this is five
AM in the morning.
P: And they had to be there right?
R: Oh yeah. They would wake you up and your first question was usually, what's for
breakfast? If they said, powdered eggs, you'd forget it and go do your own
breakfast. Anyway, they would tell you [that] breakfast was served and they
would tell you that briefing was at six-thirty a.m. or whatever time it was, so what
you'd do is get up and walk to wherever. We had a chateau, which was our
headquarters that they'd taken over. We'd have our breakfast and they'd have a
truck that would take us to the briefing.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 19
P: Which was at the air field?
R: Actually, it was at headquarters, not at the airport, but what they called the
headquarters in another village. We would get there and we'd go through the
briefing. In the briefing they'd tell you what the target was, of course, and they'd
tell you where the gun positions were, and they would give you the flare of colors
for the day and code words for the day, and they'd give you a briefing handout
sheet which showed all the position of all the airplanes. They would show you a
runway lineup down the left side of the thing that was the lineup of all the planes,
and how they wanted you to taxi out. When you saw a number, you're flying
sixty-nine and you saw seventy-one go out, you were to follow him, so you would
take off in the proper order to join up. But you could tell by the sketch where you
were in the formation, and where you were joining up.
P: And that's the way you would fly to the target as well.
P: You took off that way and then you'd reestablish that same formation.
P: Now in the briefing did they talk to you about specific things? Would they say,
here's a bridge; would they talk about targets of opportunity, weather, distance,
bomb load? What would you carry up, two thousand pounders?
R: We carried different things; the most common one was five hundred pounders.
We would carry five hundred pounders or one thousand pounders, we'd carry
four one thousand [pounders] or eight five hundred [Ibs]; that was our usual load.
P: But you could carry a two thousand [pounder] couldn't you? That was a little
heavy for you?
R: We never carried two thousand [pounders] that I can recall. We carried one
thousand [pounders]-we'd hit the bridges with that-and the five hundred
pounders we did ammunition dumps and railroad yards, we'd have five hundred
pounders. You'd use frag bombs once in a while, but we hated to carry frag
bombs, because sometimes they'd go off in the bomb bay of the airplane. They
had too many pins to pull and all that, too many things to go wrong. Or if you got
[a] flack hit while you were carrying those things, they had a tendency to go off,
whereas the big ones would not because they were not armed until they dropped
a certain distance down from the airplane.
P: So in this briefing, were there certain targets that you said, oh, no, this is a bad
WWVII 26, William Roberts, Page 20
R: Oh, yeah, there were definitely targets like that. Some of them we had heard
about before or some we had hit before, because quite often you'd hit the same
target twice, when they would rebuild the bridge or something like that. You
would know, last time we were there such and such happened. Or if they told us
we were going to go down to Munich, we knew that the jet fighters were in
Munich and that was their base. So anytime we got near Munich we were in
danger of getting hit by jet fighters, which is another whole story. At briefing they
would tell you what your target was, they would tell you you'll be carrying such
and such size bombs today and they'd tell you alternate targets, if you can't get
in there, you would hit this other target and they'd tell you where. They would tell
you you'll be breaking right or left, they'd tell you which way to break because if
we all broke in a real sharp right turn ...
P: You'd hate to be going the wrong way.
R: Yeah, you wanted to be going in the right direction, and you wanted to know in
advance which way they were going as soon as the bombs were away, so they
would tell you that.
P: What you're saying is as you dropped your bombs and you turned to come
home, that route is set.
P: So everybody turns right to come back.
R: But what was more important was you were on the bomb run, and you're on a
bomb run for about thirty seconds and the flack is getting worse, because you're
flying straight and level. By the end of the bomb run, that was when you were
P: Right, because you're slowing your speed.
R: You couldn't wait to get the last bomb out and then you can make your break,
and then at that point you could dive or do anything you want, but up to that time
you had to fly straight and level. When you talk about flying into that flack, you
knew that you were only ten seconds into your bomb run, and you could see that
flack out in front of you there, and you knew that you had about twenty seconds
more to go, that was a long twenty seconds.
P: How accurate was the intelligence? If you went to bomb a bridge, did they give
the correct coordinates and was the target as they said it was?
R: I'd say they were very good, considering what we had at that time for that.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 21
P: And you had photographs to determine the accuracy of your bombing?
R: Yeah, we had photographs before and after. In fact, I saved some of those
photographs; I still have a few of them. They had photographs before and after
and we usually always had photographs-sometimes we'd carry a photographer
on our ship, they had to be in different ships, so I carried photographers quite
often-and they would take pictures just as the bomb hit the target. That's where
you got the most of that from. Then another ship would go back later and take
pictures after. They could analyze those craters, and they would analyze them
based on [whether] they hit the target on the bridge the week before. They would
know which craters were there and they'd analyze the new craters, and they
would actually mark off on their grid, and tell you whether your mission was
eighty percent, ninety percent, and how many got within the target area.
P: Was there some criticism if you completely missed the target?
R: Yeah, you heard about it.
P: So when you came back you would be debriefed.
R: We would be debriefed.
P: And you would talk about the fighters, the weather, any problems with the plane,
that sort of thing?
R: Well, you'd tell that to the crew chief as soon as you landed. You would write it
up, and tell the crew chief if there were any problems with the airplane. We
wouldn't worry about that in the debriefing. At the debriefing you would tell them
of any gun positions, where you got fired upon. That was important, because for
the next mission they wanted to know. But of course they kept moving the guns,
so that didn't help you so much. So the next time you flew they could tell you
where you could expect flack, but of course you got a lot of surprise flack, too, on
the way to the target.
P: Now as you come back to make your report, are you aware of the strategic
bombing plan, or are you just being told, this is your target. They don't talk about
what they're doing overall; that doesn't become a part of the briefing?
R: No, I'd say if you happened to have an assignment like some people occasionally
did-I did one time-an assignment in the headquarters where they did the mission
planning, you would get in on that, but very rarely did you know any of the overall
thing. Usually the squadron commander and people like that would have that,
they would know more about that.
P: There was no need to know for the individual pilots.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 22
R: Actually, we didn't even care, I don't think. We just did our job and I don't think I
really wanted to know too much more than that. The funny thing about
[information] during the war, we didn't really know that much [about] what was
going on in the whole war. You probably knew more about it at home than we
knew over there-I don't know if you were at home or not-but people at home
knew more about it than we did, because I didn't read newspapers, [or] listen to
the radio, I just got it all by hearsay.
P: But you had the Stars and Stripes [newspaper geared toward American soldiers]
and you had the radio.
R: Yeah, they had that, but I maybe read one once a week.
P: If you listened to the radio, did you ever hear Axis Sally?
R: I never did. I didn't bother to listen to that; I don't even remember listening to the
radio while I was over there.
P: Did you fly the same plane every time?
R: No, that was another thing we did differently than other squadrons; we had an
assignment to an airplane, and an assignment for a crew that was different every
P: Aren't those airplanes like most airplanes, some of them have a little bit different
characteristics than others?
R: Oh, yeah. In fact, we had the B-26, the early models, the A's, B's, C's, with the
shorter wings, and then they made some modifications to try to improve the flying
characteristics, so they increased the wing span slightly, and increased the angle
P: Was it a little bit easier to take-off?
R: It made it a little easier. We actually had airplanes-the G models were the latest
ones, the one we took over was a G model-and we actually had G models flying
with B models and all that, and we had some of them that had one hundred
missions flying with some that were brand-new. They were all mixed together.
Some of them were camouflaged and some of them were silver. It was a motley
P: Did any of them have names?
R: We put names on them, but that wasn't as big a deal with us as it was with those
who had their own airplanes. We had names on all of them, and we had
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 23
paintings on some [planes]. In fact, a fellow that I roomed with for awhile was an
artist, so he painted a lot of them. But the crew chiefs were the ones that did
more of that than the pilots in our squadron.
P: So how often would you fly while you were at Dijon?
R: I went as long as a month without flying because of weather, and I flew two
missions on one day once, too.
P: But that would be pretty unusual, two missions in one day.
R: Yeah, that was very unusual; that was at the very end of the war.
P: So normally you would fly say, once every three days or something like that?
R: Usually, you'd fly a couple of days a week, maybe even two days in a row-I flew
two days in a row quite a few times-then they would give you a break. What we
did depended on the number of replacement crews we had and all. Sometimes
the squadrons were shorthanded, and sometimes towards the end of the war we
actually had a little surplus, we had quite a few, which was good and bad. We
wanted to fly and get our missions over, but on the other hand you didn't want to
fly. There was always that dilemma you had.
P: Then I think you had to fly, what was it, twenty-five [missions]?
R: They varied all over. The B-26's, we had to fly more than others.
P: Because you had the shorter range.
R: It started out at forty and it went as high as sixty-five at one time, then it went
P: What did you fly? Forty-seven or something?
R: I flew forty-seven, yeah. About that time we had gotten some replacement crews
in, but I pretty much finished my missions right as the war ended.
P: Pilots I've talked to have a dual view of this. Some of them think, well, after
you've gotten past twenty-five you're going to be okay, and others think, well I've
been lucky thus far, it's not going to hold. How did you view that when you got
halfway to forty-seven?
R: I talked to a lot of overseas [soldiers] at that time and I remember that my attitude
was that I tried to keep a positive attitude, as I do today. I knew I was going to
make it back; I don't know if I was whistling in the dark or not, but I kept the
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 24
attitude that I didn't really worry about getting shot down. I really thought I was
going to make it back, from the beginning right all the way through. My buddy
Otto that I roomed with, he was sort of a whatever happens, happens, that was
his attitude; nothing you can do about it, anyway.
P: But a lot of pilots were pretty superstitious.
R: Yeah, but I wasn't superstitious. Some of them were even the opposite, some of
them said, I know I'll get killed, and some of them did. I know one that had that
attitude; he was shot down and killed on his third or fourth mission. There were
different attitudes for different ones. I don't know, maybe I was young and foolish,
but it wasn't something I worried about.
P: Some people I've talked to told me that the pressure increased as the time went
on, because of the tension of just flying one mission and coming back and then
you've got to do it again, so it was a cumulative effect.
R: I would say that's true. In my case I was one of those that held it in; they said that
I was considered to be pretty cool, I never showed my [emotions] and I held it in.
That probably wasn't good because I paid for it later; I probably had PTSD [Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder]. I didn't know it, they didn't know what it was at that
time, but I probably was holding it in more and pretending that it didn't bother me,
but I think the pressure did build up. Even today when I talk about it like we are
doing now, I still feel that same feeling. I can feel it.
P: I talked to a guy not too long ago who was a turret gunner on a B-29, and his wife
said that about two weeks ago he got up in the middle of the night, and started
firing his guns. Something had triggered that reaction, and he was back in that
R: When I came back I had to put off going to college for a year or so. I wanted to
go to college right away when I came back on the GI Bill, but I had what the
doctor called "nervous heart." I would wake up in the night and I would be
sweating, and I would be all tense and I would feel like I was having a heart
attack. I went into him and they did all sorts of exams on me and everything
else, and they finally said, don't worry about it, you're going to have this
periodically, and it'll keep diminishing and decreasing in frequency. That's pretty
much what happened. Even when I was going to college and for years afterward,
I probably had it for ten years, but it kept decreasing in frequency just like they
said it was going to. Even now, if I'm awakened in the middle of the night like at
four or five o'clock [AM], I wake up tense and nervous. Maybe it's because I think
they're knocking on my window to say I'm flying today, I don't know.
P: Probably psychologically your mind would go back, your uncontrolled mind,
would go back to that period of time.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 25
R: I was one of those that did not talk about the war when I came back. I came back
and I just did not. I came right to college and I forgot about it, it's almost like it
didn't happen. I went on and I got busy raising a family and all. Until a few years
ago, I didn't talk about it all. Even now, when I get through talking to you, I'm
going to shut down again. I really won't talk about it anymore-I hate to say it that
way, because I don't mind doing this-but somehow or another [I just don't want
P: Well, everybody's different. Some people never talk about it, some people talk
about it a little bit, some people feel better if they talk about it.
R: I'm glad I did what I did. I wrote a book on it and I've talked to people, and I've
even talked to groups around. This anniversary business, I got caught up in that
a little bit, and I'm glad I did that, I'm happy to do this [interview], but I'm ready to
P: It's traumatic.
R: As I get older, I don't take that [experience] as well.
P: Absolutely. Now what about your off time when you weren't flying, what did you
R: That's really what I try to remember the most.
P: That's why I brought that up.
R: We had a good time, actually, when we weren't flying. It was almost surreal-I told
you we were living in these little villages-to be living in these little villages. [They
were] idyllic little villages where people walked behind funeral [processions],
[with] the horse-drawn bodies being drawn down the street, and people walking
in their black in the rain behind it. [There would be] ox carts coming through, with
beets to go into the factory to make beet sugar, skinned rabbits hanging in the
window of the butcher, and [people] playing ping pong. Then you go in and you
get in an airplane and fly over to combat, [and] it was crazy the difference
between them. We'd come back and go back to the village again.
P: It really was sort of isolated, in a way, from the war, wasn't it?
R: It was. It was strange, but you got into the pattern of it and you sort of took it [for
P: How did the French people in the village treat you?
R: The villagers treated us great. We had a deal with my neighbor in one of these
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 26
places where we'd go out and shoot these little-I don't know what they were,
they were birds, partridges or something-we'd shoot a dozen and she would
cook them, and she'd keep half and give us half.
P: Well, the food would have been good, right? The wine.
R: I didn't smoke or drink at that time, and the people we were staying with [were] a
couple that had a young daughter, [and] I gave them my cigarettes and booze
and she would do my wash for me, and things like that. We had a good deal.
P: Did they speak any English or did you have any French?
R: It's funny, but the family that I stayed with the second time didn't even speak
French, they were Polish, which was kind of strange. My French was pretty poor.
In fact, I went to them and I said, bon jour, comment allez-vous? They looked at
me kind of strange and I thought, what's going on here? It turned out they spoke
Polish. We got by with hand signals and all that. He would see me going off and
he would go like this [gesturing] and I'd say, yeah, we're going to fly today.
P: Did you ever have any interaction with the French Air Force, the British Air
Force? Did you ever do any tandem raids?
R: We had interaction with the French on the ground. The French actually flew the
B-26, they had a French group that flew the B-26, but I never came into contact
with them. We never flew missions with them. We did get escorted once by
spitfires [British fighter planes], which was kind of unusual. I remember that we
looked out, and we couldn't believe our eyes. But I don't remember too much
other contact with them.
P: They were terrific planes, the spitfires.
P: How far would you go from Dijon? How far into Germany would you go on any of
your missions? Again, your limit is one thousand miles.
R: Yeah, we had about one thousand miles total range, and a long mission for us
was five hours, that would be a long one. Most of our missions were like four
hours. So we would probably venture out four hundred miles or so, three hundred
or four hundred miles.
P: Give me some of the places you bombed, some of the targets you would have
R: Munich, of course, right outside of Munich, Kaiserslautern, Breisach.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 27
P: Now, Kaiserslautern, there was a military base near there?
R: Yeah. They had a military supply depot there and we hit that thing a few times.
P: And you'd hit the rail centers and the rail lines quite a bit, I'm sure.
R: Yeah, we had a technique [in which] we would try to knock out a bridge or
something out front, and [then] the trains would back up and then we'd go hit
them there. Trying to knock out supplies was one of the big things. We'd hit
ammunition dumps. You could see it, it's surprising, I've got pictures of
ammunition dumps, you can tell it from the air. You can see all the little spots
where the ammunition was dispersed, and we would divide those areas up into
sections, and then we'd have one squadron hit this section and the next one
would hit that, so that we would blanket the whole ammunition dump, so that
somewhere along the line you were going to get it.
P: And when you hit them, you knew it.
R: Oh, you knew it. We had one incident from the air, [which] was funny for us, it
wasn't funny for them. We had one ammunition dump and it gave [off] such a
tremendous explosion that it shook our airplanes, and it happened to be right
when we were in a break. One of the planes had to drop out because he couldn't
hold his position, but then when the shock wave hit him and he yelled over the
intercom, let's get the hell out of here, the pilot was talking to the co-pilot, but the
two gunners heard it and they bailed out. They thought he meant, let's get the
hell out of here; they thought the plane was hit.
P: On that, since you didn't have to fly high altitude you didn't have to have those
heavy suits and silk gloves and all that.
R: It was cold up there.
P: You didn't have any heat, right?
R: No, we didn't, just what you got from the air in there.
P: So you would have to wear ...
R: We had to wear jackets, we wore the flight jackets, that was enough. We didn't
wear the big suits at all, though.
P: A lot of the B-29 crews had the fleece-lined suits.
R: No, we didn't have to do that. If you were in the sunshine, the sun was coming
through the cockpit like a car, you would get hot. You would be peeling off your
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 28
jacket then. So it could get either hot or cold.
P: If you had to bail out, was there a bell that you could ring that would signal the
fact that you wanted to have the crew bail out?
R: Yeah, I'm trying to think about that now that you said this. Every once in awhile I
get a blank spot; I think there was, and I don't know where the control for it was,
but you would of course say it over the radio, too. But there was an alarm, too.
P: Did you ever get to the point where you thought you were going to have to bail
R: Well, I had the choice on that belly landing, and another time when we were
coming back when we were pretty shot up. [This was] that time that I told you
about when we got the nose shot off. I thought we were going to have to bail out.
We were thinking seriously about it then because we had to drop out of the
formation, and when you drop out of the formation you were afraid you might get
hit. So we would have bailed out then, but we were over enemy territory, [and]
we didn't have to.
P: What would you say if you would look at the forty-seven sorties that you were a
part of, what would have been the attrition rate of the B-26's? I can remember
when the B-29's were bombing at the end of the war, it was something like
sixteen percent. That's fairly high, [and] I would assume it wouldn't be that high
R: No, actually, we had one of the lowest loss rates in [terms of] actual combat
losses, but we lost more planes in the landings and take-offs and accidents. I'm
thinking about my [earlier] comment; I'm almost sure that we lost more, because I
picked up body parts for planes that crashed, and I've had the plane right in front
of me crash and everyone on the front [was] killed. One [accident was] right in
front of me on the runway where we couldn't take off, because when he crashed
he messed up the runway, too. I had that happen. I've heard of two planes
crashing in one day on take-off. We had a lot of take-off and landing crashes,
and a lot of accidents. I'd say we lost more that way. But as far as actual combat
losses, we probably had lower than most because those B-26's were rugged.
Even though they had the high wing loading and all that, they were rugged, and
they could take a lot of punishment.
P: And they were a little faster.
R: They were a little faster. And actually the fighters did not like us too much,
because we flew a tighter formation. They would rather attack B-25's that were
kind of bobbing around a little bit. All the heavies, they would much rather attack
them than they would us, so that kind of helped us. I couldn't come up with a
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 29
number, but I know that even though the numbers may not have been high, you
realize that they keep adding up on you.
P: Oh, absolutely, over a period of time.
R: Every once in awhile you'd have a bad siege, and then you would go a long time
without losing anybody, and that was kind of nice.
P: What was your assessment of the commander of the wing or whoever was doing
the overall strategy? Did you feel like they were well-versed and capable?
R: We had two of the best you could ever expect, two guys, Colonel Woolridge and
Colonel Woodward. They sound a lot alike, but they were the best. I tell you, they
led tough missions. These were the type of guys [who were extremely dedicated
]-in fact one of them, Woolridge I think it was-flew more missions than anybody
that's ever flown in one of these. I think he had eighty-eight missions; he wouldn't
go home. But they were good leaders, we had good leaders all the way. I can't
comment too much on the planning of them, because we had a lot of things that
went wrong. When they talk about things going wrong during war, things do go
wrong. You'd hit the wrong target or you'd bring your bombs back; that was the
worst of all, when you had to bring your bombs back. When you would go out on
your mission and you couldn't hit your primary target or your alternate target, and
you were tired and you'd come back low on fuel, and you had to land with your
bombs on board.
P: You wouldn't try to drop them on an open field or something somewhere?
R: We'd bring them back up until the last few months of the war, [then] they told us,
don't bring them back, drop them anywhere, just don't bring them home. But
there for awhile we used to bring them back.
P: Just because you needed the bombs, you didn't want to waste them.
R: Yeah, we did whatever they told us.
P: One pilot told me when he was flying in a cloud, and this would have been a B-
25, but they were flying in formation and went into a cloud, and when they came
out they had switched positions. He was on the outside and all of a sudden the
other guy was on the outside. [Laughter]
R: I had that happen, not switching positions, but I've flown into clouds in a
formation and that is an eerie feeling. I mean, you fly into a cloud and one minute
you'll see everybody, and the next minute you don't see anybody. You can't even
see your own wingtips, so all you do is hold it straight, you just don't go any
direction but straight. Everybody holds it straight, that's what you're told to do.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 30
You don't make a turn, you don't do [anything].
P: That's still a little nerve-wracking, isn't it.
R: That's nerve-wracking, yeah. There were mid-air collisions of course, that
P: If you were flying into your bomb run, and again, I've talked to pilots about this,
some pilots felt really in command, some people said they felt helpless, because
of that twenty seconds that there's nothing they can do to control what happens
from here on in. They thought that that was the worst feeling that they had as a
pilot, that twenty to thirty seconds where they had to stay on the target, they
R: I would agree with that.
P: Maybe helpless is the wrong word, but that was the word that they used.
R: The only thing I did in cases like that, I just concentrated on the formation flying.
In our case, the B-26's, we were usually hitting bridges and we were trying to fly
very tight formation, because we wanted all the bombs to go off as one. We'd
toggle off the main lead bombardier. We actually flew with wingtips overlapping
sometimes. You could tell [the proximity] you weren't going to hit them, but you
could tell. So we actually flew that tight, and you were so busy concentrating on
that that it took your mind off [the danger]. The worst time I had was when I was
flying in the co-pilot's seat when you weren't flying there, or maybe in the pilot's
seat. Sometimes it's easier to fly from one side, [and] sometimes it's easier to fly
from the other.
P: Why is that?
R: Well, if you're flying a high right, you're better in the other seat. I should say [that]
with high right it's better to fly in the left seat, if you're flying down here it's better
to fly in the right seat. So really, you use that sometimes and we switched off on
flying, because you'd get tired. Flying in formation is a tiring thing to do ,because
you're having to juggle [multiple factors].
P: That was my next question, how do you deal with that fatigue? A lot of that
fatigue is not only stress, but the focus. You have to focus for the whole flight;
you don't get a time to say, look, I'm going to go back here and have a break.
You have to stay alert the whole time, and there's not really a time in those
planes where you can get a break.
R: I would rather be doing something the whole time than doing nothing, to tell you
the truth. Some of the worst times I had were when I was sitting in the seat doing
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 31
nothing on a bomb run. When you're sitting in the seat and the other fellow is
flying the formation, that's the worst, because there you're watching the flack and
everything, but when you're flying you're watching the other wingtip.
P: And you watch the instruments, of course, as well.
R: You don't really. In the bomb run you don't pay much attention to the
P: Does the bombardier in a B-26, did they have control of the plane at the bomb?
R: The lead ship did, only the lead ship.
P: Did you have path finders? You probably didn't need to use those because you
didn't do night runs. Did you do any night bombings?
R: No, not at all. No, we had the G-box [navigational system].
P: It was British.
R: That was at the end of the war, though. The last couple of months we had that.
P: I heard that was great help.
R: We didn't use [it] too much, not as much as the heavies did.
P: Yeah, the heavies used that extensively, because you had these huge
formations. When you were flying and you had to go to the bathroom, what did
you do? Did you have one of those little tubes?
R: There was a little tube there. I wasn't one that had to go to the bathroom much,
I'm still not, but I remember there was one in the bomb bay. I can't remember if
we went back there; I guess we did because most of the crew used that little
funnel-type thing right inside the bomb bay. That's the only one I remember;
there may have been another one, but I don't remember it. It's the little details
like this that I forget.
P: Of course, you concentrated on more important things. When you went, if you
were flying a flight, would you try to eat a heavy meal or not eat? How would you
determine your food intake?
R: You would usually fly in the mornings, so it was usually a breakfast.
P: Did you eat a big breakfast?
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 32
R: No, I didn't.
P: I've heard people who got sick if they ate too much.
R: Yeah, I didn't. I quite often would do my own breakfast. We had a little stove in
our [house] and I just threw my something in.
P: Did you, when you attacked, have much combat experience with the enemy jets?
R: Oh yeah, we did. We got hit by ME-262's several times. That was scary. I'm glad
they didn't get those planes earlier, because they came barreling through our
formation one time and knocked two airplanes down, and we couldn't do
anything about it. We had an escort of P-47's.
P: But the P-47's weren't fast enough.
R: No. We saw the ME-262's coming at us and the P-47's were flying up high-they
would try to fly high and dive down so they could pick up a little speed-it didn't do
P: They had no chance.
R: No, it didn't do any good. So we didn't like going near Munich. We did hit their air
field once, and that was a fiasco. The idea was-we divided into two groups and
one group was going to go in and hit the airfield, knowing that the ME-262's
would come up and attack them, and that was fortunately the 17th, the other
group-but we were to come around and come in from another direction. There
were a lot of mountains and all, over here towards Switzerland and over that
way. But we were to come in and hopefully time it so that we would hit about a
half hour later, thinking that the 262's would be on the ground refueling and we
would hit them when they were on the ground. So they went in and hit and they
got attacked by 262's, and they lost several airplanes, too, and got hit really hard.
We went around the other direction and we ran into bad weather, and here we
were flying in clouds and mountains, and it wasn't much fun. We never made it to
the airport; we had to turn around and go home.
P: How effective was radar?
R: Toward the end of the war they were probably pretty good-that's where we
dropped the chaff out.
P: I was going to say, did you do that? That would, to some degree, reduce the
effectiveness of radar.
R: It helped when-I remember this one particular mission where we hit a bridge
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 33
that supposedly had one hundred-something guns on it, Breisach, and I was in a
decoy on that one. That was the one where my wing was shot down. But
anyway, we went in and we dropped chaff, and we dropped frag bombs on the
gun positions, and then the main group came in right after that and dropped the
bombs. So they hit us pretty hard. We would try glide bombing. We would start at
twelve thousand feet and try to end up at ten thousand feet, so we'd try to lose
two thousand feet while we were coming in on a short bomb run.
P: But you wouldn't go lower than ten thousand [feet] would you?
R: We did a couple times, like eight thousand [feet], but we didn't get much lower.
We never went low altitude, but we dropped the chaff off and we would try to hit
their gun positions, so the other ships would not get hit.
P: Toward the end of the war, could you tell that the number of planes, the
effectiveness of the anti-aircraft fire, all of that was diminishing as you got to the
end of the war? It didn't change?
R: It didn't. If anything, I thought it was getting worse.
P: As you got closer to ...
R: Maybe the last couple weeks, but up until then it kept getting worse, I thought.
P: Partly because now the Germans were protecting the homeland.
R: Yeah, they were protecting their homeland and they were taking their guns back
into a really concentrated area, and the targets we were hitting, they knew where
we were going pretty much. There were bridges across the Rhine River, and they
were retreating and Patton was coming down on one side, they knew we were
going to hit the bridge. Where else were you going?
P: How would you-and I know this is hard for you to do as a pilot-but do you think
this concept of strategic bombing-you bomb them and you interrupt production,
you blow up oil fields, you blow up trains, you blow up whatever you can blow up.
Was that effective, and did the bombing help win the war?
R: I like to think that it did, of course. I'm glad I wasn't into the strategic bombing. I
would hate bombing those things, and I know they were going underground, and
I know you were getting a lot of civilians and all that. I guess I couldn't worry
about it too much, but you did think about it. I didn't even like bombing troop
concentrations. We bombed them through the Seigfried Line when they were
retreating back to that, and we had to go in and bomb that. I didn't even like that;
you didn't like bombing people as much. You liked to feel like you were hitting
targets, and bridges, and all.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 34
P: Did it cross your mind as you were dropping bombs even on bridges that you
were going to kill civilians?
R: I guess you did know that, I just didn't think about that too much at the time.
P: Of course the argument is that in war time there is no such thing as civilian.
They're in Germany, and Germany is at war, they had allies, therefore civilians
get killed on both sides. When you get to war you try not to kill "innocent
civilians", but when you're bombing from a distance there's no way you can
control what that weapon does.
R: I guess if they hadn't been trying so hard to shoot us down I might have thought
P: I guess that's right. Some people, when they realized they had inadvertently
bombed a church, or a school, or something like that, psychologically they
couldn't get back in the plane and bomb again. There were some instances of
people who just broke for whatever reason; it was just too much for them to
accept. Other people, it didn't bother them at all.
R: We had a couple of incidents of what we called refusal to fly, people that refused
to fly. I remember one in particular, they kept him locked up in a room in the
chateau there-he was a pilot-then one day he just disappeared, and we didn't
know what happened. They kept him away from the other people, because they
didn't want him to contaminate the other people, [and convince them] to refuse to
fly. We had some other people who were pretty close to that, [and] I could see
that it bothered them more than the others. I had one fellow that I knew, Green, I
remember he was very religious; he read his Bible the whole time and all. He
was close to the point of saying, I don't want to do this anymore. I don't think he
ever did, but he was close.
P: What did they do with people in what we would call now delayed stress syndrome
or battle fatigue as they called it in WWII? Would they give them some medical
treatment or just take them to the back lines or what?
R: We had what we called rest camps. I went to a couple of rest camps; I went to
one in Paris, and I went to one on the Riviera. They'd send you off for a week to
the Riviera. That was about the only thing they did. Other than that, they just
disappeared from our sight. To tell you the truth, they just took them away. I
guess they didn't want the other people [to be affected]-you'd hear somebody
and you'd hear that they were taken away. I don't know where they went.
P: How important were those week R and R trips?
R: Very important, I enjoyed them. I had a trip for four or five days in Paris, and then
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 35
I was in Cannes on the Riviera. In fact, I was down there for a week. I was down
there when Roosevelt died in the middle of April. They closed down the
restaurants and the bars, and everything else. They were down for most of the
whole week, practically, so they let us stay another week. I just stayed down
there two weeks during April, but that was getting toward the end of the war.
P: When you heard of Roosevelt's death, did they discourage you about the end of
R: No, it just made me feel sad, because Roosevelt was president my whole life,
practically. He was president when I was a little kid, and then he was president
when I was over there, and then he died when I was in the war. It made me feel
sad, because the end was in sight when he died.
P: Did you have any strong view of Harry Truman?
R: I always admired Harry Truman. Maybe I was like most people, skeptical, when
he took over [about] whether he was the right man. I thought of him as a
politician mostly, but it didn't take long after that to admire him.
P: When did you know and what was it like for your last mission? Did they tell you,
this is your last one?
R: They did, as a matter of fact. Some replacement crews came in, and I remember
I had flown two missions one day, and that was my last time. When I came down
my squadron commander said, that's all for you, you're not flying anymore. I said,
woo hoo, that's it? He said, yep! It was pretty near the end of the war at that time,
and that's when I went to Paris on V-E Day. But it didn't really feel like the end [of
the war] until V-E Day.
P: But you didn't know before you flew that that was your last one? You only found
out when you came back down.
R: When I came back down, yeah.
P: It probably was a bad idea to tell somebody, this is going to be your last flight.
R: I think that would be.
P: It might make you more tense, or too careful, or something like that.
R: It could be. I don't know how I would have taken that. It's funny, through the
whole war I never really seemed to feel nervous, or worried about it. I'm not as
[anxious] as most people. Once again, I think I was just keeping it in, but the fear
of getting killed just wasn't really big in my head.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 36
P: Well, everybody's different. Tell me about V-E Day and how you decided to go,
and how you got to Paris, and what you saw.
R: Everybody knew the war was going to end, so the buddy that I roomed with-I call
him my buddy, but he's the one I roomed with the whole time over there, in fact I
still talk to him on the phone occasionally-but we thought, where do you want to
be on VE Day? We wanted to be in Paris. We had been to Paris on a four or five
day pass before, so we said Paris, of course. We just hopped the train, and went
to Paris and waited till the war ended. I got mentioned in that article, [and] I used
to say it was the high point of my life, but I quit saying that because it was sixty
years ago. I don't want to think it's all [been] downhill since then. [Laughter] So I
quit saying that, but it pretty much was that, just a great feeling. I just think that
it's over, everybody treated us wonderful, the French treated us wonderful, and
everybody was hugging, and kissing, and offering us free drinks. I didn't even
drink at the time.
P: It would have been a good time to start.
R: I did, actually. I wasn't a drinker, but I did drink a little table wine with some of the
French families at the time. That's where I had my first drink, over there drinking
table wine with the French families. I did drink some champagne that day on V-E
Day, too. I wanted to remember that day, so I didn't drink much.
P: Did you spend the whole day celebrating?
R: Yeah, they had this thing where the French girls would form a circle around you,
and you had to pick a girl, and you had to kiss her, and then when you kissed her
they'd let you out. Then you'd go a little further, and they'd form another circle
around you and [you'd do it again]. So we went all the way from the Place de la
Concorde to the Champs Elysees, and the girls would form circles around us,
and we'd kiss our way out of the circle. We just kept going up there doing that.
P: I assume once you got to the end, you turned around and went back.
R: Actually, we had to take a break and rest a bit. We'd sit in one of the cafes and
they'd give you free drinks and free food; they couldn't do enough for you.
Everybody was just hugging everybody. It was the biggest outpouring of love that
I've ever experienced in my whole life.
P: And joy.
R: Yeah, joy.
P: It was just unbridled joy.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 37
R: Absolutely, it was spontaneous. It was nothing like a New Year's, where you put
on your party hat and forget about it.
P: But imagine what the French had been through, and imagine having been
captives of the German army, and to finally have the war over. Some French had
been liberated before, but not really fully until the war was over.
R: No, and actually the fountains came on, and the lights came on. I saw Paris like
I'd never seen it before. The lights came on. They must have worked overtime to
get those things ready.
P: Were there a lot of American troops in Paris at the time?
R: There were quite a few of them. Actually, they were not only American, there
were French, English, Russian [troops]. A few, not many.
[end side B2]
P: When all of that was over and the celebration finished, did you have a letdown?
R: I probably did, [but] it wasn't immediate. They were trying to decide what to do
with us. One of the things they did with us was take the ground crewmen on
cooks' tours. We took our airplanes and we would load up these ground crews,
because they had not participated from being able to stay back home, basically,
so we took them on tours and we would fly low over the old targets. So I got to
see the bridges and Kaiserslautem, and I got to even fly up in areas we hadn't
been like Cologne, and see the cathedrals that were damaged and all. So we
flew around. I enjoyed that, that was kind of fun flying over this [area].
P: An after war tour?
R: Yeah, it was an after war tour. These people enjoyed it, of course, and I enjoyed
it because you could fly along and nobody was shooting at you. You were flying
low down there and you could see things. That kind of kept you going for a little
while, so you didn't suffer too much, you were still on a little bit of a high. Then it
kind of settled in, when are we going home? Obviously, they couldn't take us all
home, so they built volleyball courts, and softball diamonds, and things like that,
and tried to keep us occupied doing that. It was a period where we wanted to get
out of here now. But I was fortunate because they sent me to Paris to go home to
wait for a ship, [and] they couldn't pick a better spot to send me. So we actually
were billeted in some old barracks that were built on the Rothschild estate [a
family of international financiers, the Rothschild's Paris home was first seized by
the Luftwaffe] right in the Bois du Bologne, right in the middle of Paris.
P: How long was that?
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 38
R: I was there for a month before [I left].
P: That's not bad duty, is it?
R: No, it wasn't bad duty at all.
P: You'd earned that.
R: Yeah, that's how I felt. We waited there for a month until they could put us on a
train and send us to Le Havre, and [we] took a ship back from there. I would say
that my post-war [let]down didn't exist because of the fact that I was in Paris at
the time, enjoying myself.
P: How long would it be from the time the war ended to the time you got back to the
R: I'd have to look it up, [but] I'd say at least two months.
P: Two months. You had a shorter return than most.
R: Oh yeah, I probably did.
P: For a lot of people it was six to eight months, maybe even a year.
R: They were thinking of training us to go over to the other war.
P: I know that. That's my next question. When you got back, did you get new orders
or did they muster you out?
R: No, they didn't muster me out. I came back and I went to Camp Blanding, right
down the road there, and they gave me orders. I reported to South Carolina to
check out the A-26's, which were a plane they were going to use a lot in the
Pacific. It's a twin-engine airplane again, but more of an attack bomber type [of]
thing. So I was supposed to go train in that, and I was to either be a pilot to go
over, or become an instructor. I never got to find out which one, fortunately,
because I was home on leave when they dropped the atomic bomb.
P: What was your reaction when you heard that they dropped the first bomb? This is
before the surrender.
R: Well, like most people, I didn't even know there was such a thing, so I was totally
in shock. I was trying to psych myself into staying in the service, and going and
continuing on, and maybe even fighting another war, so obviously I felt totally
relieved because I wasn't ready to go back. I don't know whether I would have or
not, but it's likely I would have. I guess I felt another relief, [and] it was a totally
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 39
different feeling. Like when the war in Europe ended, that was [a feeling] of
elation [and] celebration, this wasn't nearly the same. It was like, my God, the
world has finally come to its senses, and now I can get on with my life. I guess I
started thinking ahead at that time.
P: In retrospect, do you think it was the right decision to drop those two bombs?
R: Oh, yeah, I do. I wouldn't second guess that. As horrible as it was, knowing the
Japanese-and I've been over to Japan and done business with the Japanese
since that time, had some interesting discussions with my Japanese business
friends-but they would have fought to the last person, practically, and it would
have been worse. I actually believe more of them would have been killed.
P: Well, that's one of the arguments that even the Truman administration made, that
we were not only saving American lives, we were going to be saving Japanese
R: Yeah, as horrible as it was. Also, I think I go along with the argument that it kind
of gave us a preview of that age and saying, these are how bad these things are.
If we'd never dropped one over there, I think we would have dropped one
sometime, and it could have been worse.
P: It would have been worse because the bombs were so much more powerful.
R: The bombs were getting more powerful, sure. I think after that, I think maybe with
the Russians seeing that and everybody seeing what it was, nobody was
interested in dropping one again.
P: They haven't dropped one since.
P: That's an object lesson in the power of nuclear conflict.
R: That's probably the best proof of all, [considering] the fact that they haven't
dropped one since. I don't think any sane country would do one now, but you
never know about those [others].
P: I'm glad you said sane, because that might be part of the problem. When were
you mustered out of the service?
R: Let's see, I'd have to go back and look at my records to answer that question. It
was probably about October, I would guess.
P: Of 45 still.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 40
R: Yeah, October 45. It was maybe even a little later, maybe even November.
P: I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, but if you would, sort of take me from
the time you left the service, and give me an overview of what you did the rest of
R: Okay. What I did was I went back to the job I left, [at] American Oil Company,
because they had an agreement they would take the veterans back, and pretty
quickly I moved up to accounts receivable supervisor, which is a better job, but I
still didn't want to do that. By this time-for a guy who had never left the state,
once he traveled the world and everything else that I had done now, I had
decided I wanted to go to college-and the GI Bill came along. I had taken
correspondence courses to be an architect or a draftsman or something, so I
decided I wanted to become an architect and came to architectural school.
So that's why I came to the University of Florida, to be an architect, but it
was almost two years after I got back before I came to college, because I had
some health problems, or I thought I did, anyway. I found out that to be an
architect at that time, you couldn't go to summer school and it took five years, I
think it was, and I said, I can't wait that long. I switched to engineering because
my aptitude test said I was good in math, so they said engineering was a good
choice for me. I read about that same time, this was in 1947, they started an
aeronautical option to mechanical engineering, so I thought, hey!
R: I still liked airplanes even though I didn't want to fly anymore, so I took the
aeronautical option for mechanical [engineering], and by the time I graduated in
1950, they offered an aeronautical engineering degree.
P: And you were still single at this point?
R: No, I was married. I lived in Flavet One. I had two children by this time, so I lived
in Flavet One. I actually graduated Magna Cum Laude, because I buckled down.
It wasn't that I was that smart, I just worked hard.
P: I've talked to a lot of people who lived in Flavet, and everybody said that one of
the things that was characteristic of older students, these veterans were serious
about school; they wanted to get out as fast as they could.
R: That's right, they called me a curse out there. I didn't go to bed without getting
my homework done. I was serious about school
P: Well, you had a family.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 41
R: I had a family and I went [to school] year round, summer and all. I never quit from
the time I started up. I finished in three years, [and] in engineering that's pretty
P: Plus, you had delayed for many years, so you were behind what your normal
schedule would have been, so you needed to get out.
R: That's right.
P: Describe Flavet a little bit for me. I know these were barracks that came from
Camp Blanding and other places.
R: Yeah. Flavet One were the single story ones and they had several units per
building. They were like a big barracks building [with] paper thin walls, [and] we
used to joke that we got to know everybody pretty well. I was in 98-Z, which is
right on the end, right on the end where the old lab-I don't know what's there
now, behind the hydraulics-but we used to call it the hydraulics lab. It's an
engineering lab now, right off the end of the football stadium.
P: Wasn't the first one curved a little bit?
R: No, these were straight.
P: Maybe that was Flavet Two. And the rent was obviously ...
R: Dirt cheap. I don't remember what it was, maybe forty dollars a month or
something like that.
P: Did you or your wife work?
R: Nope, [my wife did not work] we had the children, so I worked three jobs. Once
again, American Oil Company had a place here and I worked there. I worked at
the Seagle Building grading papers for the correspondence school. I tutored in
calculus for my last year, and I sold lamps door to door at night. I worked several
different jobs, you know, and with the GI Bill, but with children, too, I needed all
the money I could get.
P: By the way, the GI Bill may well have been the best investment this country ever
R: Absolutely, I agree with that totally. Not just because it helped me, but it helped
the country overall and it helped us.
P: Well, it made a college education not only affordable, but desirable, and it really
gave this tremendous boost to the universities and higher education. As you
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 42
know better than anybody, the University of Florida was not ready for all these
students; they didn't have enough faculty, didn't have classrooms, they didn't'
have enough of anything.
R: No. I see a few of the old buildings that were in there, but I think there were eight
thousand students when I started there.
P: That would have been about right.
R: But like I said, I worked hard and I did well. I don't know why I went into
aeronautical engineering, because the aerospace engineering-there wasn't any
space at that time-and the aeronautical industry was down, because the war was
over and everything else.
P: Oh yeah, at the end of the war Boeing shut down; the Air Force weren't needing
any more planes.
R: When I got out in 1950, there were very few jobs, but fortunately with my grades
and everything I got a job at Chance Vought Aircraft at Dallas, Texas. Now it's
called the LTV Corporation. But I was there for two years; I was an engineering
trainee, which meant they trained me in being [prepared for] all parts [of the
industry], aerodynamics and stress analysis and everything, and I could choose
what I wanted. I chose stress analysis. But I didn't like living in Texas, so in two
years I left there and went to where it was, in California. I moved to southern
California in 1952, when it was heaven out there.
P: Not too crowded.
R: Not too crowded, you could see the snow capped mountains off in the distance
and no freeways. One freeway they had, I think the Hollywood Freeway may
have been there, but [they were] building the Harbor Freeway. I ended up getting
a master's at UCLA while I was out there, and I worked for Northrop Corporation
when Jack Northrop was still working there-you'd walk in the door and say hi,
Jack. He was working on the flying wing, and I worked on the T-38 and various
projects. When they launched the first Sputnik ... was it in 1957? I decided I
wanted to be in the space field, so that was an exciting era. I went to work for
P: Were you still in southern California?
R: [That was still in] southern California. They were the Aerospace Corporation,
[and] it was a perfect fit for me, because that was the technical arm for the Air
Force into space, and they were getting the Air Force into space, you might say.
Aerospace Corporation was really the technical brains of it. We would decide
what programs were feasible, and then we would draw up the requests for
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 43
proposals, and send them out for bids from the contractors and evaluate them,
and then we'd monitor the programs after. I worked on the very first
communications satellite, which was a military communications satellite; most
people don't realize that. I worked on one of the first spy satellites, [which was a]
camera in the sky type [of] thing.
P: Was this for the military or for NASA [National Aeronautics and Space
R: No, not NASA, this is the Air Force.
P: All Air Force then.
R: NASA wasn't even started by that point.
P: That started in 1958, but they hadn't really developed much.
R: Yeah, they hadn't. In fact, they called it something else and it became NASA later
on. Aerospace was a civilian corporation, but they did the technical work for the
Air Force, because the Air Force didn't have the right people for that, and we
worked with them. So the Air Force was the front, they wore the uniforms, and
we were the ones who did all the technical work. I enjoyed that, [and] it was an
exciting time working. I was flying around Cape Canaveral when it was in early
launches, and I was going back to Washington and all over the country flying,
working with contractors and getting these projects going.
That was exciting. I stayed there until 1968, and then I took a job with
General Electric. They offered me a good job that I couldn't refuse, in
Philadelphia, though. I wanted to get back to the East Coast, to tell you the truth.
It was a job where I had about several hundred engineers working for me. [I was]
manager of vehicle engineering for their missile and space programs, so I
worked there for a couple years and I didn't like it at all, because I was really
managing people, and I was getting too far away from [the work]. I was working-I
should have told you, at Aerospace-in covert programs, mostly. That wasn't
much fun, that part of it, but the fun part was working on the projects. The
projects were interesting, but the covert part wasn't much fun.
P: It's a lot of bureaucracy.
R: Well, not as much as some of the programs, because an unlimited budget pretty
much [financed] the covert programs, so we got a lot done.
P: Did you work through the CIA at all?
R: No, well, indirectly, but they were pretty narrow. I worked a little with Kodak on
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 44
putting them into the vehicles. I was working on the vehicle that the Kodak
cameras were going in, but you didn't know too much other than this is your
P: You didn't know what they were going to use it for?
R: You didn't know what they did with the data when they got it, so they had you
limited; need to know was a big thing.
P: Absolutely. So after GE where'd you go?
R: I stayed with GE until Earth Day 1970, the first Earth Day. I went to that big
celebration in Fairmont Park and I decided I wanted to do environmental work. I
had worked on environmental systems on board spacecraft-that was one of my
assignments, was the environmental control systems on it-so I thought, that
qualifies me as much as anybody. I was ready for a change of pace, so I put
together a plan and started my own company. I took the company public and all
that. I lost control of my first public company; at first I started a consulting
company, then I started the public company. Then I started a private company
with some business partners, and that one took. I had a nice business career,
P: What was the name of that company?
R: The company was Sigma Treatment Systems, and we designed and built
specialized equipment for ships, believe it or not. I switched totally from airplanes
to ships, but we built pollution control equipment for ships, mostly oil separators.
Ships used to just dump all their waste overboard, and we designed the
separators that would separate the oil from the water at ten parts per million. It's
on ships now; they're still putting them on ships. I got a patent and all that, and I
ended up selling the company in 1987 and retired.
P: When you look back on your military career-I think about WWII and Tom
Brokaw's [former NBC television evening news anchorman] apt phrase ...
R: The greatest generation.
P: Would you agree with that?
R: Well, I'm coming from an inside position on that, but I would, but not because we
were necessarily better than any other generations, it's just that we had better
opportunities for being great, you might say. In fact, I look at that-I reject
anybody telling me I'm a hero. A few people try and tell you you're a hero-I don't
believe that; you do what you have to do, and I believe most people do. I lived
through the Depression, [but] I didn't suffer, my father had a job. As kids we
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 45
made our own toys and we did everything else. I had a good childhood, I don't
look back on it [negatively]. I wrote a book on that, incidentally. But we made our
own toys; it was creative to make your own toys, [and] that part was good. We
came out of it, we fought a war, I survived. I'd say we had a good opportunity.
Then we had the post-war period where there were opportunities galore in
business and everything else, so we took advantage of that, too. I think maybe
we had the greatest opportunity more than probably kids today [do]. I see them
go to school, [and] they're probably smarter than the kids that were going to
school when I was going. But mostly it was a matter of opportunity.
P: Well the difference is, and what Tom Brokaw would argue as well, is that the
people of that generation made the best of these opportunities, that's part of the
process. I've talked to, I don't know how many people who lived through this, that
say exactly the same thing. The Depression was the Depression, we did the best
we could. Some people say, we didn't know we were poor, and then World War
II, well, we fought.
R: What else are you gonna do? We didn't have any choice.
P: They say, that's just what happened to us.
R: Then after the war you had opportunities. We were a super power. I remember
before the war very well, we were not a super power before the war. Man,
language and everything, boy, am I glad we won the war because in my marine
business afterwards, I traveled the world. I had reps all over the world-we had
reps in Greece, and we had reps in Japan, and Norway, and Australia-in
Australia they speak English, anyway. But anyway, we had them all over the
world and they always [speak English].
P: Australians speak a version of English.
R: In fact, I gave a talk once in Sweden; I gave a talk because I was supposedly an
expert in shipboard pollution control. This reporter, Erickson, I remember he said
afterwards-I said, I thanked them for letting me speak in English-afterwards he
says, I'd like to correct Mr. Roberts, he doesn't speak English, he speaks
American. [Laughter] He would have been educated at Oxford.
P: That's the bad news, they speak better English than we do. How would you say
that your military experience changed your life and your values?
R: Well, for one thing, and I've dwelled on this-at the time I dwelled on it when it
happened, and I've dwelled on it [since]-it always made me aware. I call this up
all the time; I should have been killed during the war, the way I look at it and
looking back, and I wasn't. So I consider, hey, enjoy life, it's a bonus. You're
living life, don't fret it. I don't fret small things, even to this day I don't worry about
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 46
small things. I feel like I've been pretty fortunate, and from that time on I've felt it.
My whole life I've felt like I've been pretty fortunate, so I've always had a positive
outlook. I think the war, surprisingly enough, something as negative as a big war,
probably gave me a positive attitude-like, hey, be thankful for what you've got. It
probably made me get religion. I didn't have religion before the war. I don't mean
that I'm a staunch religious [man]. My religion is more loose. I'm more New Age
religion you may say, but I'm aware of it now, and before the war I wasn't aware
of it, probably.
P: Also the maturity, because you had never been out of the state practically, you're
eighteen, twenty years old, and all of a sudden you have to fight this war. You
have to grow up pretty fast, don't you?
R: Yeah, when I was in high school the farthest I got away was Savannah, Georgia.
The farthest I'd been from home when I went into the service-well, I did go to
Louisville, Kentucky, once for a week-that was the farthest I'd been from home.
Only two times I had been out of the state. So I saw the world, and I kind of
wanted to see some more.
P: It broadens your horizons and teaches you about different people, different
cultures, different values, different attitudes.
R: It probably helped me in my business. I had that marine business I told you
[about] where I did business with Japanese, and Greeks, and everybody in all
regions. It helped me in dealing with them because I accepted all of them, [and] I
still do. And you matured fast, [so] it helped me in school. If I'd gone to school
right out of high school, I wouldn't have done well, [and] I probably would have
struggled. I was a mediocre student in high school. I got by on as little as I could
and made decent grades, average grades. I was playing around and I wasn't
serious about it. When I came to college I guarantee you I was serious.
P: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to talk about?
Are there any incidents or recollections that we might not have touched on, or
philosophical comments about the war or anything?
R: Oh, boy, I'm sure I've got some. Some people have asked me-and these are
people like my children's age, I have four sons-they are the ones that seem to
have a lot of interest. In fact, I said I was going to shut down [talking about the
war after this but] one fellow who called me after he saw the article in the paper;
he lives nearby, and he's writing a book. His father was a pilot during the war and
he wants to talk to me because he's writing it fictionally, and he wants me to give
him a little background. So after I talk to him I'm going to shut down. But anyway,
people ask me, and he asked me, what made you guys keep going? How could
you do it? They have a hard time imagining what was the motivating force that
made you keep flying time after time, going up there knowing that you might get
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 47
killed each time. That's not something that people see themselves doing, you
know. The one answer I give them, I guess other people might give them the
same answer, was because of your buddies. You would not think of letting your
buddies down. If this guy is going to go up and fly, [then] I'm going up and flying.
I'm not going to be the one who says, I'm not going. There were people that did
that, [but] I could not do it. [They ask things] like, how could you keep flying into
that flack we talked about? Because everybody was doing it. The old song that
said, "nothing can stop the Army Air Corps"-you really meant it. They got you to
P: It's interesting, a lot of people I've talked to don't say they were fighting for
democracy and freedom, although they were, and they were patriotic. I think it's
kind of a dual process. It's called survival and protecting your buddies, those are
the motivating factors. There is an idealistic goal in winning this war, but on a day
to day basis you just want to get home.
R: I think today it's hard not to be involved in all the other aspects of it, the political
aspects and everything else. I'm sure the guys in Iraq, they all have their
feelings, pro and con, and all. We didn't have any of that, it was all pro. We were
all over there, and we didn't worry about that. Somebody else was making the
decisions, so we didn't worry about that. Sure, there were mistakes made and
there were all sorts of goof-ups and there was friendly fire, but nobody pointed a
finger at anybody. It was just a big "get the job done" type thing. I guess I was
one of the many. If I were to pick out people who are the heroes, it's the ones
who didn't get back. One of my very good friends that didn't make it back; I think
P: This is the guy from Jacksonville?
R: He's the one who went up on that first airplane ride with me and joined the Air
Force and beat me in. He got in early and he rushed over there, and he was in
that early group where they were trying to fly twenty-five missions, and not many
of them made it through. People don't realize that the Air Force had the highest
mortality rate of any branch of service; it wasn't the Marines or anybody else.
P: It wasn't even close.
R: Not even close.
P: That's always been an argument, was the loss of life worth the damage that was
done? In fact, I've talked to military historians that said if you'd taken the Air
Force and put them on the ground as ground service ...
R: I was surprised after the war to learn that eighty thousand American airmen were
killed during the war. Did you know that? Eighty thousand. That's just the flight
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 48
P: That's huge.
R: It turned out to be about the same number of Germans killed-flight crews-close
to eighty thousand.
P: That was a huge loss. But right you are, most people are not aware of that. They
think of the loss as always being in the ground forces.
R: It always impresses people, like in Invasion D-Day, the Air Force would go out
there every day, every day, back and forth, back and forth, every day losing
people, losing people. [They flew] day and night even, so it added up.
P: I talked to a commander, like this colonel you were talking about, and he said
that was the hardest thing, sending everybody out there knowing they would die.
He said he would sit out there and watch the planes come in and count them,
and if plane ninety-two was missing or whatever, he just had a sinking heart
because then he had to go back and write the letters. He knew that if six people
died, that was six families. He said it was just a terrible burden because these
were his orders, so he gives them to these people, but he is the one that sends
them out. The strategic plans come from a higher level, but he is responsible for
getting these guys in the planes and getting them killed. That's the way he looked
at it. You can't quite look at it like that, but it really bothered him. He said it was
just devastating to him.
R: Some people it bothered more than others. I was twenty years old when I went in
there, and a twenty year old doesn't think. Look at the twenty year olds today,
they think they're immortal. They don't wear seatbelts in cars; I don't know how
they do that, I wouldn't think of getting in a car [without wearing a seatbelt]. I
buckle up before I get out of the garage.
P: But it's a different mind set in a way, because this was the "good war", this was
the just war. This is the war where we were attacked, we were not the aggressor,
and therefore there was not a lot of anti-war sentiment or anything else, so it was
a little easier on the people who were fighting the war, in terms of home support.
R: I've been anti-war ever since then, incidentally, and I still am. I'm anti this war;
I'm not a pro-war person at all, I just can't be it. I think war is a last resort.
P: It should be.
R: It should be. I even think about people getting killed, and I don't like it when Iraqis
are killed. They're not all nice people; don't get me wrong, there is such a thing
as a terrorist. I don't know, I look at people differently now.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 49
P: It's interesting to note that we never see the figures of the total number of Iraqis
that have been killed. We see, forty got killed in this car bomb, but we don't get
the long term figure. Imagine what happened to Vietnam: two million people. Two
million people died in Vietnam. That's horrendous! If that were the Holocaust,
people would be outraged.
R: I've got good Vietnam friends. I have a lot of Vietnam friends, for some reason or
another. I was anti-Vietnam [war]. I was living in Philadelphia and I marched on
the Pentagon; I'm not ashamed to say it. Most of those guys were Veterans for
Peace and all that. I'm not active in it, but I go to their concerts once a year. I
think being in a war makes you anti-war.
P: It does, and the interesting thing is that the anti-war Vets have a certain position
that can't be questioned; they fought for their country. It's not like it's somebody
trying to get out of the draft. These guys have fought, so they have a right to get
up and say, this war is wrong. They have a lot more impact because it's veterans
that are opposed, and if anybody ought to know, they ought to know.
R: I know the business about supporting the soldiers. The soldiers that are fighting,
most of them are for the war, but that's how I would want to be if I were fighting a
war, I'd want to be for it. I'd hate to be fighting a war that I didn't think was right,
P: That's very difficult.
R: I'd feel like a street hoodlum or something if I were fighting a war that I didn't
think was right. I think I'd talk myself into it being right.
P: You'd almost have to in order to survive. You'd have to convince yourself.
R: Either that or I'd do like a few of them have done and refuse to fight. That's the
only choice you have.
P: And you can understand that as well. Is there anything else that you'd like to talk
R: Well, I'm sure I've got other things. Like I said, I went all those years without
talking, and for the last few years it seems like all I have done is talk. Now I'm
ready to get on with the life I have left.
P: I'm certainly glad you took the time to talk to me, because you've got a great
story and I think it's important. I think this will be good for your sons. I think your
sons and grandsons would like to read about your story. Hopefully, they will get
copies of this interview as well, and I think that'll be important for them to
understand what you did with your life.
WWII 26, William Roberts, Page 50
R: I'm sure I have more I could tell. I could tell war stories. I know people who want
to sit around and tell stories. I'm not the kind to sit around and tell war stories,
although you got a lot of it out of me. I didn't write it down at the time, but once
you get it out of you, you don't care to dwell on it too much.
P: I understand that.
R: You've made it easier for me to talk about, which I appreciate.
P: Thank you very much, and on that note we'll end the interview.