Interview with Art Frechette, by Steve Showers for the Voices from the Second World War: An Oral History, Center for Oral History, University of Connecticut, 22 March 2000.
STEVE SHOWERS: Today I’m talking with Art Frechette and we’re going to talk about the World War II experience. Are you all set?
ART FRECHETTE: I’m ready when you are.
SS: Why don’t we start out first tell me where and when you were born.
AF: I was born on July 13th, 1924, New London, Connecticut.
SS: New London. Is that where you wound up growing up then?
AF: I spent the first few years in New London and then we moved to Worcester, Mass. My father worked on the railroad and this was during the depression and many jobs were abolished. Therefore, the people who remained had to scrounge around. You had the seniority system and they had to bump different people to get jobs on the railroad. So, we ended up in Worcester, Mass. for a couple of years. Then we came back to the New London area. We spent most of my growing up years in New London and Groton, and a few years in Saybrook but basically in eastern Connecticut. I started high school in Old Saybrook. My father was transferred back to Groton, so we moved back to Groton and I finished high school at Robert Fitch High School in Groton.
SS: Do you remember what year that was?
AF: Yes. I graduated in ’42. I was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor took place. I’m sure other people are recollecting where they were. I was listening to an opera program on the radio on Sunday when they broke in and announced Pearl Harbor. We spent the rest of the weekend listening to the radio. Just about everyone, I would say, everyone was glued to the radio.
SS: Did you hear Roosevelt’s speech?
AF: Absolutely. The next day we heard him make his speech to congress. We were in school. Right after we finished listening to the speech, there was an alert, a warning that another attack was going to take place. School was dismissed early. It turned out to be a false alarm. At that point, everyone was willing to believe anything, because prior to that, it was inconceivable that any country would attack us from across the ocean. It wasn’t that we thought that they were so pure or so great or even thought kindly towards us. But, we felt protected by the oceans. In fact, just the week before Pearl Harbor, I believe it was Collier’s magazine had a leading article, which said why Japan would not go to war against the United States. It was on the stands when Pearl Harbor took place. As a senior in high school, I was keenly aware of it, the antagonism between Japan and the United States. I was also aware of the war because New London was a seaport. It was known, at least it wasn’t disseminated widely, but we had a shooting war going on with Germany during the summer of ’41. Were you aware of that? Did you know that?
SS: Only a little bit about the shipping problem.
AF: Yes. We were firing at the Germans and they were firing back so that kind of makes it a war. Also, in New London, there was a French submarine that had escaped from the German net and was in New London harbor for months. All the sailors were around there. It wasn’t known which side they were on, whether they were on the side of the free French or on the Vichey French. So we had an awareness of that. Finally, the submarine was told it had to leave port by the American Authorities. It was promptly sunk by the British shortly after leaving Long Island Sound. Again, that wasn’t disseminated widely but if you live in a port, you hear all these things.
SS: You said you had a good awareness of what was going on in the world before the war. Were you following events with Japan and Europe at the same time?
AF: Yes, both. Although I shared the almost universal belief that Japan would be crazy to attack us because we’d wipe them out in a week. That was almost a universal belief. Everyone looked on Japan as making inferior products and not having the ability to wage a war with a real country. That sounds very self-centered and I guess it was. Maybe the Navy knew better, maybe the Army knew better. But if they did, they weren’t telling us. I think it was probably a great shock to everyone, young and old alike, when Japan did attack us. I think if Germany had attacked us, it probably wouldn’t have been as great a shock. Then they did so much damage. It was just an eye opener. Gee, they could do that? That’s where we were before the war started. I graduated in ’42 and we were bogged down in the Pacific. We hadn’t made too much progress there. We really were not prepared for a ground war in Europe, at that point. Everyone was kind of up in the air. What are we going to do? I had planned to go to UCONN and I did go. I started there knowing that I probably wouldn’t be there very long. So I put in one semester there. When I turned eighteen, in July of ’42, I decided that I would like to join the Air Force as a flying cadet. I tried to enlist one time in Boston but the office was closed on the day I went there. I didn’t think to call ahead. I figured they would be open. I went down there and then about a month later, it was in all the newspapers in Connecticut that they were going to have examinations for aviation cadets in Hartford. So I went up to Hartford with a high school buddy of mine and we both got sworn in.
SS: So you enlisted?
AF: I enlisted, yes.
SS: Had you passed the test that you had to take?
AF: Yes. I passed the test right away up in Hartford. I didn’t realize things would happen so fast after I took the test. Several hundred young fellas took the examinations, including the physical. They read out the names of those who passed, and I was one of them and my friend was also. They said, “OK. Raise your right hand.” I said, “What’s happening now?” They said, “Repeat after me.” And I repeated and they said: “Congratulations you’re in the Army.”
SS: It happened pretty quickly then?
AF: Yes it did. Except that we were told that they were not ready for the influx. They were still building training facilities and that stuff so we should return to whatever we’re doing. I figured well, I might be home for a week or a year, or whatever. I didn’t know. Most of us, this is showing you how young we were, at least my reaction, and I think the reaction of many of the guys was that, “Gee, we’re not going to get into it before the war is over.” That was a reaction of disappointment. If we only knew. We said, “Gee, they’re not going to get us in.” So I went back to UCONN. In January, a couple of weeks into January, I don’t have any exact dates, I got a telegram and it said to report for duty. Not only me, about five hundred other students at UCONN got the summons on the same day, which wiped out the school because the enrollment at that time was about 2,000. So in one fell swoop, they took all the Army Air Force guys. The Navy didn’t call them up yet but the Army Air Force did.
SS: So most of these students went into the Army Air Forces?
AF: The ones that they called in January did, an awful lot of them, yes.
SS: That was January of ’43?
AF: January of ’43, right. So they called us all up and within a week, less than a week, I don’t remember the exact date, I’d have to go back. I’m not sure I kept all the correspondence, but in a week we were in training camp.
SS: Where’d you go to?
AF: We went to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Anybody else you interviewed go over there?
SS: No. Not yet.
AF: I think Ted did, Ted Edgerton.
SS: That’s right. Maybe Ted did.
AF: There were about 25,000 of us there from all over the northern United States. We never were within miles of an airplane. They gave us a rifle and we started marching up and down on the boardwalk, learning the manual of arms and everything else. Everyone said, “Where the heck is the airplane?”
SS: Was this for basic training then?
AF: That was basic training. We thought, at that point, some of us, including me thought this was a big dodge to get us into the infantry. We were not assigned to the Air Force. We were in the U.S. Army. There was no separate Air Force at that time. Someone said, “They can’t do that to us.” And a sergeant quickly said, “They can do anything they want.” That was probably the lowest point of the whole thing, when we found out, hey, maybe we’re not going to fly. However, I was there for just a few weeks and they shipped me out. I scored some of the higher grades in the tests. They took us out of there in order of the grades that you had made. They gave us a number. I didn’t know what the number stood for but they said, “You’re number 61.” I found out that I was the 61st out of 500. So that put me in the top group. Another guy was number 63 and another one was 60. We started comparing notes and figured out that’s what the system was. So they sent us to what they called CTDs. Did Ted tell you about those?
AF: Then I don’t have to repeat. They sent me up to the University of Vermont. Actually it was quite good. They gave us intensive classroom training in a variety of subjects and they tried to make soldiers out of us at the same time. We had a drill sergeant and they put us through all the rigmarole that they do to get you to learn something about the Army. Most of our time was spent in class, and they were good classes. I had physics class. I had an excellent class, taught at the medical school there, in first aid. Mathematics. They wisely, I don’t know if this worked in all CTDs, but I had had courses at UCONN and in high school so they didn’t make me repeat those. They said, well as long as you’re here you might as well be taking something. It wasn’t part of the regular CTD curriculum, so I took physics while I was there. Then they sent us down to classification to Nashville.
SS: When you were at Vermont, were the classes just military?
SS: So you didn’t mingle with the other students?
AF: No. Not during the day time. There was a lot of mingling, mainly with girls at that point. However, they kept us so busy, we really only got out on the weekends. Even then, you had hours that you had to follow. It was a military post. Even though we were in a college setting, we still had to follow rules. They also had a detachment of officers who were undergoing advanced link training at the University at that time. We didn’t mingle with them either. They were separate from us. In Burlington, they also had a big Army post there. When we first got there, I came down with the measles. I ended up in the Army hospital there. Within a couple of days, half of our contingent was over there in the hospital. They all came down with the measles. So they quarantined us for a month. We didn’t get out of the dormitories.
SS: So they were keeping you guys in separate dormitories?
AF: Oh yes.
SS: Were they feeding you all through the Army and whatnot while you were over there?
AF: No. We went through the University chow line. But we didn’t have to pay. They gave us whatever we wanted. These students were given what they give the regular students. If we wanted two bottles of milk, we got two bottles of milk, or three bottles of milk or four bottles of milk. If they said give us double rations, they gave us double, whatever. You got what you wanted. We ate separately from the students. They had a portion of the dining hall set off for us and we ate in shifts. We didn’t eat all at the same time.
SS: Were you treated pretty good or pretty bad by the people who worked there?
AF: Oh yes. They treated us fine. They were thrilled to have us there.
SS: How long did this last then?
AF: A couple of months. From February, end of February I went up there, to May. Again, I was in the middle of another course but they just abruptly started it and stopped it and said they were ready to send so many of us for further training. Again, they did us by the numbers. 61, 62, 63, we went together. Some of he guys were still there. They stayed there for a couple more months. They took a batch of us first and sent us off to Nashville.
SS: Nashville, Tennessee. That was for advanced training?
AF: No. It was the classification center. We thought we were already to go in the flying school at that point. As a matter of fact, one thing I omitted, at University of Vermont, they started us in flying training. I don’t think they did this in every college training detachment, but for whatever reason, they decided to give some of us, and I was one of them, flying training. So we went to the Burlington Airport, and we were instructed by civilian pilots under contract with the Army. So I first learned to fly a plane right there at Burlington.
SS: You actually took on some hands-on pilot training?
AF: Oh yes.
SS: Do you remember what kind of plane you flew?
AF: Yes. A Piper Cub, which was nice to fly. You couldn’t do much acrobatically with it but the one thing that I learned is, it floats and floats and floats forever. It wants to fly. It didn’t want to come down. Getting it to land was a bit of a problem because it wanted to stay up there. You had to cut way back. That’s contrary to the later experiences with the airplanes. At any rate, we went down there and we figured, well, we’re all ready to go to regular flying school now. We’ve had some training here. We can fly airplanes. We went and found out that we had the classification center. What they did there, we thought we had been tested before, but they put us through batteries. It think it lasted three or four days, all kinds of physical things, testing your eyesight, depth perception. They had tests where you had to hold a long metal rod to a circle and if you touched the circle while trying to hold it, it registered a score. The idea was to see how steady your nerves were. I still can do it. That wasn’t all. What they did was the instructor yelled at you all while you’re doing it. Saying, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you do any better than that?” Insulted you and everything else. You were told before that no matter what happens, you just do the test you’re told to do. So you held it right out there. Now some guys blew up. “Who are you calling a ____?”
SS: So you were able to endure through all of that and pass the test?
AF: Yes. I think it was a double test. It was a test not only of your nerves but whether you could absorb a little bit of harassment. That’s what they did. They harassed you all the time. After the first one like that, I knew that’s what they were trying to do so it didn’t bother me. Some of the other tests were depth perception, lining up two objects that were quite some distance away by pulling the wires and you had to see if you could get them. One test I had trouble with, it almost flunked me out, they had this color blindness test where they use these figures with dots, you’ve seen them I’m sure. I couldn’t make them out for beans. They gave it to me twice. I can’t see any numbers in there. They said, “Well, you’re color-blind”. I said, “I’m not color-blind I just can’t read these things.” So I got a compassionate instructor. He said, “Alright, look. Tell me what color this is.” I said, “It’s red.” “Tell me what this is?” He gave me an object. I said, “That’s green.” “What’s this?” “Blue.” “What’s this?” “Yellow.” He said, “OK. You’re not color-blind.” I said, “I just can’t read those damn figures.” And I still can’t make them out. At any rate, that was my only close call. Then they do a psychological evaluation and ask you all kinds of personal questions. They’d get some guys that would blow up. A certain amount of resentment was expected. I never knew how they figured it.
SS: Do you remember the questions they asked you?
AF: They asked questions about your sex life. All kinds of very personal questions which really floored most people. Nobody had ever asked questions like that before. Some guys just shrugged it off. Most gave whatever answer they felt like giving. They didn’t pursue it. I guess they figured that was a normal response. I guess if a guy protested too much they thought maybe he was not normal. We used to debate that. We’d say, what kind of answer do they expect? What do they want? Why are they asking that? Most of us thought they wanted to see how you would react.
SS: How about yourself? How did you wind up handling the questions?
AF: I was a very innocent boy. I didn’t have any. That’s the response most guys had.
SS: You were still only eighteen years old.
AF: I was only eighteen years old and telling the truth. They accepted it. No scrutiny.
SS: So this was about only three or four days to go through this battery of tests?
AF: Yes. Four days and at the end of that they called each of us in individually and had a counseling session. They told me that I had scored above the passing grade for pilot training, for navigation, for bombardier training. My highest score was in navigation. My lowest score was in pilot training. They were still all acceptable scores. They noted that I had said my preference would be for navigation training. I thought my skills were such and I was right. I knew my skills would be good for that. They said, “However, at the present time we’re all filled up in navigation school but we really need some pilots. Would you like to consider being a pilot?” I said, “OK.” So they sent me for pilot training.
SS: During this period, were you following the events of the war still?
AF: Yes. I would say in recollection that probably somewhat less aware of it, at this point. Just a general, overall, not a detailed knowledge of what’s going on because we were so busy with out testing and our training. When we had been up at the University of Vermont, the invasion of North Africa took place, so we were following that. When we were down in Nashville, I think that was about the time things were pretty well winding up in North Africa, kind of a lull anyway, in the speculation of what was going to happen next. What was the Army going to do next? At this point, the Air Force was not doing an awful lot in Europe, or in Asia for that matter, in the Pacific they weren’t doing too much. They were kind of building up. We were the people who were going to build it up, basically. We were the crews in training. So that takes us to pilot training, pre-flight training, they give you two months of pre-flight training, ground training. You study meteorology, you study Morse code, aircraft recognition, ship recognition, and so on. It’s very intense. Again, there’s a lot of emphasis on the military protocol and learning how to think militarily.
SS: Was this still in Tennessee?
AF: No. This was in Maxwell Field, Alabama, which is still the sight of the Air University. As an archivist, that’s the Mecca. You want to find records about the Air Force, that’s where you’ll find them. Has anyone told you that before?
SS: Yes. I’ve heard of a couple of people who have been there and knew of the record keeping and whatnot.
AF: After two months there, then they sent us to various airfields for primary training. I was sent to Camden, Arkansas, a little town in Arkansas. Well, by Arkansas standards, maybe it’s not so small. It was a county seat and it was about 10,000 person population. Compared to the other towns around there, that was a pretty good size. The airfield had probably about less than two hundred students there. For these primary training fields, the classes were kept small. Maybe less than that. Maybe 150 would be more like it. The training was operated by civilians under contract to the US Army. Now all the flying instruction was given by civilian pilots, but the military ran the field. So we had kind of a dual leadership. But the military was on top. The commanding officer was a major from this group. There were several military officers assigned to the small base, probably only about five or six officers, but there were a lot of civilian personnel, including ground crews, who were civilian, including women, they had women who worked on ground crew.
AF: That was a pretty nice place, only a few miles from town. The people were very welcoming to us. I was there for two months and had finished my last check ride when I went out to do some flying on my own, some solo flying. I had an accident. I cracked up the plane. I didn’t get hurt and didn’t do much damage to the airplane. They gave me a second check ride and they washed me out.
SS: What happened in the accident?
AF: I was making a cross-wind landing and the wind caught the wing and it flipped me upside down. I landed upside down.
SS: What kind of plane were you in?
AF: A Steersman PT-17 bi-plane.
SS: Did it have a closed cockpit or was it open?
AF: Open cockpit.
SS: Open cockpit and you flipped upside down and you didn’t get hurt?
AF: I didn’t get hurt. So they gave me a check ride and I think they had already decided to wash me out because nothing I did was right. I was checked out, not by a civilian pilot, by an Army pilot. He found fault with everything that I did. So I got washed out.
SS: How’d that feel, getting washed out after all that work?
AF: It felt kind of low. So I was reassigned to go to navigation school, which was what I asked for in the first place. I didn’t wash out deliberately. That was down in Monroe, Louisiana. As a matter of fact, three of us washed out at the same time and we all went down to Monroe, Louisiana together on a bus. They gave us a trip ticket and they gave us a bus ticket and we got on a bus in Camden, Arkansas and went on our own to Monroe, Louisiana where the navigation school was, at Selman Field.
SS: Did you make any friends or get to know any of the people that worked on the base, say at Arkansas?
AF: Not really, no.
SS: You said the people were friendly, and they treated you well?
AF: Yes, they did. But not any real close friends. I went out with a couple of the girls that worked there a couple times, but that’s about it.
SS: So then you were shipped off to Louisiana.
AF: One of the things that, I don’t know if everyone had the same experience, but we were shipped around quite a lot, so you made just a few friends and you tended not to make really close friends unless the people went along with you. In some kinds of units, you always ended up with the same people. Russ was, for instance, with the same people for two years. We kept going to different places and when the class graduated from primary training, they didn’t all go to the same base. They didn’t all go to the next place. So you lost track of people very close to you. One guy I first met at Maxwell Field, I didn’t run into him again until we were in Italy on the same base over there. You tended to enjoy people’s company when you were with them but I don’t think you made as close friendships as you would in the ground crew, for instance. The ground crew worked together for two or three years. The flying crews were always on the go. That was my feeling. I don’t know, maybe others wouldn’t agree with that.
SS: Were you keeping in contact with your parents at the time?
AF: Oh yes. Absolutely.
SS: Did you write a lot of letters?
AF: Oh yes. I wrote at least a couple times a week. I got letters from them. I wrote to a couple of the guys that I had known in high school. By this time, most of them were in the service so I got some interesting letters from all over. I wrote to some of the girls I knew in high school and I got letters from them. At that age, I didn’t have any serious attachments to anybody. Probably it was just as well.
SS: What was Monroe, Louisiana like?
AF: I got a call from a guy that was in my class down there in Monroe, Louisiana a couple of years ago. He tracked me down and said would I like to join the Selman Field Alumni Association. I said, “Yes, maybe I would.” He said they were having a convention down there for everyone that wants to belong. He asked if I would I like to go down. I said, “No. I wouldn’t want to go there anymore if I could help it.” It was one of the most miserable places I’ve ever been in. The main reason is because of the climate. That sticky Louisiana climate is terrible. I know I couldn’t survive it today. I barely survived it, I think, back then. It was a dreary town as far, as I was concerned. Monroe, Louisiana was a terrible town. There were just too many of us around there. Alexandria, which was not too far from there, had, I think 50,000 infantry down there. Selman Field had at least three or four thousand cadets there. You couldn’t walk down the streets without bumping into military, every other foot. That’s so overkill. The training was good. The training was excellent. I had a lot of funny things happen there in training. For navigation training they had Beechcraft twin-engine airplanes that were used as small private transports in civilian life. They could carry between five and seven people, including the pilot and the co-pilot, if they had a co-pilot. It carried three students, each of which had a work station. Each of whom was supposed to be doing navigation. One of these students was assigned the lead for that particular training mission. He was supposed to give the directions to the pilot and the rest of us were supposed to just follow. He’d say, fly 90 degrees and we’d keep track of where we were. But we weren’t supposed to give corrections to the pilot. That was supposed to be up to the lead navigator. The one training mission, I recall, we were supposed to be going into from Monroe, Louisiana, way up to Indianapolis, which is almost due north, as I recollect. It’s more or less due north. It’s a long mission too for the students. We got about halfway up there and the guy who was doing the lead navigating wasn’t paying attention to his compass. So we weren’t supposed to be correcting him but it got so bad, I sent up a note to him. I said, “You’re way off course, you’re way off.” He said, “I told him to fly 360”. I said, “Yes, but have you noticed? You told him but he isn’t flying it.” What happened was, the pilot put it on automatic and he went to sleep. The navigation instructor that was supposed to be flying with us, he went to sleep in the co-pilot’s chair. The gyroscope wasn’t working properly and it was precessing. That is, it was swinging. So it wasn’t holding course. He set it right but it wasn’t holding. At the time I told him, we were flying 45 degrees off from due north, which is quite a bit. I told him, the problem is, “you’ve got to go up there and wake them up.” But he wouldn’t do it. He was afraid to, or whatever, I don’t know. At this point, the other student became somewhat alarmed. He said, “Do you know where we are?” I said, “Yes, I know where we are but the pilot doesn’t know where we are and the instructor doesn’t know where we are and the lead guy don’t know where we are.” “What should we do?” I said, “It’s getting ridiculous.” At this point we were a hundred miles from where we should be, at least a hundred miles off course. I said, “We’d better wake up the pilot.” So I went up there and I woke him up. He looked up and, “Oh, where the hell are we?” He said, “This don’t look like where we’re supposed to be.” I says, “It’s not sir.” He said, “Where are we?” And I showed him on the map. He says, “Give me a quick course correction.” And I did. So, they washed that guy out. Afterwards, I said, “Gee we told you half a dozen times you were off course there and we got scared that we were going to run out of gas. Nobody would know where we are.” That gives you an indication of what we did. We’d fly up in the daytime. All morning we would have intensive ground classes and all kinds of stuff. How to fly an interception. How to navigate in unusual conditions. They would give us instruction in navigating by celestial observation. All the theory we’d get in the daytime. Then in the afternoon, we’d fly and put it to use. After we got to be able to do some celestial navigation, we were flying up to some places in the daytime and then we were supposed to fly back at night using just the stars to get you back there.
SS: So how long did this training go on for?
AF: The training went on about five or six months.
SS: Wow, that long?
AF: Well, you could use even more because it takes a long time to make a good navigator. You think you’re ready and it’s different. When people start shooting at you, it’s a little different too. Billy Mitchell is often said to have proved the effectiveness of air power. He was resisted by the admirals and the Army. That’s only partially true because what Billy Mitchell did was fly in on ships that were dead in the water at 10,000 feet and nobody shooting at him and he bombed them. That isn’t the way it worked. The admirals, in my opinion, were correct. It was very, very difficult to hit a ground target when people were shooting at you and when airplanes are coming at you. So, it wasn’t a fair test.
SS: Did you guys do the same planes all the time or were you gradually moving up into bombers or bigger planes?
AF: Let me interrupt there and go back again. When we went down to Monroe Field initially, I forgot to say that we were sent down to Buckingham Field in Florida. (End of side one)
SS: Getting a lot of detail really helps to understand exactly what was going on. Like you just said, you were saying that you did do some work on B-17s from down in Florida.
AF: Yes. We went to Florida for gunnery training. The navigators and bombardiers and, of course, the gunners themselves. Everyone had a dual job on the B-17, with a few exceptions. There was the radioman, his specialty, of course, was the radio. Bombardier’s specialty was bombing and mine was navigation. The engineer also served as a gunner. The waist gunners, that was pretty much their responsibility. Although, they were supposed to be armorers as well, which meant they were in charge of taking care of the guns. I think the only guy that really didn’t have a double duty was the tail gunner. He was stuck back there and he didn’t have another job. We were sent down there for aerial gunnery training before we actually started the formal navigation training. Down there we flew in B-17s. We flew every position as a gunner. We had ground instruction, again, in guns. One of things on the first day we were down there, they always start out very simple, this is a .50 caliber machine gun. Everyone says, yes, right. We know that. Then the instructor proceeded to tell you the name of every part of it. He says, “By the way, you’re going to have to be able to tell me the names of all these parts. Furthermore, you’re going to take this apart in detail.” Now detail means every single little tiny spring and cam. There were over two hundred parts in a .50 caliber machine gun. He said, “You’re going to be able to take them all apart, name them, put it back together, blindfolded.” I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He wasn’t kidding. You had to know the parts so intimately that you could pick them up blindfolded, know what it was, what it did and what its function was. They would slip a busted one in, once in a while, and you’d have to say, “wait a minute, I can’t use this one. This one is broken.”
SS: And you’d have to be able to do that blindfolded?
AF: Blindfolded. You had to be able to field strip. That means to take the major parts, which are about eight or nine, to be able to take the barrel apart to make repairs, blindfolded with gloves on. Again, we didn’t believe that but we all did it. They had all kinds of ranges to sharpen you. One of which was pretty interesting. They had clay pigeons that came out. You went around a track. Did anyone tell you about that?
AF: They had about a half mile track and they had a truck. About three or four of us at a time went on the back of the truck. They drove around this track and as you went around, it tripped steel wires which were laid across the road, which in turn activated clay pigeons which came flying at you from every which angle. You were supposed to be shooting them down. So I got pretty good, 22 out of 25.
SS: What were you shooting at them with? A .50 caliber machine gun?
AF: No, with shotguns. The idea was to teach you how to track and to lead. That was the object. Then they had mounted shotguns with clay pigeons coming at you and you did that. Then, of course, you got into the .50 calibers themselves, first on a stationary range. Then they put up moving targets on the range and you fired at them with it. Then they took you up in the air in a B-17 and they had single engine airplanes pulling a tow target that you had to shoot at. That was a dangerous assignment for the fighter pilots. Some guys got a little carried away.
SS: I can imagine.
AF: One guy came back with some bullet holes in his plane. What they did, they used to coat the bullets with a different color paint so they could tell who hit the target and who didn’t. So, this position would have black paint on it, this one would have red paint. Some would have blue paint, yellow paint, and then they’d count the holes in the target later on and see who was effective and who wasn’t. Then, after a couple months of that, we went back to..
SS: Back to Louisiana?
AF: Yes. I had a close call in gunnery training because we were assigned by flights, what they called flights. I was assigned to a certain flight and we were just getting on a B-17. I was the last one getting on and an officer came over to me and said, “Son, we need another gunner on this other plane over here.” So he said, “I want you to fill in over here.” I said, “O.K. sir.” So I went over there. Five minutes later, ten minutes later, the B-17 I was supposed to be on was in the bottom of the Gulf. It’d had a mid-air collision with a fighter plane. All of them were killed, everybody. As a member of the flight, me and another guy, he was not on the flight but he knew the crew, we had the grisly job of going up and identifying the bodies as they pulled them out. We were there when they actually pulled them out from the Gulf. So that was a traumatic experience.
SS: Yes, it sounds like it would be pretty tough. Were these people that you knew too?
AF: Oh yes. The Army usually did everything alphabetically. If you were in a barracks, Farrell Fischer, Frechette, all in a row, then the G’s, then the H’s. They had us sleeping that way, that’s the way they assigned us to flights when we were in training, by alphabet, by the numbers or by the alphabet, one or the other. All these guys were very close to me, so we had a military funeral for them all. I was a pallbearer. It was a very sad time, very sad.
SS: How’d that make you feel as far as your own training and realizing what you were going through at the time?
AF: Strangely enough, it made me sad there but I don’t think it had any affect whatsoever on my training. I think that it was of the things that went along with it. There always were training accidents and there always will be. Military flying is inherently dangerous. You’re not just flying along nice and easy, you’re doing something. In this case, the fighter pilot was trying to make a pass at the B-17, simulate a pass, to make it more realistic. He made it a little too realistic, unfortunately. He came in a little farther than he intended and there was a collision. But that’s the name of the game. After navigation training, we went to Dyersburg, Tennessee where we received combat crew training. Did Ted tell you about that?
SS: Yes. So, at that point, you were assigned as a crew?
AF: Yes, after graduation. I was commissioned as an officer, graduating and getting my wings as a navigator; I was ready for the next step, which was to be assigned to an actual combat crew. We were formed up into crews. We all came together for the first time, the pilots, the bombardier, the gunners, were assigned to a crew and I was the navigator, and we trained together. We trained coordinating our efforts. Before, we were doing them in isolation. This took a couple of months, combat crew training. At that point, all the combat crews that completed the course in Tennessee, did I mention this was in Tennessee? Dyersburg, Tennessee. We were sent out to Lincoln, Nebraska where we were assigned an airplane, a brand new B17G. We spent about a week checking that plane out. It just came from the factory, brand new, sparkling new. We had to calibrate all of the instruments. Most of the work had to be done by myself and the pilots. There wasn’t too much for the some crewmembers to do except to help us. We asked them to watch for checkpoints and things like that. We had to fly courses to calibrate the airspeed meter. We had to calibrate the compass by flying a known course and watching the deviation on it, all kinds of things like that, checking the engines. The engineer helped do that. Believe me, once you get your plane assigned, you really do check everything. Then we were given sealed orders and we were going to fly the plane to wherever, setting out to Lincoln. We flew individually but sort of after each other. There were about a dozen of us, a dozen crews that took off the same day at intervals. We were following each other at intervals. We weren’t flying in formation. We embarked, but we didn’t know where we were going. We were given sealed orders, not to be opened until we left the continental United States. So, all we knew was what our first destination was, which was supposed to be in New Hampshire, but because of the weather, we landed in Syracuse. Then we flew up to Maine, Bangor. We came on a port of aerial demarkation. There we were given more orders, pardon me, this is where we got the sealed orders where we go next, and they told us to fly to Newfoundland. We still didn’t know where we were going until we were in Newfoundland and we found out we were going to Italy. We thought, at that point, we were going to England, but we were going to Italy. So, we had to fly from Newfoundland, to the Azores, to North Africa, North Africa to Italy. It took us a week or so to do that because we landed at several places. Again, we had to check the engines, brand new engines, so we checked them out.
SS: How’d you guys get along as a crew?
AF: Very well. We got along very well.
SS: Did everybody work together well?
AF: Yes, we did. We left behind the co-pilot in the States. The original co-pilot was in the states because he burst an eardrum just before we went over. On a training mission, a high altitude mission, he burst it. So he was grounded. We picked up another guy, just before we were going over. So he was kind of a stranger to us. The bombardier, we’d lost about halfway through the combat training course. Apparently, either the pilot or the bombardier instructor was not satisfied with his performance. They didn’t think he was up to it. He didn’t have very good success in bombing. To practice bombing, we used to fly a mission and there’d be fields nearby with targets that we’re supposed to bomb. We used to use a hundred pound dummy bombs with powder. They’d just make a big noise and mark so you could see where it hit, but they didn’t have any capacity to do serious damage, well, it would kill you if it hit you in the head.
SS: Sure, with one hundred pounds of flower.
AF: We did have a few problems with some of the crews dropping those practice bombs on some of the shacks that were around there, some of the poor black people had shacks, nobody else had them. A couple of times some bombs went through there. Fortunately, nobody got killed.
SS: So by the time you were getting your orders, you had your complete crew?
AF: By that time, we had a complete crew and were working, pretty much, as a unit.
SS: Did it upset things much when you lost people like that?
AF: Not too much. I think that I was sorry to lose our co-pilot because I used to pal around with him. But, I think it worked out very well. That’s what you get used to. You get used to those things occurring.
SS: Did you guys name your plane?
AF: No, we didn’t. We were going to but, that’s another thing, we were laboring under the very naïve assumption that that was our plane now. We landed in Gioia, Italy and we found out that they were going to take it away from us. That became a general assignment to the Air Force and we didn’t have any plane. They just took it away. They sent us to our airfield. We had to bum a ride to get up there. We had no plane. We found out that, hey, they weren’t going to give a brand new airplane to a rookie crew. Those are valuable things. They assigned us to fly in some of the older airplanes.
SS: How’d the crew feel about getting orders to go overseas?
AF: We were expecting it; we were expecting it. We had one guy who decided he was going to go home before we went overseas. He didn’t have leave to do it, but he took it anyway. Somehow, we covered up for him. He said he had trouble with his wife and he wanted to go home and straighten out the mess. Nobody could’ve kept him unless you put him in jail, that’s about all. So he went home. I asked him when he got back, I asked him, “Did you settle your problem?” He said, “Yes.” That was all he told us about it. I don’t know how he settled it. He never said what he did. At any rate, he was killed on our first mission.
SS: How soon was it before you had that first mission?
AF: Very soon. We were only there maybe a week, less than a week.
SS: What was the base that you got sent to?
AF: It was Foggia, which was the center of the air activity in Italy. It’s in near the spur of Italy, about twenty miles inland from the spur. Most of the airfields of the 15th Air Force were located within twenty miles of Foggia. That was one of the few extensive flat places in southern Italy, it’s mostly very mountainous.
SS: So you were in the 15th Air Force. Do you remember the bomb squad and group name?
AF: Oh yes. I’ll never forget those things, 301st bomb group, the 419th squadron.
SS: The 419th?
AF: Right. B-17s.
SS: What year was this now?
AF: This was ’44. I first flew missions in November, 1944. So, you can see that they had a lot of time invested in us before we got there. Pilot, bombing and navigation training takes a long while.
SS: Again, by November, ’44, now, had you guys been following some of the events that had gone on in Europe?
AF: Oh yes. At this point, it appeared that we were winning. It looked like it was only a matter of time before we would win. But the air war was still going on full force. The Russians were advancing. They had captured territory that the Germans had taken. They were in Hungary, the easternmost part of Hungary, at that point. This was a time when the ground war had sort of slowed down in Europe. Initially, we were advancing so fast, it looked like the war would be over by Christmas. But then we got bogged down there, so things were kind of at a standstill. The same in Italy, where the 5th US Army was bogged down in Italy also. They had been in the same place for a couple of months. All that was going on was that they were having ground patrols and they would come back and they would go on another patrol. There was a war of attrition going on but there was no advancement. There were no substantial changes going on. It was a costly war because we just kept dribbling away men. Yes, we were aware because one thing that they did is, every day, we had a briefing, a briefing on where our Armies were and what had happened in the air, and so on, all over the world. They had an officer that was charged with preparing that information and giving it to us. The whole crew got that at our briefing sessions. Before we were briefed for the specific mission, we were given an overview of what was happening. I thought they did an excellent job of keeping us informed of what was going on.
SS: Were you confident of the leadership and the direction of the war at that time?
AF: Oh yes, yes.
SS: Once you got to this base, did you guys establish a rapport with the ground crews that were working on your planes and whatnot?
AF: I can’t speak for others, it’s not that they didn’t establish a rapport, they just didn’t see them that much. We bumped into them in the chow line, occasionally, but they worked at strange hours. They worked all night, sometimes, on the airplanes. We didn’t see them as much. We didn’t have much to do with them. As a matter of fact, you didn’t have a lot of interaction with people that were not immediately connected with you. That was my experience. We lived in tents. We didn’t have barracks. There were four guys assigned to a tent. They put the officers together in the same tent and enlisted men with each other. The only place where we could see everybody was either in the chow line, which was not too conducive to having extensive conversations, they want to move you through there, or at the briefing sessions. There weren’t any other buildings. They had only three or four buildings. They had the hanger for the airplanes, they had the briefing room, they had a room for the parachutes and other equipment. They had a small office for the squadron headquarters, for the major who was the commanding officer of the squadron, the operations officer and the adjutant and a clerk. That’s about it. We had corrugated sheet metal on one of the Quonset huts where the showers were. We had outdoor toilets. We had the one-holers, wooden toilets and no running water. The running water was in the bathroom and if you wanted to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, nobody was going to go out to the one-holers. So you can imagine how the place was around there. It was muddy as hell.
SS: Wintertime. It must’ve been cold.
AF: It was cold. We used to warm ourselves with hundred octane gasoline. I think you were at the meeting when one of the other guys described that. That’s exactly what we had. The only difference between what he told you and what I’m telling you was that we had at least one tent per week going up in flames.
SS: Oh really?
AF: You’d see guys running around in their underwear trying to put out a fire at least once a week, not every single morning. You’d see them out there running around. Let’s see, there goes another tent.
SS: You said it was only about a week before you went on your first mission then. What was that particular day like? Do you remember?
AF: Well, let me explain what they did. They did not fly us as a crew on the first mission. They took individual members and put them in with other crews to break them in. So, I flew as a navigator on a more experienced crew. The pilot flew as a co-pilot on a more experienced crew, and so on right down the line. The gunners, they took them individually and mixed them in with other crews. So, the very first mission that one of our gunners went on, he went on one the day before I went on, he was lost. His crew had a bailout over the Adriatic because of damage to the aircraft. It was leaking gasoline and later blew up. He bailed out alright but he drowned in the Adriatic when he got tangled up in his chute in the water. So did several other guys. They had training in how to survive when you’re afloat in the water, how to get rid of your parachute so you don’t get tangled up in it. You were supposed to be able to keep afloat in the water at least an hour, even if you lost your Mae West. They tell you how you kept your air bubbles underneath there. We all had to do that but some guys missed that training.
SS: Was that tough on you and the rest of the crew?
AF: Yes. We had a session after that and we had a survivor of that come in and talk to all the crews again and tell them what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. This guy got out and he told what he did. He said you’re supposed to release the chute shortly before you hit the water and let it blow away. The catch is, you can’t always judge how high you are above the water. It’s very difficult indeed. You can’t tell if you’re ten feet or a hundred feet sometimes, especially if the water is still. He said that what saved him is, he carried a knife with him all the time. He said, “I got a little tangled up and I took the knife and I cut the chute away. I cut the straps away and cut my way through it. So I have to ask everybody on our crews to carry a knife.”
SS: How did it affect the crew once you guys had to replace somebody that you had lost?
AF: I think it affected the gunners more than it did us, because at this point you get a little hardened. By this time, you’re not happy it happened but you realize it could happen at anytime to anybody and what are you going to do about it? You want to know about my first mission? I think it was my first mission that I couldn’t see the ground for the last hour that we were over the target area. I didn’t know exactly where we were.
SS: Was this with your regular crew?
AF: No. This was with another. I was navigating strictly by dead reckoning at this point because I never could see the ground. We never saw the ground to bomb it. We bombed the ground but we don’t know what we bombed. At this point in the war, they didn’t have radar in every ship. They had one ship in the formation that had radar, so we bombed by radar. We had to go by whatever they told us. I was going by just dead reckoning. Just by mathematics, where we were. I was close but I couldn’t say if we were over the target or not. Nobody could say and we weren’t, it turned out, afterwards. We bombed some fields. We did some spring plowing, that’s what we did. We were in a snowstorm and my reaction to that first one was it scared the hell out of me because we couldn’t see the airplane next to us. We barely could see the planes next to us. We were flying wingtip to wingtip and every once in a while you could catch a glimpse of the other wingtips. As it was snowing, then we got a burst of flak that made a hole in our front Plexiglas so the cold and the snow were coming inside. A piece of flak went bouncing around and bounced off my armor. So that taught me to wear that. It was not a very satisfactory mission from the standpoint of being able to really know what the heck you were doing. We survived it. That’s about the best I can say.
SS: Seems like a very scary first flight, first mission, at least. Was that your training mission, the one that you’re talking about? When you went in with a more experienced crew?
AF: No. It was a regular mission. I got credit for the mission. I was the navigator for it. I was able to navigate us back home without any problem but trying to find a specific target over Europe is not that easy. You want to be within a couple hundred yards of your target for it to do any good. You’ve got to be right close. If you’re a couple of miles off, that’s good enough to know where you are but not good enough to hit targets. It was a very difficult thing. If anybody hit the target that day, it would be just by chance because we didn’t have a good reading on it. If you’re just a few seconds off on your timing, you’re going to miss the target.
AF: Well, the other ones, I’m sure that the other guys can tell you about the same thing. We fortunately, we survived. We flew some together as a crew after that and some we didn’t. The day I got shot down, I was flying as a navigator where the crew was flying their fiftieth and last mission. Their regular navigator was on rest leave for some reason. He was on sick leave or rest leave and so I filled in for him. We were shot down on our way to Innsbruck. We were shot down my mobile anti-aircraft. We didn’t even know they were there. We flew right over a mountain peak and someone said, “Flak, 9 o’clock!” The next shot in was dead on in the bomb bay.
SS: Do you remember what it was like at that minute inside the plane?
AF: Things were going along well. We were going well. I knew that we had a good reading on where we were, I knew precisely where we were. The plane was functioning fine. We were in good formation. We were flying either number two or number three in the group. So we were getting near the target but we were not over it yet. We were probably maybe twenty minutes or maybe thirty minutes from the target, something like that, I’d have to recompute it. No, it was just right out of the blue. This anti-aircraft battery, which was mobile, meaning they moved it from place to place, opened up on us and just got us good. They only knocked one plane down from the formation, but we were the ones.
SS: Where’d the plane get hit?
AF: It got hit right in the bomb bay. We heard just a sort of like a puff. Not a very loud one. Just like a “poof,” like that. I looked back there and I could see the bomb bay was on fire. So I went back to take a look and see what one. It looked like it was burning pretty good to me. At that point, the pilot was saying, “Get rid of the bombs! Get rid of the bombs!” They were armed, meaning that they would go off if anything occurred. So I went back to take a look and they were stuck. The bombardier couldn’t get them to go. So I gave a kick and they wouldn’t go. I didn’t know what good it would do but I thought I would try it. Then the bombardier tried to pass me a fire extinguisher. I was reaching for it when the plane suddenly turned over on its side and started going into a spin. Then I was plastered to the side of the fuselage. I couldn’t move. The force was just keeping me from moving away. Then I heard, or maybe felt would be a better description, I don’t know how much time passed. In a situation like that, it’s impossible to tell how much time had passed. It could’ve been seconds, it could’ve been a minute. Time was funny. Time was strange. I don’t know how long but I felt this compression in my stomach. This impact on my stomach and I knew the plane had blown up. The next thing I knew, I was hurtling towards the ground. It was going on very fast so I reached for my parachute ripcord At that point, I struck the ground. I rolled down a hill, rolled down the mountain. We were up in the Alps, and I came to rest face down in the snow. I thought I was dead. Again, I don’t know how long it was, it could’ve been a second, it could’ve been a minute, it could’ve been five minutes. I felt cold and I realized I was lying in the snow and I wasn’t dead. I said, “Gee, I must’ve pulled that rip cord before I hit.” And I looked up there and there’s my hand still like this on the ripcord and the parachute hadn’t opened. People always ask, “How far did you fall?” I have no idea. I thought I knew initially. The reports, when they interviewed me after the war, they said, 20,000 feet, 18,000 feet. The fact is, that’s what I thought at the time. I have no idea how far the fall was, how long I was in the airplane. I was relying on what others had told me what had happened.
SS: And you were blown out of the airplane?
AF: I was blown out of the airplane. So I have no idea. Nobody really knows. The eye witnesses have been so diverse that I gave up trying to answer that question. I said frankly, I don’t care. Fifty feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, 20,000 feet, the result is, I got blown out and I was mighty, mighty, mighty lucky to survive it.
SS: That’s amazing.
AF: The pilot was blown out also. He knows he didn’t bail out. Fortunately, he had his chest pack on and he realized he was, and he suddenly found himself falling too. He recovered consciousness soon enough to pull his chute. The co-pilot was blown out without his chute. He saw a chute floating through the air and he reached out and grabbed it and hooked it on. He came down safely. The tail gunner didn’t wait for the alarm to sound to bail out. He bailed out as soon as the plane got hit, which shows he was smarter than the rest of us. The bombardier also was blown out with his pack on. He was able to pull it. He got out safely. One of the waist gunners got out, was able to bail out. He was able to bail out after the order had been given to bail out. Two of them made a normal exit from the airplane. We were all captured and taken together to a little hut, which was where the flak battery was stationed. We were actually taken in by the people who were manning the flak battery. We stayed there overnight. Charlie Lyon, who was the gunner who bailed out, I correct myself, he was not in there. He was not taken in. He landed in a tree and he was stuck up there for hours and hours. Finally, a German farmer came along, actually he was Austrian, we were in northern Italy but the people were Austrian. He was rescued and taken to the man’s farmhouse. He thought, maybe he’s going to let me go. He took out his emergency pack chocolate and gave it to the kids. They gave him supper. They put him to bed in a feather bed. He was going to ask them, he didn’t speak any German, but he was going to ask them in the morning, how do you get to Switzerland? We weren’t too far from Switzerland, actually. However, the farmer did his duty and he called the Luftwaffe and they came and got him the next morning. They came and took him with them.
SS: So you guys all, then, were being held by the Germans?
SS: That was by the Luftwaffe?
AF: The Luftwaffe actually manned the flak. They worked differently than our Air Force. They ran the whole shebang, the ground and air. We were taken prisoners of war and we were sent to Army hospitals, different hospitals, run by the Germans. But we were separated. I didn’t see these guys again until after the war, well after the war, many, many years, like forty years after.
SS: Now what about yourself? You said you were going to the hospital. Did you have injuries from the fall?
AF: The most serious injury was to my arm. I had a wound in the arm and I smashed my elbow. I landed right on it. That was the most damage I had. I couldn’t walk. (End of tape) They put a cast on it and it extended from here all the way on my upper torso. I had a piece of wood holding it fixed like this so I couldn’t move it. I broke the knee cap in the right leg. I did serious damage to my leg, which I hurt the left-leg ligaments. I couldn’t walk because of that. So, I had casts on both legs and I had the torso cast here. So I was flat on my back. All I could do was move up a little bit. That was pretty hard. I woke up in the hospital. It was two days before I got to the hospital. They took us by degrees, by overnight. We didn’t travel during the daytime because of the fear that they would get attacked by the US Air Force. I got there on New Year’s Eve. I was shot down on the 29th of December and arrived at the hospital on New Year’s Eve. I was shot down on the 29th of December, arrived at the hospital in Merano, which is in northern Italy, in the south Tirol on the 31st of December, 1944. I was taken into surgery and they operated on me. I woke up with all these casts on me, lying flat on my back in a ward. I can hear this singing and loud talking. It sounded like people were drunk. I didn’t realize at first that it was New Year’s Eve. The German officers had been having a party, a New Year’s party, and they came into all the wards wishing everybody a happy new year. With them were their girlfriends or their wives, or whatever, all dressed in evening gowns. They came over to me and they wanted to shake my hand. The only hand I could offer was this so…
SS: How did it feel to…
AF: Well, it was kind of interesting. I told them right away, I said, “I’m an Americaner.”
SS: Did any of them speak English?
AF: No. No, they didn’t speak any. And I didn’t speak any German. I knew a couple of words. I said, “Americaner.” One of the women came over and she said, “How do you do?” So I said, “Oh you speak English.” That turned out to be the only thing that she could say. They seemed to be happy, anyway. They didn’t seem to be mad at me or anything. They said, “Froelich New Year!” and I said, “Froelich New Year!” It was kind of a funny thing. The next day, the German soldiers all had visitors, on the holiday, people were coming in. There was the cutest little girl that came in carrying apples. She gave apples to all of the soldiers. She came over to me and I said, “I’m Americaner.” She got me to understand it was ok so she gave me a big apple and wiped it off for me. So with this hand here, I’m eating the apple. She was a really cute, pretty little girl.
SS: So how was the rest of your treatment?
AF: In the hospital it was good. They treated me the same as anybody else there. The nurses were good to me. I didn’t complain about anything. I thought they could’ve taken a little better care of my personal needs but I didn’t have any idea what the standard of care was, so I didn’t complain. They fed me. I was able to feed myself but I couldn’t cut up anything. They gave me the same food, exactly, that they were giving the German soldiers. Then after a couple of days in there, the head doctor there, a very nice guy, he came. He could speak some English, not great, but he could speak enough to be understood. He said, “I’m going to put you in with your comrades, some comrades.” I thought maybe they were some members of my crew but they weren’t. They were some other guys that got shot down. That was good to be put in the room with two other Americans. That was a big boost to my morale right there.
SS: Did you ever think that you’d make it back and make it out of there?
AF: Oh yes. My reaction was, I neglected to tell you, the other thing that bothered me very much was the fact that when I landed in the snow, it was real cold there, it’s very cold up there in the Alps. My shoes blew off and my gloves came off. My hands were frostbitten and so were my feet. I was afraid I was going to lose my feet. My hands started to come back in a couple of hours in the hut but not my feet. I couldn’t feel a thing in them. They were just stone cold. So when I was in the flak hut, they rigged up a heating pad to put over my feet to try to thaw them out. But I couldn’t feel anything until the next night. The next night when they started to thaw out, I was both happy and unhappy. I was happy because I knew that that was a good sign that feeling was coming back in them. But they hurt like hell. They really hurt, thawing out. They hurt and they hurt and they hurt. I didn’t have any medication. They didn’t give me any medication to ease the pain or anything. You just had to tough it out and that was it. After surviving the crash, I said to myself, the good Lord didn’t save me this far and let me die now. So I’m going to make it. That was my attitude from the first instant I got in there. I thought, I’m not going to die from any injuries. I didn’t know how bad they were. I didn’t know if I had internal injuries or not. I didn’t think I did but I didn’t know. I said now, the Lord is not going to let me die now. You saved me from it initially so it would be a wasted effort now. So, no, I never ever had a moment of doubt that I would survive it.
SS: Where’d you get sent once all your medical treatment was done?
AF: They sent me to Stalag 18A, which was located in eastern Austria, near the Yugoslav border. This was a very small camp, compared to most of them. There were only about thirty-five Americans in it. There were about two hundred British and thousands of Russians. The Russian compound was separate from the Anglo, American, and French. There were some French there too, but these guys had been captured way back in 1940. They’d been prisoners for four years. There were a few British that had been captured on Crete, that took place way back in 1940. I couldn’t stand it for four years. At any rate, the Americans and the British that were there were convalescing. All had been injured or wounded in some way and they were all not a hundred percent. We weren’t getting active medical care, with a few exceptions, there were some guys that should not have been there at all, they should’ve been in the hospital. We had one guy that died from his injuries, one American died. He had wounds that weren’t healing up and they didn’t have penicillin at that time. We did, in limited quantities, but the Germans did not. In fact, they gave us sulfa drugs, that was their anti-biotic, the best they could do. That’s what they gave me for my wound. So all the Americans there had been, one way or another, incapacitated. In fact, I’ll show you, a sad looking bunch. I think I’ve got it. Yes, here it is. That’s the Americans. Not all of them are there but most of them are. That was taken by an AP photographer after we had been liberated. You probably won’t be able to pick me out because I’m in the back row.
SS: I was looking for a cast on the arm.
AF: At this point, I had the cast off. This is me here. We’re dressed in all kinds of ragtag uniforms because the Germans did not give us clothing. We depended on the Red Cross. The British Red Cross was the one that supplied us. So most of us are wearing British uniforms or parts of British uniforms. All these guys are American here. This is a British cap. Some of these guys, you can see, are worse off than others, lost legs and arms. This guy I was friendly with there and after he got out. He died a few years ago.
SS: What were the conditions like in the camp?
AF: It was certainly a lot different than the hospital. The food was very poor and very little of it. What they gave us was about this much bread per man per day. Black bread, Schwartz Brot. It was alright, it filled you up. They gave you something that looked like jelly but people said it was ersatz (fake). It wasn’t made of any recognizable fruit that you could identify. They gave you that plus a bowl of cabbage soup. That was it for the day. The calories, I would estimate not more than two or three hundred. You can’t live on that. Fortunately, we got Red Cross parcels. There were periods of time when we didn’t get them, when they were interrupted, the Germans said, because the trains weren’t running too well at that point. The Germans were good about, in this camp at least, about protecting the parcels. They didn’t steal them or give them away to others. We had the Red Cross parcels. That’s mainly what kept us alive. We had a can of tuna fish, a can of cheese, like Cheez Whiz, in a can, a can of Spam. You had to have Spam, we treasured that. What else did we have? We had coffee, a jar of dehydrated coffee. Other items I can’t think of but those are the principle ones. What we did was we formed up combines, or messes, five or six of us would get together and we’d share. We’d share so that we could make a decent meal. You don’t want to eat the whole can of Spam all at once, by yourself, it’d make you sick. So what we did was, we’d use a can of Spam to serve six people at a time. That would serve six people. We were allowed to use the kitchen to prepare our food. They let us use that, thank goodness. We also were able to steal some potatoes and to buy some potatoes on the black market. We had civilians working in there and we used to get them to smuggle stuff in. I don’t think the German guards were too careful at this point about searching to see if they brought it in because we could bribe almost any one of the guards ourselves, as long as it wasn’t for anything too serious. We bribed them with cigarettes. You got a package of cigarettes in each parcel. I never smoked. Most of us didn’t, even then we didn’t smoke. We’d bribe the guards. We’d get three or four cigarettes and they’d steal some potatoes for us, or steal some more bread. Once in a while, a great while, we had someone who could speak German well. He’d manage to get some eggs for us. Real live eggs from the area. That was unusual to get that. We traded with the British, of course. They had slightly different items in their parcels from the Red Cross than we did. So we used to trade with them too. They had tea in theirs not coffee. If we wanted tea, we traded for tea. They had these lousy British cigarettes that the Germans didn’t want.
SS: They wanted the American cigarettes?
AF: They preferred them, oh yes. When we were shot down, when I was interviewed, still immobile, I was carried into the hut. The major who interviewed us wanted to know all the military information, I said, “I’m sorry sir, I can’t give you that information.” He had them look through my flying suit. We all had escape packs. We had a compass. We had a map. We had fifty bucks American, silver certificates, not federal reserve, silver certificates. We had other stuff. We had chocolate bars and we had cigarettes. Even though I didn’t smoke, they said to take the cigarettes. So I had Lucky Strike. He said, “Oh, Lucky Strike! Thank you very much lieutenant for the gift.”
SS: He took the cigarettes?
AF: So what could I say? “You’re welcome sir.”
SS: How was your treatment in the interviews?
AF: In the prison camp?
SS: In the prison camp. Were you guys beat up or treated badly?
AF: In this prison camp we were not treated badly. We were treated neglectfully. Neglect is the right word. They didn’t actively beat us up or actively persecute us but…I came into camp in the clothes that I got shot down in. They were all ragged and dirty and bloody. They were bloody! I didn’t have shoes that fit me. They gave me a pair of shoes from somebody who had died, I think, and they were about two or three sizes too small. The food was miserable. They didn’t give us the food that the German Army was getting. They were supposed to feed us the same amount of food that, the same ration, that they would give their soldiers. They weren’t doing it. The barracks were unheated. It was a cold winter so they gave us a few bits of coal to last a month. You could burn it all up at once or you could parse it out, which we did. We kept the barracks just above freezing. We had people wandering around with no outer clothes at all. They had just their underwear. They didn’t have any clothes. They could’ve done something about that. So no, they didn’t mistreat us actively, but we were without. That’s the main thing. We were cold and we were without. If you didn’t have clothes, you stayed I the barracks and huddled under the one blanket. They gave you one blanket. That was it. So all of us slept in all of the clothing that we owned, which, in some cases, wasn’t much. One of my friends came in. All he had was a shirt. Well he had his underwear and his shirt but no pants. He didn’t have his flying suit. So I gave him part of my flying suit so he could be warmer. When we flew, we wore underwear, we wore the uniform and then over that we wore an electric flying suit. It was made of nylon. Over that you put your other flying clothes. Fortunately I had those. So I was able to give him something else that he could wear to be a little bit warmer. Then, at one point, the International Red Cross was due to pay us a visit. So the Germans issued clothing to us from the British Red Cross. To be ready for the visit they gave us new bedding. What we slept on was ticking filled with straw, that was it, on boards. After a while, you got used to it. They gave us new bedding with new ticking with the bugs out of it. They issued some clothing. If people needed underwear, they gave them underwear. I got some new underwear. It sounds funny to be talking about how precious this underwear is. My underwear was all ragged and torn from my experience coming down. Plus, when the doctors operated on me, they slit it to get at my legs. Anyway, the worst thing was, there was very little medical care there. The only medical care we got was from our own doctor. We had a British doctor who was a prisoner of war. He took care of us. But he didn’t have anything to work with. He didn’t have any medications. The last few months of the war, after the International Red Cross came in, they ordered that some of the guys there should be transferred to a hospital because they weren’t getting proper care, and they moved them out. They had a terrible experience. They got shot at all the way as they were traveling. That’s a story in itself, these guys. Then, when it got to warm weather, we always had bedbugs in the barracks there. They would come down and night and they would bite us. That sounds like a minor annoyance but it got so bad that we’d try to figure out ways how to get rid of them. We tried putting the legs of the beds in cans of water. The theory being they couldn’t crawl up. But we found out, we learned from very close observation what they were doing. They were crawling way up on the ceiling and dropping down onto the beds. The guys that had the most problems were where the bedbugs were getting into the casts. They were living inside the casts and they were biting them. So when we were liberated by the British 8th Army and taken back to Italy to the hospital, the guys complained that they had bedbugs in their casts. The doctors didn’t believe them. So they opened up one and all these bedbugs ran out and all the nurses are running around screaming in the doctor’s office. They made us take everything that we had and burned it. Everything. I didn’t want to lose my British uniform because it was practically new. Bedbugs you don’t have in the uniform. They were afraid we had lice as well. We didn’t have lice.
SS: What about yourself? Did you still have casts at this time?
AF: No. By the time I got back to Italy, repatriated, I had lost the casts, still limping around but I had lost the casts.
SS: Did they just fall off or did you have to take them off?
AF: No, no. They took them off. I was healed as much as possible. My arm was fixed in its position up here. The German doctor told me that that’s all he could do at that point. He couldn’t do anything more. All I had is chips of bone in there. So he just let it heal in that position. Which meant that I couldn’t use it for a lot of things. I couldn’t write with it because I couldn’t get it in position. I couldn’t eat with it because I couldn’t bend it. So when I got back to the States, they operated on it and took out bone chips and redid as much as they could do it. But it still is limited, but that’s a small price to pay.
SS: You’re alive at least.
AF: That’s right. I’m grateful. I’m grateful that the German doctor did what he did. My experience, as a prisoner, was that the loneliness in being separated from home and family were probably the worst things. I never had any doubt that we were going to get out of there alright. So we went hungry, mainly hungry. We used to fantasize about the kind of foods we were going to order when we get back home. You can imagine what they would be like. My mother used to make pot roast that everybody loves. My wife still talks about it. I said, “That’s what I’m going to have when I get home. Plus an apple pie with ice cream.” We used to concoct the perfect meal. We used to sit down and talk about what the perfect menu would be. Imagine a bunch of guys doing that. With the Brits, half of my roommates were British. They were RAF. So we used to share ideas of what would be a good meal.
SS: That sounds like one of the ways that you guys maintained hope about getting out and getting better. Anything else, in particular, that you did?
AF: Well, it was important to maintain our military appearance, and we did as much as we could. Even though, as I said, some of our uniforms were pretty well shot. But to the extent that you had a uniform, you kept it as well as you could. That wasn’t easy because you didn’t have running water, except in the one bathroom in the barracks, and it wasn’t hot water. So once a week we used to take the uniforms and the clothing and wash them. Which meant that we couldn’t go anywhere. By the time we got an overcoat (we were issued a great coat from the British Red Cross) we were able to wear that in the barracks while we waited for our clothes to dry out inside the barracks, which is hard because it wasn’t that warm in there. We maintained a routine. Our routine was to, first of all, take care of personal appearance, to shave. We used to shave, even though only one guy in our mess had a razor. It was a British officer but he kindly lent it to everybody. It was a straight edge. So I had to learn how to shave with a straight edge. We did that without killing ourselves, without soap. We didn’t have soap so we used just water. Once in a while, we were able to bribe somebody to give us a bar of yellow soap. That was it, all purpose. Then after having breakfast, one of our guys was the chef, and he allocated the food. For breakfast, we had a slice of bread with…Oh, I forgot, we had peanut butter. We used a very, very thin application of peanut butter. So little you could barely taste it. But that’s how we stretched it out. That was it, and a cup of tea. Usually tea. We found out that we could get more out of the tea than we could get out of the can of coffee. It went further. We could stretch the tea further. Some of the Americans wanted just coffee, but we got the tea. We traded. If they got tea, they would trade it to us. We used the tea. That was it, tea and bread with peanut butter. Then about eleven o’clock, we’d have the same thing again. Then the Germans would bring around what we called “skilly,” the cabbage soup, which was very thin and very watery. Cabbage soup is not bad but this is very thin stuff. Nothing in it except water and some cabbage. First we didn’t want to eat it. Then we got so we would eat it. At least it was warm. It was hot. So we ate that. Then, since there were British there, we had tea time in the afternoon. Tea time, guess what we had? Tea and another slice of bread. Then for supper, we’d have another meal around six or seven. We would take cheese. I remember some of the other stuff we had. We had some prunes, sometimes, for fruit, in some of the packages, or raisins. We would make a pudding out of that, or a casserole. Take some of the cheese, mix it up with a half a loaf of bread. Chop it up and bake it. That would be our meal. That would serve six people. So that was one routine. The other routine was that as soon as we had the morning slice of bread, a friend and I would walk the entire camp. Whether it was raining or snowing or whatever, we would walk the camp. Then we would go in, we’d pay a visit to some days to a different barracks. We’d go in and pay a visit. We’d say hello to the guys. We just wanted to say hello. Especially the enlisted men, we wanted to let them know we were still around there; we were still kicking. In other words, what we were doing was seeing how people were. We wanted to keep track of how our fellow Americans were. So we did that every day. Then, there was a small room that had…it was a library that had paperbacks that were sent there by the British Red Cross. We depended a great deal on the British Red Cross. I don’t know how many books they had but I think I read every one of them in there. I read one book a day. Many of us did that. We’d go get a book. We didn’t care what it was about. It could be anything and you’d read it. You’d take it back, get another book, you’d spend a good part of the daylight hours reading it. Because at nighttime, the light was not that great. We did have electricity but it was not that great. We heated water sometimes. We had a guy who was very ingenious who made heating elements, put them in a can of water and heated up the water for tea or coffee. He made hotplates too, out of junk. It was illegal and the Germans always, about once a week, they would have a search to see if we had any of them. We had a place where we hid them and they didn’t find them unless we wanted them to. Once in a while, we’d let them find them so they’d feel good. Some of the guards would ask if they could have a heating element or hotplate. So we’d ask: “what have you got?” “How about some potatoes?” “Well, we’ve got enough potatoes. How about some eggs?” We would exchange them with them. There was a little active black market going on.
SS: So you got along fairly well with the guards?
AF: We got along. We survived. You learn to survive. One of the things that we did was to take care of each other. We learned to take care of each other. You couldn’t ignore somebody who was having a tough time. You took care of them. Whatever had to be done. That was probably one of the most valuable things I got out of the war.
SS: What was it like to get set free? What did you call it, repatriated?
AF: Repatriated. That was great. I could tell you a lot of stories but I don’t want to. I’ll save them for another time. But you just can’t imagine the feeling of elation. You just can’t imagine the feeling that we had of getting back to the United States. I got down on my hands and knees and kissed the ground.
SS: I can just imagine how that was. I think I would too.
AF: We were flown back. They gave us special quick repatriation after we were back with the U.S. forces. They kept us around a very short time. Quite frankly, I was anxious to get home but I wanted to see a little bit of the area before I went home. I didn’t have a chance because they put us on such quick shipping. I didn’t expect that. Some guys were over there for a couple months waiting to get back. My particular group got back there just like that.
SS: From Italy, where’d you go from Italy? Where’d they ship you?
AF: From Italy we went to North Africa. They flew us to North Africa. We stayed there only overnight and we were flown back on a special hospital plane, about fifty of us, no, not that many, about thirty, on a four-engine C-54, flown to Miami. They put us up in the Coral Gables in the Biltmore, one of the fancy hotels down there. Of course, it was not fancy when we were there. It was taken over by the Army for a hospital.
SS: How long did it take for you to get back to civilian life? Or to see your parents?
AF: I was in a hospital, and wanted to see my parents. I called my parents from Miami as soon as I got back. They had already learned I had been repatriated. They had been…until I was repatriated, they didn’t know if I was alive or not. They were told I was missing in action. They didn’t have any word. I wrote a couple of letters but they never got through. So I got to see them within the week after getting back to the States. They sent me from Coral Gables up to Camp Edwards in Cape Cod, which is a closer hospital. I didn’t want to stay down there in Coral Gables. They sent me up there and then immediately, as soon as they checked me over again, every place that they sent you would check you over to see that you were ok, and they told me I’d have to have some operations but I could go home. So I did. Then, I was there from June until January, 1946. I was in the hospital that length of time. They gave me therapy. First I had operations and then therapy. Finally, I went home. I didn’t become a civilian until ’46.
SS: So what did you do, after going through all this stuff and all these changes in your life, what was it like finally going home?
AF: I found it a little strange. It did feel strange. The Veteran’s Administration did set up some kind of a committee, or a program, to help you readjust to civilian life but I never participated. I don’t know why but I didn’t think I needed it. I didn’t feel that I was, I didn’t need any special psychological counseling, or anything. In retrospect, I would say I did need it. I think we all did. But we didn’t get much advice. In those days, it was considered, what’s the word I want to use here? It was considered demeaning to go to a psychiatrist. Go to a shrink? Are you kidding? I don’t want to go to a shrink. What do those guys know anyway? That was the general attitude. If you went, the presumption was that you were nuts. You were crazy. Yes, we did have guys go there, but we knew they were nuts, they were visibly nuts. We didn’t concern ourselves about more subtle evidences of not being quite well-adjusted. Hey, if you’re walking around and talking and you’re making sense most of the time, you were ok. So, I think that’s probably one of the big lacks that we had, especially the prisoners of war. I think they did need counseling. But who was going to give it to us? Nobody knew enough about those things to give it to us. So most of us made it alright. Some guys had trouble with personal relationships. I know of prisoners of war who used to periodically sit down and drink a lot. But they never shared what they were thinking about with their families. Never told them why they were moody and had problems. They found a lot more, as you said in the beginning, during the Vietnam war, they learned a lot more about this. I probably could’ve used some help too, because I had some problems with…I had a love – hate, maybe that’s too strong a word, I had ambiguous feelings towards civilians. On the one hand, I was glad to be a civilian again and I knew that civilians were proud of what we did and so on. On the other hand, they really can’t understand what we went through. You really can’t understand what it’s like when somebody is shooting at you and you know that they mean you harm. That’s an awful realization. That came to me while I’m flying along. I said, “You’re really trying to kill me!” For a young person, I was only twenty-one at the time, I was eighteen when I went in, I was twenty-one when I got out, to come to that realization, it’s kind of eye-opening. It gets you, kind of, to think. Some of the encounters that we had with civilians were, “well ok, so you had a rough time. The war was two months ago. Isn’t it about time you got over it?” They didn’t actually say that but that was the feeling that I got and some of my other friends. They expect you to, “Ok, live now. Let it go.”
SS: So did you have tough time adjusting to civilian life?
AF: Well, compared to many people, no. I went back to UCONN. I started right in. I didn’t have any trouble picking up my classes.
SS: Did you use the GI Bill?
AF: Oh yes. I was somewhat resentful at UCONN for charging me out–of-state fees. Even though the government was paying it, I kind of resented it. I don’t know whether that’s a logical thing but that’s what I felt. I felt kind of, you know, what are you doing? I had a scholarship at UCONN before and then they’re charging me out-of-state fees because they can do it. The government said they could charge more for GIs, instead of giving them the in-state fee. I thought, that’s kind of chintzy. That was my reaction. A lot of things like that. All the little kind of stuff, but nothing so important that I felt like rebelling against the government or anything. I was grateful to the Congress for giving us the GI Bill of Rights. I was grateful to the World War I veterans who had fought to see that it was given, that we got a better deal than they did. But yes, I had some negative feelings towards civilians, in general, but you deal with them. Even today, we feel that people don’t truly understand what it’s all about.
SS: Yes. That would be some of the next things I ask you about is how you think World War II is perceived?
AF: I think that it’s perceived a little bit more clearly than it was twenty years ago. I’m not sure all the reasons why it is. One, I think, the book that...
SS: Tom Brokaw?
AF: What Tom Brokaw wrote has something to do with it. Maybe it’s just that as the post-war generation has grown up, they’ve realized more what their fathers went through. The maturing of a generation, I would say, plus the realization that we aren’t going to be around too much longer. I think that there is, in general, more acceptance than there was. I think the generation growing up now is the one I’m concerned about. So far, I don’t think they have any knowledge of history at all. I mean the ones that are in high school and younger.
SS: How would you assess your World War II experience in terms of your own life?
AF: Well, I think it’s had a pretty profound effect on it. I think it’s helped to form a lot of my views on life in general. I would say probably I’m less enthusiastic for war than I was when I was eighteen. The rightness and wrongness of a position is more ambiguous to me today than it would’ve been when I was young. On the other hand, I might say that, it probably was a more clear position in WWII, the distinction between right and wrong. It was clear that there were evil forces in the world and we were fighting something that was clearly seen by most people. The main question at the time was whether or not we should’ve gotten into it. There was no question about the evilness of the Nazi government and the Japanese government so that was pretty clear. Today, a lot of issues are much more complicated. You talk to veterans about Kosovo. How many would tell you that we should be involved in Kosovo or even in Africa, our misguided attempts there. Or whether we should be involved with Taiwan today. It’s a very muddy picture. My general view is, we can’t reform the world in the image we want it. I think perhaps we thought we could do that sixty years ago but today I think it’s a pretty naïve idea to think that you could do that. That people would come to the way that you think.
SS: I guess one of the last questions I would ask is simply if there is anything that you’d like to add that we might’ve skipped. Anything at all?
AF: Some of my friends are pessimistic about the future. I’m basically an optimist. I have to think optimistically, even though at times the evidence seems to be the other way. I think it’s important that people go back to understanding what this country is about. One of the things is, I think people should pretty much be able to do what they want to unless it stands on somebody else’s rights. I think we’ve got to keep remembering that. I think the tendency of the government to pass laws because it would be good for you is not a good idea. It may be from the point of view of people who believe that way but I think that being left to live your own life is an important thing. That would be my philosophy.
SS: I want to thank you very much.
AF: You probably have more than you need.
SS: No, you gave me lot of information and I really learned a lot and I really appreciate your time.
AF: You’re welcome, Steve.
SS: Thanks very much, Art.