Interview with Edward Lapointe by Steve Showers for the WWII Oral History Project, Center for Oral History, University of Connecticut, 23 February, 2000.
STEVE SHOWERS: We’re here today and we’re going to do an interview between myself and Ed Lapointe. Are you all set?
EDWARD LAPOINTE: I’m all ready.
SS: We’re ready to go. Like I said, the first question we’ll start with is a general question about where and when you were born.
EL: I was born in New Haven, October 8, 1921.
SS: 1921. I’m just kind of curious then, as you said, about pre-war stuff and a little bit about your early life. If you could talk about that a little bit, like where you grew up, what you did as a boy, things like that. Where you went to school…
EL: Well, I spent most of my life in New Haven, Fair Haven and Morris Cove, which are all part of New Haven. I got interested in model airplane building when I was a kid and built them from my early teens right on up. In fact, I’m still building them. I built radio-controlled one, and I used to do a lot of radio-control flying. But that’s about it. And I did a lot of fishing. I used to go to Maine every year for about 26-27 years. I went up to Maine to go salmon fishing with four or five other guys, the same group every year for 26-27 years.
SS: You were doing that as a kid? One of the things you did?
EL: Oh, not as a kid. No, that was after I got older. As a kid I did a lot of fishing then, but I used to just fish the streams around the general area of New Haven, East Haven, Branford, that general area.
SS: Do you remember where you went to school?
EL: I went to, what do you want grammar school?
SS: Yeah, grammar school or high school.
EL: Oh, grammar school I went to St. Francis in Fair Haven. Then I went to Woodward School, which is what they call the annex at that time. And I went to Nathan Hale in Morris Cove, and I went to Hillhouse High School in New Haven. And then I got stupid and quit. And then I went to work.
SS: So you were doing work instead of high school?
SS: Do you remember what you were doing? What was your job?
EL: Well, my first job was around 1937. I think. I was a carpenter apprentice in a factory over in New Haven. They made cement parts for building and bridges. In other words, there would be a flat stone and they would put it up, and it would be the facing of a building. They did a lot of buildings and most all the bridges on the Merritt Parkway. I worked on a lot of them bridges. When I left there, I went to the New Haven clock shop in New Haven and was an errand boy running around crazy getting parts for all the girls so they could assemble these pocket watches. Then I left there and went to the Ekland Manufacturing Company in New Haven. They had moved from San Francisco to New Haven, and they were a pretty small shop then. I started in the parts room where they put up all the parts and sent them out to the departments. Then the superintendent gave me a job doing carpentry work and repair work, plumbing, electrical, anything and everything in the shop. You know, it was small. And then he put me in charge of what they called the bakalight department working on distributor caps for cars, and that’s where I was when I got greetings and salutations from President Roosevelt.
SS: So this must have been the late 30’s then, or probably into the 40’s already?
EL: It was 1942 when I went into the service.
SS: So right about that time were you aware of the war going on?
EL: Oh definitely. I can remember sitting home and listening to it on the radio when the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and all that.
SS: Did you happen to hear Roosevelt’s address?
EL: Yes I did.
SS: What was that like? Do you remember what you felt?
EL: Oh, it kind of inspired people to want to get out there and just start shooting the Japs actually. I, like the other guys, went to try to join the Air Force and when I went out to join, they refused me because they said I had flat feet. They said you can’t join, and you’ll have to wait until you’re drafted. And then you would be put in non-combatant service. So, I waited. Not too long after, and I got the letter from the president. And after I got drafted, they never mentioned my flat feet again all the while I was in the service. So I didn’t want to be in marching, that was for sure. I tried to enlist as a ground crew mechanic in the Air Force. And then after I went to aircraft mechanic school in Keesler Field, then I went to the Boeing plant in Seattle to specialize in B-17s. Then I could’ve been ground crew mechanic, but I decided I wanted to fly so I went to gunnery school and became a flight sergeant.
SS: So, from basic training, did they give you an option of what job you wanted to do?
EL: Well, actually they didn’t, but I didn’t know that and I asked. When I went to Camp Devens, when I first got drafted, I asked one of the officers, I said, “I’d like to get into the ground crew of the air core.” Well, they said “The next man you go to is the man to ask.” So the next officer I went to, I forget what he was questioning me about, but he went through a whole bunch of guys at Devens Air Base. So I asked him and he evidently put my name in for it because it was a few days after we went through all this stuff that almost the whole barracks was cleared out of guys. They were all shipped out. They all ended up driving trucks, I believe, for the Army. And the few of us that were left, which wasn’t too many, it was a day or so later when the train pulled in and we were put on the train. All the guys that were in the Army, or in the Service already, that were in charge of the train, all had Air Force patches on. So, we figured that we’d made the Air Force, which ended up that we had.
SS: That was from Camp Devens? Was that for basic training?
EL: No, they shipped us out from there. I went down and struggled on Miami Beach. We were swimming and marching on the beach and having one hell of a time, living in the hotels at Miami Beach. And of course, they gave us all these different tests for radio school, mechanical school, math tests, English tests, all that stuff.
SS: This was about 1942?
EL: Yes, it was 1942.
SS: So were you guys aware of what was going on in the war at the time? Do you remember?
EL: Yes, I would say we were all aware. We were all anxious to get into it. We didn’t want to be spending our time in school, but of course I had planned then to be a mechanic so I knew I had to go to school to be a mechanic.
SS: And from Miami, is that when you went to Keesler?
EL: From Miami I went to Keesler Field. I’m trying to think how long they kept us there. Probably, I think it was six weeks. It might have been more than that, though. And then after we graduated from there, that’s when they sent me to the Boeing plant in Seattle. That’s where they made, in fact that’s where the first B-29s were made. I saw the first two B-29s that were ever built. They were still testing them when I went there to school.
SS: So, is that when you found out you’d be working on the B-17?
EL: Yes. I knew then that I would be on B-17s as a mechanic. But then I decided to fly so I signed up for the air gunnery school, which was in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Elizabeth LaPointe: Where’s Keesler?
SS: Keesler is in Mississippi, right?
EL: Yes. Keesler is in Mississippi.
SS: That’s the same place I was stationed. I went to school there.
EL: When I went there originally, it was just aircraft in general. But while I was still there, they were starting to convert it over to B-24’s. They specialized in B-24’s at that time. But we had been aircraft general then, when I went. Then, of course, they shifted to the B-17’s, which was the most popular bomber of the time, even though they had more B-24’s in the war than they had B-17’s. Most people don’t know that.
SS: Yes, that’s true. What was the general attitude of yourself and the other students, the guys you were with and whatnot? What did you guys think? You said before that you were anxious to get involved in the fight. Do you remember if you and the other guys were afraid or nervous about fighting? What do you think was the general attitude?
EL: No, actually I can’t remember being afraid or nervous. I was just anxious to get in there. When I went to gunnery school, of course, and then you’re in the back of an AT-6 and you’re shooting a machine gun at a tow target and you’d say: “Oh, if that was only a Jap or a German fighter plane.” You were kind of anxious to get there and do what you were trained to do.
SS: How old were you though then?
EL: Twenty-one at that time. As a matter of fact, I got shot down on my twenty-second birthday.
SS: So school must not have been that long then, going from school to action?
EL: No. I went in the service in July of 1941, and I landed overseas in July 4th of 1942. So all that mechanical and flight, then, of course, I did a lot of flight training after I got out of gunnery school. I went down to Blythe, California, and we got assigned into a crew and we did a lot of flying in B-17’s there, and then from there we were shipped up to Walla Walla, Washington and we did all our B-17 flying there. We’d fly out over the Pacific or different parts of the country and back to Walla Walla.
SS: Let’s go back for one second. What was the gunnery school like? The training, you just mentioned about the tow targets?
EL: Well, you started out, you shot skeet, you shot bb guns, just rifles and stuff in general. And I kind of liked the skeet shooting because you rode on the back of a pickup truck down like a horseshoe shaped track and all along this track were these buildings. Some were down low, some were high, and as your truck come down by these buildings, the men within them buildings would shoot out one of these pigeons, clay pigeons. And some would come at you, some would go away from you, some either side, and you would shoot at them pigeons from the back of the pickup truck. I really enjoyed that. I think on one of the trips I hit twenty-three out of twenty-five so I thought I did pretty good cause it wasn’t that easy to hit some of them, you know? But we all loved that. And you went in the AT-6s and you shot at flying targets. You were in the back cockpit of the AT-6 and you’re facing forward and your gun was on a track in back of the cockpit, it was a .30 caliber machine gun. And before you come up to your target, the pilot would notify you and you had to unstrap yourself, turn around and hook yourself up to the back part of the cockpit and then shoot the machine gun. And then you would shoot. The plane pulling the tow target was going, and the pilot would come up along side it heading in the same direction and you would shoot at the tow target. Then when you were all through shooting, you waved your gun up and down and let the pilot know you were through, and he was supposed to wait for you to unhook yourself and get seated and strapped in again. But they were a bunch of young hotshots like I was and as soon as you waved your gun, the son of a gun would just peal up like that and almost let you fall out of the cockpit. It used to scare the hell out of me. So, when you did these fancy maneuvers, actually it made me airsick, and I threw up a number of times. And then after I got assigned to a B-17 crew in the States here, I used to get airsick quite often and the pilot was considering having me grounded, which I didn’t want no part of. But then I realized that it was the grapefruit and orange juice and stuff like that in the morning. I stopped drinking that in the morning and then I was all right. When I got overseas, I never got airsick all the while I was overseas.
SS: How long was the training at the gunnery training school?
EL: I think that was also about six weeks. That seemed to be an average time.
SS: What was typical flying time at gunnery school? Like how many times did you do it?
EL: You didn’t fly too often. Well, it was about the last week of school when you did your flying. The base was actually a ways away from Las Vegas and then we would take off from there and go out over the mountains and do our shooting out there and then come back to the base. But they never let us go into Las Vegas all the while we were there. So the only time I saw Las Vegas then, was after we left the base, we were on the train and went through Las Vegas and happened to stop there. I couldn't believe, I mean being here from the east coast, and going through Las Vegas, there were no tarred roads. It was all dirt roads and boardwalks and things like that for sidewalks. It hadn’t changed until during the war or after the war, I don’t know just when. I went to Blythe from Las Vegas, which was in the Mojave Desert.
Elizabeth: You were in the Mojave Desert too weren’t you?
EL: Yes. That was down in Blythe, California in the Mojave Desert. That’s where I went to Blythe from, Las Vegas.
SS: Where was gunnery school then? The gunnery school was in Vegas?
EL: Well it was right outside of Vegas. I believe they called it Redmond, Oregon I think it was, is where we did our flight shooting. But the other shooting was done at the base closer to Vegas.
SS: Oh, okay. Then once you graduated from there, then you went to where?
EL: Blythe, California. In the Mojave Desert, and it was hot!
SS: They were making B-17s there?
EL: No, no. They had the B-17s there. That was a training school. They trained us in B-17s but we went by train up to Walla Walla and then we got some more training B-17s there. But when I was in the Mojave Desert, it was so hot they couldn’t work on the planes during the day. They used to work on them by floodlight at night. We slept in tents in the desert. It was very hot. And Patton’s army used to train in the Mojave Desert also with his tanks and with the B-17s, and we were a bunch of young guys. We used to go down and buzz the tanks and trucks going through the desert. My pilot was a real hotshot and a real good pilot. One day orders came through that we were to stop harassing the troops going through the desert, the trucks and tanks, so my pilot, we seen this big column going through the desert one day, and he was way behind them so we come down and got right over the top of them and went right down the whole column. It was just a couple of hundred feet above them, and buzzed the whole column all the way down and just kept going till we got a good distance away from them, before he turned. Because once he turned, they would be able to get the number of his plane and turn us in. We went quite a ways so they wouldn’t be able to. And another time he felt like a hotshot and he went under the high tension cables going through the desert.
SS: That must’ve been pretty low!
EL: Oh, he was low. We used to go down and shoot the jack rabbits in the desert. Of course I was top turret so I couldn’t get at them. But the ball turret and the waist gunners, the tail gunners, the nose gunner, the bombardier and navigator up in the nose, they used to shoot at the jack rabbits down in the desert, so we were flying pretty low.
SS: By this time you were already in an assigned crew?
EL: Yes, right.
SS: And then you guys would always practice together and this was the crew that you would stay with?
EL: That was the purpose of training because you had to train together. You had to depend on your flight buddies when you went on a mission and something happened, you know? The first navigator we had, we were on a flight out over the Pacific and he got himself all screwed up. He wasn’t worth a darn as a navigator. And luckily my pilot, who had been a civilian pilot and he had his own airplane in civilian life, and he was a good navigator and a good pilot, he got us back all right from the ocean. He had the navigator thrown off the crew. And then we had another navigator assigned to us and I don’t remember just what happened but he didn’t last too long and the pilot threw him off the crew! Then we got another navigator, and it just so happened that he was right from Connecticut here, he lived in this general area. He was an exceptional navigator. He was very good. So we finally had a good crew until we got to Walla Walla, and we found out that we were going to be going overseas, all of a sudden our radio operator had a bad back. He had a brother who was in the hospital in Walla Walla waiting to be discharged, so all of a sudden he had a bad back and he was sent to the hospital in Walla Walla. So, we had to get another radio operator to come in and he was only with us a week or two before we went overseas but he was a good radio operator.
SS: Was that guy really injured?
EL: Mentally probably, but I don’t know if he was chicken or just mentally sick but none of us ever knew he had any problems with his back while he was with us, and we did quite a bit of training together.
SS: Okay. We are starting again. Now we lost off where you had just gotten your orders to go overseas, and you lost the one radio man. So, maybe he was a little nervous about going overseas, what did the rest of the group think?
EL: Oh, we all had been waiting to get assigned to go over. We kept wondering how much longer we were going to train, and we wanted to go over. But then they notified us that we’re going overseas, and they gave us a six day furlough with a one thousand mile limit of the base. That was in the state of Washington, and I lived in Connecticut. I had never been home from the time I went into the service. So I said to hell with them, I’m going home. So, I met another guy from New York and he says hell, he was going home, so we got tickets on an airline and we flew home. Luckily I had three days and three nights at home and then we flew back. We got as far as Salt Lake City, Utah and got bumped off the plane by these ferry command pilots. They used to ferry planes all over the country and then take another plane and fly back. They had priority over just about everybody so they bumped us off of our flight. There were a lot of officers there too, on the same plane that I was on, that did the same thing that I did. One of them had some connections and he was calling Washington trying to get a trainee flight scheduled that would fly us back to Walla Walla. But it never went through and we had to take a train. We notified the base that we would be 24 hours late by the train. We only had a couple hours flight, but we ended up late by the train. The CO wasn’t bad. He had trucks at the train station there waiting for us when we got there. Took us back to the base and all he did was restrict us to the base until we went overseas. But we were in town all the time anyway. It didn’t mean nothing, you know? So it wasn’t too bad.
SS: Now, when you mean overseas, you got your orders to go to England?
EL: Right. We figured we were going to England by the direction we left Walla Walla. We got word that we were going to go overseas but from Walla Walla we went by train to Grand Island, Nebraska. When we got to Grand Island, Nebraska, we happened to be the first group to come through Grand Island. It was a brand new base, and there was all our brand new B-17s sitting there at the airbase. They all had patches all over the ailerons and the elevators. And we wondered what the heck happened to these planes, you know? It seems they had a terrific hail storm, and they didn’t have enough pilots there to fly the planes away from the base into safe territory so they had ground crew personnel sit in the planes, heading into the wind with their feet on the brakes. But the hail came through and made the holes in the fabric of the ailerons and the elevators, because the plane, of course, was all aluminum except your flight controls. Your ailerons, your rudder and elevators were all fabric covered at that time. It made holes, and of course, we had patches all over the airplanes. So we picked up all of our equipment and all our clothing, our B-4 bags, which was a special bag for flight personnel to carry our stuff in and all the stuff that they give you when you’re going overseas. They even give you a jungle pack to go with your parachute. A jungle pack to go to England, you know, it was just a big waste of money. It had fish hooks and all kinds of stuff in it, fishing line, maps, compasses, all different stuff. I forget how long we were at Grand Island. I really don’t remember how long I was there, but we got all of our clothing, everything we needed, B-4 bags and our planes all had what they called bomb bay tanks. One half of the bomb bay had a big tank that filled up the whole side of the plane and the other side had a flooring put into it and we used that to throw our clothing and baggage and stuff. The tank was for extra fuel for flying overseas. So we left Grand Island, Nebraska, we flew to Preque Isle, Maine. We tried to get the pilot to come over here on the way but he said well, one guy wanted to fly over here over Long Island, one wanted to fly over Connecticut, and somebody else wanted him to fly somewhere else, so he said the best thing was nothing. He just flew directly to Presque Isle, Maine. We only stayed there a day or two and then we flew from there to Gandor, Newfoundland. When we were flying through Canadian territory, it was odd to see a lot of these Canadian fighter pilots come up and buzz around us as we were flying across. It was kind of interesting. But we got to Gandor Lake, Newfoundland and we were there for, of course this was in the end of June when we got there, it was still all snow, and we were there for a week or two, I guess. It seemed like quite a while. One day my assistant engineer and myself decided to take a walk down a dirt road to a lake. We took the fish hooks and stuff out of the jungle packs, and we were going to go down and try some fishing. We both had our 45 guns on us. Every crew member in Grand Island was issued a 45 and a couple of us were issued, I was issued a machine gun and the rest of them were issued a rifle. Why? I don’t know but we had them. So, my assistant engineer and I were walking down to the lake. We got down to the lake and there was a bunch of officers there and wouldn’t you know, my pilot was there. I don’t know if he had a bug in his bonnet or what it was but he said, “How’d the plane check out when you pre-flighted it today?” I said, “I didn’t pre-flight it.” I never pre-flighted it all the while I was there. In fact, I had never pre-flighted a B-17 in my life. I don’t know if he knew that or not. The only thing I knew about pre-flighting a plane was what I learned watching him and the co-pilot pre-flight the plane every time for take-off and what not. Well, he said, “Instead of wasting your time down here you get back there and pre-flight the airplane.” He said, “When you get through, wash the bottom of the wing down with gasoline.” Now I don’t know if you’ve ever monkeyed with 100 octane gasoline in the winter but it was mighty cold. Well, I went back and between the assistant engineer and myself, we managed to pre-flight the plane. You have to run up the engines and everything else, you know? So we pre-flighted it and we got all through and I said, “Well, I don’t know about you but this boy is not washing down no wing of no airplane with gasoline.” So, we never did it. For some reason he never asked us and that was it. It never got brought up. That was one time that he really teed me off. I never said anything to him until, when did we go to Salt Lake City? I forget what year it was but that was the first time that I… No, I had met him before that. He called me up one time and he was going to a reunion down in North Carolina or South Carolina, I don’t remember which. I met him down there, him and his wife, and he called me up and asked us if we could make it. It just so happened that we were going to go to Maine that week for a vacation. So instead of going to Maine, which we’d been doing right along, we went down there, what was the name of that place? We went down and with a tent, just like camping. And we went into this Recreational Vehicle campground where he was going to be. We were there one or two days before him and his wife got there and they pulled in in this great big drive it yourself camper. Beautiful! Oh man it was beautiful. And here we are in this tent, sleeping on the ground, you know. But we had a real good time there.
SS: And that’s when you finally mentioned it to him, that he had made you mad that time?
EL: I told him about it that he got me really teed off. He said, “Oh, I don’t even remember it.” I said, “Maybe you don’t but I sure the hell do.” I let him know I wasn’t too happy about it. Of course, my wife tells me I’m too outspoken anyway. My bombardier, I let him have it when I was in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City was the first time that the whole crew got together for a reunion. Except the two that got killed the day we got shot down. The other eight of us were all in Salt Lake City. And my bombardier, when you went on a mission, all your bombs had a safety pin in them and after you got up out over the channel, you’d pull those safety pins out. That was the bombardier’s job to come up out of the nose, go into the bomb bay and pull them safety pins out. Of course, all you’ve got is just this thin door of the bomb bay underneath you and if you should slip and go, you’re gone. You couldn’t wear a parachute in there because it was close quarters, so you didn’t have any parachute. So, if you slipped and went, that was it. It was his job to do that, but he was an officer and I was only a sergeant, so he used to have me go back there and pull all them pins. Of course, I couldn’t say anything to him because he was an officer. You had to do what you were told. So, when we got to Salt Lake, he was a civilian and so was I and I told him what I thought about it. So I got that off my chest also. Those were the only two things that I can remember that I really disliked.
SS: So you guys, as a crew, got along very well?
EL: We all got along quite well, except the tail gunner and I didn’t. We didn’t seem to get along too good. I don’t know what it was because my pilot was from Texas. It was probably a lot my fault because I didn’t particularly care for Texans. I thought they thought they were king shit, and they knew it all and nobody knew anything but them. And that was what I more or less believed about the Texans and that was probably why him and I didn’t get along too good. This guy was about 6’ 3” and I was about 5’ 10”. This particular day he came up along side of me and we got in an argument. He was ready to beat the hell out of me. Thanks to my luck, my navigator came along and he was an officer. He told him to knock it off. So, he never did get to beat the hell out of me.
SS: Now how big was a crew? How many people all together on the crew?
EL: Ten. There were ten to a crew. You had the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier and navigator. They were all officers. And you had the engineer, which I was, and the assistant engineer. I was tech sergeant, and he was staff sergeant. You had the radio operator, tech sergeant; assistant radio operator, staff sergeant; and then you had the two armor gunners, tech Sergeant and staff sergeant. So the lowest member was staff, well actually my pilot, when I got assigned to a crew, he was only a flight officer, which was not even a commissioned officer. He was the lowest ranking officer of the plane, even though he was the pilot. So being the pilot he was the commander, even though he was only a flight officer. And then he finally made second lieutenant. While we were overseas he made first lieutenant and he was in for captain when we got shot down. After we got shot down, the commanding officer I think it was, withdrew his application for captain. So he never got above first lieutenant. Him and the commanding officer never got along either. They had their run-ins.
SS: Back to Newfoundland, did you guys do training while you were there too?
EL: No. We spent probably a week or so there. I don’t know if it was weather conditions or what it was but you didn’t do anything. In fact, they had two men that had to guard the plane at night, in fact, 24 hours a day. So at night-time, you had these heavy sleeping bags and one guy could sleep for a little while while the other guy stood guard. The rest of the crew was in barracks. What the purpose of staying there for this week, I don’t know.
SS: Were there a lot of crews there and planes?
EL: Well, there was all of our group, I don’t know just how many planes we had at the time. I don’t know if it was because they had to wait until they all got there or what the purpose of it was. When we left we didn’t leave as a group. We each went individually so many minutes behind each other.
SS: When you left from Newfoundland, did you know where you were going at that time?
EL: We knew we were going to England. We were going to Prestwick, Scotland. That was the landing area.
SS: At Prestwick, Scotland, did the group reform?
EL: The funny part of it is, they gave us these new planes in Nebraska, and all the guys had the nose paintings put on them and whatnot. My pilot didn’t ask us what we wanted. He just named the plane himself and he called it the Polly Jo, after his wife. Of course none of the crew was too happy but he was the commander, so he named it. When we got overseas, they took the planes away from us. All the planes had to go to remodification. It seemed the darn manufacturer, there were so many changes so often, that it was holding up the production. So, they would put the planes through and then when you got over to England, they sent them to modification, and they would make all the different changes there. Then they would be sent to different bases, wherever they needed planes that had got shot down. So once we got to England, we never saw our plane again. We don’t know where it went or what happened to it or anything else. Then when you got to a base you got assigned to a plane.
SS: It could be any plane? They’d have all different names and things like that?
EL: Right. Now we don’t know if they left the name Polly Jo on it or if they renamed it or what was done.
SS: Once you got to Scotland, was that the base that you started doing operations from?
EL: Oh no. We got to Scotland and then from there they sent us to another place that wasn’t even a base, actually. Well it was a base but it wasn’t an airbase. And we spent three or four days there before they shipped us out to the base where we were being stationed, to the 381st bomb group. That’s where we did our missions from.
SS: Where was that located?
EL: It was in Ridgewell, England. Don’t ask me where it was because I have no idea. All I knew was I was in England and we could get on the train and go to London or Cambridge or whatever. I had no idea where Ridgewell actually was. There was this certain area where there was air bases all over the place. It was really a dangerous place to fly. There were planes that smashed into each other quite often. Luckily, we did air flights during the day and the RAF did theirs during the night. So it wasn’t RAF and American planes all at the same time. There was enough during the day and enough during the night that there was a lot of air collisions during take off.
SS: What year was this, do you remember?
SS: So you’re over there still very early in the conflict?
EL: Oh, too early. That was when you hardly ever went on a mission that you didn’t see enemy fighters.
[pause for tape change]
SS: Can you tell me again where did you go for your combat missions? What was the name of the last base?
EL: The 381st bomb group, 532nd bomb squadron.
SS: Before we talk about your combat missions, I’m just curious about before, you said you guys got along pretty good as a crew, how did you work together as a crew?
EL: Actually, other than flying, we didn’t do anything together as a crew. I would go with the assistant engineer or the radio operator. The officers were separate. Their barracks were completely separate from the enlisted men over in England, while it was the same one over in the States. To be honest with you, in England, I don’t even know where the officers barracks were. All our crew itself, the enlisted men, we lived a couple of men to a room until a crew got shot down and they happened to be in a room where the whole crew could live. So, when those guys got shot down, we grabbed their room and we all lived together as a crew in one room. Plus we had one other guy in the room with us. That’s where we were when we got shot down.
SS: Once you were up in the air, did you guys all work together really well?
EL: Oh yes, I would say we worked very well together.
SS: It seems like you’d have to have a good working relationship to perform well.
EL: Oh yes, you definitely did. You didn’t argue or dispute what anybody said. You got along quite well, really.
SS: The pilot was the person in charge all the time?
EL: Right. He was the commander, period. What he said was it. Of course, any officer was over any enlisted man, but the pilot was the boss.
SS: Do you remember what it felt like to be in England and to be facing the possibility of combat and combat missions? Do you remember talking about it amongst the other enlisted guys?
EL: To be honest with you, we didn’t worry that much about it. I mean here we are at a base and whenever we had the chance to get the hell away from that base we took it. We went to London, and London was the place where they were bombing and Cambridge, and other different towns in the area. Hey, we could’ve been there when the Germans came over and bombed it, who knew? Generally, I didn’t particularly like England. It seemed to me that they were one hundred years behind the United States. They didn’t have ice. You couldn’t go to a bar and get anything cold to drink. The only place you might get something was if you found what they called a few “American bars” in London. We’d go there and you could get drinks with ice in it. Those people didn’t have refrigerators, they didn’t have ice. I don’t know how they kept their food over there.
SS: What was the condition of the city like when you were there?
EL: You’d go to Piccadilly Circus, you heard so much about Piccadilly Circus but you get there and there was this big statue. That was all protected with sand bags and all this kind of stuff. Of course at night everything was dark, so at night you didn’t see much of anything. During the day, well there was one park there in London and every Saturday or Sunday, these people could get on a box, a soapbox, and they could be talking and complaining and yelling and screaming and praying. We used to go there and listen to them and you’d just laugh. Some used to sing and it was really a big joke.
SS: Do you remember if they liked Americans or what they thought about Americans at the time?
EL: Personally, I think from all that I met, they were all very happy with the Americans, and they did just about anything for the GIs. I know there was farm houses all around the base I was at. In fact, our plane was at a revetment and right outside the revetment was this house. I met this other GI and he knew the girl that lived there and she used to do his laundry for him. I said, “Gee, I wonder if she’d do mine?” So he brought me over there to the house and we talked. This was all laundry done by hand, they didn’t have the stuff like they had here. I’d bring my laundry up, she’d do my laundry and dry it and charge you practically nothing to do it, couple of shillings. She seemed very happy to do it. I met her father and her mother and she had a young sister and she was a very nice girl. My friend had been going with her while he was there.
SS: It sound like, in general, you had pretty good morale amongst the troops. Was that true?
EL: Oh yes, definitely. The ground personnel, the mechanics, did anything we wanted to the airplane. It had to be done. There was no question about it. They did everything they could to help us out.
SS: Now at the time you were over there, it was 1942, were there other people already flying combat missions?
EL: Oh yes, they had started, I don’t know just how much sooner they started. We started in July and I think they started the first combat mission by the Americans at that time was around May. So they hadn’t been flying too long before we got there.
SS: Did your guys suffer casualties already by the time you got there?
EL: Oh, they had suffered quite a few casualties. In fact actually, our crew was the first replacement crew for that group. They had an accident there, just before we got there, when a plane blew up on the ground when they were getting ready for a mission. I think there was nine planes destroyed from that explosion, and a lot of guys killed.
SS: Did that bother your crew or yourself?
EL: It didn’t bother us because we weren’t there when it happened. So, we didn’t really know that much about it. I really do believe it bothered the guys there because they had all trained in the States as a group from the beginning right on through. You see, when I trained the States, I was training, but as a replacement crew. I wasn’t training to stay with a group. I knew that when we got overseas, we were going to be sent to different groups as replacements, whereas that group and trained and made all their missions and all as groups. They still had made enough missions for our crew to get done and to go back to the States and that was twenty-five missions at that time.
SS: What as a typical day like for you back then? In the morning, how did work go?
EL: We did no work.
SS: Did you do training at this time still?
EL: There was no training, no exercises. Once in a while, well we brought some bicycles, and we’d go up where the planes were if we had anything that we wanted to do to the plane, and we’d go up and take care of our guns. Every time you got back from a mission you had to take the guns out of the plane and bring them to the armor shack. You to had to clean them and oil them and put them away. When you went for a mission, you had to go get them and dry them all up and wipe all the oil off and everything and come out to the plane and put them in your turret or whatever position you had. Other than that, you really didn’t do anything at the base. We’d go around and look at the countryside. A couple of times we took a couple of our rifles and shot some of the King’s birds, which was not very well liked by the English people because everything belonged to the king over there. You were not supposed to do that stuff. Then there was a lot of crows over there. We used to shoot at the crows right out the barracks window. I even used my machine gun to shoot at them, a .30 caliber machine gun.
SS: Do you remember getting your first combat mission?
EL: My first combat mission, we did not go out as a crew, they split us up and the whole crew didn’t go. There was the pilot, myself and one other crew member. We all went on one plane as replacements. Which, I don’t specifically know if it was because the guys in that crew were sick or they just wanted us to go on our first mission and see what it was like. I have no idea. That was the first mission and there was just the three of us that went. The next mission, we went as a crew.
SS: Now what was your job once you were on the plane and flying? As a flight engineer and a gunner, what did you have to do?
EL: As a flight engineer, I stood between the pilot and co-pilot between their seats. I used to monitor the instruments and make sure the engines were running right, keep track of all that stuff. Then, once you got into combat, of course, all you did was stay in your turret, the top turret, which was right in the cockpit. So you never left your turret once you got in combat. When you got to the English Channel, you had to get to your turret or your position and then you would test fire the guns over the English Channel to make sure they were firing right. Then from then on you never got out of the turret again, except in an emergency, until you got back across the English Channel. Even then it wasn’t safe, because the Germans used to follow us back. In fact, they had jeeps with machine guns on them at the runways so if any German planes would come in they would be able to shoot at them.
SS: Do you remember your first combat mission and what that was like?
EL: My first combat mission I don’t really remember, when I was the replacement crew. Of course I didn’t know any of the crew. I had never met any of them. But I was just happy that my pilot was there. I had a lot of faith in my pilot. I imagine every crew member did have faith in their own pilot. I mean personally, I thought that my pilot was the pilot, and he was good but there was a lot of pilots that weren’t that good. Like I told you about the navigators, there was navigators that shouldn’t even have been gunners, let alone navigators. The worst of it is that the navigator and bombardier were actually gunners when you were in combat until the bombardier would have to drop bombs. Then he would just do his business. They had to fire guns also and none of them ever went to gunnery school, so they didn’t really know that much about gunnery. Of course, ninety-nine percent of your attacks were all head-on. So the nose guns should have been the most effective.
SS: Now before you went on a mission, did you guys have to go to a briefing?
EL: Yes, they had crew briefings. But every base was different. Our base, the only ones that went to the briefings were the officers. None of the crew members went. We went and got our guns and took them to the planes and got everything ready, and when the officers came from the briefing, they’d come out to the planes and tell us where we were going, how many fighters to expect, how much flak to expect, where to expect the flak, all that kind of stuff. Actually, I never personally went to a briefing over in England. I always wanted to, but I never did.
SS: What were your first targets for your first couple of missions?
EL: All I remember of the targets was the names of the targets. I don’t remember all the names. I don’t know if I had them here or in that book down there.
SS: Were they sub bases or ball bearing plants?
EL: Yes. Definitely. My first mission was July 29th. That was to Keel, Germany. If I’m not mistaken, Keel is a seaport up in the northeastern section of Germany. That was when I was with the other crew. The next day, as a full crew, we went to Kassel, Germany and I believe that was in the same general area.
SS: And these were daylight raids?
EL: Definitely. We never flew at night. The British did.
SS: Were these large formations too?
EL: Well, when I first started flying, a large flight was in the 300 plane area. That was a lot of planes. Each group, at that time, was sending out 25-30 planes. Of course there would always be mechanical malfunctions. There would always be a couple that would go back. I figure the average was about 25 planes per group. There were three groups that made a wing. So you had 75 planes to a wing. There were three or four wings that flew together. Then there’d be a hesitation and then another group.
SS: Do you remember what it was like on that second mission when your whole crew went? What were the guys saying to each other?
EL: To be honest with you, I think we were all a nervous bunch of guys. I was being the flight engineer. The pilot called me and I was up in the turret. Now we’re over enemy territory and he says: “we’re low on fuel for the number one or two engine. We’re going to have to transfer fuel.” So, I had to get out of the turret and go back right to the doorway where the bomb bay is and throw some switches and levers to transfer fuel from one side of the plane to the other side to keep that engine running, which I did. Then German fighters hit us. So I had to leave that and get back into the turret, which was more important than that transfer. So I’m in the turret shooting at fighters when I pumped the fuel so much that it killed one of the engines. It didn’t have no fuel left to run the engine that I was taking it from. So, the pilot had a feather one engine. Now I don’t know if you understand what the feathering is of a prop or not.
SS: Not exactly, can you explain it?
EL: If you don’t feather a prop, and the engine isn’t running, you get what you call windmilling. And that prop, being at the angle that it is, the wind will get that motor turning over so fast, just from the wind, that it will vibrate and shake the whole engine apart. So when you feather the prop, you turn the prop so that its edges are cutting into the wind so that your blade is straight, the same as the plane. That way the wind just goes right by it on both sides. You can’t turn it. So, now we’re down to three engines. Usually when you have three engines, I think we were just about over the target when that happened. And when you’ve lost an engine, of course the German pilots can spot that, and they pick on those planes that have an engine out figuring if they can knock out another one or two, they can knock you down. So we had a number of fighters that were harassing us. Whenever there was a lot of flak coming up, the German fighters would be gone. When you saw the German fighters leaving you, you knew that the flak was coming. When the flak stopped, you knew that the fighters were coming one after the other. So, on our way back, the fighters were gone and the flak was coming and of course, you can’t do anything about the flak anyway, so I got back and transferred fuel back to the engine that was dead. The pilot tried to start the engine up. In order to start it you’ve got to unfeather it and get the blades at the angle again. Then it would start turning and you’d be able to start it. But the oil in the feather control had congealed so much that he couldn’t unfeather the prop. So we came all the way back on three engines. Just as we were making our pass to come in for a landing, he was able to get it unfeathered and get the engine started up again. It didn’t do us much good that night.
SS: But you were able to complete the mission?
EL: We were able to complete the mission.
SS: You dropped the bombs and all that stuff?
EL: Oh yes.
SS: Did it feel good to actually get through it and come back alive?
EL: It sure did! Yes, you were always glad to get over the English Channel. Usually, once you saw the English Channel was when you kind of got relieved. The tension kind of left you. I’ll be honest with you, you were uptight all the while. At least I was anyway. I think most everybody else was.
SS: How often did you go on a mission?
EL: Well, sometimes too often.
SS: How soon was it for your next mission?
EL: I went on the 30th of July, then the next one wasn’t until the 16th of August. Then we went the 16th and 17th of August. The 17th of August, that was the Schwienfurt Mission. That was the worst mission that they ever had up until that time. Sixty planes got shot down that day.
SS: Is that part of what they call Black Sunday or Black Week?
EL: No. That came just after I got shot down. Our group, we lost eleven planes and ten crews. One crew, we lost their plane but they ditched in the channel and they saved them all. They were lucky. But we lost ten planes that day, and it was unbelievable. All you saw was B-17s blowing up and explosions and doing loops and spinning and falling apart. It was unbelievable. We lost sixty planes total that day. There were three hundred German fighters claimed that day. Now if they were all shot down, we don’t know. They claimed that wasn’t true. In fact I got credit for shooting down a fighter that day.
SS: Were the losses mostly from fighters or from flak?
EL: That’s hard to really tell. Usually the forward planes were mostly lost by flak, because when you’re coming through as a group, they start shooting the flak up at the lead plane. Then you fly into it. So, usually it was the first ones that got shot up by flak. In fact the Schwienfurt Raid, our wingman, our squadron C.O. was flying our wing, or we were flying his wing and we were over the target when he got hit. You could see the flames in the cockpit. I saw salute, and they pulled away. We saw some of the parachutes come out of the plane so we knew some of the guys got out but we didn’t know just how many. Normally whenever a plane got damaged that had to lead the formation, you knew they were going down. You’d usually try to watch them as much as you could to see how many parachutes you could see come out. Of course, sometimes you’d see parachutes and sometimes you’d just see the bodies as they went out. Like me, all they could ever see of me was my body because I delayed my chute until I got way down to about 3,000 feet. So they never saw anything other than my body. Sometimes you’d see the parachute pull a guy out of the plane. You would pull the straps so quick.
SS: So what was your next mission like after Schwienfurt?
EL: Then we had a few, after Schwienfurt, that was on the 17th of August. Our next mission was the 24th of August. That was when we started getting some milk runs, what we called milk runs. That was just over into France. Anytime we went over on the coast of France it was considered a milk run because you didn’t have to go far into enemy territory. We used to love them.
SS: Why were they called milk runs?
EL: Well it didn’t give the Germans that much time to shoot the flak at you and that many fighters to come up and whack you. Whereas, if you’re going into Germany, you’ve got fighters come up and they whack you. They go down and there’s another group that comes up and they whack you and then they go off. The flight time of a fighter is very short so they come up and they can’t make more than one or two passes and they had to go back. Then there’d be another bunch that’d just come up ready to do the same thing. They’d go back and refuel and come back up again. So they’d keep right at you.
SS: What were the targets on a milk run?
EL: Well see the trouble is not going to the briefing, you don’t know what the targets were but a lot of times like most of these here, in Ville Kiplie and Amiens. At that time the Germans were getting ready to start shooting these V-1 and V-2 bombs, and they were building these cement revetments to shoot these. And we were sent over to try and blow up these revetments to try and prevent them from shooting them. That was Ville Kiplie, Amiens, Brussels, Lille and then when you got down to Nantes in France, that would be the submarine bases. Actually, that was a joke. You could go over there and bomb them but you couldn’t hurt them. They were so protected that you didn’t do them any harm. Another long mission we went to was in Stuttgart, Germany. That was the biggest farce that I can ever remember. This was a mission that was way in, maximum almost, for the B-17. We got there and evidently there was some big shots from the States that come over and there were some on that mission. So they wanted to show off. So they sent us to Stuttgart and when we got there and the target was covered by clouds, broken clouds but it was right over the target. It was cloudy. So instead of picking a secondary target, hitting it and going back, the commander that was leading the group decided to make a complete runaround. We ran around the circle and come back and tried a second time to hope the clouds would be gone. We got over it a second time and the clouds still weren’t gone. So then we had to head back because we were so short on fuel. At that time, our plane was filled with fire bombs. They were quite small, probably twenty pounders. The bomb bay was just filled with these clusters of fire bombs which are magnesium. You’re not going to carry them, so we had to drop them to save as much fuel as we could. I don’t know how much of Germany got bombed that day but there was planes dropping bombs all over the place to get rid of them. When we got as far as the French coast, our fuel warning light came on so you knew you didn’t have very much fuel left. So we got over the English Channel and we started throwing everything we could overboard. All the XX boxes of ammunition, the waist guns, the tail guns and anything we could get out of the plane for weight, we threw into the English Channel. All the planes were doing the same thing. As we were getting to the English coast, all we wanted to do was find an airbase to land at. You could see planes ditching and then when we got over the land, you could see planes crash landing all over the place. I spotted what looked like a field, I told the pilot, “Looks like a field down there.” He spotted it and we went into that field. Actually, all it was was a Typhoon fighter base. It was right on the shore and the only runway was a metal runway that they had put down on the sand for these fighters. There was eighteen B-17s that landed there that day. They didn’t even have enough fuel for us. We figured we burned fifty gallons an hour per engine. That’s two hundred gallons an hour and we had to have enough to get back to our base. They didn’t have food for us. They had to send out and get sandwiches and stuff made out. They had to send out and get trucks to bring in fuel and then they just put a small amount of fuel in each plane just so we could get back to our base. We made a couple other landings for fuel on other missions but this was the worst one that we ever had. I’ll tell you, whoever scheduled them, we did a lot of nice swear words, I can tell you that. They should've been up there with us that day.
SS: Then how soon for your next mission?
EL: That was on September 6th. Then September 7th, September 9th, September 15th, September 16th, September 23rd, September 26th, September 27th, October 2nd, and October 4th. October 4th, we got credit for a mission but our target was Frankfurt, Germany and our group was leading the wing and our squadron was leading our group. We were flying deputy lead. So, in otherwords, the commander of the group was the lead man and our squadron was the lead squadron so our squadron commander was flying with us and my pilot was flying as co-pilot. We were one our way, in fact we were almost to Frankfurt, Germany and I noticed oil leaking down the wing. So, being the engineer, naturally I called it in to the pilot. Well, this so called squadron commander was one of these chicken shits, in plain English, how he ever got squadron commander nobody ever knew. Right away he dropped the landing gear, let the other planes know that we were leaving the formation, and then we just peeled away. We were flying at probably 28,000 feet and just headed right on down. It was all cloud cover down below so we headed down to the clouds, which were probably three or four thousand feet. We got just below the cloud cover, just into the clouds so that nothing could see us if there was any fighter planes above and anything below couldn’t see us. They would have to get you by radar from below. We got into the clouds and we flew back in the clouds. As we were coming over the Channel, just before we crossed the Channel was a whole group of naval vessels coming through the channel. Of course their orders are to shoot. They don’t fool around. Luckily, we had what you call IFF on the plane, Identification Friend or Foe. So that was on and we just hoped that they were checking it because we had to fly right over them. Luckily they didn't shoot at us and we got back to our base and evidently there were a lot of planes that aborted that mission. They were getting teed off. They said the guys were aborting because they were getting chicken. So every plane that aborted that particular day got back to its base and they were put in a special area and put on guard so nobody could touch them until they were investigated to find out if they had a legal reason to abort. Come to find out, somebody had left an oil plug out when they changed some oil, and the oil had leaked out from that. So they didn’t charge us with aa illegal abort. So we did get credit for the mission because it was in enemy territory. We had seen flak and everything.
SS: After a lot of these missions, did you start to get more worried about getting shot down yourself?
EL: It depended on where we were going to go.
SS: So there were worse places?
EL: Oh yes, if you were going to go to France, you didn’t care. They would lose a few planes but very few. But when you started to go to some of these other places, Hamden, Germany, Frankfurt, Germany, Bremen, Germany, where I got shot down, that was also a sea base, a harbor. Of course those places they really protected. They had an unbelievable amount of flak. Bremen was a seaport, which was very vital to the Germans, so they had it very well protected. In fact, they had an area that they built to make it look like Bremen to try to get us to bomb that instead of the target of Bremen itself. Now what we hit, I don’t know, but it was over the target when we first got hit and lost the first engine. It was over Bremen.
SS: Now how many missions was Bremen?
EL: That was my 17th mission.
SS: Your 17th mission, this is the one you got shot down on?
SS: First you lost an engine, was that from a flak hit?
EL: Flak. Yes, because when you’re over a target, you don’t have fighters over your target because of all the flak coming up. The Germans aren’t going to fly into their own flak.
SS: What was it that actually brought your plane down?
EL: Well, we lost one engine. I don’t think the pilot was able to feather the prop. There was a lot of vibration and I think the engine was vibrating. Then we lost the next engine along side of it. Then this first engine that went, vibrated so much that it fell right off the plane. Then with another engine out on the same side and the plane was pretty well shot up, there was a big hole in the radio room. I think the ball turret gunner had been already killed because we had a hell of a flak hit down in the bomb bay area. A twenty millimeter shell from a fighter plane had come in before we got over the target and hit my top turret and blew all the Plexiglas out of my turret, burned my eyebrows, my eyelashes. I got some flak in my forehead, the side of my head and in my chest, some of the twenty millimeter shell or some of the aluminum from my turret. I’m not sure what it was. It was a piece of twenty millimeter in the side of my head. That came out about three or four week later. So I didn’t have any goggles so I had all the wind coming into my turret. So I couldn’t face the nose of the plane anymore. All I could do was protect the tail. Of course, I didn’t even know what in the hell was in back of me because I had been protecting the nose all the while. When I did get around to protect the tail, I couldn’t believe it. There was probably ten, twelve, thirteen twin-engine fighter bombers lined up one in back of the other in back of us. They were shooting these rockets at us. They had shot off about six or eight feet of the right wing tip. They had shot off part of the horizontal stabilizer on the right- hand side. They shot off part of the rudder and what other part of the ship they hit I don’t know. The tail gunner could see them coming. You could see them coming at you, I could see them coming. The tail gunner, as he could see them coming, he’d radio to the pilot to raise up or drop down and you’d see these rockets go by you. Like I say, some of them hit. Some of them didn’t go by. So I was firing as best I could at the planes in back of you but you’re here and they’re right in back of you. There was these cut- out switches on the turret so if your guns are down low and you’re turning your turret, it would shoot the rudder right off the turret. So these cut-out switches would stop the guns from firing before it would get to the tail. As you went by it, then it would allow them to start firing again. So, actually there was nothing I could do with these fighter bombers back there, because they first of all, they were out of our range. The .50 caliber was effective to about one thousand yards. That’s where our guns were all converged at. They were beyond that and shooting. This was the first time we had ever seen them shooting rockets at us. I guess some other groups had seen them a time or two before that. So, it wasn’t long after that when the pilot hit the bell to bail out. He hollered over the intercom: “bail out, bail out!” Now, being up in the cockpit, I had two places I could bail out. Right down below the pilot was a door that you could pull a cable and drop that door right off and you could go out through there. Or you could pull the emergency bomb bay opener and that would open up the bomb bay doors and you could go out through there. So I went back to pull the emergency bomb bay door openers and they didn’t open. I pulled again and they didn’t open and in the mean time, the co-pilot’s right there out of his seat in back of me waiting for me to go out so he can get out. I said, “To hell with this!” and I walked through the bomb bay and went all the way back through the plane. I got to the back of the plane. The radio operator was already gone but the two waist gunners were still in there. [pause for tape change] One was sitting down and the other one was standing in the middle of the plane with his parachute all opened up. His parachute had come open in the plane. All the white silk was there. Then they guy that was sitting down he says, “Can you help me?” A twenty millimeter shell came through and blew up between his legs and he was all full of blood. He was all blood down there and we wore these parachute harnesses while we were in combat but we didn’t wear the parachute. He had on a harness that buckled down between the legs and then your parachute was what we called a chest pack. When you had to bail out you just snapped it on to the harness and jumped out. He had the parachute on but he didn’t have the straps buckled because you had to have them tight so that when your parachute opened you didn’t go through it, I guess. They told us you wanted it so tight that you couldn’t stand up straight when you were walking. So he used to keep them unbuckled because he had to stand up all the while he was on a mission and then he couldn’t buckle them. So he asked me if I could buckle them. So, I got down there and I buckled up both the straps for him and I got him up and pushed him out the door. So he got out and then the assistant engineer, I tried to gather up his parachute. The silk was all out in the plane but all the shroud lines were still intact because it was a jungle pack, I mean a chest pack. You could see the shrouds were all still lined up and intact but the silk was all loose. So I figured if he bundled it all up and held it, you could throw him out and when the wind got it it would open up. I mean if you stayed in the plane you know he’s dead. So I bundled it up and put it in his chest and I tried to put him out and he wouldn’t go out. He fell back against the other side of the plane. Naturally, I can understand it. He was a complete nervous wreck and he would not go out of the plane. About that time another one of them rockets hit the plane so like a human being I suppose, I says, “To hell with this.” Out the door I went. We were probably flying around 27- 28,000 feet and as I’m falling, I realized that you could make yourself fall any way you wanted. You could twist or go on your back or on your stomach or any way you wanted. Put one arm out and you’d start twisting. So I’m falling and I’m falling on my back more or less and I had my oxygen mask hooked up to my helmet and the tube from the oxygen mask kept coming up and kept slapping my head so as I’m falling, I unhooked it. That wind got it and pulled the helmet and oxygen mask right off my head. It only went a couple of feet and then the two of us are falling together. It seemed like it just stayed there and we were falling together. I just kept looking down to try and estimate my height and I got down, they said the cloud cover was around 4,000 feet and there was clouds and I was coming to the clouds and I said it’s about time I open my parachute. So I pulled the ripcord and went through the clouds and I could see the ground and all. Then I realized I still had my ripcord in my hand. I said what the hell do I need this for and I threw the ripcord out. As I’m coming down all I can see is a farm area. It’s all flat fields and off to one side is all these trees, a lot of trees. I knew I wasn’t going to make the trees but I knew I was going to land in this field. But as I’m coming into the field I notice there’s barbed wire fences along it and then there was a ditch. I’m coming down and drifting that way and I just missed the fence and just landed on the other side of that ditch which was about six to eight feet deep. I didn’t get hurt. I didn’t weigh a hell of a lot. So all I did, I figured I’d get rid of my parachute. I took it off and went down in the ditch, hid it and put leaves over it. I come up and was going to head towards the woods. I heard somebody yell. I looked and there was this old guy over in one of the other fields on the other side of a fence. He had a bicycle. He was an old guy so he didn’t seem like he had a gun or anything and he didn’t seem too dangerous so I didn’t pay no attention to him. I figured I’d head towards them trees and maybe I’d have a chance to escape. So I’m heading for the trees and then I see all these guys coming out of the trees, the woods, all soldiers with rifles in their hands. Then over here on this side was another guy coming from up here and he was all in black, sort of like leotards, tight fighting. A shirt and pants, all black and it had a skull and crossbones on the shirt. He had a pistol and he was the closest. So I just put my hands up and surrendered to him. All the soldiers and they all come over. Of course they searched me and checked me and they went down in the ditch and got my parachute out of the ditch. I asked them, we had this little packet, and I thought there was stuff in it for burns. So I asked them for the packet and they let me have it. I took this tube of stuff and I rubbed it on my forehead and eyebrows and everything were all burned, because I didn’t wear goggles. If I wore goggles, my eyelashes and everything would’ve been al right. And they gave it to me and then they started walking me off. We were walking and the guy with the skull and crossbones, nobody mistreated me. They all wanted a pistol, which I didn’t carry, so there was nothing I could give them. And they marched us and went off down a road. I had a pack of Camels in my inside pocket, of course they smoked like a fiend. With motioning and whatnot, I was able to let them know that I’d like a cigarette. They let me get my cigarettes out. I offered them one but they didn’t take it but they let me smoke as we were walking down. They brought us into this area. It was all buildings in the woods. It turned out that it was a relaxation place for German soldiers. They had a bunch of young girls there to keep them happy. I guess that’s where they rested and relaxed when they weren’t in combat. They got all of our crew that bailed out. They got all of them. The only two that didn’t make it was the ball turret gunner, who I think died in the turret, and the waist gunner. Either he went down with the plane or he bailed out and went down. I didn’t find out until about a year ago that he was buried in a cemetery in France. And he’s still over there. The ball turret gunner, I’ve never been able to find anything about him. But we were all brought to this base and then after they had all of us, they had the guy that got injured that I threw out of the plane, they had him on a stretcher. They gave him some medical work there but he was in pretty bad shape. They brought all the rest of us into this, I guess it was probably the German commander’s office, and had us all sitting around his desk. He started asking us questions. Of course, nobody knew anything. He wanted to know what plane we were flying in and the only names of planes that he ever gave were all English planes. I guess he didn’t know about the B-17s and the B-24s. Of course at that time it was mostly just B-17s. But he just asked about English planes and nobody knew anything. So then we started asking him questions. He don’t know nothing either, you know? He wouldn’t answer us either. But he was alright. Then there was a German sergeant there and he spoke to him in German. The guy went out and when he come back he had a bunch of glasses and a bottle of Cognac. He opened up the bottle and gave us all a drink of Cognac and then it wasn’t much longer than that that they took us out and put us in a truck. They took us to a German airbase. They put us in a barracks building and they separated us, but I think they had a couple to a room. They put me in this room with another American officer. I don’t know if he was a pilot, a bombardier or what he was but he was an American Air Force officer. Of course, at that time, you don’t know who is who so you can’t question them and you don’t answer no questions either, you know? I did find out that he was on our wing. He was our wing man and his plane blew up and to that time, he didn’t know how he got out of the plane or how he got his parachute opened or anything. But he was there alive and he didn’t know how he got there. So he was really lucky. We were there for, I think we were only there for a day or two, just one day. I guess it was the next day. We stayed there overnight and then the next day they took us to Frankfurt to a place that was called a Dulag Luft. Which was an interrogation center for all the Air Force people who were captured. They were taken there and usually you only spent a day or so there and they would interrogate you and question you and then they would send you to their prison camp. But for some reason, I don’t know what the reason was, but evidently they were shooting down so damn many planes that there was getting to be so many guys and they filled the place up. You were put into a room with one chair, one little table and one palliasse, if you know what a palliasse is? It’s like a burlap bag with straw in it for a mattress. They called them palliasse and that was your bed for one person. It ended up there was five or six of us in that one room because they kept bringing them in and bringing them in. So we still only had one blanket, one palliasse, one pillow, one table and one chair. There were six of us in the room and we were there for a week before they finally took us out and interrogated us. At the time, I had the wrong dog tags. My dog tag had my home address on it, which was New Haven, Connecticut. And of course when I got captured, they took the dog tag and anything you had and after I got interrogated they gave me back my stuff but the officer that interrogated me, he saw my address. It ended up he asked me more questions and I was asking him more questions. He had gone to Yale. He knew as much or more about New Haven than I did. He had spent a lot of time at Yale. Knew all the Church Street, Chapel Street, College Street and all the names of the streets and everything else from New Haven. So there was no problem there. So from there they sent us to another place. Of course at this time we had nothing but our flying equipment on, our electric suit and whatnot, which was like a flannel with electric wires in it to heat you up, and a green gabardine suit over the top of that. So they took us to this place where they gave us all new clothing, which was American clothing. It was brought in by the YMCA or the Red Cross. So it was suntan pants an OD jacket, some GI shoes and stuff like that. So they gave us each a uniform and we were there a couple of days and then they put us in a freight train, boxcars. I don’t remember really how long we were on that boxcar, or in the boxcars but there were pretty crowded and there was just some hay in the bottom of them and that was it. They were too crowded. So the first time we stopped we were able to get off the car to relieve ourselves. I went up to the other car, which was for the injured people. So I got in there, and there was plenty of room, because there weren’t that many that were being transported that were injured. So I stayed with that group. Then one of the lads that was in there had got flak in his right knee, I think it was, and it was all infected. So when we stopped at another town, they put him in a stretcher and then they had four of us carry the stretcher, along with two German guards. We walked up to the hospital. It wasn’t too far but four of us carried the stretcher all right. We took him to the hospital and they took care of his knee and he was laying there on the floor in the stretcher and the nurse come and took care of him. Then we started carrying him back, the guards took us into a restaurant and bought us all a bowl of potato soup. We got through eating and got out of there. Then we were standing outside and one guard left. The other guard stayed there. A little while later, the other guard came back. He’s got both canteens filled with beer. He gave us all some beer. So, I mean they treated us all right. They were GIs, and they knew what it was like. So they took us back onto the train again. We got to the camp and the POWs that were in the camp hadn’t been there that long. They had just been moved from Stalag 7 to Stalag 17B, which was the camp we were in. They had moved them, I don’t know why they moved them. They were getting them away from the Russians more than anything else, probably. So that’s where I was for the next 19 months.
SS: Stalag 17 was the name of the place?
EL: Stalag 17B.
SS: You were there for 19 months you said?
EL: Nineteen months. In fact it was 19 months to the day after I got shot down that we flew out of Germany to France to Camp Lucky Strike. I was shot down October 8th and I was flown out of Germany on May 8th.
SS: That was October 8th, 1942?
EL: To May of 1945.
SS: When you were brought to that camp at Stalag 17B, were your other crew members there?
EL: My radio operator and my tail gunner were there. The injured man, I never saw him again until Camp Lucky Strike in France and I met him there. He spent over a year in the hospital but they saved his life anyway. How bad he was shot up, I don’t know. I guess he wasn’t too good but he seemed all right at that time. So there were four enlisted men, we were all at Camp Lucky Strike together. The other two were killed and then I also met all my officers at Camp Lucky Strike, also.
SS: What was Camp Lucky Strike again?
EL: That was the American camp where you were brought and from there they shipped you out.
SS: So Lucky Strike was after you had been released?
EL: Right. I’ve gone away from the way things happened. I was 19 months in the prison camp but in April of ’45, they marched us out of our camp on a forced march. We marched for 19 days. It was cold, still snowing in places. We slept in fields or if we were lucky there was a barn to accommodate us. There was so many men to a group and so many groups and they marched us that way. They had taken all these old German men and put them in uniform and used them as guards for the marches, which was a big joke because whenever we got sick of walking we’d just stop and sit down and relax. They were hollering like hell at us and “Ah, go to hell, we’ll march when we’re ready.” They couldn’t do anything. They were as bad off as we were, probably worse. So we more or less did what we wanted on the march. It was foolish to try and escape because we were heading toward the allies to begin with. Actually, what they did was they took us out of the camp to move us away from the Russians. More to save themselves than it was to save us because they figured if they were going to get captured they wanted to get captured by the Americans or the English. They didn’t want no part of the Russians. They all hated each other. I can understand why but they didn’t want to get captured by them at all. So we marched for 19 days and we got to a pine forest and they had cut the trees down, I’d say maybe 75 feet all around this big forest. They cut all the trees down to make an open area. They put us in the forest, and said that’s where you’re staying. Then there was a road and a steep bank going down, probably a hundred foot or so down to the river, which was Innsbruck, The Inns River. That’s where we got our water. We had to walk down there to get our water and stuff. We had to live in this forest. We took the bark off the trees for the roof, and we skimmed all the bark off the trees and made the roof. The trees they had cut down we used the wood and made a platform. We put the pine boughs and stuff on that. This was our special group of six guys that we’d traveled together on the march and we stayed there. There were other guys that made teepees. Anything at all to sleep in, keep us out of the weather. I don’t really know how long we were there. We were there for a few weeks and one morning we woke up and we could hear this hell of a lot of rumbling over on the other side of the river. If you got down by the river you could see. You could see tanks all coming. We started getting nervous. But anyway, the guy that we had elected as camp commander, the American, he was a tech sergeant. We had elected him back in the other camp as camp commander; him and the German commander went down and surrendered the camp to Patton’s Army. That was Patton’s army that was coming across. The bridge had been knocked out so they couldn’t get the equipment across to come up and get us but they had been getting ready to start shelling. They thought we were German troops in the woods. Luckily they surrendered us. We were probably there almost another week before they got enough equipment across that they could come and pick us up in the trucks. They picked us up in the trucks and took us down into the town and there had been a big aluminum plant. It was empty, because we stayed there one of the nights on our march before we got to the forest; we had spent one of the nights there. So, we knew the place. They brought us down and put us in there, and we stayed there for another probably half a week to a week. Then they finally brought us out, well the war ended. In fact it wasn’t, it was near the end when they trucked us out of there and brought us to a German airbase. There were German planes all burned up all over all of the airbase. But it was actually May 8th and that was the end of the war, the day the war ended over there. They flew in AT; what are the planes that towed the gliders and stuff during the war? [C47s] Anyway, they were transports. They flew them in, put us in them and flew us to Germany in them.
SS: How’d that feel when you saw them tanks? First of all, did you guys know they were American tanks?
EL: We surmised they were but we didn’t really know. I mean, they weren’t showing the American flag, you know? But we surmised that they were, in fact we were almost sure they were. In fact, we all started hollering and yelling and cheering, happy as hell, you know? Actually, the same day that they surrendered us to the Americans, I’m not sure if it was the same day or the next day, there was an American Colonel and two sergeants in a jeep that got across, and they come up. He was like Patton. He had a couple of pistols on his side. He told us it was going to be a few days before they could get to us, to stay put. He said, “Don’t leave here. Stay where you are until we can get to you.” Well, you can imagine telling a bunch of GIs what to do after being POWs for so long. So he left and next thing you know the guys are all disappearing, and then they start coming back. They come back with trucks, and motorcycles, fire engines, ambulances, trucks loaded with potatoes and bacon and bread and all kinds of food, and they brought it all up into us. They went into the towns and they just took everything they wanted from the stores and put it in the trucks and brought it up to us. So they didn’t give a damn about who owned the stores or anything else!
SS: What happened to the Germans that were holding you guys prisoners?
EL: Well, there was one German, and he was an officer. When this Colonel came up, this German officer was still there. They had left the Germans in charge of us more or less, because they couldn’t get GIs up to us. But this German, he was a colonel, I think, and he was an officer anyway. But when this American Colonel and two sergeant come up and this Colonel wanted to know: “What the hell is this man still wearing guns and in uniform?” This German. He said, “Get them guns off him now!” So them sergeants, they grabbed him and took his belt off and threw it in the jeep, and I happened to be there luckily. He had the belt, the gun and the German knife. And everybody grabbed. Somebody grabbed the belt, somebody grabbed the gun and I grabbed the knife. So, I got the knife out of it anyway. It was quite a nice knife. It had a wooden handle, had the German Swastika on it and then there was words down the blade of the knife, says Al Is fur Deutschland. It was in a scabbard, it was probably about that long. It was a metal scabbard but it had leather on the outside of it. Well, of course my kids got a hold of it and they were flinging it at trees and whatnot and they broke the point off of it and the leather got damaged. I still got the knife and the scabbard but it don’t look like the knife it should’ve. So that’s how that ended up, but at least I did get something anyway.
SS: Now going back for a second, when you first got to Stalag 17B, do you remember what was going through your mind? Did you think that you’d ever see the United States again or see home again?
EL: Yes. I kind of figured that as far as I was concerned, the war was over for us, you know? It was just a matter of sitting there and patiently waiting. Of course, you had no idea at the time what it was going to be like, how they were going to treat you or anything like that. All I know is that since then I’ve been very happy that I was never captured by the Japanese because they were not human beings, they didn’t treat them like human beings. In general, most of the Germans treated us fairly good. There was a couple that were miserable bees, you know, but most of them were fairly decent. In fact, the barracks right next to me was the building where all the Red Cross clothing was stored that we had. Each barracks had a guy in charge of getting the Red Cross clothing for the men in his barracks, so I had that job. So I used to go over there and there was one German over there and he lived in Vienna. His family and all lived in Vienna, and I guess he had been on the Russian front, but he spoke very good English. I used to go over there, a number of us used to go over there and talk with him. He was very nice. We used to give him stuff, and he would bring us stuff and he was a pretty good guy.
SS: Did you have any contact with people back home? Your family? Were you allowed to write?
EL: We were allowed to write. I forgot about that. These are things that I made in the prison camp. Tell me if you can figure that out.
SS: No, I can’t. Some kind of light, maybe?
EL: That’s a hot water heater! I ran a couple of wires from the light, which was up over the top of the bunk. I’d run a couple of wires in the back, the ceiling was all made like clapboards, and they were all loose and everything anyway. I run wires all the way down the ceiling and down the wall. See how the wires are on the tip there? It comes right off. So I made some of them, and I took a nail, made holes in the wall, then put this coil in the hole with the wire attached to it. And then when we wanted to use this for heat, these were in the wall, you’d just plug these into it. And you’d stick that into a pail of water. You made sure you didn’t put your hands in it. You’d stick it into a pail of water and it would heat it up. That’s how we would make our hot water. Then, it used so much electricity that the Germans used to shut down the electricity. They had fuses, and they’d put the fuses in when they wanted us to have electricity and take the fuses out when they didn’t. So we’d have fuses in the morning and then they’d come and take them out so we couldn’t be heating the water like that. So then I made this, which is a fuse. And after they took the fuses out, I’d go up, I had to have two of them. One for the front barracks and one for the back barracks, and I’d go stick them in and we’d have lights and hot water in our barracks. Most of the guys didn’t. Then whenever any German officers came through, if they come in… then this was a coffee cup.
SS: These are just replicas of what you made?
EL: Yes. I took them with me when I gave my talk. This other guy, this Johnny Mott, he does a lot for the group up there, he wanted to know if I would make him a couple of them because I guess he saves a lot of stuff, war memorabilia and whatever. So I made him a couple, and he was very happy with them.
SS: Yes, I’ll have to take a picture of them to go along with the talk.
EL: So what was we talking about?
SS: We were talking basically about how you were treated. What was a typical day like once you were at the camp?
EL: At the camp? A typical day was, first of all, how you could screw the Germans. The orders from our government was to give them as hard a time as possible. The harder time that we gave them was that many more men that they had to keep occupied to take care of us. So they would have to bring in extra guards and stuff like that. So we all did everything we could to mess them up and we did a pretty good job of it.
SS: So what were some of the things that you did to mess them up?
EL: Well, first of all we had to have the hot water but before we started this hot water heater thing, we used to get all the wood we could to burn. The Germans gave you nothing for heat. So we’d get underneath the barracks and take out anything that we could that wouldn’t let the floor fall down, and get it out. When you stop to think of it, the Germans were such stupid people it was unbelievable. As smart as they were, they were stupid. Because you could go down to where an officer and some of the guards stayed and you could borrow a saw. You could borrow an axe. You could borrow a file. You could borrow a hammer, and shovels. You could borrow all these tools! So we’d get underneath the barracks and take all these round timbers off. They were all dry because the barracks were all older than all get out, you know? And cut them up and split them up and make little pieces to burn. We’d burn them in cans and they had these, maybe three or four chimneys into the barracks and they were probably about a foot square, but only one of them was actually used as a chimney. But the other ones had these clean-out openings at the bottom with a cast iron door on it. We took the doors off and we used to build our fires in these clean-out areas so we could heat our water for our coffee and stuff. Because all they had, it was supposed to be a stove to heat the barracks, it was a big monstrous thing, it was probably at least four feet long and it had to be probably two – two and a half feet wide. It went from the floor all the way up almost to the ceiling. And it was all covered with tile. It was a shiny, green tile like a bathroom tile. You could put a ton of coal in there and you wouldn’t get any heat out of the damn thing. So we never used it to try and heat the barracks. Finally, it must’ve been close to a year or so before, I don’t know how they ever got them to do it, but the Germans finally brought in a cast iron stove for each one. Our barracks was divided into two sections. A section and B section and they put a stove in A and a stove in B. I was in B and this stove, you could burn coal, you could burn wood, you could make small fires. You could heat the barracks or you could just use it for cooking. It was supposed to be a cook stove more than anything. But then they only gave you one of them ash pails, a ten-quart pail of coal a day. Well how are you going to heat a barracks? You can’t do anything. Well they kept the coal in the back of the barracks, where the Red Cross clothing was all up in the front. The back of the barracks was the German supply stuff and they kept all their coal in there. Well, being that I was in the Red Cross barracks, I could see through to the back and I knew the coal and everything was there and I made a key for the back door of the barracks out of a spike. I made it and got it to work in the lock in our barracks, which was never used, but I made the key so I knew if it opened that lock, it would open the locks in the barracks over there. So, just before dark, we’d run over there. I had to unlock the door, and with boxes, fill them up with coal, bring them back. Well, we got away with it for quite a while till the guys in the barracks next door to us, they got wise to us getting the coal and they got jealous. So they went over there and just broke the damn door down and took the coal and brought it over. So then the Germans moved the coal out of there so we weren’t able to steal anymore but we did it for quite a long while. We used to burn soap to heat water. Soap burns very good, so we used to burn the soap, burn wood, burn coal. The guys used to make wine. One guy got himself so drunk they had to take him up to the hospital and pump him out. They used to make the wine out of raisins and prunes The plywood was very thin, just enough to lay a palliasse on it, probably about 1/8th of an inch thick. We used to take the steel bands that came around the boxes from the Red Cross food parcels. So we used to get them, bring them into the barracks and make a bunk out of them and then lay our palliasse on that. So then we had the wood for firewood and then the guys took this plywood and they made drums, barrels out of it. They used to make the wine out of the raisins and prunes and sugar and they used to put it up in them drums and they used to seal the drums. We used to melt the tar off the tarpaper on the barracks to seal them. They used to put them up on the roof to ferment in the sun. And they used to make this damn wine. I would never drink it, I couldn’t even stand the looks or smell of it but a lot of them alcoholics. They enjoyed it. But how they could do it I don’t know, I couldn’t. Then, of course, you had no place to shower in the barracks. They had a so called washroom. Like I say, they’d shut the water off. They’d leave it on for just a while in the morning. It would be off all day then they’d turn it on again about supper-time and then they’d shut it off again for the night. So you couldn’t really take a bath. Well before they started shutting the water off, the guys took the cans and made a bunch of little holes in them and put them on to these faucets and turned the faucets around so the water would come out, and they’d take their bath that way. It was pretty damn cold in the wintertime, because there were no windows in there and it was too damn cold to take a shower. So you’d just take a sponge bath. You’d put long johns on at the beginning of the winter and take them off a the end of the winter.
SS: What’d they feed you? Did you have like a mess hall?
EL: Oh, we had to eat out of our barracks. There were probably three tables, like picnic tables, in our barracks. I think each barracks had about the same. But all we used them for was playing cards. We were playing bridge. We were playing poker, and we were playing checkers, stuff like that. We used to eat right there at our bunks.
SS: Was the only food that Red Cross food or did the Germans give you food?
EL They used to give us food. In the morning, they had these big round tubs, probably about three feet in diameter, maybe a foot and a half to two feet high with a rod that went through them so two guys could carry it. In the morning, we would get hot water, which is all we wanted because we had the Red Cross parcels and we had instant coffee in that. So we used the hot water for the coffee, it saved us wasting our fuel for the other stuff. Then they had rutabaga soup, which was just boiled rutabagas, and that was soup. Then they had, I think it was dehydrated cabbage soup and they used to boil that. That was all full of bugs. You could see them floating all over the thing. We didn’t eat that. We used to take it out and throw it out in the john, in the main area, the main john out in the yard because we couldn’t eat it. The only time it was ever eaten is when we ran out of Red Cross parcels. Then you got hungry and you did eat it. But other than that, we never ate it. Our Red Cross parcels, we had so much stuff in it, it was unbelievable. You got one a week, when you got them. You had instant coffee, you had sugar, you had a can of powdered milk, you had Spam, bully beef, chocolate bars, an orange, stuff to mix up to make orange juice, or some thing like that. It had a whole big can of Oleo. You had cigarettes. You had soap. I’m trying to think of what else might have been in them. There was a lot of stuff in there.
SS: They actually let that get through and they gave them to you guys?
EL: Well, most of the time. We don’t know how many didn’t get through but they took them over just outside of the camp into a building. The day that you got your parcel, by the barracks you’d form a line and go over there and get your box. They opened them all up and you walked through the line and as soon as you got your box, there was a guard standing there and he punched a hole in all the cans. They didn’t want you to save up all the meat and the stuff you could save up to escape. So they would punch holes. So as soon as we got back from the guards, we’d take the Oleo and fill the holes back up again to keep the air out of it as much as we could. So we salvaged most of it pretty well.
SS: Was there ever any trouble with the guards? Did you guys have any fights with them or anything like that?
EL: No. The only trouble with the guards was if you were trying to escape. I mean, like I said before, they were very stupid. Now when I made these fuses, I started to tell you about the German officers. Whenever a German officer was to come into camp or come into the barracks, somebody would let out a holler that would go right down the barracks, right down so everybody knew there was a German officer in the barracks. So I was in the back and the fuse box was in the front. So I heard officers, you know? So I went out the back door, and I ran up the side and went to the fuse box and started taking these fuses out. Well these damn officers, they went in and turned around and come right back out again and they caught me taking the fuses out. So they questioned me about it. They searched me and took the fuses away from me. They took my name and my German barracks number, not the barracks but my identification number; they took that away from me. They said that they were going to turn me in. So it was probably a month or more and one day a German sergeant, I’m not sure if it was a sergeant or a German officer, a sergeant, I think, come in the barracks looking for me. When he came in, he wanted the barracks chief, which was an American we had elected to be head of the barracks. He asked for the barracks chief and my bunk was right next to his bunk and I heard him talking to him. He wanted Sergeant Lapointe. I give him the high sign, no way. So he said: “Oh, he’s out in the yard.” “Oh, well what’s he wearing?” “Well, he’s got suntan pants, suntan shirt, and he’s out walking.” This was in the summertime. Well the stupid bastards, well didn’t they realize that almost everybody in there wore the suntan pants and the suntan shirts? But he went out in the yard and he was looking for me. He come back in, but he couldn’t find me. The guard said: “I’ll come back.” Well, it was three or four times they came. Finally, I got fed up with it. I told him, “Next time they come, I’ll go with them.” So finally they came and I was in the next bunk and I said O.K., so they took me down to the buildings where the sergeants and all were. They said, “Have a seat. We’ve got another sergeant in barracks so-and-so.” Well he was pulling the same deal I was. Well I waited a half an hour and they couldn’t find him. Finally I said: “Hey, I’m going back to my barracks. When you find the other guy you can come down and get me.” Well, when they come down to get me I was gone again. I don’t know how long we put them off but it was a long while. Finally I did go up and he took me up to the commanding officers up in the upper part of the camp, and this German officer started questioning me. He showed me the fuses that I had. Before I went, the guy that we elected as camp commander told me, “When you get up there, you deny everything. You admit absolutely nothing.” So I get up there and he starts questioning me. He spoke good English. He showed me the fuses, “Ah,” he says, “You made these fuses.” I says, “Fuses? Those are fuses?” He says, “Yeah.” I says, “Fuses for what?” He says, “For the electricity.” I says, “We got fuses in America too but they don’t look nothing like that.” Well he says, “You made them.” I said, “I never made them, I never saw them before. I don’t even know what the hell they are.” Then he had a whole bunch of copper wire, I don’t know where the hell he got it; he didn’t get it from me. That was supposed to have been mine. He says, “And this is the wire you used.” I said: “No, I never saw that before either.” He kept questioning me and questioning me and finally he just sat down at the type writer and started typing. He got all through and he handed me the letter that he typed. It’s all in German. I said, “I can’t read German. I can’t speak German, so I can’t read German.” Oh, he said: “I’ll interpret it for you.” So he reads it in English. I said, “I don’t know if that letter says.” He said, “Well sign it.” I said, “Well no, I can’t sign it. I don’t know that what you read is what’s in that letter so I said I wouldn’t sign it. “Oh,” he says, “You refuse to sign it?” I said, “That’s right. I refuse to sign.” So he wrote on the letter that I refused to sign, or he said he wrote something, that I refused to sign. So I didn’t sign it. Well, all they could’ve done to me was put me in the “boob” which is solitary confinement, bread and water for how many days, you know? But by this time they were all getting pretty nervous themselves, with the Russians getting close, and they knew at that time that we were going to be marched out of the camp, because it was right after that that they did march us out of the camp. So I never did get put into the “boob”, never got anything done to me for it.
SS: So that whole time, did you guys have hope? Were you able to think that, you said that you did think that you’d see the United States again, but were you able to keep positive?
EL: Oh, yes. You know you saw these American bombers flying over, sometimes it’d last all day long flying over us. The ones from Italy were coming up, and the ones from England coming down. Then they started flying shuttles into Russia, so they were going across. So you saw planes quite often all day long. In fact, there was a bunch of B-24s that came over and they were flying very low. You could look up and you could almost see the men in them they were flying so low. The camp where we were, was in Krems, Austria. We were up on top of a hill. It was just like a shear drop off down to Krems, which was a marshalling yard. Well the B-24s came over and they would come over using Krems as a target. So we’re there, we see these planes that are flying low. We’re all hollering and yelling. The guys are up in the roof of the barracks, waving and having a hell of a time. Of course, the German guards were hollering at us to cut it out but we didn’t pay no attention to them. The camp was just a very short distance from the edge of this cliff. Well they flew over the camp, you’d see the bomb bay doors open, see the bombs go down, and they’d go down behind the cliff. A little while later you’d see all this smoke and debris coming up. So they’d bombed the marshalling yard. Then at night we could see the RAF bomb Vienna. They would send the mosquito bombers over first as pathfinders, and they would drop these flares to light up the area and then they would come in and drop their bombs within this area that was lit up. So, you know you saw plenty of action that way.
SS: Were you able to write back and forth?
EL: Yes. They allowed us, not too often, about every six months or something like that, they’d give you one letter, one thing for a letter and they’d give you a couple of cards, like postcards and you could write on them. Then it went out, I guess, through the Red Cross. My folks did get a few of them. I’ve got them in a book over there. I still got some of them that my folks got from me.
Elizabeth: And a letter his parents got that he was missing in action.
SS: So this kind of thing went on all the way until your forced march and you met up with Patton’s troops. Once you went through all that, what was it like to come home again? Or did they ship you home after you ran into Patton?
EL: Well, like I say, we stayed at, what was the name of that camp?
SS: The one you called the Lucky Strike?
EL: Lucky Strike. You’ve got a better memory. My memory, you can see how my memory is. Camp Lucky Strike. In fact, Eisenhower came through there when I was there. I saw him. We were there probably a week or so, maybe longer. And of course they put us on strict food. No spices or anything. Everything was bland and it tasted like bland. My radio operator and I, we were able to leave the base, get passes, we went down to the harbor, all these liberty ships and all were down there. Go down there and we would shoot the bull with the guys on the liberty ships. They’d take us in there give us cigarettes, give us candy, give us meals, and I mean anything you wanted to eat and it was delicious. So we’d go in there and we’d eat and they treated us like kings. So we ate good, that part was good. We lived through Camp Lucky Strike, it was all tents. We lived in these big tents. We were probably there a week or two, probably a couple of weeks before they finally put us on this liberty ship. It was supposed to take three hundred men, that could sleep on it. So they put six hundred men on it. Sleep in shifts, this group sleeps during the day, this group sleeps during the night. Well, most guys ended up, they were on deck and everything else. Eight days we were on that damn ship. The first three days all I did was get seasick. Every day I’d go down and try to get to the mess hall to eat. You had to go through the generating room to get to the mess hall. The smell and fumes in that generating room, I’d just get sicker than hell and I’d have to get up on deck and barf. For three days I did that, then I finally got over it. Man, I was sick.
SS: Where did you get to in the United States?
EL: We got to the United States and come in to New York at night time, foggier than hell. The next morning it was still foggy. Finally, when the fog cleared, all you could see was these liberty ships all over the harbors, you know? You could see the Statue of Liberty, you could see the welcome back, and all that stuff, signs up there. But how them ships ever got into that harbor, as close as they were to each other and not hit anybody, was unbelievable. We finally got off the ships and were taken into a railroad, I guess. I guess it was a railroad. Taken to Camp Kilmore, I think it was, in New Jersey. I think it was Camp Kilmore. Of course, they went over all you, questioned you and got all your information and they give you so much of your pay that you had coming to you, so you could get home and stuff like that. And then they mailed the balance to you after that. So, we were there probably a week. They give you all your clothing and everything that you needed. Then they sent you home for a sixty day furlough, which wasn’t hard to take. So we got home and I had a good time at home. That was near the end of May or first part of June, because after the sixty days I had to report to Atlantic City to the boardwalk. They had the two biggest hotels on the boardwalk. One was for the officers and one was for the enlisted men. They had other groups that went up to, what’s that ski place in New York?
SS: Lake Placid?
EL: Lake Placid, they had another group of guys. All over the country depending on where you lived. I had to go to Atlantic City and I was in Atlantic City when they dropped the A-bombs. I was in Atlantic City when the war ended in the Pacific. I’ll tell you, that place went wild! It was unbelievable. The next day there was so many roles of toilet paper hanging from the trees you couldn’t see anything. Hanging over the hotel windows and everything else. Fantastic!
SS: When you were there, was that for outprocessing, or were they going to ship you someplace else?
EL: Oh, we were still in the service. If the war didn’t end over there, our ass would’ve been shipped to the Pacific.
SS: So did you understand what was going on with the atomic bomb? What it was?
EL: Not really, because we hadn’t heard of it, you know? Until we got home, that was all I knew about the atomic bomb. I didn’t know that much about it, except what I found out in Atlantic City.
SS: So, how did that make you feel?
EL: All the guys were very happy. They all cheered and everything. I was with them. I felt that no matter what you could do to Japan, you could never repay them for what they did to us. That’s the way I felt. You know, if you’re having a war, you declare war, you know it’s there. That’s one thing. But to do what they did, I never went along with that, and I still don’t.
SS: From Atlantic City, what happened to you? Did you get discharged after that?
EL: Well, like I said, they got everything pretty well straightened out; they had our records and everything there. Then the war was over so then they started discharging you. You got discharged by points. I think you had to have eighty-six points at the time, when it started, to get out and I had probably eighty-three or eighty-four or eighty-two, somewhere in there. So I wasn’t able to get out right then and there. So they sent me to Dover, Delaware. Just a place to put you was all it was. I went in myself and another buddy of mine that was in the prison camp, he lived in Bridgeport, and another guy that lived in Springfield, Mass. The three of us got put into the carpenter shop. So we went to the carpenter shop every morning and sat there on the benches and shot the bull. Come noontime, I had bought a car, so I took my car there, we’d go to the post office, we’d go over to PX and get something to eat, then back to the base and sit on the benches again until you went back to the barracks. Every weekend we’d take off for home, we’d come home. No, I didn’t have my car then, I had it a little later because the kid that lived in Springfield, he had his car and he was going back and forth on weekends with his car. So then my buddy from Bridgeport and I and him would all travel in his car. We’d drop him off, drop me off then he’d go home and pick us up when we come back. We shared the expenses. We did that. A week before I got discharged, I was there, like I said, we were home every weekend. Then I put in for another furlough, so I come home for another week. I told my master sergeant, who was the leader, my master sergeant anyway, he was in charge. I said, “Now, if my name comes up for discharge, just give me a call and I’ll be right back.” I can make it in one day to Dover, Delaware. He said, “O.K.” So I come home for a week. The day before I had to go back, my buddy from Bridgeport came home for a week. He said, “Your name came up for discharge.” I said, “That son of a B he didn’t call me.” So I got to go back tomorrow, there’s no sense to rush it. The next day I went back, and I had my car. I had it, in fact I came home with it. So I had it and I had permission to bring it on the base. So I went back and I went into the orderly room and I chewed him up and down. I didn’t care what he said or did to me. I didn’t care. He couldn’t hurt me anymore so I told him what I thought of him. So I said, “Now when the hell do I get discharged?” He says, “It might be tomorrow, it might be a month from now.” He says, “When they want so many men, then you go.” I was there probably another week and I finally got up for discharge and I had to go to the orderly room and he handed me a ticket for the train. I said, “I don’t go on the train. I’ve got my car. I’m driving.” He says, “Oh no you’re not, you got train tickets now.” I says, “Buddy, I got my car. I ain’t taking no damn train.” He says, “Well, you don’t have permission to bring that car on the base.” He said, “Yes I do.” I had written permission and I had to show it to him. So he had to eat them train tickets and give me expenses for my car. He was very unhappy. But I drove home. I was supposed to go to Westover Air Force Base. I drove home; I stayed over night. I was stupid. I should’ve stayed a couple more because it was a damn weekend. The next day I went to Westover Air Force base. It was a weekend and they weren’t discharging anybody on the weekend anyway. So I had to sit around there for a couple of days and I finally got discharged. That was when, I think I told you at the beginning about having flat feet and they wouldn’t let me enlist. So when I got there and got discharged, right at the end when we got discharged, they called me up to give me the Purple Heart. Then the officer told me, he says, “Oh,” he says, “You got ten percent disability for flat feet. There wasn’t anything on your record about flat feet,” but he says, “you got flat feet.” They found it when I got discharged but they didn’t find it when they drafted me. So they had to give me disability. I told them, I was born with them. Well, he says, “I’m sorry, it don’t show on your military records, you’ve got to get disability.” So I got $13.50 a month discharge disability.
SS: Did you wind up, they initiated the GI Bill when you got back, did you take advantage of any of the benefits?
EL: Yes, I started going down to New Haven Airport and learning how to fly. I mean I had flew the B-17 because the pilot trained, had all the guys fly it, just in case. But he trained me the most because I was right up there in the cockpit. But I started taking flight lessons. I had about fourteen solo missions in at the time and I was down there for another flight when this Vaught Corsair come in off the water. If he’d have kept right on coming, he could’ve landed right on that runway. But for some reason, he turned. He was coming this way and he made a turn that way out and around to come in the runway going that way. He got almost to the runway, I’d say within a block and a half-two blocks, and he went down. He landed in a lot, right between all the houses, he landed in the lot, bounced, landed right in the middle of the road. Right across the street from the road was a big cliff and he ended up right in that road. He got killed, took the top of his head off. I was in the airport waiting to go up for a flight when that happened. So we all jumped in our cars and went across the field. We was there before any cops, fire engines or anything were there. You know, we were the first ones there. There was nothing you could do. I didn’t go up and fly that day and I didn’t go back anymore.
SS: Oh really?
EL: So I never took any more lessons but I had 14 hours of solo time. I’ve flown a lot of time since, but not on my own.
SS: What did you wind up doing for work and whatnot after the war?
EL: Well, before the war I worked mostly at Echlins and after the war I went back to Echlins. They’re automotive replacement parts. Then when I left Echlins, I went to a couple other jobs. But I ended up most of my time in Winchester making guns. I spent probably twenty-five, six, seven years in Winchesters.
SS: When did you guys meet?
EL: When did I meet this one?
SS: Her father and I worked together at Winchesters. He was a fisherman and I was a fisherman. So her father and I went to Lake Moosehead up in Maine for a week of fishing. While him and I were there, her sister and her brother-in-law, and what’d they have, two kids, and her came up there. Her brother-in-law, they owned some land at Moosehead Lake and her father and I were staying on an island just outside from where their property was. So I met her there at Moosehead Lake. We went together for almost a year before I could get my divorce and get married. I’ve been putting up with her ever since!
SS: What do you think today, just to get back to the war for a minute, what do you think about how it’s portrayed? Do you agree with how people think of the war?
EL: Well, I think too much of it was forgotten. I think they stopped teaching it in school or something, I don’t know. The kids just don’t seem to know that much about it. I blame myself also because my kids didn’t know much about it either. In fact, the night that I gave my speech up at the Army-Airforce Roundtable of Connecticut, I think it was Brian that says, my son Brian who’s the youngest one, he said “I can’t believe I had to come up here to find out what you did during the war.” I said, “Hey, all you had to do was ask me. If there was something you wanted to know about the war, all you had to do was ask me and I’d have been glad to tell you.” But it seemed like none of the kids were interested in war. They had no interest it in whatsoever.
Elizabeth: Another thing too though, they would ask you about the war and you would say a couple things and that’s it. You weren’t ready to talk about it.
EL: Well, maybe I wasn’t.
Elizabeth: The kids, at different points, wanted to know about it but he would just turn them off. The only time he really came out and talked was at the meeting. And then at that, it was with the guys that belonged to his group at the sessions we’d talk too. Then he started coming out with it.
EL: It was funny because all my kids and their wives and everything, they were all out there the night I gave the talk.
SS: Well, we’ve had a really good talk. You’ve gone over a lot of things, a long time span. You’ve had a lot of unique experiences that you went through. I think it’s a pretty unique story too. Is there anything else that you feel like you should add? Something else you’d like to say about the whole story?
EL: Well, one thing that bothered me was in the prison camp. There were two guys that were going to escape. One of them was from in my barracks. He was probably four or five bunks down from me. You’ve got to remember, each bunk held eight men. So he was four or five down. So he was probably forty guys away from me. He was one of the guys that was going to escape. I think, I don’t know just what barracks the other one was from. They were waiting until it snowed and their plans were to put white sheets over them and to go out and climb the fence. They really had no plans at all. I, personally, and most of the guys also, believe that the Germans knew that they had these plans but this night they went out and the shooting started. Right in back of my barracks, each compound had four barracks and a barbed wire fence and then four more barracks. On the other side of the street was another compound and a wire fence and another compound. Well, they were climbing one of the fences and the Germans just kept shooting at them and killed them. Bullets were flying all over the place. One of the guys laying in his top bunk in the barracks right across from us had a bullet come right up through his ass and right into his thigh. That was the only other one that got injured that I know of. But they did kill both the guys from our barracks. Then, whenever, the cemetery was down at the far end of the camp. You couldn’t see it but there was a grove of trees down there and whenever anybody died or was buried, they had to march across the back of our compound to the cemetery. So, almost every morning we’d see them marching with Russians, because they treated the Russians something terrible. Most of them were dying of starvation and freezing. They’d be anywhere from one to four, five or six bodies every morning marched down to the grave. Whenever we were, if we were out in the yard, whenever they marched them by, we’d all stand and salute when we were out in the yard. Of course, the Germans didn’t like that but they couldn’t stop us. When they killed these two guys, the morning they were going to bury them, they sent orders that we were not to go out and stand in salute. We were to completely ignore it. Well, we were just as stubborn as they were. The whole camp, all the barracks together from the other side of the street, the whole camp all come into the side compound. We had the American flag there. I don’t remember, I think they had a bugle or a coronet or whatever, and they played the taps and we all stood there and saluted when these two guys went by. The Germans didn’t do a thing about it. They threatened us but they knew. What the hell could they do to the whole camp, you know? If we didn’t stick together, of course there could’ve been more injuries, really.
SS: How many guys were at this camp again?
EL: Practically four thousand at this camp.
SS: How many Germans do you think were there, guards and whatnot?
EL: The camp itself was very, very big. There were only four thousand American airmen but the rest of the camp was probably four to six times larger than our area. But it was all different countries. There were men from Serbia, Russia and Poland. Those guys were all taken out and they all worked out on farms. Occasionally they’d bring them back in. Then the Russians, when they were transporting them when they were captured, and they were bringing them from where the war was actually happening with Russia, they would keep them over there in our camp for a day or two and buried them and marched them out somewhere else. So there wasn’t that many. But you see, an American POW who was sergeant or higher in rank, they could not make you work. They could put you in charge of a work detail, but they could not make you work if you were a sergeant or above. So, anyway, if an American personnel that was flying and for some reason he got busted to a buck private, which happened quite often, and he flew on a mission. When he crossed the English Channel, he was a sergeant. When he come back and crossed the English Channel, he was a private again. So if he got shot down, he was a sergeant. That way, they couldn’t make him work and he had to be treated as a sergeant.
SS: So, the Americans, it sounds like at least, were treated differently than the other prisoners?
EL: Absolutely. There was no comparison whatsoever. They didn’t have that many guards. They had a shack on every corner of our camp and there were two guards up there. They had a machine gun. They had their rifles and then, of course, and there was between our camp and the next camp, a double fence, a fence about that far apart where the guards could walk down through it. It was all barbed wire. And then inside our yard, the compound, they’d be twenty feet to the fence, there was a single strand of wire on a post, maybe about two feet high. We were not allowed to go over that wire, otherwise the guards would shoot. And it was all full of tin cans. They had dumped all the tin cans from our Red Cross parcels. That’s where they used to dump them. So at night, if anybody would try to escape, the cans would make noise. If you were out in the yard playing ball or something, and the ball went over that fence, you had to get the guards attention and get permission to go over the fence to get the ball. Then they used to take us out, every once in a while, and like I say we always gave them a hard time, and they’d do what they could to get even with us. So, every once in a while they’d come in early in the morning, just about daybreak, make us get everything we had and go out in the yard, all our food, clothing and everything and go out in the yard. They were going to inspect the barracks. Well, sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. But we’d be out in the yard all day long from early morning, until night time. And being Americans, we were the usual ball busters. The Germans just loved American cigarettes. So, if you were going to light up a cigarette, you’d try to get where the guard used to walk around in the compound with us when they took us out there, with their rifles on their shoulders when they’re walking around. You’d kind of get one, most of them could speak some English, you’d try to get one of them who you knew could speak some English and you’d get them to stand there and you’d take out a cigarette. As you took it out, you’d drop one on the ground. Then you’d light up and you’d take your foot and you’d take that cigarette on the ground and squash it to hell so there was no way that he was going to be able to pick it up and smoke it. You’d stand there and blow the smoke so it would get at him. Then, they’re marching around the yard with their rifles over their shoulders. The guys used to sneak up and take sand and pour it down the barrel of their rifle, pick dandelions and buttercups and put them in the end of the barrel. They’d be walking around with flowers and an officer would come and chew their asses out. You know, I mean we did everything we could to irritate them. We did a pretty good job.
SS: I’m surprised they didn’t just take the cigarettes from the Red Cross packages.
EL: It’s funny they didn’t. Then you were also allowed personal packages from home every so often. I got one in all the nineteen months that I was there. The only thing that I ever got was a carton of Prince Albert pipe tobacco, which I wanted like a hole in the head. I don’t know who told my mother to send me that. That was the only thing I got and you couldn’t even sell it for anything, you know, because nobody wanted it, because actually, cigarettes were the money of the camp. When there were a lot of cigarettes, all your food and everything was bought with cigarettes. You could buy any food you wanted if you had the cigarettes. You played poker, and you played with cigarettes. If you didn’t have cigarettes, you could be hurting. So, you used to get about five packs I think, three to five packs in a carton, a food parcel. Then, people would mail in cartons of cigarettes. My mother never did. Why, I don’t know. I never got them. A lot of them were just mailed from home and you’d get cartons of cigarettes. Most of the time there was always plenty of cigarettes. There was one time when cigarettes got pretty scarce but other than that we had cigarettes practically all of the time. The food parcels, there was quite a while there when we went without food parcels. If it was the Germans, or what, or if they got bombed or who knows? It was kind of tough, trying to eat that German food or whatever, you know?
SS: Did you wind up smoking cigarettes after the war?
EL: Oh, I smoked long before that, and I smoked long after that. I smoked pack, pack and a half a day for years. And I quit and I went back and I quit and I went back and then I finally quit and I’ve been doing good. No, I smoked a lot of cigarettes.
SS: Does it make you feel better to talk about it? To talk about your experience and the POW camp?
EL: I don’t mind it a bit. It don’t bother me at all. What makes me feel better about it is the fact that maybe somebody might get to read this that might get something out of it as to what the war was like, what people had to go through, you know? Unless somebody tells you, you’re not going to know. If you don’t read a book, you’re not going to know.
Elizabeth: Our grandson, when he went to high school, he said, “It’s amazing that the kids do not believe to day about Auschwitz. That’s sad.
SS: What do you think about the younger generation today that’s coming up? Say the generation of people that are the same age that you were when the war started? Do you think this generation would be able to do the same thing? (End of tape)