Voices of the Veter­ans

Fighter pi­lots, crew chiefs, bom­bardiers, and fac­tory work­ers: All have sto­ries to tell. 73rd Bomb Wing, Pa­cific Theater. B-29 Gun­ner.

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Dur­ing World War II, the real power was not in the ma­chines, but in the peo­ple.

Our first day we ar­rived on Saipan, we were picked up at the air­port by one of the sergeants from the base, and they brought us to our quar­ters and said, “This is where you guys are go­ing to be.” We walked in, and all the beds are made, the uni­forms are hang­ing up, and ev­ery­thing’s in place. And I said to the guy, “Hey, we can’t go there, this place is oc­cu­pied.” He said, “Don’t worry about it, they’re all dead.” That’s our first day. And I re­ally got a lit­tle bit dis­cour­aged, you know. What the hell am I do­ing here? Mommy, I want to go home. The whole crew was 18 or 19. We had an old guy of 26, and we called him Pops.

There were 11 peo­ple on that plane. I was left gun­ner and my friend was right gun­ner. My twin brother was tail gun­ner. On our first raid, our best crew mem­bers that we’d gone through train­ing school with col­lided with an­other B-29, and 22 guys died right then—our first mis­sion, you know. We were 18 years old, what do we know about war? It was tough. We were all cry­ing and, oh boy, it was aw­ful, but what the hell. It hap­pens….

The B-29 was the best air­plane made at the time. It [had] re­mote con­trol gun­sights. It wasn’t hand-held like a B-17, where it’s 65 be­low zero and you’ve got this heavy suit on and you’re freez­ing to death. We were air-con­di­tioned and heated. My guns were 40 feet away from me. I never touched a ma­chine gun. I had a con­trol. As long as I kept [Ja­panese air­planes] in the ret­i­cle of the gun­sight, the­o­ret­i­cally the com­puter would track it and would shoot it down. The­o­ret­i­cally…

There was a con­stant fear of [kamikazes]. See, the Ger­mans and the B-17s in Eu­rope, at least those guys knew they were fight­ing a nor­mal war. I don’t know of any case of a Ger­man fighter plane crash­ing into a B-17 pur­posely. But the Ja­panese would do it. If they could knock down a B-29 with one plane, they would do it. Any­thing.

We de­stroyed that coun­try. We ab­so­lutely dec­i­mated it. That war was won by Air Force power alone—not the atomic bomb. All the atomic bomb did was de­stroy a city and has­ten the sur­ren­der of Ja­pan. To­ward the end of the war we’d

THE STO­RIES THAT FOL­LOW come from veter­ans of World War II air com­bat, re­call­ing many decades later events that hap­pened in their youth, dur­ing the 20th cen­tury’s most vi­o­lent years. Like many veter­ans, they have shared their sto­ries in lec­tures and in­ter­views, which are pre­served in archives large and small through­out the coun­try. In this way, the vivid voices of the Amer­i­cans who fought 70 years ago, ac­cept­ing ca­su­al­ties that would be un­think­able to­day, are am­pli­fied. Read more sto­ries and link to full in­ter­views at airspacemag.com/voices. Ex­cerpts have been con­densed and edited for clar­ity.

go over five or six tar­gets a night, drop pam­phlets and say: One of these ci­ties is go­ing to be bombed to­mor­row, we want women and chil­dren out of this town.

Never con­sid­ered as to whether I was killing ba­bies or dogs or an­i­mals or noth­ing. We were do­ing a job and that’s all we cared about. We wanted to go over there, de­stroy the ci­ties, burn the ci­ties. We had fire raids over Tokyo, Kobe, Yoko­hama, Nagoya, where 300 to 500 B-29s flew over there and dropped fire bombs. We de­stroyed 27 square miles of Tokyo, one night. We could see the flames for hun­dreds of miles. We could smell the smoke. We were only at 10,000 feet. We just burned the be­je­sus out of that town. But that was war. We weren’t con­trite, we were happy be­cause we knew we were do­ing a great job. (Source: LOC) 303rd Bomb Group and First Scout­ing Force, Euro­pean Theater. B-17 and P-51 pi­lot.

RICHARD LEO SMITH

Ev­ery [B-17 bomb­ing] mis­sion we went on, the flak was so heavy you could put your wheels down and taxi on it. It was a black cloud. And out of that came all of these fight­ers. We went to Wies­baden on the 15th of Au­gust, 1944. My squadron, the 360th, had 36 air­planes in it. And the first time we ever saw any Focke-wulf 190s was over that tar­get. A hun­dred of them made one pass, and shot down 12 of those 36 air­planes. Our num­ber-3 engine quit, and we feath­ered the prop and made it back. The tire was blown on that side, and we ended up in a field.

We were sit­ting in the of­fi­cers’ club that night, and the crew chief comes in and says, “I found out why your num­ber-3 engine quit—i dug this out of the su­per­charger.” And he held up a 20-mil­lime­ter shell. He says, “It went through your num­ber-3 main tank, blew the tire on the right side, and stopped in the su­per­charger. And here’s why you’re still alive.” He pours out a bunch of sand [from the shell] and says, “Some Pol­ish slave la­borer had filled it full of sand in­stead of gun­pow­der.” That’s why I’m still here. (Source: LOC)

STAN­LEY “SWEDE” VEJTASA

Navy fighter pi­lot, Pa­cific Theater. A dou­ble ace, Vejtasa once downed seven Ja­panese air­planes in a sin­gle mis­sion.

[Early in the Pa­cific war] we still had this gun­sight in our SBDS [Daunt­less dive bombers], and we’d usu­ally go into a strike [from] above 20,000 feet. When we went into a dive, be­cause of the cold air in the cock­pit [and] on the gun­sight and the glass, as soon as we tipped over and came down, ev­ery­thing fogged over. That was a de­fi­ciency that was crit­i­cal, so for a while we had to roll the [canopy] open. That’s not very com­fort­able div­ing in the SBD with the cock­pit open, but we had to…

We tried var­i­ous types of tac­tics [to fight against Ja­panese Ze­ros]. We learned cer­tain things that we couldn’t do, more than any­thing else. He could out-turn us, but we could meet him head-on with the [Daunt­less]. This ac­tu­ally worked pretty well…

[ On one bomb­ing run] my gun­sight fogged over, so I pulled out and went back up and rolled over for an­other at­tack on a ship down be­low. And when I pulled out of that one, I heard my French gun­ner in the rear seat who, when he got ex­cited, never said a word in English. He was on the speaker re­ally go­ing at it in French, and I looked back and here was a Zero on my tail…. We ended up mak­ing three or four head-on runs [at each other], and I fi­nally got on him and I hit him. I had him on fire leav­ing a smoke trail. As he dove away, he was burn­ing.

With the [faster] F4F [Wild­cat] we had the fire­power, 50-cal­ibers, and we could fire at quite a range. The nice thing about the gun on the F4F, with those guns in the wings, they were at a level, and pairs could be aimed to cross at dif­fer­ent ranges to achieve a cylin­der of fire.

One thing we learned about the Zero, if he got on your tail at alti­tude, you might as well dive away, be­cause you could prob­a­bly out-dive him. At high speed he was a lit­tle less ma­neu­ver­able than was the F4F. On straight and level, of course, he was a lit­tle faster too. So it was a real con­test as far as fight­ers were con­cerned. A lot had to do with pi­lot abil­ity. (Source: NMPW)

MAR­JORIE WAL­TERS

Riveter on the B-24 wing, Ford fac­tory, Yp­si­lanti, Michi­gan.

We had dif­fer­ent [train­ing] schools; they called them schools. I went to rivet school. I took to it pretty quickly…. I could look at a screw at that time and tell you how many threads there were and what kind of a screw it was and so forth. They num­bered the wings, and when I started we were in the 30s. I worked un­til they closed down the plant, and they were in the 8,000s.

Some [ of the work­ers] chewed [to­bacco], be­cause they couldn’t smoke out there and they would spit any­place. Some­times when you got into the wing it wasn’t very san­i­tary. It just dried up.

The fac­tory was huge…. We weren’t

al­lowed to go to dif­fer­ent de­part­ments un­less you had per­mis­sion. And I never got to the end of the plant where the planes were re­ally as­sem­bled. I worked in depart­ment 937, a hor­i­zon­tal wing, but 936 was ver­ti­cal and that’s about the only two de­part­ments I got near. I met my hus­band there, un­der the wing.

(Source: Air & Space In­ter­view)

BUD AN­DER­SON 357th Fighter Group, Euro­pean Theater. A triple ace, he flew P-51s.

On my sec­ond tour…i picked a brand­new [P-51] D-model, a clas­sic Mus­tang. We were still cam­ou­flag­ing them dark green, [but] we were [also] start­ing to get all-sil­ver air­planes and not both­er­ing to paint them. In No­vem­ber of ’44 I was fly­ing a mis­sion, and the first big snow had hit Ger­many—i mean, it was just solid white. I looked down at these two air­planes [in our for­ma­tion] that were sil­ver, and two that were dark cam­ou­flaged, and which ones stood out? It was the cam­ou­flaged ones.

So I got back from this mis­sion and said to the crew chief, “Hey, if this thing’s laid up for heavy main­te­nance, down for a cou­ple of days, would you please de-paint it and put it in a nat­u­ral alu­minum paint scheme?” I put it to him on the ba­sis of “It might save my butt,” but frankly, I thought the sil­ver paint scheme was a lit­tle cooler than our green paint scheme.

I come out [the next] morn­ing, and there’s my Mus­tang in gleam­ing alu­minum. I looked at these guys, and they were kind of stand­ing there at at­ten­tion, and I looked at their hands, and their hands were raw, bloody [from the steel wool used to strip the paint]. The mo­ment I left that af­ter­noon they had started work­ing on that air­plane…. I al­ways tell that story about how mo­ti­vated our sup­port guys were. I can’t say enough about our crew chiefs. (Source: NASS)

JAMES L. LARKIN 84th Troop Car­rier Squadron, Euro­pean Theater. Glider pi­lot.

We got to the French coast and we were all in for­ma­tion, and…we flew into a hail of anti-air­craft fire the likes of which you’ve never seen. Then we hit a cloud bank that wasn’t sup­posed to be there. Sup­posed to be no clouds, and we hit a cloud bank.

I was talk­ing to my pi­lots [of the C-47

Larkin de­scribes fly­ing his Waco CG-4A glider into Nor­mandy on D-day. The glider, at­tached to a 350-foot ny­lon rope, was towed by a C-47.

tow­plane], and they stopped talk­ing when we were in that cloud. The next thing you know, my air­speed nee­dle was up, up, up, up, from 105 miles an hour— which was sup­posed to be our cruis­ing speed—my air­speed in­di­ca­tor was read­ing 190. And it was red­lined at 175 or some­thing. You talk about wild! Ev­ery shud­der and shake, I thought the [glider] was go­ing to come apart. But I didn’t know what was go­ing on. I had no idea. I was in a cloud and I was fol­low­ing the rope.

All of a sud­den the rope starts [climb­ing] up. I fol­low off after it and we come out of the cloud up on top. There’s the [C-47], both en­gines run­ning, and I’m still [at­tached]. Back into the cloud the air­plane goes again, then it picked up air­speed and pulled us down with it and ran our air­speed in­di­ca­tor up against the peg. Came out [of the cloud] a sec­ond time. Crazy deal! But there’s my [tow] air­plane, both en­gines run­ning. Moon shin­ing. I could see him. He rolled over on his side and dis­ap­peared into the cloud. When that rope came tight, it broke. And there I was, 900 feet over Nor­mandy and 25 miles from the land­ing zone.

What hap­pened is, the pi­lots must have been killed, and had the power set­tings all set. And the air­plane just went crazy with­out any con­trol. Any­how, they found the air­plane a cou­ple months later, in a patch of woods about 30 miles from where the line broke. And all the guys in it, they were all dead. (Source: RWN)

NOR­MAN WES­LEY ACHEN 334th Fighter Squadron, Euro­pean Theater. P-51 pi­lot.

It was not too many days after D-day, maybe a week or 10 days. We went out on a straf­ing mis­sion some­where in front of the troops off of Nor­mandy. I

was fly­ing on the left flank—that was the low­est guy in the squadron at that time. Com­ing down a road over to the left was a car, three or four miles down the road. And who­ever was lead­ing the squadron said, “Who­ever is on the left flank take that staff car out—it’s a Ger­man staff car.” I peeled off and went on down and got my guns in po­si­tion. On the P-51 we car­ried four 50-cal­iber ma­chine guns. As I pulled the trig­ger to get the staff car it came to a stop and three guys jumped out. And this large amount of 50-cal­iber stuff hit them.

I didn’t tell my fam­ily about this for 50 years. I couldn’t talk about it. I have trou­ble now with it. That’s the first time I’d ever killed any­body, and it wasn’t a nice look­ing thing, be­cause those shells are heavy, and the [Ger­mans] were just danc­ing in that [fire].

I think I froze on the guns, and there was a build­ing right be­hind [the staff car] and I just barely pulled up. Then I threw up in my oxy­gen mask, and that’s not a place to throw up. I ripped it off, and then I threw up again and sprayed it all over. Be­ing a so­phis­ti­cated fighter pi­lot, to throw up was an em­bar­rass­ing thing. You had to take the air­plane home for some­body to clean up. If you [threw up] in train­ing you had to clean it your­self, but I never had that prob­lem.

I knew I was through for the day, and I just asked the com­man­der, I said, “I want to abort and go home.” And he said, “Fine.” They sent two air­planes, [fly­ing] much higher than I was, to es­cort me back to Eng­land. The crew chiefs who took care of my air­plane were much more so­phis­ti­cated than I was. They just lifted me out and said, “Don’t worry, ev­ery­thing’s okay.” I wanted to clean it my­self. They didn’t take me to the ready room, which they nor­mally would. They didn’t want any­body who looked like I did and smelled like I did in the ready room. The hell with that. So they took me to my room. I went and sat with my fly­ing suit on un­der the shower and got cleaned up, then went back to my room. The chap­lain showed up and tried to get me to dis­cuss this with him, and I didn’t want to at the mo­ment. Fi­nally, I asked the chap­lain, and he was sit­ting on the bunk with me, “Have you ever killed any­body?” And I re­mem­ber this so well, he said, “No, that’s not my mis­sion. When you get ready we’ll talk.”

JAR­MAN G. KEN­NARD 98th Bomb Group, Eu­rope and North Africa. B-24 nav­i­ga­tor.

Our group com­man­der was Colonel Kane. And he was quite a char­ac­ter, re­minded us a lit­tle of Teddy Roo­sevelt. He was big, burlier than most of us. On a train­ing flight once, he was in the right-hand seat, that’s the copi­lot seat. He thought his wind­shield was dirty, so he picked up a piece of cot­ton waste, opened his win­dow, reached around, and wiped his wind­shield. The young lieu­tenant fly­ing left side thought his wind­shield was dirty too— he picked up the cot­ton waste, opened the win­dow, stuck his arm out, and the wind­stream slammed his arm back. He thought bet­ter of the sit­u­a­tion, pulled in his arm, and closed the win­dow. Of course the colonel had been do­ing this for ten years.

Colonel Kane liked to chew to­bacco on mis­sions, even when wear­ing an oxy­gen mask. When he would work up a good cud, he would raise his mask, open up his side win­dow, and let fly. Un­for­tu­nately, the air stream was such that the waist gun­ners would re­ceive the ben­e­fit. Pi­lots that flew with the colonel passed the word that when the colonel reached for his win­dow, the other pi­lot would press his mi­cro­phone but­ton, which would click in ev­ery­one’s ear­phones, and the waist gun­ners would duck. (Source: LOC)

(Source: LOC)

RICHARD C. KIRK­LAND Ninth Fighter Squadron, Pa­cific Theater. P-38 and P-47 pi­lot.

Dou­glas Macarthur’s re­turn to the Philip­pines in Oc­to­ber 1944—[for] the Bat­tle of Leyte—didn’t get the pub­lic­ity the Nor­mandy land­ing did, but it was the largest land­ing in the Pa­cific. The air­dome on Leyte was sup­posed to be com­plete three days after the land­ing. Our Ninth Fighter Squadron was or­dered to be ready to go then [fly­ing P-38 Light­nings]. But one of the Navy car­ri­ers had been sunk, forc­ing all those pi­lots to land on this lit­tle mud strip be­fore we even ar­rived. It was just a sea

of mud, so they all crashed, of course. I don’t think any were killed. There was a pile of about 15 F-6FS all stacked and crashed all over the place. They had to take bull­doz­ers and push them off to the side to make room for our air­craft.

We got there, and [the con­troller] said, “We’re not ready for you.” And our squadron com­man­der said, “You’d bet­ter be, be­cause we don’t have the fuel to go home.” So the con­troller said, “We’ve got 1,500 feet of [tem­po­rary run­way] for you to land on.” All of us cringed, be­cause it takes 2,200 feet to land a P-38. But we had no choice.

When it was my turn to land, I saw this nar­row strip of metal, which turned out to be a line of wrecked Navy fight­ers. But all 16 of us landed. There were a cou­ple of smashed noses and some smok­ing brakes, but we all made it. That was the good news. The bad news was, we had barely got­ten our air­craft lined up when the kamikazes came in and blew up about half of them. We were al­most back to square one. It was a mess. And it was just one raid right after an­other, of kamikazes and then Ja­panese bombers, all that night. We were bombed 52 times that night…. I think I saw more ac­tion in the Bat­tle of Leyte than I did all the rest of my tour in World War II. (Source: NASS)

VIR­GINIA RUS­SELL REAVIS 810th Med­i­cal Air Evac­u­a­tion Squadron, Euro­pean Theater.

The first time I went over [to Eu­rope] was D-day plus five, be­cause they had to get land­ing strips [ready] for the planes to come in. We were in old cargo [air­planes], and we con­verted them into air am­bu­lances. We had about 24 lit­ters. The [ground] am­bu­lances would come up with lit­ters, and we would put them on our planes.

They were bring­ing [wounded sol­diers] into the field hos­pi­tals, and they were just kind of clean­ing them up and send­ing them to us. Some would have grass all over them, and they all looked alike. You know, they were just men in uni­forms. My sec­ond time out, we had a whole plane full, and this one on the very bot­tom was moan­ing and groan­ing. I looked at his card, and he had just had mor­phine, so I couldn’t give him any more for a while. So I said to him, “Now, let’s change your po­si­tion. These are aw­fully un­com­fort­able, these old can­vas stretch­ers. Maybe this will help.” And he started talk­ing in Ger­man…. I didn’t know he was Ger­man till he started talk­ing, be­cause [the medics] were just bring­ing us wounded.

[An Amer­i­can soldier] over on the lit­ter next to him had just been fight­ing…. His bud­dies had been killed, and here was a Ger­man, and he was go­ing to kill him. He got up, and I was push­ing him back, and I said, “I need help.” The [air­plane’s] nav­i­ga­tor came back and he helped me. I re­mem­ber he said, “It’s Sun­day. We’re go­ing to Eng­land. The war for a while is over for you. Just take it easy.” He calmed him down.

[An­other time] I had a whole planeload of Ger­mans. It was a hard thing for me to do any­thing for them. I said, “I don’t think I can do this.” But then, I think a cou­ple of trips later, we had some [Amer­i­can] in­fantry men, and this one boy was talk­ing to me. They would all talk if you weren’t busy. He said that [his squad] had been cut off, and they had a lot of wounded. And over the loud­speaker, this Ger­man doc­tor had said, “I know you have wounded, and I know you don’t have any medic. I’m a doc­tor. They’re go­ing to cease fire. I’m com­ing over to take care of your wounded.”

That was the best thing I could hear. I thought, “This is what it’s all about. We’re all hu­man be­ings, and this is what I’m here for, just to take care of the wounded.” So I could han­dle it after that, and I felt that God had sent this pa­tient to help me. (Source: WVHP)

LEE W. BOWER JR.

485th Fighter Squadron, Euro­pean Theater. P-40, P-38, and P-51 pi­lot.

[After the war ended] they put me on a train, a troop train, to Fort Smith, Arkansas. And I was in charge of the GIS on there. It was quite an ex­pe­ri­ence. They were all hard­ened [in­fantry] troops, you know, and I was an Air Force of­fi­cer [and fighter pi­lot]. The first time I let them get off the train, I couldn’t get them all back on. So I de­cided: Well, I’ll just ap­point one of them to get off and get food and cold drinks, and the rest of them can’t get off any­more. They told me I bet­ter not go to sleep, they were go­ing to kill me. I think they would have, you know!

Com­ing back [from Eu­rope] on the Lib­erty ship, I had had a cap­tain with me who was an in­fantry of­fi­cer. They had as­signed us to get these ground troops to do chores on the ship, sweep and mop and so forth. When I got the troops up on deck, they threw all the mops in the ocean! And [the cap­tain] said, “I’ll take care of that.” You know, he knew how to han­dle them bet­ter than I did. I never had been in charge of troops. (Source: RWN)

SOURCES LOC: Veter­ans His­tory Pro­ject, Li­brary of Congress; NASS: Na­tional Air and Space So­ci­ety Lec­ture; NMPW: Na­tional Mu­seum of the Pa­cific War; RWN: R.W. Nor­ton Art Foun­da­tion Oral His­tory Pro­ject; WVHP: Betty H. Carter Women Veter­ans His­tor­i­cal Pro­ject, Univer­sity of North Carolina at Greens­boro

“Swede” Vejtasa

Vir­ginia Rus­sell Reavis

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