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.
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)
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)
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
Virginia Russell Reavis