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Record 15/959

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Oral history interview with Robert Tank with Brad Larsen for the World War II project. He discusses his experiences in the 364th Bomb Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, 40th Combat Wing, 1st Air Division, 8th Army Air Force during the war. He was a bombadier on a B-17 stationed at Chelveston, Great Britain and was shot down by a German ME-109 on November 26, 1943 and made a POW. A typed transcript is on file and in the computer in the archives. Robert Tank Interview February 27, 2002 Conducted by Brad Larson {L: signifies Larson and T: signifies Tank} L: February 27th, 2002. We're in Menomonee Falls with Brad Larson and talking to Bob Tank. Bob, I thought we'd start out by talking a little bit about Oshkosh; when you were born and where you lived and the neighborhood that you grew up in. That sort of thing. T: Okay. Well, my birthday is March 26th, 1922. I was born in Mercy Hospital. I lived on the East Side. At that time they called it "the fish district." Over on Rosalia and Rahr Avenue right up from the lake from the Rahr Brewery. It's gone now but Rahr, they had a brewery there, right on the lake. And ah... L: What was the neighborhood like? T: Well it was a, you know, middle, average type. I suppose you'd call it middle class and I lived on Rosalia Street which was a block up from Lake Winnebago. Of course I used to sail on Lake Winnebago and I even got in some iceboating because the Oshkosh Yacht Club is right down there, you know. We had a lot of ice boating and I got to do some of that, and I did ice fishing. And of course Buckstaff had a big ah, iceboating on the lake there. I think he ranked pretty well up in the field of ice boating. He had the big one and ah, they had that on the lake too, so I'm ah, I've been near a lake most of my life and so I ah, enjoyed that and I was in the Boy Scouts of course and ah, Eagle badge. And I was in there quite a while and I was a Cub Master and Assistant Scout Master. And I even served as a custodian for the labor hall uptown. My ah, my uncle was ah, business agent for one of the unions and so on. On Saturday night I did the custodial work in the labor hall. And I always played tennis. I'm a big tennis player. I played at Oshkosh High School and ah, of course I was there at what they called the college - can't think of the word now but it was a college before it became the University of Oshkosh. So I played tennis in high school and went on there and [ ] we never lost. We were quite a power in the Fox River Valley. And I went to, after service I went to Madison to finish; I left Oshkosh as a sophomore and then I enlisted in the air force. And when I got out of the air force I came back and finished at Madison, the University of Wisconsin. I played tennis down there and - we never won down there. But I enjoyed that. I even was the pro at Rochester tennis club for a summer. Doctor [ ] up at the Mayo Clinic belonged to the club and he was a partner of the Big Ten 1902 Doubles Champion. And he came down to Madison, he looked, he was looking for somebody to take over the tennis program for the summer. And the Wisconsin coach corralled me and asked if I'd like to do it and so I ended up at Rochester as the tennis pro, giving lessons and we had a team and I played on the team. We went and played St. Paul and all the other towns, Minneapolis and other towns for the summer. So I loved tennis and been playing it all my life. L: Before, before Pearl Harbor, did you know much about the war that was happening in Europe? Did you keep up on what was happening? T: Yeah, I did. I was kind of a, Civics ah, nut. With things in the general every day activities. I read the paper, kept up with things of course. And I was interested in that stuff and in high school I had a teacher that ah, taught history and she was, she was excellent. L: Do you know her name? T: Ach, I didn't think I'd ever forget it, I can see her but I can't, oh, Lord, can't think of her name now but she did an excellent job and that was right up my line in that area and so we go along fine. And I kept up on the everyday things in the paper, you know and stuff. Then while I was at, while I was at, I graduated from high school in [ ] and I went to Oshkosh - the college. And while I was there I took the civilian pilot training course called the CPT. Training course. And I went out to the Oshkosh airport. The instructor of the flying business out there was, guess what - Steve Wittmann. And I thought oh, I was a young kid you know. I thought oh, he was a speed pilot. It's going to be neat with him as my instructor. And you know, to this day he was the safest guy I've ever flown with. And I got my flying part done and then I did the ground work with another guy. L: What made you pick that? Why did you go into that training? T: Well I always wanted, I was always interested in flying. Always thought I wanted to fly. And so I thought this was the chance to get my private pilot's license and of course I got that after the course. And ah, and so I ah, I did some flying around the area. Did some cross country around the lake and up north. And ah, but ah, Steve was a great guy. He ah, he was excellent. And then of course I was at Trinity Episcopal Church and I sang in the choir there as a kid. George Caswell is gone now but he was the director for years and years. And so ah, Oshkosh is my home town and I really liked the place and the first time I left was when I dropped out of college, teachers college to ah, join the air force. L: When was that? T: That was in, when Pearl Harbor was, December 1941. And I enlisted in the air force January of '42. Two other buddies of mine, a football player and I and another guy, three of us, the three of us enlisted together. Down in Milwaukee we were sworn in by a movie star member, remember a guy named Donald Crisp? He swore the whole bunch in on the steps of the Milwaukee Court House. And then of course we went home and waited to be called and I guess at that time I was a private in the army. The air force was part of the army then. That was before it became a separate branch. And then I, I was a private and then they called me in June, May or June I think. Then I became an aviation cadet. And I went down to Texas and I trained in every city I think, in the state of Texas. Then I graduated from Big Springs Bombardier School in forty, in '43. L: How'd they pick you to be a bombardier? T: Well, I'll tell you. It's a sad story. I got washed out of flying school in the advanced school. So they reassigned us either navigator or bombardier so I ended up a bombardier. And ah, well I was assigned to a crew and we went out to Wendover Field, Utah where we did aerial bombing. Practice bombing you know. They had a '17 {B-17} which pulled a sleeve behind it. Then we were up in the other airplane. We were practicing gunnery on it. And the pilots that had to fly those sleeve ships, they were unhappy campers. Sometimes they lost the sleeve. Sometimes they got a hole in the airplane where it wasn't supposed to be. Then from there we flew, got a brand new B-17. A B-17G. And we flew it overseas and we went the great northern route which was from Maine to New Foundland, to Buoy West One in Greenland, to Iceland, to Scotland and England. L: How long did that take? That's a long way. T: Oh, too long for me. I remember it now and we flew real low altitude you know and I thought, I looked down at all that water and thought, boy, this is no place to stop and get out and walk. We flew, we kept going away from the weather and stuff. At Buoy West One in Greenland they had to fabricate a metal sheet down as a runway. And we came in on that fine. When we took off, you had to turn left right quick because a big glacier was sitting at the end of the runway. And it was cold up there but. And I was kinda surprised. Iceland didn't care for Americans at all. They didn't care for us at all. And we were weathered in there a couple days and all I remember ah, about Iceland was the wind blew all the time. Oh, the telephone. Excuse me. L: Okay. So the Iceland, they didn't like you? T: The people themselves didn't care for us. I thought maybe they were too neutral or something but then, I'm saying the wind blew all the time. Real strong wind. And we spent the time underground, in like a bomb shelter, you know. Because of the wind. And then we finally got out of there. L: Because of the wind, you couldn't take off then? T: No. We had to wait for the wind, the weather to adjust itself and so forth. And of course we were alone and there was only one airplane. And so we ended up in Scotland and then Botherington, England. And in Botherington we were assigned to a group. A B-17 group. Heavy Bombardment Group and we went, I went to the 305th Bomb Group. We were one of the crews assigned there and we were one replacement crew that went there to the 305th after the Schweinfurt "black Thursday" raid on the Schweinfurt Ball Bearing Works where we ah, the air force really lost you know. We sent eighteen airplanes in that raid and two came back. L: Did you know about that raid when you got there? T: Oh, yeah. And so ah, we were one of the replacement crews. L: Do you remember how you felt coming into that? How did you feel coming into that bombardment group and knowing they had just... T: Well of course we were young, younger in those days and [ ]. You know in those days a fella thought he'd go over there and fly his missions and he'd come back, or he'd fly his missions and wouldn't make it, you know. Nobody ever talked about POWs. You didn't even know what a POW was. And so I ended up a POW L: So what year, what month and year did you get over there then? T: I got over there in September of '43. And I got shot down in November of '43. I spent, I spent more time in Germany than in England. L: Well, tell me what that first mission was like. The first time you were going to go on a bombing mission. T: Well, we went, the first one we went on was into Germany and of course at that time there was no fighter escort you know. We didn't have any fighter escorts. The P-51's and 47's and 38's weren't over there yet. This was in '43. We were one of the first groups over there. So we went into Germany but it was bad weather so we had to abort the mission and come back. I think it was some place like the sub pens at Gelsenkirchen or someplace like that along the coast. {Gelsenkirchen is not on the coast; it lies just north of Essen}. And then we went to ah, had a mission to Norway. Boy, that was a long one. And ah, we were supposed to bomb a molybdenum mine in Norway. The Germans were mining, taking the molybdenum back to Germany to build airplanes with. Molybdenum you know is a hardening agent or metal hardening agent. So the mine was in Norway, so we got directions and there was supposed to be a [ ] schooner at the open end of a fiord up in Norway. That was our checkpoint. Well, that was fine. We found that, so we went up the fiord and the mine was supposed to be at the end of it; a crescent shaped mine. Well, the intelligence forgot to tell us, or maybe they didn't know, but it snowed and everything was covered. It was all white. We couldn't see, didn't know where the mine was or anything. You know, it was all white so we actually flew maybe two or three circles around the area until we decided where the mine was and dropped our bombs and went back. That was a sixteen hour mission. Flying in that airy B-17. And the Norwegians later wrote back or told the Air Force that they appreciated the ah, our airplanes, our airplanes flying around long enough to give them time to get out of the mine. Because the Germans were having them run the mine. L: Did you hit the mine? T: Yes, we did. Yup. L: How did the, how did the bombardier aim the bombs? How did that work? T: Well, you see we used the Norden Bombsight to bomb. The B-24's had the other bombsight in em. Been trying to think of the name of that other one. Starts with an S but, we had the Norden. And ah, what you did is that early in the war, the bombardier, on your bombing leg, you fly around and you come in on the target on the bombing leg you know. Well then the bombardier takes over the airplane. The pilot turns the controls over to the bombardier. That's hooked up to the bombsight you know. And so here the bombardier is down in the nose - it's his airplane. And he has knobs to synchronize the cross hairs you know, on the target. And you gotta stop, you gotta stop the hairs from moving. So the bombardier had to synchronize on the target, then when they stopped and were all ready to bomb, he would drop his bombs. Then he'd say, "Bombs away." And the pilot took over the airplane and headed back to England, hopefully. L: Does the sight compensate for wind and speed? T: Oh, yeah. And your variations in your drag and all. That's all put into the sight. You, you ah, figure out the distance and so forth. You drop your bombs, not right on the target, 'cause there's a trajectory. They come down and then while the bombardier was doing that, 'course a little farther on in the war and that, a little later they ended up having a lead bombardier in the squadron, that'd be the lead bombardier in the squadron of four or five airplanes in formation. And the lead bombardier would bomb and all the other planes would drop on the lead bombs. And of course we flew, the American Air Force flew synchronized bombing missions. We synchronized on a specific target. And we flew only in the daytime. And the British flew at night. And they'd send a flare ship in, light up the target and they would come in in streams you know. One after another. Area bombing. Dump em out, turn around and go home. They didn't ah, synchronize on one target. Of course Churchill and the English, and Lord Tenor, I guess his name was, they weren't too happy with the American bombing, synchronized bombings and they were less happy when after the first part of several missions you know. We lost so many airplanes that they said, "Look, let's forget that." And of course Hap Arnold and the American flyers [ ] insisted, "Give us more time and more chance," and so forth and so on. And then of course without fighter escort, the Spitfires would go to the channel and turn around and go home because they didn't have any more range you know. When the American, that '51, that was the airplane. L: What was it like up there [ ]? What was it... T: Cold. Yeah. We hadda wear a Mae West. And of course above 12,000, you had to wear an oxygen mask and all your big heavy clothing you know. And the old '17 I was in was like this one. Had a 50 caliber out of each side of the nose. Now they modified, when we got there, that's another thing they did. They took our new airplane away when we got to England, got to our group. So we had to wait for them to modify it. That's when they put the twin turret in on the '17's. That was a modification, twin 50's in the nose. Because Hermann Goering [ ] boys out of France, and he, the only flyers that he had in his squadron were aces, you know. So they was the best. And they were flying 12 o'clock, head on to the 17's. And when they'd get close they'd split out, you see, split away. So the nose wasn't protected. And that was a neat spot to be. Hmmm. So they took the airplane away to modify it and they plane we went on, went down in was an old one they had at the base you know. And it was put together with baling wire and parts and stuff like that, you know. That's the one we ended up flying because we never did get ours back. And of course, we never gave theirs back either. We left it over in Germany. L: Was it hard to hit those German fighters when they came in? Let's see the guns here. T: Oh yeah, but you see, when I was picked up, I landed in, after I bailed out, landed in Germany and I ended up the second night. The first night we were in the city jail in Oldenburg. Then they took us to a fighter base. And we got a chance to talk to a German fighter pilot. And it surprise me because they, I wondered what they thought of the 17 and they thought it was a heck of an airplane. And they thing about it, it could take punishment, take a beating you know. Lose two engines and controls and stuff and still come back home. So I asked one of the German fighter pilots what spot on the 17 did you fear the most? And I was surprised. What do you think he'd say? L: I'd think up here by the top. T: The bottom by the ball turret. That was the spot. We were in formation so if they came up this way, they had all that firepower to concentrate in the middle from all the guys in formation. So they hated the ball turret. They thought that was a hot spot to attack from. So I thought that was interesting because I always wondered. And of course the tail gunner, he was out there all by himself so, the ball turret was one spot, one position on that plane I wouldn't have liked to have been in. You see, you open the cover inside the airplane and the guy gets in, close the cover, that's it. And the thing rolls this way and it rolls this way. When you're in there you know, your knees are sticking in your eyeballs. That's why you won't see a ball turret guy that's very big. They always end up with little guys stuck in there 'cause others wouldn't fit. And ah,... L: What did you think of the B-17? T: Well, even though it didn't bring me back, it was the best, the best bomber in the war. No two ways about it. Even the British admitted that that ah, after they got the thing straightened out with two many losses. Well, they always had losses but when they cut down their losses, they were happy that we stuck to it and did the precision ah, target bombing that we did in the daytime. And the British did all the ah, all the night bombing. Targets. So ah, no. The '17 had a reputation for being ah, really last up in the air you know. We got four engines. You'd lose two engines and still be able to come back. And I always kidded Paul you know. Paul was a '24 navigator. And we always kidded him about flying the '24 you know. So when we were at the EAA one year, there was a '24 that they rebuilt you know. It was there in that year and Paul donated to it and signed his name on the fuselage. The whole fuselage was covered with signatures you know. So he says, "Come on in. I'll take you through." And I told him I didn't even want to get in that '24 when it was on the ground, much less when it was in the air. We laughed and so we went through. And it was raining, oh it was raining. So we got as far as the bomb bay. So we stopped. It was raining out there and we were under cover so we waited there. That was the wrong thing - ten minutes later the water was pouring through the top of that baby, in fact there wasn't [ ] and we still got wet. But the '24 you know, in the nose down there you know, had this nose wheel. And I, to me it would be kind of hard to get out of there if you wanted to get out in a hurry. And of course we went out, I went out the nose hatch right behind the navigator down, right down from the pilot's compartment when we bailed out see, but... L: Tell me about the mission that you were shot down in. How did that happen? T: It was to Bremen. Bremen, Germany. And ah, it was the first ah, six hundred mission, six hundred airplanes in the air at one time. Can you imagine that? The Germans you know, a hundred b-17's would go over and they sky would be black. Can you imagine the German farmer looking up and see a black wall up there. Of course some of them didn't know who they were or anything. But this, we had 600 'forts in the air but we should never have gone in you know. We had engine, mechanical trouble on the way in and of course at the briefing when we left England, they said, "Nobody abort. Nobody comes home." So there we are. So we kept going on in. We lost an engine, and a second one and some controls and both... L: From enemy fire? T: Yeah. Both waist gunners got, were injured. And there was German ack-ack, 88 millimeters on the ground. Were fighter planes. Had ME-109's and Focke-Wulfe 190's that attacked us you know. And so se went on in. We were out of formation, decided to stay in formation. You know when you flew in the daytime, if you fell out of formation, that was just what the German pilots wanted. 'Cause then you're out there all alone and then they could really, they could really take care of you. And of course if you're in a formation together, a lot of firepower there. We had those twin 50's you know. The '17 came out, first they was 35 calibers. They found that wasn't nearly big enough. So they put all 50's in. And ah, and so we ah, we bombed the target and turned off and headed home and of course we - you know when you come over, you have to rendezvous at your base in England. You come over in your own formation and get in the proper wing. See, there are three wings. And they had a hundred or so bases of '17's all over England. I still can't figure how we didn't run into each other more than we did going up you know, because the sky was filled with airplanes. So we had to rendezvous there and we were late getting in ah, the right group. So, I don't know, we went in with airplanes, I don't know if it was our group or somebody else's but we went in, we didn't abort and dropped our bombs and then of course on the way home we were by ourselves. So we bombed at 32,000 feet and that's to get out of the range of the 88's. The ground, the German ground fire. But their fighter planes could come up that high. So then we headed for England. We dropped down from 32,000 feet to 12. And we were straight and level but we were losing altitude. So at 12,000, we got the order to bail out. So we all bailed out over what, the northwest, towards the Netherlands up there. We bailed out of the airplane at 12,000 feet. And ah, we ah, ended up in Stalag Luft I. And I, you know when I bailed out there was a hatch you know that we bailed out of. There was a guy sitting on the hatch, his seat hanging out. He looked down, he says, "I ain't going." I says, "Yeah, you are." I gave him a push. And about two years ago, a guy from Chattanooga Tennessee called me. And he related some things about the mission so I knew he knew what he was talking about. Happened to be the guy I pushed out of the airplane. And it was, I didn't know who it was you know. And it turned out to be my navigator. And see we had, we didn't have our regular navigator that day. We had a sub because my navigator was sick in the hospital. So this was a sub. They had a sub co-pilot. And so the rest of the crew was ours but this was ah, this was the new navigator. And ah, I got a kick out of it because he said, "I'm the one you shoved out." L: What happened when you landed? T: Well, you know, that was my first and last parachute jump. But what impressed me, it was so quiet. It was like a vacuum. No sound, no nothing, no wind. It wasn't windy. You'd swing back and forth in the 'chute you know. And I thought, egad, what happens if I swing far enough and go up and collapse the 'chute? See, I didn't know you couldn't do that. They say that you can't do that so. But at that time I was concerned about the 'chute taking care of me. So I swung and it was just like a vacuum, just quiet. And an ME -109 circled me. And at that time German fighter pilots were shooting at guys in their 'chutes when they bailed out, you know. I thought, oh boy, this guys gonna have a field day. But he didn't, he shot at the British in their 'chutes because in the Battle of Britain, when the Germans bailed out over England, the English shot at their fliers, see? So they were returning the favor to the British over Germany. But they didn't shoot. The guy circled me until I hit the ground, then he waggled his wings and took off. And I rolled up my 'chute and put it in the bushes or tree somewhere. And I was out in the country and there was a farm house, barn, so I, I didn't know whether I was in Germany or where I was you know. So I headed, I walked toward the barn and a man and a woman came walking out and I looked at them, two farmers. And I said, "Parlez vous francaise? Sprechen sie Deutch?" Oh, jah, jah, jah. I went, woop, wrong country. And about that time, a Luftwaffe corporal came in, came along and picked me up. See, the fighter plane had radioed my position and of course he picked me up and that was the end of that. Then we walked around the countryside for awhile and he made phone-calls. We stopped at a farm house and a German lady came out and gave me a glass of wine. And of course I was nineteen and didn't realize, we are all friends and so I had a glass of wine. But I thought that was unusual after talking about it. She probably didn't know anything, who I was or, so. Then we walked around the countryside and two German schoolboys dropped in next to me, walked along side of me. Talked to me in English and I said, "Where did you learn English?" They said, "They teach it to us in school." They had pieces of metal from a crashed airplane that they'd picked up you know. So I ah, talked to them for awhile as they walked along. Then we ended up in the city jail and the first night in there I met a couple of my crew and then some other guys that had bailed out of other airplanes you know. They had plenty of guys to pick up. And then we went to the fighter camp, base, ah field and then we were all taken to ah, ah, [ ] . Wexler was the name of the [ ] that's the interrogation camp. And I was in solitary confinement for seven nights and six days. Each day you were in a cubicle. They locked you up and each day they interrogated you, you know. And the guy that interrogated me, his English was better than mine. And they said that, "We have to interro... we have to find out that you're not a spy but a flier." For sure, see. He knows where I came from, but that was their excuse so they kept on interrogating to get information out of, but ... L: What would they ask, what kind of things? T: Well, the target, the bombs and how fast you were going and how high and so, all those technical, combat type of information. Of course we were ordered to give nothing but name, rank and serial number. Period. And so, they kept asking you know. Then all they had to do was get all the graduation books from all the flying schools in the country here and they had all the information they needed on everybody. In fact this guy knew my who commanding officer was in England. And I didn't even know who it was; we'd gotten a new one the day before. And I didn't know who it was. This guy knew. L: How did that make you feel? T: Yeah, well they didn't need, they couldn't find out anything from me because I didn't know anything. L: How did they treat you? T: Well, when we left Frankfurt, we left in their big train station you know. And the thing was just bombed, gutted, just pillars, beams standing you know. They had a group of us in a group surrounded by German guards. And some German woman snuck up with an umbrella and hit my radio operator over the head with her umbrella. You know, she was... And the guards said don't show anything, don't show any emotion because we can't protect you if you do. And so forth. Then they got us on cattle cars and the enlisted men went to ah, to Vienna, to Stalag III. The officers went to Stalag Luft I to the north on ah, on trains. On the old boxcars you know. They had straw in em and that was it. L: That was it? T: Yeah. That was it. L: They just put you in there and... T: Yeah, that was it. L: What happened when you got to the Stalag? T: Well of course, they welcomed you and took your numbers and issued you, they issued you dog tags even. In fact, I'll show you. I got it on the wall. See that panel, that colored panel I got there? I'll show you, I got four of those dog tags. This is the one I wanted to show you. I'm proud of this. My son had that done. He sent a picture of me to a guy, an artist. And he got that picture of me. Then he painted, that's supposed to be my airplane on the last mission, and fighters in the air and so forth. My son had that done in oils and gave that to me for my birthday one year. But I think it's beautiful. I think he did a beautiful job on it just from a picture. And the thing he did wrong? He put a [ ] here and we didn't have one. But we didn't send it back to him. L: You were a lieutenant weren't you? T: Yeah, at that time we were all second lieutenants. L: Well, now you got in the prisoner of war camp. Tell me, what was it like in there? Describe it physically. What did it look like? T: Well, it had barracks you know. I was in the [ ] These were old World War I barracks, I think. Then they had barbed fence around and they had guard towers with guards in them. And they had guards on the ground with, with ah, German guard, German guard dogs you know. Patrolled the area. Then they, you were in a room, what did they have, twenty or so people in one room. They had a number of rooms in the barracks you know. And bunks, wooden bunks with wooden bed boards, [ ] and one on the top. That's how we lived. They had a pot-bellied stove in the middle that they would give us coal and wood, sometimes. Otherwise it got pretty cold. One time we, one time we got cold and we proceeded to tear up the moldings around the windows and so forth, the wood to burn. So the Germans locked us out on the playground for two days for destroying German property. L: What did you have to eat? T: Well we had, the Germans never ran out of black bread. A loaf weighed about ten pounds. And potatoes, either rotten potatoes, good potatoes, potato peelings. Any of that kind of stuff - and black bread. Then sometimes sausage but not very often. But then after a while we got Red Cross parcels, you see. And they would turn those in and issue them to the barracks and... L: What was in a Red Cross parcel? T: Oh, I got it in my diary here. Ah, they, they, the only parcels they had butter in was from Argentina. The Americans didn't have butter. And the British had their canned stuff you know; which is not too tasty. And ah, here, I'm going to give you this and you can keep it in yourself or in the museum. This is my wartime diary. L: Thank you very much. That's very nice of you. Thank you. T: And ah, they issued that to everybody. The Red Cross. And ah, in there you'll find a picture of an American flier. Crazy to find em. And we were terror fliers. He had helmet on with goggles up. He was black with a gold ornament through his nose. The caption under that was: This is the American terror flier with his medal in the usual place. It was part of the propaganda then and they believed that. Of course, they couldn't believe anything else. That's all they got. L: Did you hate the Germans? T: No. You know when I enlisted, I expected to go to the Pacific. The Japs. I enlisted to zap the Japs. They attacked Pearl Harbor. And I expected to go to the, to that theater of operations, but the higher ups decided they were going to take care of the European war first. So then they switched everybody. They put all their airplanes and men and everything towards the European theater of operation because the plan was to defeat the Germans first. And so that's why I ended up over there instead of the other way. L: Do you think there was a difference between the way people felt about Germany and the way they felt about Japanese? T: Oh absolutely. Oh yeah. L: How so? T: You're from Kenosha. You know Milwaukee. During the war, they had the biggest German Bunds in the entire United States. Well, how many Germans are in Milwaukee? Then, Germans all over the country but Milwaukee was particularly loaded with Germans. I think there was definitely a difference in, in feelings and opinions of people toward the ah, Japanese and the Germans you know. And the Japanese, they ah, they didn't adhere to the Geneva Convention or anything. They had no rules at all. And of course in our prison camp the Germans didn't adhere too much to the Geneva Convention either but they weren't so ah, mad as the Japs I think. Physically and so forth. You know, when I came in to Stalag Luft I, the Luftwaffe had charge of the camp. The German Air Force. Then when the war got bad and so forth, they sent those guys to the front. Then the Wehrmacht came in and took charge. The German army. Then when things got bad and they shipped them to the front, then the Volksmen came in. That was, that was the National Guard. That was the old grandfathers and the sixteen year old kids. You know, they took over the camp. Then before the end of the war, they ah, they sent them to some other duty. Then the Gestapo came in. And that's when the old fur flew. You couldn't deal with them at all. We had guys stuck their heads out of the windows of their barracks and they got shot. As you walk out the front door you know, they were, they were unreasonable. They were tough. And the Russians, they hated the Russians, you know, the Germans. They just hated each other with a passion. And they had Russian POW's in our camp. They had a separate building for them. Like it was solitary confinement almost. They kept all the Russians in that building. They never let em out of the building except when they took one out and walked around with a German guard repairing fences and clean up and the yard; doing labor and repair work, that kind of stuff. Then back in the building they went. They didn't, we didn't see em at all. Oh, we saw them but they were, they kept by themselves. Then after we were there for awhile, they were, they got the Jews together, sent them out. L: Did you know about concentration camps? T: No. L: Had you heard rumors even? Nothing? T: Nope. As I said, we, I never, and I don't think many others did either. Never heard of a POW. Never knew what that was. So a large majority of us, we ended up, we lost our radio operator. After he bailed out, I don't know whether he didn't pull his chute or the civilians got him on the ground or what but the Germans said, "Comrade [ ] kaput." And they showed us his I.D. bracelet and that was it. And our two waist gunners. I helped carry one around, walkin around the countryside until we ah, go him to a hospital. {The first tape ends here}. And of course the British had a soccer ball and they played soccer. Then a group got together and put on a play. Then we waited for mail. The mail didn't come through very often. Of course it was all censored anyhow. L: I'll bet the time really dragged slow, didn't it? T: Oh yeah. And of course, when we were talking about the invasion, everybody in the place was betting everyone else, when it would happen you know. Betting tons of money on when the invasion was going to take place and so forth. L: Did you have any radios or anything? T: Yeah, we had a, we had a radio and we listened to BBC. What we did, we had a radio and we distributed the parts to different guys you know. Then when we put them together, we'd get the BBC broadcast. They'd get the, while the war was goin on. Then we'd get the one guy who'd leave the barracks. He delivered the Red Star News, they called it. And that was the BBC's account of how the war was going on. And the Germans would tell us what was happening and so forth too. But they were usually three or four weeks behind time, see? They wouldn't give you up to date stuff. And of course they wouldn't give you any information about any losses or anything but ah.... L: What would have happened if they had discovered that radio? T: Oh, they'd just pick it up and stick you in solitary for a week or so. L: How did you get the radio? T: We ah, we dealt with guards. And if you got a German guard singly, by himself, then you could deal with him. They wanted, see out medium of exchange was cigarettes, D rations and chocolate bars. Chocolate bar was worth fifty cigarettes or something like that. And the D ration that were chocolate bar ah, there were any escape packages that they issued you when you went flying you know. Well, I don't know where we got some of those but some of those came in. And if your parents or friends sent cigarettes, then you had American cigarettes and of course the Germans wanted American cigarettes. So, I think I was there a year before I conned somebody out of a toothbrush. And ah, but you see, if you dealt with a single German guard, fine. If there were two there, you couldn't do a thing. 'Cause each one thought the other would squeal on him. And then of course in the camp the Germans Heil Hitler salute, see. And none of our guys would give that. You'd give this salute and that was it. The Heil Hitler jobbie we didn't go along with. And so, we had a couple, Col. Hatcher and Spicer and some of our allied officers in charge of camp, they got shipped out because the Germans said they couldn't control their men and so forth. And Spicer, who was a fighter pilot, had the biggest fighter group, squadron in England, he was particularly aggressive you know. We'd fall out every morning for count you know. They'd count us. So the German officer was in the front and the enlisted man would be back here. And they'd start down the line, eins, schwei, trei, fier, and when they got to the end, they got different numbers. The numbers didn't coincide. Then the Germans would get all excited. So then they'd get mad, come back and count over again. What was happening, the officer was here and the enlisted man was here. But in between here, we were shifting guys in line see. And they never, they never got a good count. Just harassment things that we could do to. I gave talks to churches and schools and so forth in the past you know about World War II. And you can jot this down. I think it would be interesting but ah, some of the ways we'd harass the Germans, the Red Cross sent us clamp-on ice skates. We were way up near the Baltic Sea and they thought that we could use em, see? The Germans thought that was kind of funny. They got a kick out of it so they issued them to us. So what we did, we put them together, somehow devise to set em up. They made the finest pair of wire cutters you ever saw. And we went around cuttin the wire fence, see. Then behind, there'd come a Russian guy with a German guard repairing it. Then 25-30 yards behind them another guy clipping again. And then, so that's what we did with the ice skates. And then they had a German, there was a [ ] building in camp in a field right next to us. Germans. And then they had a building there where they had the political prisoners all locked up you know. So we were in that spot and the camp was right next to them. So they had German Brown Shirt youths you know. They had brown shirts, uniforms. And they'd have them march by the camp. You know how they goose step you know. They goose step and as they marched by, the guys would get up along the fence and as they went by they'd go, "Hut, hut, hut two." And they'd get em all out of step. And then the German officer in charge would really go berserk. And so on. Well one time we really got it. We were out for roll call and they had all their records on tables and they were goin through the records, see? And somehow we got hold of them. And they distributed them to guys and they'd tear em up, bury em or do something with them. And so the Germans had to go through all the process of taking pictures and making out reports and all that kind of stuff, go through all that again because we'd fouled up their system. So ah, here's one you'll like. You'll get a kick out of this. My name is Tank, see? So the Germans gave us magazines and stuff to read. English ones. We had a thing called "Signal." I was reading, going through it. There was a story about the designer and builder of the Focke-Wulfe 190. Now that's their second fighter. And I thought it was as good as the Messerschmidt 109 but the Messerschmidt got all the publicity. The Focke-Wulfe was designed and built by one Kurt Von Tank. Well, it was funny because when the interrogated me they said, "Ah Tank. It's a good German name. How come you're fighting us?" They said the same thing to my radio operator and he says, "The hell it is, it's Irish." So then we were there during the attempt on Hitler's life and the death of FDR and that kind of stuff so. L: Tell me about the time when Paul Fergot came into camp? What was the whole story behind that? T: Well, they bring in new groups every day or every other day and I happened to be at the main gait and the guys always go out by the main gait to see if they can see any of their buddies. So on and so forth. And I think Paul, I don't remember but did he call out, "Anybody from Oshkosh?" or "Anybody from Wisconsin?" I can't remember now just exactly what happened. But I said, "Yeah, I am." So that's how we got together. And we got to know each other. See, he was in a different part of the camp. I was in the old south section. Then they built north, and northwest and another section of new barracks because they were gettin so many, so many fliers in there. And he was in a different compound than I was, I think. L: So you never really had a chance to see each other? T: Not regularly. L: But you knew each other in Oshkosh. T: Yeah. L: I bet that was quite a ... T: He remembered, we, we must have talked the first time, interesting. Yeah, you see because you see, ah well I was pretty active in Oshkosh. I was a Boy Scout and I got the Eagle, the Eagle badge and stuff like that. I had a Cub Pack that I ran and I was assistant scoutmaster to the grade school I went to. The principal was the scoutmaster. His son and all the rest of the guys in school were a member of [ ] which was a real active troop in the scouting activities in the city. And in fact, one year, remember they used to assign Scouts to city positions, the mayor and the chief of police for one day you know. So I was the chief of police of Oshkosh for one day. And a Scout. L: Did anybody ever try to escape from the prisoner of war camp? T: Yeah. We tried but... See, where we were, Sweden was 60 miles across the Baltic. They had sea mines, air patrols, ground patrols. It was hard. Never made it. Three hundred miles south to Switzerland. That was too far too. And then when you got out, if you didn't know German or something because even the Germans themselves, they had verboten areas. If their own people got in em, they got in trouble. So if we got out, wondered in the wrong spot. Nobody ever really escape. We had a couple guys escape but they picked em up again and brought em back. But usually they would bring em back and send em, put em in a different camp. Rather than put em back in the same thing you know and. We dug tunnels. We dug tunnels like mad you know. But we never used em because first of all they had spies in camp that would report on what's goin on and you know, we knew they were there but you didn't know, you know. They were just like Americans, just like the rest of us. And you weren't sure who you were dealing with but the German [ ] department had a neat sense of humor. We had a tunnel dug see. We were going to use it. So the day before we were going to use it, they would discover it. Then they'd come and fill it with water and put a little sign at the end of it, "This is Tunnel No. 52, da, da, da da." A little poem like, they thought that was great. So I don't know if we ever used the tunnels for a successful escape. Well, a couple guys went out in the garbage truck on time and they got taken back in and brought back and. It was pretty hard to get away up there and of course the location. Poland was on one side, the Baltic Sea there, Switzerland way away [ ] Germany. L: Tell me about when you were liberated. T: Well, the Germans, Russians moved in and liberated us. Marshall Zhukov and his Russian army came from the east, going west. And the Germans, of course when they were moving in, they knew they were coming, they absconded. They left the towers, camp and everybody took off toward the American and British lines in the west. They were coming this way to our camp. And the Russians were coming this way. So the Germans took off. They wanted nothin to do with the Russians. And the Russians, they came through just like a bunch of locusts. They went through the town and anything moved, they shot. So, and the ones that went, Marshall Zhukov's front line troops went through. Then the mop up troops came through after that. And they were the Mongolian extraction people with long fingernails, slant eyes, you know. They were mop up troops; that's what they were. They came in riding bicycles, riding horses, riding cows. Walking, running, any kind of conveyance. And they just went through the area and. Sometimes the guys in camp were in bigger danger when the Russians were there than the Germans because the Russians would take over. In the evening they'd come out, sit on the back steps of our barracks with a machine gun in their lap and they'd spray the area every now and then you know. [ ] they were crazy. And then I got to talk to some of the Russians as they went through, the front line troops. They were pulling, they had G.I., American G.I. trucks. They were pulling fuel cases behind it. Well I said to this Russian, "American trucks O.K.?" He said, "Yeah, yeah. Russky gun." L: So these guys came in and then you were processed or? T: No. We stayed put until we heard from, from ah, the Americans. And then later, after the Russians went through, then an American army guy in a Jeep came in the other side for us and that was the first American we'd seen. And this guy was swamped and everything. And then they were told to stay put until they figured out how to get us out of there. And of course they had to clear the flying field next to us. There was some mines. And the political prisoners, they were so far gone that I think they died off at the rate of 2-300 a day because they were neglected you know and they were really treated poorly. And ah, the Allies tried to retrain the guard dogs and [ ] and they had to put em away because they couldn't retrain them. And they couldn't save many people in the political barracks because they were too far gone. And so we stayed put and some of the guys left and some stayed. We were told to stay put and I don't know after how many days they flew in stripped down B-17's. I can't remember what group it was that came in but then they flew us out to Camp Lucky Strike in France. And from there, we were marched down to Le Havre and put on board a naval troop transport. General Buckner was the name of it. And came back to the 'states. And this is where I acquired a personal dislike of the French. As we marched down the street, road, to the harbor, the French along the side spit at us, threw rocks at us, stones, sticks. Cussed at us and gave us a hard time. And I suppose because we'd bombed targets in France. Well how did they think we were going to get the Germans out of there? So they weren't, they weren't too happy. L: And how did you get back to Oshkosh? T: Well, then I, the ah, I think I ended up at Chanute Field as ah, my area camp you know. Some of the kids went some place in Texas, and I got mustered out there. And at the time I, I ah, I didn't know if I was going to stay in or not, but I asked em if they would assign me to a meteorology school or something. Something like that so then I could use it in civilian life you know. There was no need for navigators, bombardiers or pilots. Well some of the pilots they could use but not all. And they wouldn't guarantee me that because too many guys all wanted [ ] something. I got out, stayed in the reserves and then when I graduated from Indiana with my masters, I was still in the reserves, see. And ah, so ah I went to the reserve meetings and went to two week summer camp and so forth for a number of years. I think I officially got out of the Air Force in '77 as a Lt. Colonel. Then when I was in reserve, I was training guidance staff at Billy Mitchell. And that meant I and my buddies, nine other guys would go around the state and monitor squadron meetings you know. That was when the reserve was real active and we had groups of meetings in different cities all over the state. I remember I was teaching school here and one day after school I'd go all the way up to Marinette and back, to an evening meeting. Got back here at 2-3 in the morning, whatever it was, you know. And we, we, we ah drove around to different sites. L: What was your homecoming like after you got back to Oshkosh, you headed back? Tell me what that was like, coming back to Oshkosh after the war. T: Well, I don't remember much. There wasn't much ado about it or anything. My folks and some of my buddies, there wasn't a big show or anything, I don't think that I remember. What did Paul say? Was he ah, greeted? Hah. We were all so happy to get back that ah. Of course I was nineteen or twenty then. L: Was there a process of ah, did you have a time readjusting when you got back to Oshkosh or was everybody just so happy to be out? Did you try to relocate old friends. T: Well I think everybody was just happy to be out, tried to take up where they'd left off. And things had changed of course but. Well some of your friends were gone and I suppose the economic situation was, well it was different. Not critical or negative or anything. But I just went back to ah, Oshkosh Teachers College. They called it Teachers College in those days. Went back to Oshkosh and put two ah, well that was before the war. I put two in first and then went in the service. Then when I came back out of the service, then I went down to Madison and finished my college work in Madison. And I graduated from Madison in January of '47 was it? Anyhow in January and in February I was in Bloomington, Indiana working on my masters. L: Here's a question I ask all the veterans: in the course of the war did you ever think that the United States and its allies would lose the war? T: No, I didn't. L: Why? T: Well, because we were, well in that war, [ ] that's the first time that I can think of that everyone and everything was 100% behind us. Behind the war effort. I felt that because of that status that if we all pitched in together and so forth, we ah, we would come out ah, atop. And ah, I never, maybe other people did but I never thought that we were about to lose. But after being a POW you sometimes wondered if the other side had won, you'd be speaking another language now. {Laughter}. L: How did you hear the news of Pearl Harbor? Do you remember how you heard that? T: It was a Sunday and I don't know whether I was playing tennis or somewhere in the afternoon, I heard it on the radio. And ah, and ah, the news that they had bombed. And of course I had followed the papers. That was when the two Japanese envoys were standing on the steps of the capitol in Washington being buddy-buddy and saying good things and nothing would happen and so forth. At the same time the son-of-a-guns were bombing Pearl Harbor. That's ah, I remember that. That's ah, I had a definite dislike of the Japanese at that time. L: What was, do you remember your initial reaction to that bombing? Do you remember what you thought when you heard it? T: Well, I thought that ah, this is, opens up, really puts us in the war because we, it took us awhile to get in the European world war there. But now the Japanese answered all the questions right there with ah, with that one act. And ah, well I'd say being young, I had a pilot's license and thought, "Oh boy, I can get in the Air Force and fly." So ah, heh, heh. Then ah, now when I graduated in Bloomington, I came up here and I taught for ten or eleven years and then I took over the recreation program for twenty-five years, you know, as recreation director. And ah, my kids, my three kids remember more about me as a school bus driver. I drove school bus as added income you know. Back in those days, the superintendent said, "You can drive school bus and pick up extra money." And you know that a year and a half, two years ago I retired from driving school bus. I said, enough. I had driven for Johnson School Bus for fifty years. L: No kidding. T: Fifty straight years for the same company. And I told Diane, "That's long enough. So I'll hang it up." And of course I'd belonged to Masonic Lodge and the Lions Club here for fifty years, you know. And I still, I still have a senior tennis team. Guys fifty years and over. We play in the summer time, clubs in Milwaukee, Hartford and all in the area here you know. Guys have to be fifty and over and we play nothing but doubles. 'Course I don't play any more with my knees. And I, oh I'd love to be still playing but I've got those envelopes sitting on the table for our summer season starts in May already so, so I have that of course. In July, I conduct a senior picnic which is done, is conducted by Lions, Rotary, ah Kiwanis and the Optimists. The four service clubs, we met and I got stuck with the chairmanship of it. Then we have a picnic for senior citizens every year at one of the parks in town here. So I ah, when I went to Oshkosh you know, Forrest Polk was the president, in charge then. And Bob Kolf was the athletic director and coach. And of course I played tennis for Oshkosh and he was the tennis coach. But he was a real golfer, you know. He coached the golf team and the tennis team but we never saw him at the tennis team because he was always golfing of course. Tennis team was all made up of kids who played in high school and knew tennis and so forth and so we kinda ran our own program. But we ah, we didn't get beat. We won in college here and in high school, we never lost, for the Fox River Valley. But in Wisconsin we never won. L: Well, thanks a lot. Have you got anything else you want to add in here? T: Well no. Did I mention I mention that I was a pro at the Rochester Tennis Club? That was interesting. I enjoyed that. L: I'll bet. T: In fact, that's where I met my wife. L: Oh, that's interesting. T: She came out and took tennis lessons from me. So ah, she was a surgical nurse at the Mayo Clinic, at the hospital there. She came out, she took golf lessons and tennis lessons. And well, I lost her a year and a half ago but, but ah, she learned how to play tennis. But I thought, I don't know how much you can use. Is this book gonna be presented on the basis of individuals or total World War II, or prisoner of war viewpoint, or what? The whole, altogether. I feel, five important years of our lives. Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four, something like that you know, I was on active duty. So although I stayed in the active reserve for twenty-five and after thirty, but I put five years of active duty in and 25 years of reserve duty. And the five years of active of course happened right at the ah, my college age and ah, looking forward to going out and getting a job and so forth, all that, that thing which was put on hold when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. So ah, I think that's the thing that affected me mostly. Well you see I wanted to fly, I loved to fly and got my private pilot's license so I had accomplished that, so ah. And I enlisted because I wanted to get in the Air force and not the Army. Because I figured I'd rather be up there dropping than down on the ground catching. {Laughter}. L: A lot of the guys I talked to had this real aversion about being in the army. They didn't want to be in a fox hole. T: Well, I probably would have had that same aversion if I hadn't gotten in the Air Force. Yeah, because that was a tour of duty then. Would you like 7-Up or tea? I got 7-Up and tea. L: Thanks anyway. But you know you said there was great cooperation among everybody. Did you know, being in a prisoner of war camp, did you know that the whole of America had been mobilized to produce war goods. Were you aware of what was happening back in America through the BBC broadcasts? T: Oh sure. I think so. And just from the standpoint of being an American and knowing our capacity of the production of things and ah, and so forth. I felt very comfortable that we would ah, we would do alright. No, I think most of the guys wanted to get out of course and they couldn't. But ah, most of em felt that there was no doubt that we ah, over the long run that we would ah, that we were gonna win this thing. So I think that was the feeling of most of the guys. Of course you had all kinds. There were some that didn't feel that way, and some that thought otherwise. But ah, no I think…
Oral History Interview with Robert Tank, 8th Army Air Force -WORLD WAR II -Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
Robert Tank

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Last modified on: December 12, 2009