|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Joeseph H. Leroy, United States Army Air Force during World War II. Joeseph H. Leroy enlisted in the cadet corps in 1943. He learned to fly in Texas and worked his way up to B-24's. He was assigned to the 714th Bomb Squadron - 393rd Bomb Group, 8th Army Air Force in England. Joe lost two planes but was able to land one in England and the other in Belgium. None of his crew was lost. Joe's squadron was sent back to the U..S. in 1945 to train in the B-29. The war ended and Joe came back to Oshkosh after discharge on October 31, 1945.
Joe Leroy Interview
23 June 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; J: identifies the subject, Joe Leroy. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling is unclear).
T: It's June 21st, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with Joe Leroy who served in World War II. And Joe is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war. Joe, let's begin by having you tell me when and where you were born.
J: Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
T: In what year?
J: 1920. February 28th, 1920. Right over here on Vine Street.
T: On Vine Street?
J: [ ].
T: Were your mother and dad also from this area?
J: Oh sure.
T: What did they do for a living?
J: My dad was a postman. My mother was a housewife. She never worked.
T: Did you have brothers and sisters.
J: No brothers. Four sisters.
T: Tell me a little bit about your childhood, where you lived and went to grade school. And what activities you engaged in outside of school? For fun and so forth.
J: Played football, played baseball but never at school. This was in Depression. And we had to work. And I mean I pedaled papers and I worked at the Northwestern. We did any - cut lawns, shoveled sidewalks - anything to make a buck because times were not that great, you know.
But I went to Reed School over here. Then from Reed to St. Peters. From St. Peters to Oshkosh High School and graduated in '37.
T: Were you active in sports or anything like that in high school?
J: Not really. Accept for baseball. I played baseball.
T: Let's talk a little bit more about the Depression because it, as I understand it - and I was pretty small at the time - it affected Oshkosh quite severely because everything was tied more or less to the woodworking industry. Was your family particularly affected by it?
J: Well, my family wouldn't have been because my dad was a postman and they were paid pretty decent. But he had a nervous breakdown and he was off work for fourteen months. And I can remember the welfare man coming to the door and after he started questioning my mother I said, "Get him out of here. We don't need him." And that's when I did everything I could do. Cut lawns, I did anything I could to put money in the coffers.
T: I see. And I imagine probably a lot of your friends were similarly affected.
J: Oh absolutely. Vine Street, we were known as the "Vine Street Gang," because we all had to work. But we all worked and we got along good. I mean we had a pretty good time. I'm not complaining about my childhood.
T: When did you graduate from high school? What year was that?
J: 1937. I was just seventeen. I couldn't buy a job. Had to be eighteen.
T: We were in the depths of the Depression then, weren't we?
J: Unh, huh. And I got a job at Kronzer's for $10.00 a week. Sixty hours.
T: Now Kronzer's, was that the meat market?
J: Meat and groceries on Wisconsin Avenue. Slaughter house in the back. I worked there.
T: Did you do any slaughtering?
J: Well no, but I helped him. Like chickens, I plucked chickens and I killed a lot of chickens. The pigs and cows, they had to use somebody bigger than me.
T: How long did you work at Kronzer's?
J: Just until I could find another job. 'Cause I wasn't getting paid as much as I wanted to get paid. So then I went to work for Brickham Stamping Company down on Lake Street. And then from there I went to Kinney's Shoe Store and sold shoes. Went to Minneapolis and sold shoes. Didn't like it and came back here.
And then I went to the Axle. I got in there and I was cutting gears and then I had a good job. And they tried to keep me out of the service because I was on a machine and I said, "Unh unh, you're not going to keep me out. I'm leaving." Which I did.
T: Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when Pearl Harbor occurred?
J: Well I remember it was a Sunday. That's all I remember. We'd gone to church and then later Pearl Harbor was attacked. And that's when all of us said, "Well, we're going to get into this thing." You knew we were going to get in. There was no way out of it. It was just a question of when.
T: Had you registered for the draft at that time?
J: I registered for the draft but in the meantime four of us went over to Sheboygan and we enlisted in the cadets. We all passed. This was in October of '42. They pulled us up in January of '43 and took us to Miami Beach for basic.
T: What made you pick the Air Force?
J: I wanted to fly. I always wanted to fly. I always thought that would be the greatest thing. In the first place, I didn't want to be on the ground. I wanted to be in the air. I didn't want to be an enlisted man. I wanted to be an officer and to be honest about it, I did.
Of the four of us that went, two of us became pilots, one washed out and one became a navigator. But three out of four made it into the air and all over England. Oh, I'll take that back. One was over Italy. .
T: When you went in, apparently you had never flown before.
J: Just had a ride with Wittman. I rode with Wittman a couple times. But I had never flown.
T: I'd like to have you take me through the process of a guy who has never flown an airplane goes through all this training and he comes out as a fellow who can handle a multi-engine aircraft. Take me through the whole process of how that happens. What planes you flew in progression. I imagine it got more complicated as time went on.
J: Oh yes. Well we started out in Coleman, Texas at a private flying school. They were taken over by the government but they were .a private school. I had a private instructor. And we had to solo within eight. (Eight hours). And I luckily soloed in three and a half. And we got sixty-five hours there.
I had an excellent pilot. He was a Navy, ex-Navy pilot and he taught me short field landings and all the things I'm gonna need down the way.
T: What type of aircraft were you flying then?
J: PT-17. Primary trainer, a seventeen. Open cockpit. Helmet and goggles. But he would put a handkerchief on the field - we used grass runways - and you had to hit that handkerchief when you came down or be reasonably close. And if you didn't, he balled you out. But he made you so that you knew how to do that. And he'd put the handkerchief just over a fence so you had to go over the fence and drop. Now he taught me some, the best instructor a man could have. He was fantastic.
We kind of hit it off together. When I graduated six months later, he came to my graduation because we liked each other.
Well from there I went to basic. We flew BT-13's. We called em "The Vultee Vibrator." And that was an apt description. 450 horse engine. A bigger plane and we learned formation flying, aerobatics and we got another almost a hundred hours in those.
Then from that I graduated from there and went to Ellington Field. And we flew AT-10's, excuse me, AT-9's. And that's where we learned night flying, cross-country and formation flying. That was a twin engine.
T: One hears about casualties in the training process. Was that something that occurred with some frequency in your training?
J: Yes. We had a lot of casualties.
T: I guess it's just to be expected.
J: It's the attrition. With that many pilots, you're gonna have mistakes.
T: And the process was probably speeded up a little bit because of the war.
J: They were pushing. They wanted us to get out of there. They wanted us to you know, to get through. But, well we started with about 600 cadets and in that book there's only 300 and some of those didn't make it. It was getting down to where you had to produce or you were out.
They needed other people. See, if you washed out as a pilot, they gave you a chance to become a navigator or a bombardier because you were used to the air. So most navigators were washed out pilots. That's what it amounts to.
And then I might add that bombardiers were taken away from us when we got over to England because we bombed off the leader. There was no Norden bombsight in your airplane. That was a thing of the past. We had those over the Rockies but we didn't have em over England.
T: I was thinking about the Norden bombsight and I was wondering, it was supposedly a very sophisticated instrument. And I was wondering what aircraft people did if they knew they were gonna go down in enemy territory. What would they do with that Norden bombsight? Would they try to destroy it in some way?
J: Naw. You'd have to go down with it. We, when we had the Norden, when you got to the IP, the initial point, and from there, any point is an initial point. Now 30 miles to the target from there. And the target could be in any direction. To throw the Germans off, we'd come to here and made our turns. And if you used the Norden bombsight, that's when the navigator would have taken over, the bombardier - excuse me - the bombardier would take over the Norden sight and you dropped your hands off the controls. Now he flies the airplane with that. That flies the airplane.
T: Yes, I understand.
J: But they took em away from us because we just bombed off the leader. Leader dropped his first two bombs, were smoke bombs. Then we all just salvoed.
T: I see.
J: Were we successful? No.
T: I've heard about how much destruction was caused and how many targets were missed and so forth. And somebody had said that if you were in level flight and you want to hit a bridge, that it's practically an impossibility. I don't understand the mathematics of it.
J: You'd have to be very lucky. See, the fighter planes could do it. Because they'd come up like this and straight down and now they've got the bridge and it's right there. And even they missed it nine times out of ten, I think. But they got close. We wouldn't even have been close.
T: So now you've learned to do the AT-9. What comes next after that?
J: B-24's. Step right into a four engine. And that was a big transition. That was an awful lot of airplane from a little trainer.
T: I would think so. At that point were you flying a more or less empty plane or did they load it up? And when you went into the B-24, did you have, at that point did you have a crew? The type of, with the navigator and bombardier and gunners and so forth? Or was that something that was put together at a later stage of the game?
J: We, first we took some lessons in B-24's. I dunno, maybe not a lot, probably 25 or 30 hours. Not a lot.
T: Was this also at Ellington Field?
J: No. No, no, no. This was at Pueblo, Colorado. Then we went to Lincoln, Nebraska and picked up our crew. That's where we put our crew together. Then we went back to Pueblo, Colorado and we flew, oh I suppose we flew 100-150 hours. We got quite a bit of time, up over the Rockies, cross-countries, down, you know, make simulated bombing runs. And then the last two weeks we were there or so, they put us in a loaded plane to simulate a loaded bomb plane. And then we flew and then of course you landed with that loaded plane, which we didn't overseas. Once we got over there, we dumped our load. But here, and when you come in with this loaded plane, you just hope your tires didn't blow because you were landing a pretty heavy ship. But no, that's where we put that together.
T: Then at some point your training was complete.
J: That was it.
T: Approximately what date was that, that you completed your training and you were ready for assignment somewhere, roughly?
J: I would say the latter part of August or the first part of September. I graduated in May and we put this together through the summer.
T: And that would be in '43.
T: Where you assigned then? Were you sent directly to England?
J: We were given our orders and we went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and got on a boat and went overseas.
T: What kind of a boat did you travel overseas on?
J: We were on the, I gotta think for a minute. It was a British ship.
T: Some traveled on regular troop ships and others traveled on some of these converted liners.
J: We, am I boring you? We got on a ship. It was an English ship and we had, I think there was 500 officers on the upper deck, and there was five or six thousand troops down below. They were infantry. So we had the staterooms which was pretty nice.
And we had a man who waited on us, a manservant so to speak. And I collected for the boys and we put together a hundred dollars and I said, "Now every night at ten o'clock you bring a platter of sandwiches." Because we only got two meals a day on the boat. He said, "I'll take care of you." And I gave him the amount of money right away so I knew he would.
Then we started in the room and we had a poker game for nine straight days. 24 hours a day but you didn't always stay in there. You'd get out and go to the bunk and nap for a couple hours and come back to the game. It went on steady. It never quit.
T: Where in England did you disembark from the ship?
J: We got off at Liverpool.
T: Where did you go then? To what part of England?
J: We went up the northeast coast to a little town called Seething.
T: How do you spell that?
J: S-E-E-T-H-I-N-G. Now wait a minute. I don't, I'm sure it was Seething. Ah, yeah. And if you ever get out to the EAA, they got a mock-up of England over there. You'll see this Seething Field is now a museum. They made a museum out of it. Kept the tower. I happened to go by and looked and that's where I was. That's still there.
T: When did your, when did you fellows go into combat? When did you make combat flights? Was it right away or did you have a period of training, acclimating yourselves?
J: When we got there, England of course was in a blackout. So we flew a couple times at night during the blackout. And then they would guide you back to your base. They'd send you out across country and guide you back with searchlights. They put a light on and point down and you'd follow that light and the next one'd pick you up and point you down till you got to your right field. Then they'd put the blitz lights on so that you could see to land. They taught you that in case you'd come home after dark, which could happen, that you weren't totally unfamiliar.
T: How about German opposition at this time? Now the blitz was pretty much kaput by that time. Was there still German opposition? Did the Germans come over and bomb any fields?
J: Once in a great while there'd be a German fighter or bomber. But what they had was that, they had the V-2 rocket. See, they had the V-1…
T: That was the buzz bomb.
J: Then I got initiated into that the first night we were there. They had one come over. And when his motor stopped, you knew he'd make a hundred and eighty and he's comin down. And he came down off the end of our bomb dump. But when we were, we were shootin dice and the boys said, "Let's go." And we ran for the shelter, you know. But it didn't bother us. That's the only one I heard of that.
V-2's, I was in England when some of those dropped. They were much worse. You didn't hear them. That was just a whoosh-bang. And we used to see those in the morning when we took off. You'd see them climbing over the Zuider Zee. You'd see the contrail going up to 60,000. And heading over for England.
T: When you went on missions, was it from that base that you were stationed at?
J: Yup. Northeast coast. We'd fly up to usually between 15 and 16 thousand feet before we formed up. Now our group leader from our base, we had a plane called "The Striped-Ass Ape." And that was a B-24 that was stripped down. It was all stripes so that you could see him for miles. And he'd go up there and fly a big ole horseshoe. And we'd come up out and you'd get your position on him and get into the formation. Usually I flew "bucket" on the leader. In other words, I'd be flying right below that striped deal, looking up in there about ten feet. And then when he got us all formed up, the group leader would come up and step in and he'd get out of there.
Then we'd get into the "bomber train", what they call the bomber train. You start heading over the North Sea and all the groups as they come in, get into their position where they belong.
T: How many planes were involved at that point, at that point in a typical mission?
J: With us, usually a thousand. Not from our base. Our base was a max at forty-eight.
T: So as you went over the North Sea, I suppose there were other formations that joined you in some way or another. It seems that when you talk about thousand plane raids, it seems like it must have been a very complicated procedure to form up all these squadrons of planes.
J: Well like I said, the leader would start out across the North Sea flying at 165 indicated, which is he's flying a lot faster. But as the groups are coming in, into their position, they've got a position, they've got a sheet that's telling em where they belong regarding that leader. And they move into that group, or into that area till by the time you hit the Zuider Zee you're all in formation. And now you start across the Zuider Zee and then down.
T: I'd like to have you take me through a typical mission if you could. For instance when did you find out, how long before a mission, how long before that did you find out that you were going to fly? The next day, or the previous day that you would find out?
J: We flew every other day weather permitting. The only time we stood down was during the Battle of the Bulge. We were down for nine days. Otherwise we flew every other day and, assumed every other day. And there was reasons you didn't. One thing or another would come up; weather was bad or this was bad. But you knew. When you were in the mess hall at six o'clock at night, the light would go on. If it was red you're up, you're gonna go. If it was yellow you stood down. We used to look for the yellow because we could go take a good nap and sleep the night. Usually they woke us up about 3 in the morning.
T: I was going to ask you that, when you got up in the morning.
J: About three. And they furnished us with nice fresh eggs on the day of a mission. Which we didn't get otherwise. Got a nice breakfast - kinda feedin you for the slaughter, you know!
T: Did you eat with enlisted men or were you separate?
J: We were separate. Officers were separate.
T: Officers as I understand it, got briefed prior to a flight. Did that apply to any of the enlisted men as well?
J: The enlisted men had a separate briefing. They're, and I never was at their briefing but of course we talked to them all the time. They were told what guns to, how much ammo to take and what to expect at the target, when to expect flak, when to expect fighters. And also from the word go we were warned that the Germans were gonna have jets. And that's in the future. I'll tell you when we got hit with the jets.
T: I thought that they came in at the very, very tale end of the war.
J: They did. That's why I said that's in the future. But we went to our separate meeting and when we got in there we sat down and somebody would yell, "Attention." We'd sit up and we sat down. And then they'd pull the map up and you'd look on the wall and you'd know where you were going. And when we got "Big B", Berlin, we didn't like that very well. And we got that three times. They didn't like that. They had an awful lot of guns. They could really, that flak - you could taxi in it, you know.
T: I've heard them tell about the flak, how horrendous it was. Tell me about taking off with a full load. I imagine that was a fairly tricky proposition. You didn't want to have anything go wrong.
J: I was more afraid of takeoff with a full load than I was of the mission. And that's being real honest because we were supposed to take off at 60,000 pounds. You know that's so small today but that was big for us. But we usually took off at 66,000 and we'd be going down the runway and my engineer would be between us. And when we got onto - we only had a 5200 foot runway, we needed about 7,000 but we didn't have it - and he'd, the engineer would say, "Wheels up." And he'd be reaching for it. And that's when you break loose and get those wheels up. Then you pick up some speed once you got off the ground, you know. But it was touchy and of course…
T: Were there cases where aircraft could not make it?
J: Yeah. We had a couple run off the end of the runway. And they blew up right there. That's it. You're…
T: It's total destruction.
J: It's total. Your bombs break loose and, they're not armed and they don't usually go off. But the plane is so loaded with gas that explodes, you know.
T: That's really tragic. I imagine if you see something like that happen, it makes it just a little more hairy for you.
J: Well we had a smoke barrel. See, a lot of times we took off the weather was so bad, the visibility was very poor. We couldn't see the other end of the runway. But we had a tar barrel about three- fourths of the way down that was on fire. It was black smoke and flame. And that was your point of no return. When you hit that, you were gonna go. So I mean, whether you like it or not, you are gonna go.
T: I see. And you couldn't say, "Well we can't make it. I'm going to shut down."
J: It's too late. Once you hit that barrel, it's too late. You're committed.
T: So you know at that particular point whether you're gonna live or die, really.
J: Oh yeah. You know you're gonna get off the ground if you possibly can
T: So you manage to get off the ground and you manage to get that plane up to some altitude and you're forming up on this "Zebra"?
J: You said it right. You said it nicer than I did. . (Laughter).
T: I can't remember exactly how you put it.
J: You can delete anything can't you?
T: Well we can but we usually don't. We like that color in there. Now you're in formation and you're over the North Sea and headed toward Germany. At what point along this line to your target, let's say it's Berlin, do you pick up German opposition? I'm assuming that you've got fighter protection.
J: We had fighter protection. We got Germans, not every mission. We got terrible flak every mission. Let me say that for sure. They really gave us flak and that knocked off a lot of bombers. But we didn't get Germans too often. We got it once in awhile, sometimes 25 or 30 of em. But we had P-51's with us. And they'd take care of those fighters if they came in. Usually they get one pass at you but they didn't get a chance for a second pass because the fighter was right on there and took care of em. Got em out of our way, you know.
T: Was your formation structured in such a way as to get maximum effect from the gunners in your planes?
J: Absolutely. Each plane over-looked so that your gunners are able to cross fire so to speak. See, we had three planes leading here. Then I'm flying three here. (Joe is describing the formation with his hands). Then there's six more up here. Three and three. Six more here, then six more back here. So that you're stacked up. There up, over and I'm the lowest actually because everything is above me. But they can all cover you. Almost all.
T: What altitude were you at for most of your missions?
J: Usually we left England about 16,000 feet and, depending on the weather, we climbed to around 22, 21. That was our best altitude for bombing. It was around 22 to 22.5.
T: And these were all daylight flights. Weren't most of them daylight flights?
T: The Brits used to fly at night, didn't they?
J: The Brits flew at night, we flew in the daytime.
T: So you're all on oxygen.
J: On oxygen. Usually you put it on about 12,000.
T: I imagine it's rather cold. You have to be dressed quite warm.
J: But we had electric flying suits and you hoped they didn't go out. And once in awhile they did. Then you really got chilly.
T: I didn't know you had electric…
J: Sure we had some electric flying. When we first started, maybe for one mission I had the heavy leather sheepskin lined deal, you know. But no, they got electric flying suits in there and it worked out very well for us. It was very good. But my feet got cold. But I went to England and I found an old bootery and I said, "You wouldn't happen to have a pair of felt shoes, would you?" "Yes," he says, "I have some." And he went up there and looked and he found me, up on a shelf and found me a pair of what we call…
T: The liners for boots.
J: Well this was actually the regular boot with a leather sole. But it was big enough so that I could throw some sox in there and that kept me quite warm.
T: What we call shoe pacs I think.
J: Yeah. Similar to that. But it was a felt shoe. Now you get a felt liner for your…
T: So now your formation is approaching the target area. As you got into Germany, did you get flak all the time?
J: We tried to avoid flak and we usually knew, or the leaders knew approximately where the flak was supposed to be the worst. And we tried to guide between it as much as we could. You got flak. You could count on flak all the time but not extremely heavy until you got into the real industrial area.
T: The Germans probably concentrated their antiaircraft in areas they knew were going to get heavily bombed.
J: Oh sure.
T: And those were what, 88's?
J: The 88 was, and once in awhile the 105. The 88 had a black when it broke. It was a black smoke. Where the 105 broke, it was purple or red. So we knew which guns they were using on us.
T: I don't imagine you heard any sound. You just saw the puff.
J: You could hear it when it hit your plane. I goes like "skreeek." It's breaking through the aluminum, you know. My crew come out of there without a wound.
J: I can't complain.
T: So you didn't have to have any replacements.
J: Had to replace planes. Had a couple shot down, I mean shot up so we replaced em. But no, my crew stayed all the way. Very lucky.
T: And as you said initially, you didn't use the bombsight. Somebody in the lead started the process and you just followed through.
J: Well he had a Norden bombsight and he bombed. And when he dropped his first two bombs, they were smoke bombs. And when they dropped, we were that close behind him, we just salvoed, unless we were told. Once we dropped em "in train" which would be like so, you know.
T: You dropped em all at once then.
J: No. It would be one right after another but singly.
T: What did you do if someone was lost out of your formation? If a plane was shot down, did they try to tighten up the formation or didn't it really make any difference?
J: Well it stayed basically the same. If one went out of there he just was gone. I was, am I boring you?
T: No, no.
J: I was knocked out over, we're coming into Hamburg and I lost an engine and I couldn't stay with the group and so I had to turn and get out of there. And I still had my bombs. And I called for fighter support. And I don't know, maybe five minutes later I had five 51's sitting right on my wings. And they said, "Big brother, don't worry about a thing. We're with you."
T: That's amazing to get five.
J: They pulled out of there and came over to me so fast I just couldn't believe it. And then two of em stayed with me. We dropped our bombs on the Frisian Islands. Whether we hit em or not, I don't know. Well I mean we just dropped em. And then kept on going and we tried to land at Belgium and I couldn't get into Belgium. I couldn't ah, weather was so bad. So I…
T: You still had three engines working though, right?
J: Not with a bomb load. With a bomb load with three, you can barely hold. But the thing is, you're deep into Germany and you have to pull extra power on your engine. And when you start pulling extra power you have the chance of losing more. That's why I got rid of those bombs as soon as I could over the Frisian Islands. And then we couldn't get in to Belgium so I landed at Manson, England which was nothing but a great big cement runway. Any direction you want, just come in.
And as I was coming across the English Channel I lost the second one but I had so much altitude there was nothing to it. Just landed in there and they gave me a brand new airplane to take home. That plane was junked.
T: Really? I imagine it's sort of scary to get out of the aircraft and really get a chance to see what kind of damage was done, what you were flying.
J: We had 300 holes that day. According to what they told me. I didn't count em and I don't know. But we had a few holes.
T: I see. Was that the only time that you got a new aircraft or was there…?
J: No, I had one more. I had one more, ran into, we got hit again on New Year's Eve of '44-'45. We were still cleaning up after the Battle of the Bulge and I got hit over a little town called Euskirchen. They weren't supposed to have a gun there. And they had a real nice railroad gun there and he took good care of us.
T: How do you spell that name, the city or the town that you…?
J: E-U-C-H…Euskirchen. If you look on a map you'll see it. It's actually in Belgium. I think it could be German but I think it's Belgian. (Euskirchen is about 15-20 miles west southwest of Bonn on the Erft River in Germany). Euskirchen. Maybe it's German but it's on the border in there. If you look at the Battle of the Bulge, you'll see a little town called Euskirchen. "Euskirken" it might be pronounced. But he hit us pretty good there. And we made it in to a, there was an emergency field at Liege, Belgium called B-53. And I dropped into B-53 and spent the night there. And we went home on a transport the next day. I didn't get a plane there. They didn't have any planes. We left our plane there. And we got a ride back.
T: What kind of casualties or what kind of losses did your squadron experience in that time that you were flying there?
J: I really don't know. We never, we didn't look into that very often. I guess we really didn't want to know.
T: Was it a sort of a sore point? When you came back and you knew that there were losses, how did you handle that? Did you try to forget it? Was it sometimes people that you knew? I can't imagine how one would handle that sort of thing if you're sort of a tightly knit group and you lose people. How do you deal with that sort of thing on a personal basis?
J: Well there isn't much you can do about it. We had a plane blow up on my right wing oh, somewhere over Germany. I don't know exactly where but he blew up. He got hit with a straight 88. Just blew. I knew a crew was lost. And then my father wrote me a letter and said that - he worked at the post office at the time - that another man who worked at the post office, his son was over there and his son was supposedly killed on our base; could I check it out. Then I went down to the CO and I said, "Was it," and I can't remember the kid's name but I said, "Was he on that?" "Yeah," he said, "He was the top gunner." And he was on that plane that blew and of course I didn't know that. Then I wrote back and I said to dad, "There is no chance. He blew. I saw the plane blow."
But you know it's so impersonal because you're not in there.
T: I suppose. Tell me a little bit about the daily life on the base. When you weren't flying, what did you do for activities? What was the food like? What were things like on the base?
J: Well for breakfast we had green eggs - if you could stand em. And they had homemade bread but we had a pot-bellied stove that was quite hot and we used to toast our bread on the stove. There was no toaster otherwise. But they had, I gotta say they had butter so we could butter it. And all the coffee you wanted. So you just took your time around that and usually we got over, in the officers club we got a pool table or a snooker table over there. They didn't have pool tables, they had snooker tables. We played snooker. I played a lot of bridge over there.
T: Officers got an alcohol ration too, didn't they?
J: Yeah, but it amounted to very little. You didn't get very much.
T: Did you hear from home frequently?
J: My mother and dad wrote me, and my sisters wrote me. And I wrote them of course. But ah, and you say you write but you really can't say very much. Matter of fact, on my birthday this year my sister brought two letters that I had written home that she had preserved. And she showed em to my kids. She said, "See, you dad never complained." And I didn't. I never complained a bit. But you weren't allowed to say very much. And I had to censor the letters for my enlisted men. And all I ever told em is, "Don't ever say anything in there that we shouldn't say because I'm not going to read your letters. And I will put my name on it. But don't stick me over the barrel because if you've said something that shouldn't be said and I O.K'd it, I'm in trouble." So consequently everything went through fine. No problems.
Other than that, on a day off, why there really wasn't much to do.
T: Could you leave the base? Were you able to get passes?
J: Well we didn't have to have a pass. We could go into Seething if we wanted to but there was nothing there but a pub. And I'd rather be in the officers club than at a local pub.
We did get weekend passes. I think I had three of em all the time I was over there. Then we'd generally go down to London. It was usually Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
T: Was there a lot of activity that you could engage in, in London. Was it a good place to…?
J: Oh yeah, we had a lot of fun. Kew Gardens was probably the best I've ever seen. England is so moist and damp that their vegetation is green. It's beautiful. I gotta say that Kew Gardens, we spent about three days in there altogether, it was just interesting to take your time and go through that. And then I went to Westminster Abbey. Spent a little time in there. And we spent a little time getting some drinks too.
T: Oh sure.
J: That was, I'm not trying to tell you that I was a good boy.
T: I guess their rationing at that time was quite restrictive. You couldn't go out and get a wonderful meal somewhere because the food just wasn't available.
J: Their food was terrible and I felt sorry for them. They didn't have it any better than we did. You know we were really resented whether we like it or not. Let's be honest about it. We were not as well accepted as you people think.
T: I did not know that. I would imagine there was some animosity that the young American guys coming and dominating the field so to speak, with the girls. Their guys were all away somewhere and here you fellows are. I suppose there would be some animosity there but otherwise I would think we would have been well accepted.
J: Probably. I might have said that wrong but their saying was, you know, that we "Were overpaid, oversexed and over here." In that order.
T: I've heard that.
J: Another one they said was, "Old Mr. Hubbard went to the cupboard to get himself a hanky, and when he got there the cupboard was bare and so was his wife with a Yankee." And that's of course, you know that's, but you see I didn't have any problem with em at all. Once in awhile we'd have a little argument, you know. But nothing very serious.
T: What was your opinion of, but of course you didn't have close contact with the enemy but what was your opinion as an opponent?
J: You mean the Germans?
T: Yeah, the Germans. Were they tough customers?
J: Till the end of the war when they got to where they were running out of pilots, they were excellent fliers. And they could really handle their airplanes. Probably just as good as we were. I would assume they were just as good as we were. They certainly had a lot of guts because when they came through the formation they came right at you. They didn't slow down. Once in awhile there'd even be a collision between a German fighter and a bomber, you know. And that's it. But they had a lot of brass.
T: Their aircraft, as I understand it, was pretty good aircraft. ME 109's…
J: Usually we bumped… 109 and the 190, the Focke-Wulfe 190 too. They hit us with more of the 190's than the 109's. And that was a plane comparable probably to a 47, a P-47. Had the blunt nose.
T: Big engine.
J: Big engine. And we got hit with those quite a bit. They had some "yellow tails" and some "checker tails." And we knew when we got those boys, they were checked out. They were good pilots.
T: This insignia on the tale told you something about the…?
J: The groups. They had their own colors like we had our colors. And then when we got the yellow tails and the checkered tails, we knew they were first class pilots.
T: That's interesting.
J: And of course in the tag end of the war, you know, we bumped into the jets.
T: Tell me about the jets. I imagine that was quite a shock.
J: Well we'd been warned about jets. Every time we had a meeting or briefing, they'd say, "Look out, you're gonna get jets." And one day my tail gunner said, "I don't know what's behind us but he is coming like a bat out of hell. I can't even get a gun on him." And I said, "That's a jet. It's gotta be a jet." And he went like this, around the top of the formation, came right back down through us. And he was moving. And the '51 couldn't get close to him. He was kicking in probably 550 or 600 miles an hour.
So then they hit us, well they got quite a few of us one day. And then they put a lot of 51's, sent less bombers and more fighters. And the 51's boxed him in and got him into where they were around and then they forced him down. We were very fortunate that we didn't get the jets early because they would have blown us out of the air. But they had so few and it was so late in the war it was too late. And they were running out of good pilots. They were putting kids up by this time.
T: I would think so, yes. When did the end of the war come for you as far as your activities in Europe?
J: The end of the war.
T: And what did your unit do at that point? Did you have to hang around for awhile or were you able to go home?
J: We stayed there at the base. And that's the land of the midnight sun. We were playing ball at midnight. It was just as bright out and nice.
J: Oh sure. So we were playing ball, you know. And didn't have any light on the field but the sun was still up.
T: I see. I would think you'd have to be further north.
J: No. We had about two hours of darkness and come right back light again. We played a lot of baseball, did some volleyball. Gave us a chance to, we had nothing else to do. We could offer to fly planes full of nurse over Germany to show em what it was and stuff. Which I never did. I didn't want to, as far as I was concerned, I was just as well out of that bomber. I didn't want to step back in there.
T: Well yeah, you'd taken your chances.
J: I didn't need to get back in there any more. I should tell you one more mission we had too.
We had a long one. We went to, are you there?
T: I'm getting close to the end (of the tape) but I think we can go for awhile.
J: We went across the North Sea all the way over and come in on the Baltic. At Peenemunde. That's where the Germans had their…
T: Sub pens.
J: Well no, the rockets were there. We came down on Peenemunde and we were hit with [Starnovick]. Russian fighters hit us there. Now you never read about this but they did. They hit us and that was a mistake. I think there was ten or twelve of em and none of em got back. The 51's were with us and they went in there and just cleaned house and that was the end of them. But they did hit us.
J: Well they were supposed to be flying a front line. We were not supposed to cross that line. They were supposed to fly back and forth. We saw their line. And we stayed on our side of the line coming in to bomb the rocket area. And all of a sudden they broke off and started through us. They only made one mistake.
T: It's hard for me to understand. You'd think there would have been more cooperation, that they wouldn't have been so ah, protective of what they thought was their…
J: What have they been since then?
J: What have they been since then? You know they don't change. They just, they're just not nice to get along with. And they made a mistake. They never should have challenged us because they didn't get any of us. But every one of those went down. The 51's just, they wouldn't let em get away. They chased em across the line and anywhere they had to but they got em.
T: Were there any repercussions? Did the Russians…?
J: You've never read about this, have you?
T: No, I've never…
J: You bet you haven't. Nothing was ever said. And when we got back to the base and we started to complain, the CO said, "If I were you, I'd just shut up." That was the end… Apparently he had been told ahead of time to just tell the boys to shut up. So we shut up.
T: Well that's interesting. I wouldn't have imagined something like that would have occurred during World War II.
J: Well see this was all right toward the end of the war. And the Germans, I mean the Russians were moving. They were coming through fast towards Germany.
T: I suppose they wanted to get as much territory as they could.
J: And they didn't want any interference. And they wanted to get all these German scientists, you know. They were lookin for them. Which we beat em to most of those. We got the best ones at least. Wernher Von Braun for example. He would have been at Peenemunde no doubt. Because that's where they worked. So we were after them, but…
(The first tape ends here).
T: At the end of the war in Europe, was there any thought given to the possibility that you fellows might be called to the Far East?
J: We assumed we were coming back here. And I was sent to Childress, Texas to start flying again. We were supposed to start flying 29's (the B-29).
T: When was that approximately, Joe?
J: Well I got out England, I landed in the United States on the first or second of July and I was given the month off. I had until the end of July and then I had to report to Childress, Texas. I should back up and say I had the month off but I didn't. I went to California, Santa Anna Air Base. And I had time there but I wasn't off the whole month. Anyway I went from there to Childress, Texas to fly cadets around. And waiting to see whether we were going to take 29's, and then they dropped the bomb. And that was it. Then I said, "I want out." And I got out in October.
T: So that's October of ?
J: October of '45. October 25th to be exact. I got my, I don't know if you're interested or not but I got my discharge paper if you're interested in seeing it. Thought I did.
T: So you got out of service in October 1945. What did you do then Joe, after you got out of service? Did you come back to Oshkosh?
J: Came back to Oshkosh. Sold shoes for awhile.
T: Who did you sell for?
J: I sold for Newmans and then I sold for Kasten's Bootery in Appleton.
T: Let's just go back a little bit. When you heard about the bomb, the atomic bomb, what were your thoughts about that? Everybody pretty much said they were glad that it happened and it meant the end of the war for us, the end of the killing. Looking back on Truman's decision, do you have any thoughts about that one way or another?
J: We were as happy as could be. Because we were planning that we were gonna fly 29's and naturally we didn't want it. And everybody was concerned about how bad it would be to invade Japan. So when Truman kicked the bomb out, we thought that was wonderful and that meant we were going to get out of the service.
T: It probably, looking at it objectively, it probably saved a lot of Japanese lives too.
J: I think it saved a lot of lives all the way around. We'd have probably killed a million of those and they probably would have gotten a hundred thousand of us. But we would have killed a lot of em, there's no question.
T: They had that philosophy, as guys that fought in the Far East can tell you, that they fought to the death.
J: Well did you see it in the paper this morning, am I digressing? Okinawa. We had 12,000 deaths in 60 days it took em. They had 60,000. That's five to one, you know. That's about the size they're gonna get. No, it was, I think it was great both ways to drop the atomic bomb.
T: Did you ever progress to the point where you flew B-29's?
J: Never was even in a '29. Just told that I was going to be.
T: You were probably just as happy…
J: I was just as happy as could be.
T: When you got out and were working as a salesman, was there a point where you came to Oshkosh to work and worked here?
J: No. My wife and I went to California. Because I thought I, I liked California and I want to live there. So we went to California and I was selling shoes out there. I had a real good job at a great store and my wife's father, who owns Stannard Dry Cleaners here in Oshkosh, called and said, "Joe, come back. I want you to run the laundry for me."
And Shirl and I discussed it and cussed it and finally I said, "Alright, let's go." So we decided to come back. That was 1950. And I've been there ever since and I bought him out in 1960.
T: There were, as I recall, there were twin Stannard girls. Did you marry one of them?
J: No, I married one older than them.
T: I see. I didn't know that one at all.
J: See, I had Shirley and there was Joan and Joyce. Joan is dead and Joyce is still alive and living in Illinois and I see her and her husband frequently.
T: How long did you spend in California, Joe?
J: Oh, almost two years. A little better than two years, I guess.
T: When did you come back to the Stannard Laundry?
J: March of '50. Incidentally, I was flying out in California with the Long Beach Fliers Patrol. Flying twin engine bombers.
T: So you kept up your…
J: I was flying out there because I got paid for flying and incidentally…
T: So it was service-connected in some way, or wasn't it connected?
J: Well you could, you had to apply for it and I got it because I was a four-engine pilot. They were flying twin-engine bombers. And I flew one weekend a month. And then I left there in March. Then in June we were in the Korean War and Long Beach Fliers were the first bomb group over. I would have been back over in Korea and, oh, ho, ho, I was never so happy in all my life; it was that tight.
T: Now does an officer have to resign his commission? I've heard about that. That when you're an officer, you're, they can call on you unless and until you resign your commission. Is that more or less correct?
J: When I left California, see it was the Long Beach Fliers Post; it was the Jack London Post. Now you've heard of Jack London the author. It was his son who was a flier and he had the Long Beach Patrol. And I, because I was into that deal, I got so I was taken in. And I flew, got paid for flying one weekend a month which was fun. But then when I left there to come to Oshkosh, I resigned from there and that cut me off. I never went back in the service.
T: So you were fortunate that you resigned.
T: Now early in the war when we suffered some setbacks and casualties in places like Pearl Harbor, Wake Island and so forth, and things weren't going too great, did the thought ever enter your mind that maybe we wouldn't win the war? Or did you think there was…?
J: No. I never, the only thing I was unhappy about was I wanted to go against the Japs. I was unhappy to go to England. I really wanted to go to the islands.
J: I hated the Japs. And I didn't have any hatred for the Germans.
T: I guess that ethnically we were so much closer to the Germans than the Japanese. That's the only reason I can think of. Of course the propaganda cartoons and so forth really painted the Japanese in a very bad light. And I think it must be said that they were very cruel. They had a different attitude about us and fighting and war.
J: Well History Channel, the History Channel yesterday had Wake Island on. They showed you what they did to those boys over there on Wake Island. You know you didn't want to be taken in by the Japanese. And you know what they did to American fliers. If they were shot down, it was too bad.
T: Were any of your friends from this area killed during the war?
J: One of the boys I enlisted with was a boy by the name of Donnie Hayes. Flew B-17's when he, he was with us over at Sheboygan when we enlisted. And he was flying out of Italy and was shot down over the Adriatic and drowned in the sea. He couldn't swim. Yeah, I got that later.
But ah, another one, Ziebell, Don Ziebell was one of the other ones with us. And when I got to my base in England, he had washed out and he was a navigator flying in another plane. He was sitting in the officer's club when I walked in. And of course we had quite a reunion.
T: Yeah, you hear about how fellows met pals from their hometown. One guy was in a prison camp and watched new fellows coming in - and there was a guy from his hometown.
J: Oh sure. I was walking down the streets in London and Dr. Hintz - my sister was his office girl - and he was in there and he was a colonel in the dentistry deal. And he was walking down the street and he yelled across the street at me and said, "Hey Joe!" And I said, "Yeah." And I said, "Dr. Hintz." We went out and had a drink together. He was quite a guy.
T: Do you think the war changed you in any way?
J: Oh yes. I think being an officer, and I'm not… The training you get to become one stood me in good stead all my life. It gave me a different outlook on life. Takes the belligerence out of you. I think it makes more of a man out you.
T: A number of guys said that when they were in the service, it made a man out of them.
J: Yeah, I think it did. I don't think there's any question about it. And I can say this, if we were in a group and a West Point man walked in, you could tell the difference. The training they got which was so much better than ours, and the bearing, everything about em. You knew when he walked through the door he was a West Point man.
T: Do you think very much of the war today or is it something that you are able to put aside, put on the shelf?
J: Like in Iraq, you mean? I feel sorry for the boys in Iraq because…
T: I'm thinking of World War II really. There are some who, they don't dwell on it but it's a memory they cannot seem to erase. And others say that "Ah no, I never really think about it. It doesn't come back to me very much."
J: It doesn't. Once in a great, great while. And it hasn't happened lately but once in awhile I would dream, and dream about flying. But I don't anymore and I just felt sorry for the boys on the ground. When we turned back from a mission to come back home, you could look down and say, "Oh, my Lord, there they are down there, and we're going to go home to a bed." And they didn't go home to a bed. So my heart was out to em all the way. But that's why I wanted to be an officer, that's why I wanted to be a flier. I didn't want to be on the ground.
T: You know, along that line I can think of a fellow who was interviewed here who was in the infantry who had the same reaction about the guys flying. He could see planes getting hit and going down and he'd say to himself, "Gee, I'm glad I'm here on solid earth." So it works both ways.
J: It works both ways. Our casualties, the Air Force casualties were unbelievable. If you've ever read…
T: I've read some statistics on it and they are, like you say, just unbelievable. A lot a guys got lost.
J: They got 21 of our planes one day out of 36.
T: That's why I asked you about how you contended with those losses. When you get back home to your base and you know that's happened… Were there guys that couldn't handle it? Were there fellows that it ate on em and they just…?
J: Oh yeah. Sure. Yes. And you usually had to take em out and get em a few drinks and talk to them. And sometimes even that didn't work; even a doctor couldn't straighten em out. And it's, you know, it's gonna happen.
T: Was there a tendency to avoid close friendships as a result of something like that?
J: Not by me.
T: Didn't really enter into the picture.
J: No. I can say this. I had nine Lugers. See, when a man was shot down, then we'd put his effects together. And I kept holding these guns because you didn't send those home. And then when I was ready to go home, I turned em in because I thought if I was caught with nine Lugers, you know, I'd have an awful lot of explaining to do. So I turned em in.
But we cleaned out those foot lockers, you know. You looked for letters that maybe shouldn't have been there or maybe pictures or something that you didn't want the family to see. And you cleaned it up so that it went home looking right.
And I sent one boy home with a pair of my pants because he didn't have a good pair and he had to go home because his mother was sick. He said, "I'll send em back to you and you won't have to worry." I gave him my home address and I forgot about it. And six months after the war was over I got a box with a pair of pants. There was a ten-dollar bill in there, sitting on the pair of pants.
T: Well that's great. It shows that he thought something of you. Joe, is there anything else that relates to the war that we haven't covered that you'd like to talk about?
J: I don't think so. (Shows object in wallet). There's a $5.00 bill that we split when we went overseas. The other guy didn't come home.
J: I've never taken it out. It's always sat there. My kids know it's in there.
T: Well, it's a reminder. I don't know how you feel about that…
J: Oh, it doesn't, it's so long, It's 60 years ago. You know when you think about it, 1944 to, that's 60 years ago. That's a long time. Good Lord! I'm almost 85 years old. I don't feel it but I am.
T: Well you don't look it either.
J: Of course I go to work every day.
T: So you're still pretty much in the business?
J: I sold the business. I haven't had a paycheck since '82. I sold the business to my boys. I said, "It's yours." I own the property. But I go in and help em everyday. I cash up the two stores and I go upstairs and work with em there. I still do a little pressing here and there.
T: You had children?
J: Three boys and a girl.
T: And two of the boys are in the…
J: Two of the boys are in there. One's down in Memphis. And my daughter is next to the sheriff in the sheriff's department. She's got the highest rank out there.
T: Well, I thank you very much Joe?
J: You got all you want?
T: I really appreciate your coming in and talking to us.
J: I hope that I didn't bore you.
T: No you didn't.
Oral History Interview with Joeseph H. Leroy.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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