||Robert L. Rieckman was born on a farm in 1921 in Morris, Minnesota. His father worked for the city. He had two sisters, one of whom is still living. He had an uneventful childhood and graduated from Morris High School in 1940 with high honors. He played trumpet in the band. He won a college scholarship. Though his family was poor, his father always had a job and they were not severely affected by the Depression.
Bob's father could neither read nor write and was anxious for him to continue his education; he loaned him $1200.00 and sent him off to St. Olaf College which he attended for almost two years. He boxed as a bantamweight at 114 pounds. In 1942, Bob knew the draft was close so he enlisted in the Air Corps because he had always loved the thought of flying. He was inducted in February 1942, went through the usual pre-flight courses in Michigan, Texas and Oklahoma. He soloed in Sept. 1943. Bob completed advanced training and was assigned to fly B-26 bombers in South Carolina; the assignment was then changed to B-17 co-pilot after the Regensberg raid and finally to Cargo pilot in Watertown South Dakota in the summer of 1944. He worked as a test pilot in C-47s; he was designated Project Officer for C-45s. Planes were dismantled piece by piece and examined for weaknesses that could be remedied. He also ferried planes to Fairbanks, Alaska in the winter of 1944 to the spring of 1945. Bob was discharged in April 1946, married Peg, a girl he met in Watertown, SD and graduated from the U. Of Minnesota in 1948 with a degree in Business Administration. He had three children, 2 boys and one girl. Unhappy with a job in sales at Safeway Scaffolding Products in Milwaukee and elsewhere, he got an engineering degree at MSOE, moved to Oshkosh in 1961 and following two other jobs, he worked for C.R. Meyer until his retirement in 1989. Bob's son Stewart is an editor of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, his daughter lives fairly close; his other son Bob was killed at a fairly young age in an auto crash.
||World War II Oral History Project
|Dates of Accumulation
||August 18, 2004
||Cassette recorded oral history interview with Robert L. Rieckman, United Army Air Force during World War II. In 1942, Bob enlisted in the Air Force because he had always loved the thought of flying. Bob completed advanced training and was assigned to fly B-26 bombers in South Carolina; the assignment was then changed to B-17 co-pilot and finally to Cargo pilot in Watertown South Dakota in the summer of 1944. He worked as a test pilot in C-47s; he was designated Project Officer for C-45s. He also ferried planes to Fairbanks, Alaska in the winter of 1944 to the spring of 1945. Bob was discharged in April 1946.
Robert Rieckman Interview
6 August 2004
Conducted by Thomas M. Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; B: identifies the subject, Bob Rieckman. A couple comments by staff photographer Bill Krueger are identified with X. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear).
T: Well, we'll get started then Bob. It's August 6th, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with Bob Rieckman who served in World War II. Bob is going to tell me about his experiences in that war. Let's begin then by having you tell me when and where you were born, Bob?
B: I was born in Morris, Stevens County, Minnesota in October of 1922.
T: Were your mother and dad both from that area as well?
B: Yeah. They were farmers, German farmers that emigrated from Europe.
T: Your mother and dad both worked the farm then?
T: Did you have brothers and sisters?
B: I had two younger sisters.
T: Are either of them living now?
B: The youngest one.
T: I see. Okay. Tell me about your childhood. Tell me where you went to school and in grade school, what you did for fun after grade school, after the school day was out. Maybe being on the farm you didn't do much other than chores.
B: We weren't on the farm. My dad got a job with the City of Morris. He was an unusual man. He was illiterate. Never went to school, didn't know how to read or write. But in a certain year, back in the 1950's, if you look in the Minnesota Directories of the Municipal Employees, he's listed as the Waterworks Engineer. And so we went to Morris public schools. Grade school, junior high school and high school.
And it was a small town and we didn't worry about anybody bothering us. We played until dark. Mother never worried where we were. We could run like the deer.
X: Just like it is now, right? (Laughter).
B: Tin Cans Aloft, have you heard of that game?
T: Yes, I have.
B: And flashlight tag. And Halloween was always a great day. There were outhouses to tip over. And apple trees to pick. And, oh we had bicycles. We just went everywhere. We went camping. We took broomsticks and put sails on them and we'd sail down the highway over Lake Minewaska and camp overnight. We had quite a gang. There was Kent Spaulding who is now a retired Lutheran pastor. And Dick Torgeson who was a retired Lutheran pastor and died recently of Alzheimer's. Dickie Dewahl who in 1955 was elected by the Junior Chamber of Commerce as one of the ten outstanding young men in the United States. He was on the team that developed the heart/lung machine at the University of Minnesota. And let's see, who else did we have? Oh, Jimmy Ecklund who was a used car dealer out in Aberdeen, South Dakota. But his son was written about in "Chicken Soup for the Soul." This Catholic sister was talking about an outstanding student she had in St. Mary's School in Morris, Minnesota. That was Jim's son. So we had an outstanding group.
T: Were you in a parochial school or a public school?
B: Public school.
T: Did you go to high school there?
B: Unh huh.
T: Again, what city was that?
T: Morris. Whereabouts in Minnesota is that located? I'm trying to visualize just where that would be.
B: Okay, you know that section of Minnesota that juts out into South Dakota? Brown's Valley and Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake. We were 48 miles due east of that. Farming community. Flat level land. Beautiful black earth.
T: Where did you go to high school then, in Morris?
B: In Morris. Graduated in 1940.
T: You graduated in 1940; did you participate in sports or any other activities?
B: Oh, I had a physical disability. I was born with an upside down stomach, they said. I was under five feet and under a hundred pounds until I was a senior in high school. So I spent my times on scholastics. I graduated as an honor student. And played in the band.
T: What instrument did you play?
B: Trumpet. Oh that was a lot of fun.
T: Do you still play the trumpet?
T: When you were in high school and really before high school too, we were in the depths of the Depression. How did that affect your family and or maybe friends of yours and your community as a whole? Can you remember that, those days?
B: Oh yes, vividly. The folks, our grandparents were still on a farm. Dad was working in town. Mom was always home. Milk was delivered to the house. We got one quart of milk every second day for three kids. And if it wasn't enough, that was tough. And we always bought the economy cuts of food. And there was very little, we didn't have a refrigerator. And I remember the dust storms. Ah, the dust would fly. You couldn't see from streetlight to streetlight in broad daylight.
T: You say you didn't have a refrigerator. Did you have an icebox?
B: No. We had what they called a cellar. It was a dug out hole in the ground underneath the house. And it was relatively cool down there.
T: Like a fruit cellar.
B: Yes, similar to that. Yeah, we weren't well off. I remember when Roosevelt was elected and PWA and WPA started? My grandfather comes to my dad and he says, "Herman, why don't you go to work for PWA? They pay 45 cents an hour." Dad says, "No, that's for people that don't have a job. I have a job." He was making 25 cents an hour but he stayed with the City of Morris, Minnesota for 51 years. He was a remarkable man.
The night I graduated from high school I found out that I was an honor student and I qualified for a scholastic scholarship at any Minnesota university I wanted to go to. And when we got home - now this is a man who can't read or write - now when we got home he says, "You want to go to college?" And I hadn't thought about it. I said, "Yeah, I'd like to go to college." And my mother says, "No, he can't. We can't afford it." And dad says, "I know we can't but if he's smart enough to win a scholarship, he's smart enough to got to college. He's gonna go to college."
And about a week or so later he came to me with a $1200.00 check, an unsecured note from the Citizens State Bank of Morris for $1200.00. He says, "Here it is. Take it and go as far as you can. This is all I can do for you. But however far you go, that's how far you have to pay for Dorothy, and that's what Dorothy has to pay for Donna. And Donna's gotta pay me back the $1200.00. He didn't take inflation into account. So he had three children went to college and he never went to school.
T: I imagine that was pretty exciting for him to have his kids get that education since he didn't have it.
B: He was very proud of all three of us.
X: Could you move in a little closer, just a little bit?
T: Yeah. Where did you go to college then Bob?
B: Another kid a year older than I was going to St. Olaf so I became his roommate and went to St Olaf.
T: I guess that's a great school. You hear a lot about it.
B: Yeah. I really didn't appreciate it. In those days, young, healthy, world is our oyster. What do we need God for? St. Olaf is a church school.
T: Yes, that's right.
B: Every morning at 10:20 there was chapel. And I am probably the uncrowned king of chapel skipping. You couldn't go to the library, they patrolled that. You couldn't go to the dormitory, they patrolled that. But no one thought of the power plant. I'd go down the hill. The power plant was nice and warm. I could do some studying, watch the clock and come back on campus. Chapel was only 20 minutes I think.
T: Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
B: We were living, Kent Spaulding and two fellows from Rice Lake, Minnesota were living in a private home in Northfield. It was a Sunday afternoon. And I was putting off getting down to studying, listening to the radio. Bingo, I heard it, couldn't believe it!
T: Now you were how old at that time, Bob?
B: I was eighteen.
T: I imagine that you figured that something was going to happen to you. You were going to be serving Uncle Sam, or didn't you think about it much at that time?
B: I read a lot about flying. That was my life. I wanted to fly. If I didn't do anything else I wanted to fly.
T: Had you ever been up in a plane? Had you ever had the opportunity?
B: No. I read about it. I read Lindbergh's "We" I don't know how many times. And I made model airplanes. They were all over the house. My mother was thoroughly disgusted. And she was worried about the war. My possibility of going in the service. I remember she said, "That man Hitler is an evil man. He's gonna cause a lot of mothers a lot of tears."
And I was at St. Olaf and they taught me about the college students being screened for aviation cadet training. Oh boy, I'll do it! So I enlisted immediately. Well, I had to get the parents permission first. Dad was okay but Mom wasn't. No. "Hey look Mom, I'm gonna get drafted and I'll be on the ground as a Private and I'd rather enlist and be a pilot and an officer and get a better chance…" I talked her into it. So I enlisted.
I was on the boxing team. Trained down to 114 pounds as a bantamweight. And the minimum weight was 118 pounds. So to pass the physical I had a couple banana splits.
T: Your upside-down stomach didn't cramp your style too much at that point.
B: Well, I had good hand-eye coordination. I had eyes like an eagle and good hearing. Healthy. I could run like a deer. In fact kids never picked a fight with me because I could always run away from em.
T: Going back a bit Bob, I wanted to ask you if when you were in the latter part of high school, there was war in Europe and there was war in the Far East. Did you give much thought? Was it ever a topic of conversation in your house.
B: Yeah, yeah. Kent Spaulding's dad was a Captain in the National Guard and he got called up. And we were worried. We knew that if this war lasted long enough we were going to be in it. And one of my classmates, a fellow named Paul [Selden] enlisted directly out of high school. And he ended up as a fighter pilot in the 8th Air Force. He flew two tours, the first tour in P-38s and the second tour as a squadron commander in P-51s. And he's wearing plastic like I am.
T: Engine noise, I suppose?
B: No he was a squadron leader so he had to listen to the radio for instructions on where to be and when to be there. And the Germans would scan the radio and find their frequency and jam it. He said it sounded like an emery wheel running on steel. And you turn up the volume and all you get is more noise. But he had to have it on, loud continuous noise. His hearing is worse than mine, and mine is bad. But he can tell stories about combat.
T: What was the date of your enlistment? When did you enlist?
B: It was February of '42. I can't remember the exact date.
T: Well that was quite soon after Pearl Harbor and of course you picked the Air Force because that was your baby. You were really enamored of flying, right?
B: Yeah, that was that. I debated between the Navy and the Army Air Force. And believe it or not, I picked the Army because they wore brown shoes and the Navy wore black shoes. (Laughter).
T: Well that makes sense!
B: And then I told myself, "If you go down, you can walk further than you can swim." (Laughter).
T: Tell me now about your training. Here you're a guy that has never been in an airplane and they're gonna teach you how to fly multi-engine aircraft, presumably. Take me right from the beginning right through that process and explain to me how they accomplished that feat?
B: When I went into service I got my basic military training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. And there we were buck privates. And then we were transferred to a College Training Detachment. They had one here at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
B: Okay, the one I went to was at Michigan State in East Lansing. And …
T: Was that called pre-flight then?
B: No. That was College Training Detachment. We were screened and oh boy, that was in '43. In April I got this from my mother. (Bill reads from a diary he kept then) "Today is the second day of classes. Luckily I am in highest quintiles so leave Michigan State College in five weeks. Our schedule is easy. We have war, disease, drill, military and customs and courtesies, lunch, civilian air recognition study, camouflage study, 8 o'clock dinner and mail call, study."
T: That's neat that you've got the diary. I've only seen a couple. Many guys just didn't bother with them. That's nice to have.
B: My reactions to first flight are in here if I can find em.
T: The first time you were up in a plane?
B: Mm hm. Here's my flight log from when I was in… Or was that primary? I was scared. I was demanding of myself. Okay. "We go out to the airport for our first flight instructions. So I'll probably make another entry today. Right now I'm just hoping that I'm a natural flier, or something. Don't feel that I can remember cockpit procedure, take-off, flight pattern and all. I just hope." And that was on Sunday. Monday: "We didn't fly yesterday or today because of the weather. And shortage of instructors. Did some hangar flying. It rained today. Had a beetle-brained drill sergeant for drill. He made us lay our books down in the middle of the field. They got wet of course besides blowing all over. Did thirty sit-ups today." Friday, "Rather a dull week. Rather disappointed over not being able to fly, shortage of parachutes as the cause, they say. Food was very good this week."
T: Does that diary go right to the end of your service?
B: No it was training only. The end of the training, that's the end of the diary.
T: Why wouldn't you have kept a diary? You know this is nice and complete? Why didn't you keep a diary after that?
B: Because we were moving around. Just moved all over the place. Okay, here we are. Wednesday, April 28th. "Flew Tuesday and Wednesday. The first day we tried straight and level flight and turns. Were chased in by black clouds. Barely made it. Felt good but then today the air was a bit bumpier and I couldn't do a thing. Felt disgusted, still do; maybe I should have joined the Coast Guard. Have to learn flight pattern, it's hard. Perhaps I'm trying too hard. Tuesday we had a grubby Cub, today a spiffy Porterfield. My instructor's name is Brink, a nice fellow. Yesterday I received a big package from Marie with a small egg."
T: Were most of the instructors pretty decent guys?
T: Because I heard that some instructors were frustrated fighter pilots. They wanted to be where the action was and here they were instructing guys that didn't know how to fly.
B: Well it varied. In primary flight school we had civilian instructors. And they were paid for the number of cadets that they got through. So they wanted us to. And that's where most of us washed out.
T: Now in this training here, were you actually flying an aircraft?
B: With an instructor.
T: Piper Cub or was it…?
B: Yeah. The Piper Cub and one was a Porterfield, "Lazy Lady" was the name of the Porterfield.
T: I guess the Cub was a fairly easy plane to fly?
B: Yeah. Zebras were what they called orientation rides. The basic reason for them was to find out whether or not we got airsick.
T: I guess a fair number of guys did.
B: Yeah, my old friend Kent got airsick. I talked him into enlisting with me. He got airsick and washed out. And that's another story. Kent could play the piano and he had a good singing voice. He ended up in Garden City, Kansas, a private in the Air Corps. He volunteered to be a Chaplain's Assistant and he was the assistant to the chaplain that gave the invocation for the Enola Gay takeoff. And that's the reason he ended up as a Lutheran Pastor.
T: I see. Bob, I'd like to have you now tell me about the next phase of your training. How long did this first phase last, by the way?
B: Well we were in Lansing about six weeks.
T: Then where did you go after that?
B: Then we went to San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center. It was called SAC. And that's where we got our Army Air Corps 6-4 physical. And were classified. We were going to be bombardiers, navigators or pilots.
T: Really? At that early stage they separated you out.
B: Well, they would listen to your preference.
T: Didn't most of the guys say, "Well, I want to be a pilot?"
B: No. There were some fellows, mostly the mapmakers wanted to be navigators. And I don't know why anybody'd want to be a bombardier but there were guys did want to be a bombardier.
T: That's interesting. I thought they did that separation at a later date.
B: They tried to give you what your preference was but if you were obviously more qualified to be a bombardier than a pilot, say you had some deficiency, then you were a bombardier. I think that's where most of the bombardiers came from.
T: And you were selected to go to which branch, which area?
B: I launched into pilot training, not then but they did give me my preference to be a pilot. And the Air Force 6-4 physical just took weeks and weeks. And my right eye was my weak eye. And I thought, I'll read the chart with my good eye and read it back from memory with my bad eye. Well little did I know the eye test was four days long and they knew my eyes better than I did. Matter of fact at the end the tech sergeant chuckled. He says, "I bet you thought your right eye was weak?" I said, "Yeah, I did." He says, "That's because your left eye is so strong." He says, "One person in 10,000 has an eye as good as your left eye. Ted Williams has two of em and that's why he's a batting champion." I had good eyes. Now I wear spectacles.
And after we got done with our physical it was more army routine. Aw, they didn't have things for us to do. They had a huge parade grounds. And we were called out in the hot Texas sun to pick stones. Well there had been a million guys there before us that had picked up stones. If you found one as big as your finger nail you found a major find.
T: I would think that they would have more important things for you guys to do.
B: Well that's the way we felt too. The muttering was, "Asses and elbows gentlemen, you're flying for Uncle Sam." We were picking stones. Well we got our Army Air Corps haircut. As I recall, there was a detail; we marched down to the barbershop, they'd pick us off by rank, four guys at a time in four chairs. We'd walk in the side door, over to the chair. They'd throw a sheet over you and "zzzzz", you went out the front door and back into ranks in a total of 39 seconds to get a haircut. (Laughter).
T: Mine would take a little bit longer in service but not much. They were pretty quick.
B: From classification we went across the road to Kelly Field and that was pre-flight. And there we really got it.
T: What type of aircraft was used in pre-flight training?
B: No aircraft. All ground school. Code, airplane recognition, ship recognition. Military customs and courtesy, health, aw I'd have to look in here to see everything we got. Code was one of my problems. Memorize the code and take it.
T: I suppose that would be a sort of a daunting thing to go after that.
B: I found that the most difficult thing.
T: How long was the pre-flight training?
B: Nine weeks.
T: What came after that then?
B: Well then we went to primary flight training. And we were sent up to Cimarron Field in El Rio, Oklahoma, just west of Oklahoma City. And that's when the romance started. I was reading in here this morning, (reading from diary) "Went out to the flight line and saw the airplanes and they were just beautiful." Had a love affair with em. These were PT19A's made by Fairchild and they were nice planes.
T: Was this a biplane?
B: No. Low winged monoplane. And my instructor was [Holman], I can't remember his first name. He was the brother of "Speed" [Holman] that [Holman] Field in St. Paul is named after. We got qualified dual every day in the morning. Ground school in the afternoon. So we were always busy. But we had about, oh if you didn't solo in eight to ten hours they were going to take a second look at you. See if you were worth their investing any more time.
T: I suppose time was of the essence then because they wanted to get …
B: Oh yes, they wanted pilots; they needed pilots. Well I soloed in eight hours.
T: Tell me about your solo. What kind of an experience was that.
B: Once in a lifetime. Once in a lifetime. Unbelievable. You're super careful. You've been indoctrinated but the day I soloed, he took me out. He said, "Okay mister, you're gonna take off and land." I took off and we flew around. I landed and he said, "Okay, taxi down to the end of the strip. I want to get out and you're going to solo."
'T: You didn't get a chance to worry about it too much then?
B: Well I knew it was going to come sooner or later but I was scared. I was scared but "remember everything he's taught you," you know. "Don't do anything foolish." I took off, flew, made it around, came back and landed, taxied down to the end of the strip, picked him up and taxied back to the ramp. He said, "Very good, Mister."
T: I imagine you were grinning from ear to ear.
B: It was 3:30 in the afternoon, September 20th, 1943. Never forget it. You just felt free from the earth. There's a song, "High Flight," by Gillespie. He was an RCAF pilot. I tried and tried to memorize it and I can't get the whole thing but in the last stanza he says, "He's up into the high blue with the white clouds and he reaches out and touches the face of God." That's the way you feel. You're by yourself and you're looking at all those peons down there on the ground.
T: If one didn't solo the first time, at the first chance, how many other cracks did you get at it? I imagine you must have been given a second chance? No second chance?
B: Not when it came to soloing. You could get gigs, you know, if you weren't obeying orders and doing things the way the Army wanted, you got gigged. You got too many gigs and you got a second look and you were at risk. But they wanted you to make it. They didn't want you to wash out because they'd invested quite a bit on you at that point even. They wanted you to be able to fly. At the same time they knew what kind of young kids we were.
After the class, well they had a class system. Underclassmen and upperclassmen just like West Point. And we polished a lot of shoes of the upperclassmen. We made a lot of their beds and we did a lot of their errands for them. I remember one time I got caught in the hall and one of the upperclassmen says, "Jump up Mister." And I jumped up. "Who told you to come down?" "Just stupid Sir, I'm a stupid dodo." That was the correct answer.
T: I didn't know there was a class distinction there. I thought you were all in the same boat. You know, you were all in primary and that was it.
B: There were upperclassmen and lower classmen.
T: They were just a few weeks ahead of you?
B: They were four and a half weeks ahead of us. Nine weeks.
T: That really isn't much of a separation, is it.
B: Well we lived in the same barracks. We had to scrub the floors, GI the floors. Keep the latrines for them. Of course when it came our turn to be upperclassmen…
T: You were able to lay it on somebody else then.
B: But the training officers, the [tac] officers and the flight officers, they were gifted. They knew what we were and they knew what to expect from us. After we were upperclassmen and we were, we weren't supervised as closely, we weren't watched as closely. See, when we were in the air as underclassmen, we were watched every minute except the routines that we were told to practice. After we were upperclassmen we were given more freedom and I can tell you two stories.
We were given a cross-country ground navigation. And they knew we were going to cut up. And Jack and I, my buddy both had soloed our planes. We made the flight okay. But one of our classmates, a Leonard [Smaybe] from Pennsylvania was flying upside down just above the ground.
T: Now this was deliberate, not accidental. (Bob shows interviewer a newspaper clipping about the death of the cadet). Fatal fall. So he…he tried to horse around a little bit and he paid with his life.
B: Well he was feeling king of the world, you know. He was going to be a pilot. And actually it wasn't his fault. The ground came up. He flew into a hill upside down. But that was on a Friday afternoon and we were kind of somber, you know. Empty bed in the barracks. And Saturday morning we go down on the flight line and Captain [Stover], remember that comic "Smokey Stover?" We called him Smokey Stover. He called us all together and he said, "That by the grace of God could have been any one of you bastards. You are no different than any other class we've had through here. The only thing we couldn't tell you yesterday was which one it was going to be."
T: I guess there were fatalities all through this process of learning how to fly and I imagine it could be rather disconcerting for …
B: Well yes and no. Jack and I, Jack Roach was from Duluth. He was my best buddy. Rieckman and Roach, both R's, both you know, in the same barracks. I was in the upper bunk, he was in the bottom bunk. We'd long ago agreed that should we ever had to solo airplanes by ourselves at the same time, we would meet in the far northwest corner of the flying area and fly formation. Or supposed to. We hadn't been taught how to fly in formation.
But it was the same Saturday morning as that Captain Stover gave us his lecture. We met in the far northwest corner, got together and flew formation. We had no radios so it was all hand signals and that gets kind of boring. This is a PT19 open cockpit and so we're gonna have a dogfight. And Jack's on my tail shooting me down and I'm diving at this haystack. And I pull up and I look back and here's Jack flying through a cloud of hay. That's a lot of fun. We'll turn around and do that again. When we got done with that haystack it must have been scattered all over five acres.
Then we found this pigpen with a board fence and we chased pigs around that pigpen and the pigs were scared. They'd run along the fence and they'd get to corner and they'd just pile up. They'd go round and do that. Now this is a day after…this is what the government put a lot of money into to be a pilot. So the farmer came out and I don't know if he had a shotgun, pitchfork or broom or what. But I thought he doesn't have to hit us. All he has to do is get our number and we're in trouble. So we got out of there.
We flew over to a railroad and went west and went over the Cimarron River. It was a high bridge. So I dive at the bridge and look back and here's Jack coming out from underneath the bridge. Well we turned around and do that and I went underneath the bridge and he went over the bridge. Well there were guys out on that bridge painting it. And our propwash was practically blowing them off the bridge. They were dropping their buckets and brushes and running for the shore. Well about this time a train came along so we gotta buzz the train. If there were any passengers on that train and looked out the windows, they saw an airplane landing gear on either side of the… Well I could see the steam coming out of the whistle. The engineer was just going wild - two planes buzzing. We followed him into Oklahoma City.
And on the outskirts outside of Oklahoma City is a manmade reservoir called Lake Overholtzer. It was a Saturday morning, all kinds of people out sailing their boats. And you know the easiest thing in the world with an airplane? A sailboat.
T: Yes I suppose so.
B: We would buzz them and we tipped over every boat in the lake. Now, honest to Pete! What were we thinkin of?
T: I don't know. I think you guys must have been nuts.
B: That was our attitude. We are king of the world, we can do anything we want to. And we got of what, twenty-thirty hours of flying experience?
T: Let's go on to the next phase of your training Bob, after you had completed this. I'm assuming that probably shortly after you soloed, and stop me if I'm wrong, you went to the next phase.
B: Yup. Well we had about forty hours at, well that's another experience. We were taught stalls, spin recovery, Chandelle eights - figure eights. And make the airplane do what you want to do. And I had trouble with spins. And as I recall, that doesn't make any difference, we were supposed to start a spin at six thousand feet minimum. And for no good reason I climbed to nine thousand feet and I went into my spin.
And the procedure, I'll never forget it, to cut back the throttle, you pull back the stick and you kick the right rudder. Well, you wait until it stalls and then you kick the right rudder [ ] to spin around to the right. And you pick something and keep your eye on it and count it three times and then you recover. And recovery is you kick the left rudder, pop the stick forward - neutralize it - and pull out.
I put it into the spin, went through the recovery, and the airplane shuddered and shook and started to spin the other way. I had counted three times and I didn't want to be counting any more. So I went through the recovery again and it shuddered and shook and was spinning back the original way. And they always told you to keep your head out of the cockpit, look around and see what's happening. I decided this is not doing me any good. I'm going to have to bail out if I can't get out of this spin. So I'm going to look in the cockpit and see what's goin on. And I kicked the left rudder again, popped the stick and then I realized I wasn't neutralizing. I pulled it back to neutral and I came out. And as I pulled out, the tops of trees went by.
T: That was a bit close, I'd say.
B: If I hadn't climbed that extra three thousand feet, I wouldn't be here today. Like I say, nothing told me to. But that was the first time I thought there's a power greater than I that wants me to live.
T: With the spin thing, were you with an instructor?
B: No, no, no. He was [ ].
T: Not this time but initially. Did you do it with an instructor and have it be successful and then they say, "Okay, now you do it yourself?'
B: I just forgot to neutralize it.
T: I see.
B: Yeah! Little things like that. That was a thing, I'm a perfectionist and I fit right in. Things have to be absolutely right, right down, there can't be anything wrong. Or it could cause trouble. Not necessarily, but it could. And that was a chance I didn't want to take.
T: Tell me now about the next phase.
B: That was basic flight training. And now we were back in the Army. We had Army instructors and Army routine, Army barracks, and Army mess and Army regulations. And that was quite a…
T: Were you still in Oklahoma or did…?
B: Yeah, we went up to Enid which I think is a major SAC base now. It was basic flight training. We were given BT13's made by Vultee. We called em Vultee "vibrators."
T: I've heard that a couple of times before. Other guys that trained in that particular aircraft.
The Vultee "vibrator."
B: Well they shuddered and shook. Open cockpit, well they did have a canopy you could slide over.
T: But you probably had a little more engine, a little more power.
B: Oh yeah, a good deal more engine. And we had, did we have retractable landing gear, no. But we had flaps; we had flaps before but they were manual. I think these were hydraulic. It was a much more sophisticated plane than the old PT19. Lot more power, lot more noise.
T: What kind of flying were you doing in that particular aircraft and for how long/
B: Well, nine weeks again. The same thing we did in basic. Learn to make the airplane do what you want when you want it to do it. And we got night flying.
T: I imagine instrument training too.
B: Instrument training, yes that was important. We were put under a hood and you had [gyroscopic] flight instruments and air sensitive instruments. Your rate of climb and descent depended on barometric changes. But your horizon, your artificial horizon, can't even remember the names of em. They were gyro-driven. Oh, the gyrocompass. And you had a magnetic compass but that was always swingin around. Oh, and airspeed. Those were your air instruments. I think that they had gyroscopic too.
But what the instructor would do, you were under a hood and he would wring the airplane out in all kinds of maneuvers and tip the gyros so they were not functioning properly. Then he'd wiggle the stick and say, "It's all yours Mister, give me a straight and level." And so you'd fight, you'd feel pressures on the rudder, and on the ailerons and on the stick up or down. And you had your rate of climb. You knew if you were going up or if you were goin down. And you had your magnetic compass. It was swinging wildly. You knew you were in a turn, you know. So I think in one of the classbooks, I think Danny Lossman says, "It's straight and level Sir, why is my microphone hanging up?" He was upside down.
T: Was it difficult for you and for other guys to rely on those instruments and not the seat of your pants, your instincts so to speak? Was that a hard thing to do?
B: No. At primary we did get Link trainers. These are little boxes of stubby wings on a pedestal. They acted like an airplane. They had the instruments on it. You learned concentration is what you learned. And you learned to anticipate what the airplane was going to do. That got to be a lot of it. I ended up as a senior instrument pilot in our outfit toward the end of the war. And that's another story.
During the week this combat returnee had been a fighter pilot in the 8th Air Force. Now this is in Watertown, South Dakota. Came to me and he says, - I'm a First Lieutenant, he's a Captain - he says, "Can you check me out so I can get my instrument license? I've got a personal cross-country in a B25 to New York this week-end." I said, "Sure." So we scheduled an instrument flight. I put him under the hood. And [ ] you know, radio. He was rough on the controls. He couldn't anticipate. It was obvious it had been a long time without flying on instruments. And a First Lieutenant doesn't say, "I'm sorry Captain, but you don't qualify. I can't give you an instrument license." I turned him down.
And he wanted to go in the worst way. He says, "I'll practice. Give me another ride Thursday." And I said, "Okay." So I gave him another ride Thursday and in my judgment he still couldn't qualify. You know you've got your radio to listen to, you've got your flight instruments to watch and I just didn't feel that he was qualified so I turned him down. That was the weekend the B25 flew into the side of the Empire State Building. He came back to me Monday morning and he said, "Thanks, Lieutenant." He would have been there.
T: No kidding!
B: Yeah, without an instrument license.
T: When did you get into multi-engined aircraft?
B: Well that was advanced. Nine weeks basic and then advanced. When we graduated from advanced, my instructor says, "Rieckman, you are poor on instruments. You better go to twin engine advanced. I says, "Oh no sir. If I go to twin-engine advanced, I'm going to get B17s or B24s. I want to be a fighter pilot." "Oh we have twin-engine fighter pilots. Look at the P-38. You can get fighters from twin-engine advanced."
So I went to twin-engine advanced. And there we learned more flight, you got more flight, instrument time. But we come to graduating and the Major says, "What'll it be son, B24's or B-17's?" I says, "Neither, Sir. An officer and a gentleman in this man's army promised me I could have fighters. I want fighters." "Look son, this is twin-engine advanced. You get B17's or B-24's. Now what'll it be?" "Neither." And he called over this Lt. Colonel. He says, "You're holding up the line. Now what is it going to be, B-17's or B24's?" I said, "Neither. I refuse to take an assignment." So finally they called a full colonel over and he says, "Look, the best I can do for you is B26 in the Ninth Air Force." And I figured well, that's about as good as I'm gonna get. I said, "Okay."
So I took that assignment. I got sent to Columbia, South Carolina, 9th Air Force Replacement Depot. I'm gonna fly B26's. And while I was there they had this raid on Regensburg, that ball-bearing factory? And lost 60 B17's, pilots and crews. Bingo, you were a B-17 co-pilot. Report to Plant Park, Florida for overseas shipment.
I was just sick - and mad. Not the kind of airplane I wanted to fly. Because you know, ego. And we were living in tents in the middle of a racetrack down there at Plant Park. And one morning I got an inspiration. In those days I weighed about 120 pounds dripping wet. I went to the flight surgeon. I says, "Look at me. I'm too light for those long punishing missions. I don't have the body to absorb that punishment." He looks at me, he says, "Yup, you're too short." And I began to feel a little bit brave. "Well I could use cushions but I just don't have the weight to absorb the punishment." "Yup, you're too short." And he redlined me off orders.
Ah, I'm not going to be a B17 pilot. I was relieved. But now it's in the middle of a war and I'm unassigned. And then a big mystery. Proving Ground Command was supposed to have the pick of everything, the best the Army Air Force had. I got picked. I don't know why or how. Report to Eglund Field. Never heard of it. It was a semi-secret base. Reported to Eglund Field and…
T: Where was that located, Bob?
B: Crestview, Florida up in the panhandle. Just west of Pensacola. Reported to a Col. [Rashey]. He says, "Which do you prefer, the B25 or the B26?" Well the B25 was a desired plane. That was Doolittle's plane, you know. "Well, you're not married to it. As of now you're a cargo pilot."
So I got assigned to the cargo section of Cold Water Test Detachment. Report to Watertown, South Dakota.
T: What year was this? What was the approximate date?
B: It would have been the summer of '44.
(The first tape ends here).
T: Tape number two. So now what type of aircraft were you going to be flying in South Dakota?
B: Cargo. C47's, the old DC3. C46.
T: I don't imagine you were too excited about that, were you? Or didn't it matter at that point?
B: I was really relieved that I wasn't in B17s in the 8th Air Force. Because that was a death sentence. We got to Watertown, we weren't there a day and we were sent to Buckley Field, Colorado and then to Estes Park for arctic survival training. We lived on the land for, what was it, ten days out of an emergency kit. That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that. And then we went back to Watertown and we took delivery of our test airplanes. We were supposed to have three of everything. But they only had two of some, and only one B29 because they were scarce.
And I was assigned as a test pilot on a C45. I was a 2nd. Lieutenant. A little utility cargo, and we took those planes apart. And we laid out the parts like an exploded diagram on wrapping paper out in the middle of a ramp. We logged the manufacturer's number, the Air Corps specification number and what kind of lubrication it was supposed to have. And what the condition was when we saw it. And everything. And then we wrote our test prospectus from taking the plane apart; what system did we expect was going to give us trouble. Hydraulic system, gas system, cooling system, oil system what.
T: How could you tell just by looking at these parts?
B: Well, hydraulic systems are always a problem because in those days hydraulic seals didn't hold. And the seals didn't hold. Machining probably wasn't as fine as it is today.
T: Could you tell by looking at the part.
B: No, no. You could tell by the lever arm motion. Was it elongated? Was there a lot of pressure there? Or was it a short throw and easy to do? And then sometimes the design simply was not good. The C46 had an enormous rudder and no hydraulic boost. It was all leg power. Which is another story.
In the C45, a simpler plane, utility cargo was used for hauling people around. Didn't expect any trouble. Well anyway after we got done doing that we ferried the planes up to Fairbanks. [Ladd] Field. That was our permanent base. And wherever it was the coldest in Alaska, that's where we went.
T: That makes sense.
B: If it was 35 below in Fairbanks and 45 below in Galena. We just chased cold weather all winter long. And that was something else too. That was something else too.
T: How long did that phase of your career last?
B: Well that was from September of '44 until the spring of '45. One season up there. Then I came back to Watertown and received airplanes. Got em ready to go back to Alaska. But the war was ended and they had that point system. I had enough points to get out as long as I was in the States so I wouldn't take an assignment to fly back to Fairbanks.
And I could kind of kick myself but I don't have the personality to be part of the military. Col. [Reshey] called me in, and by this time I'm a First Lieutenant and oh, what happened, they had so much problems with the C46 that they transferred Chris [Todolou] who was the project officer in the C45 to the C46. And they made me the project officer on the C45. So I was responsible for that test. And that test was the first one completed, the first one written, the first one proof-read and approved and the first one sent to Gen. Arnold that year. So I was the only Second Lieutenant in my group that got promoted that year. So I knew I was doing a good job and Col. [Reshey] called me in; he says, "Rieckman, go up to Fairbanks for another test season and I'll have you Captain's bars by the time you get there. I'm 21 years old. What would you do?
T: I'd probably go for it. You didn't?
B: I wish somebody had… I'm wet behind the ears and I got the audacity to tell the colonel, "Colonel, you've got so many Majors in this outfit that a Captain's bars don't cut any ice with me. I've got the points to get out. I know it, you know it. Let's quit fooling around and let me out." Of course I was an unreconstructed civilian all through my military career.
T: I guess a lot of guys were pretty anxious to get out. The promotion didn't really mean that much.
B: I didn't have an enemy shooting bullets at me or trying to kill me. My enemy was the terrain and the weather up in Alaska. And I hated it. I still have a hard time understanding why people go to Alaska on a vacation.
T: Of course you were making your flights to Alaska primarily in the wintertime. Is that correct? It's perhaps a little different story in the summer, or isn't it?
B: The terrain is still rugged. There's lots of places you didn't get to except by plane.
T: When you went to Alaska, you were going from where?
B: From Watertown, South Dakota.
T: So you had to make numerous stops in between. Where did you stop?
B: We'd fly from Watertown to Great Falls (Montana), gas up, go through customs and take off. And if everything went fine we'd land at Edmonton (Alberta), gas up and fly on into Fairbanks.
T: Okay. So it was Edmonton to Fairbanks that was your last leg.
B: But the weather had to be just right, the winds had to be just right. And fuel consumption had to be just right. They had, oh it was Fort Nelson, Aishihik (Yukon Terr.), Skag (Skagway in Yukon Territories?), White Horse, Big Delta, Watson Lake, any number of fields on the way where you could stop for gas in case you ran into trouble, which, that's another…
T: So you did have some emergency choices there.
B: Well yeah. See, there were things we didn't know. I was co-pilot in a C46 with Captain Willard and we didn't have a heavy load. Five men on board but we just weren't getting to where we should be with elapsed time. I was radio navigating and I was trying to get White Horse to home in on. I couldn't get the radio station. We weren't close enough. And we'd been flying long enough. We should have been there. But we simply weren't. We were lost. It was in a snowstorm and we were running low on gas and Captain Willard says, "Get up and put on your 'chute. Tell the guys in back to get at the back door and all bail out together so we're all on the ground together." Well the plane wasn't warm but it was cozy compared to that black outdoors. So I went back and told the guys to get ready to bail out. "What are you doing?" "I'm staying with Captain Willard." "What's he doing?" I says, "I don't know." "If you don't go, we're not going." So I went back up front and I told Captain Willard they don't want to bail out. He says, "Well you have a direct order to bail out," he says, "When we run out of gas and hit a mountain, we're not going to survive."
T: How do you spell that Captain's name?
B: W-I-L-L-A-R-D. I think I've got a picture of him. Yeah, Willard. And that was me. (shows Tom a photo). I was cargo section. So we didn't bail out. And we're going to meet our maker sooner or later. I had quit lookin out. It was night in a snowstorm. I had quit lookin out I don't know how many hours before. I looked out and down and see runway lights. Now a copilot never touches the controls while the pilot's in the seat. I grabbed the controls and I tipped that plane up and I says, "Captain, look!" We dove for the ground. And we landed at Aishihik. Taxied up to the ramp and I reached up to turn off the engines and they both died.
T: Oh my gosh, that close!
B: We got out and kissed the cold ground. And that was the second time I thought, there's a power greater than me doesn't want me dead. But what was our problem? We didn't know it, we were flying in the airstream, high velocity winds? What do they call it? Escapes me for the moment. (Jetstream)?
T: Yeah, I know what you're referring to.
B: We were indicating 180 miles an hour. But on the ground we were probably doing 20. No wonder we weren't getting where we should have been, when we should have been. But we didn't know about that.
T: Yeah, I guess it's fun when you're going with it, but if you're going against it, it's another story.
B: Well that was our introduction but we didn't know at that time. And there were things that we didn't know what happened to cause, we lost a B24. They were doing prop-feathering tests and something went wrong. Plane went down, we looked for it, couldn't find it. This was early in the season.
The next spring Fort Yukon calls me. "Hey, one of your pilots came floating in here down the Yukon River. You want him?" I was flying a utility cargo. Went up and got him. Lt. Leon Crane from New York City. And he didn't know anything about surviving in the Arctic except what he had learned at Arctic Survival Training School that I went to in Denver. And he went to it too. And he told us they got two engines feathered on the right side at the same time. The plane went into a spin, lost control, they couldn't get the engines back quick enough and went into a mountain. We presume, we couldn't find it because it was covered with a glacier. But the book says bail out and he did. Go back to the site of the crash and wait a couple days for your buddies. If they don't show up, take what you need or can get from the wreckage and start hiking.
Well, he waited a couple days and nobody showed up so he took some metal, made a sled out of it. Piled everything on it that he could think of that he might need. Used his parachute as a pulling harness. And he started walking pulling this sled. And the book says when you come to a river, go downstream. Well the river was froze solid. He didn't know which way was downstream. So he started walking. The book says you pick a direction, stick with it, don't change. So he walked and walked and he came across this abandoned trapper's cabin for the winter.
In the cabin was salt, oatmeal and tallow candles. And he lit the tallow candles and dripped the hot tallow under the cracks in his fingers where they had frozen and broke the flesh. And he had the emergency kit, the plane kit and his own kit. So he shot ptarmigan and rabbit. And he couldn't fish because it was froze solid but he survived. He wrote an article and it was ghostwritten by, I can't remember it, it was either in the Saturday Evening Post or Colliers; "I Survived 90 Days In The Arctic Wilderness," by Lieutenant Leon Crane.
We brought him back, put him in the hospital. While he was in the hospital he met a nurse, they got married. I flew em down to Lake [Manchumen] for their honeymoon. He came back and they made him head of Search And Rescue. But what happened, a mistake. They feathered two engines on the wrong side at the same time.
T: I suppose with multi-engined aircraft you have to be careful to sort of balance things out because of the rotation of these props.
B: Yeah, the torque. The only plane that had counter-rotating props was the P38.
T: I talked to a P38 pilot, Bruce Stevenson here in town and he said he had an engine conk out of him once and he was stationed up in the Aleutians and he said that was a harrowing experience. It was early in his training with P38s and when that engine conks out you've got to compensate real quick. So I guess that is a problem.
B: The last two flights I had, I lost an engine. Both of them were in a C45 that I knew like the back of my hand. The first one went down from Watertown to Sioux City to pick up the payroll. Flying back the engine starts to get hot, oil temperature went up, oil pressure went down. Well we got an oil leak so I feathered that engine and we flew on in and landed on a single engine. Opened up the nacelle, the new engine, somebody forgot to tighten up the rocker box covers. They were only finger tight and they vibrated loose and pffft, there goes your oil.
And the second one, at the end of the war, airplanes, gasoline and parachutes were hard to get, all at the same time. Well I got a C45 one day and a buddy, Martin [Copal] needed four hours. You had to get in four hours a month to get your flight pay. We wanted that till the last day. So we took the C45, parachutes and gasoline, gonna fly four hours, and we read in the Pensacola paper that there was a fishing sloop in distress out in the Gulf of Mexico. We're gonna be the heroes and fly out there and find it and radio on back. Well we got out of sight of land and the left engine quits. And Marty is all over that cockpit turning off the cross-feed and closing it up and feathering the prop. He leans back with beads of sweat as big as diamonds on his forehead, he says, "Now, let's get this thing over dry land." And we flew back to Eglin. We were fine, one plane, we didn't have a load. And we were making a big circle around the field into the good engine. And "South tower to 8594," that was the number of our plane, "Are you in trouble?" "No." "It looks like you are on single engine." "We are." "Don't you think you better land?" "No thanks, we'll stay here until we get our four hours." And we landed and there was a rag in the carburetor. See, the crew chiefs weren't flying with their planes anymore so the level of maintenance went down precipitously.
T: Really? Gosh you would think they would be, even if they weren't flying, that they would still give it their best shot, their best effort.
B: Well the older experienced crew chiefs had the points to get out and they were getting out. The younger ones, the inexperienced ones, they weren't flying, they weren't getting flight pay. They didn't care. The war was over. They were just putting in time to get out. That was my last flight, January 19th, 1946.
T: What was the date of your discharge?
B: April of '46.
T: What did you do when you got discharged, Bob? What was your next move?
B; The GI Bill paid for college training.
T: At that point did you have two years of college in?
B: I had two and a half. I had two and a half at St. Olaf. I transferred as many credits as I could and enrolled at the University of Minnesota Business School and went right straight through summer school and all. And that December I got married.
T: So you were going to the University of Minnesota then?
B: Unh huh. I got a degree in business administration, University of Minnesota in '48 I think it was.
T: And got married when?
B: In '46.
T: Did you know the girl that you married for a very long time? Was she somebody that went back to your childhood?
B: She was a native of Watertown, South Dakota.
T: How did you meet her? What were the circumstances?
B: Well we were prowling around one night, at a bowling alley, and one of my buddies, Julius [Hebig] met a gal, Bernie. Anyway Bernie introduced Peg and I. And Peg didn't like officers. She had a negative experience with an officer, same one that I had a negative experience with. And she wasn't much keen on… But I met her early in October and in thirty days of October, we had 29 dates.
And one of them was real hard to keep. I was supposed to take a planeload of men up to Great Falls. And it was a windy, miserable day. And they had a lot of baggage and they loaded the plane. I didn't want to go because I wasn't sure if I'd get back in time for the date I had with Peg that night. So I claimed the Form 6 Weight Chart wasn't right. So they unloaded the plane and reloaded.
Well now it's obvious I'm not going to be able to make it. So I taxi out to take off and I pushed the mixture controls through the safety wires. And the engines are running too rough. "Engines are not running right. We cannot fly." We taxied back to the ramp and doggone that crew chief, he found those broken wires right off the bat. Fixed it.
By now it's noon and we gotta go. And I get out to the end of the runway. And North Central, a C 47 DC3 was landing and the wind was gusty. And he was having trouble landing. "Look at that, that experienced airline pilot having trouble with that stable C46, C47. How am I supposed to take off in this overloaded C46? Cancel the flight."
So I figured what I did that afternoon, I met Peg, she was working as a bank teller. Met her after work and we were having a dinner at the Grand Hotel dining room. And the operations officer was a new man, combat retraining, Smith. He comes over to our table. He says, "Young lady, I hope you're buying a lot of war bonds." She says, "Oh yes I am." He says, "That's good because you cost the government an awful lot of money today." (Laughter).
T: He pretty much was onto your scheme.
B: Oh yeah. But he was a nice fellow. I flew with him. I trained him. I got him qualified, new experience. See, he was a fighter pilot and I qualified him in C46's mainly. And I had a flight with him, oh boy that was another one. We were coming back from Fairbanks and Captain Barnett, his picture's on there too, he was a senior pilot. He could sign his own weather clearance. And he did. He cleared us for 11,000 feet I think it was. And we're cruising along. He's in back sleeping. I'm the First Pilot and Major Smith is my co-pilot. And we started losing power and we weren't doing a thing different. We're getting carburetor ice. And the friction lock on the right carburetor heat control was broken. So there were two together and you locked em with a turn knob. But you had to lock it real tight to hold em both. And I had trouble getting it unlocked and I got the carburetor heat on and locked it on. And I shoved the mixture controls forward, and carburetor heat forward and gas forward. And I climbed to 13,000.
The book says if you're getting carburetor ice, go higher where the air is cooler and there is not as much vaporing. You won't get any more carburetor ice. Well, when I come to pulling the carburetor heat off, I had locked it tight in the on position and I had trouble getting it off to pull it back to off and then lock it again. Barely got to 13,000 feet and the right engine backfired once and quit. And we had a full load of test gasoline in 55 gallon barrels. Barnett comes charging up front and he says, "I cleared for 11,000 feet." I said, "We're getting carburetor ice." And he signed his own weather clearance. He says, "No you weren't." I says, "Yeah I was." He said, "You couldn't have. I signed that clearance." And Major Smith says, "We were getting carburetor ice." And that put an end to the argument.
Well we gotta get that engine back. In the meantime call Airways Communication. We told em we were losing altitude. Turn 90 degrees off the airways so we don't meet another airplane. We got down to 5000 feet. We're over the plains of Alberta now. Darn engine comes back and we flew on. Worked fine, landed at Great Falls, checked through Customs. Took off the next morning for St. Paul, unloaded our test gasoline there. Flew back to Watertown.
Now all this time, pre-flights, you know you run the engines up to full power, you check the magnetos and you check everything. Those engines checked out fine and they flew fine. We're getting ready to leave Watertown, go back to Fairbanks. On takeoff, 110 miles an hour, that right engine quits on takeoff. And you gotta turn in to your good engine and you gotta go out over Lake Kampesko and come around and land on a single engine. Of course we were empty. Barnett says, "I can't wait on this cripple. I gotta get back to Fairbanks." He says, "You get it back." And he takes off on another plane.
And the crew chief comes to me; he says "I changed the diaphragm on that carburetor. Let's do it again." So we go down, we take off, we get to 110 miles an hour, just barely flying, quits again. Now I'm the pilot and now I've got to fight it around on a single engine. That was on a Wednesday and I was so scared I couldn't eat a full meal until Friday. And it reflects on the crew chief; he can't keep the plane flying. So he changed the carburetor. He says, "Lieutenant, do it again." "No, I'm not going to fly that plane again." "I changed the carburetor. It's gotta run. It checks out on the ground. You checked the mags and it doesn't drop one RPM." "Well alright."
"Now we had B29's. We had a 9000 foot runway there at Watertown. We had a good north wind too. I took it down to the south end of the runway and I ran those engines up full, not just full throttle but full RPM and vibration [ ]. I released the brakes, rolled down the runway, got to 110 miles an hour, started to fly and that engine quit. I chopped both throttles and landed straight ahead. Hit the brakes, got to the end of the runway and didn't have any brakes left. They had to tow us in with a tractor.
So I called Captain Hathaway. His picture's on there too. He flew down in a C47 from Fairbanks and we all met him when he came off the plane. "Check the sparkplugs?" "No, checks out fine on the ground. Doesn't lose a first RPM when you check the magnetos." Well there's eighteen spark plugs on a nine cylinder Pratt and Whitney R2800. Checked the spark plugs. All eighteen of em we broke. How in the world could that happen? Nobody knew and I didn't say.
T: Eighteen broken spark plugs.
B: Well they weren't broken, it was just the insulation that was broken. When I couldn't get that carburetor heat unlocked quickly, it was on too long and they got too hot and they broke down. But I never told anybody to this day. As far as the Army Air Corps is concerned that's a big mystery.
T: Now it's in the record.
B: But there are things like that.
T: So you got married in '46. And you graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Business Administration in 1948. What was the next step for you then?
B: I wanted to get into automotive and I ended up at Minneapolis Equipment Company, an equipment supply house. And that was not a happy experience.
T: How long did it last?
B: I think it was about a year, year and a half. And I left them, a competitor in the scaffold business was most impressed with me. He said, "Don't go wandering too far off if you're unhappy there. Let me know." So I did and he hired me. I became a scaffold salesman for Safeway Steel Products scaffolding.
And it was a private distributor but their sales went up when I went to work for them. And Jim Jay, the sales manager from Safeway in Milwaukee came up there to find out why. Offered me a job in Milwaukee. I took it. I was commission salesman on the streets of Milwaukee. That was in '53.
And we were making payments on a house in Minneapolis that we had bought. And we were making payments on a duplex in Milwaukee.
T: Did you have any children at that time?
B: We had, yeah, all three of em.
T: So they came fairly early on.
B: Yeah, and my wife was, she had three babies without the first anesthetic. We should have had six.
T: Would she agree with that?
B: Oh yeah. She wanted babies all the time. I said, "We can't do that, they accumulate." Jim Jay came out to the local office. And he says, "I'm moving you upstairs to the national sales office." I says, "No, I like it here." He says, "No, you're going to go where the company wants you. And the company needs you upstairs." Well I had an ulcer in thirty days.
T: Where was the national office located?
B: In Milwaukee.
T: Oh, it was in Milwaukee. The word Safeway sounds sort of familiar.
B: Well they were the originators of tubular steel scaffolding. All tubular steel scaffolding was called Safeway, like most refrigerators are called Frigidaires?
T: Oh I see what you mean.
B: Well I went to work for Jim and my health broke. I was on five pills, a tranquilizer to stay calm during the day, a sleeping pill to get to sleep at night, something to wake me up in the morning and anti-acid pills. I had an ulcer. So finally I had to go. "Jim," I said, "Either move me or lose me." So we were buying out franchised dealers. We bought out Harry Nichols, a dealer in Richmond, Virginia. It's now a factory branch in the eastern regional division. I'm the division manager. Moved out there, I think it was in '54. And that's a different society.
T: Where was this Bob?
B: Richmond, Virginia.
T: That's a big city.
B: Yeah. And we weren't happy there. We missed the change of seasons. We got lonesome for the sight of black dirt.
T: It's all red clay down there.
B: Then one day we came home from church and there's a salesman sitting on our front step. "Congratulations folks. You're the lucky folks in this neighborhood. You've been awarded a free burial plot in a new cemetery. C'mon out and I'll show you." Well there was no resisting. We had to go out and look at it. "You going to buy?" "No." And after he left Peg says, "If we don't want to be buried here, why are we living here?"
So I called Jim. I says, "We want to get back to the Midwest." So they needed a new industrial engineer. I went back and went to school. Milwaukee School of Engineering. I took time study and I set the standards for the factory for one year. And then Jim got transferred. Jim was the best boss I ever had but regretfully he was an alcoholic. And it caught up with him and he got transferred to San Francisco, the same job I had in Richmond. And I was working for the vice president of production and I wasn't happy. So we started traveling around Wisconsin looking for another place to live. Well in the first place they told me that, "After your year of industrial engineering, you're going to go to St. Louis as a branch manager for one year, then to Baltimore for one year as a branch manager. And after that we don't know where we're going to send you."
And Peg says, "No." S we looked around and we picked Oshkosh. We liked the lake, and the parks, and the school system, the university and it wasn't too far from Milwaukee. The boys didn't want to leave Milwaukee - the Braves had just come there.
T: When did you come to Oshkosh then? What was the year?
T: What did you do for a living in Oshkosh?
B: Well, construction equipment was my background. And I worked for a number of people. Marvel Equipment up on Bowen and Murdock. Frank [Yukelano] was the owner. But that was traveling by car all over the United States setting up a dealer organization. And I had a family.
So I went to work for Lowe Engineering out of St. Paul as a factory rep on hydraulic high lift machines. I had five states and traveling from Monday to Friday.
T: But you could keep Oshkosh as your base.
B: Oshkosh, that was my base. I put 84,000 miles on my car the first eighteen months. And then I started wearing out airline credit cards. Then after the first year they said, "You've done such a great job, we're going to reward you." I thought, good, more money. "We're going to give you two more states and three provinces in Canada."
T: Terrific reward!
B: Well after four years of that I says, "The boys are getting to the age where they need their dad at home." So I came back and went to work for American State Equipment out of Milwaukee. They had a new product line then made by Datsun, fork lift trucks. Had a hard time selling those. That didn't last. So I had called on Lincoln Contractors Supply down in Milwaukee to be a dealer for Lowe Engineering. So I knew them and they knew me. And the Datsun Forklift wasn't going to the paper industry because it was foreign.
So I stopped by Lincoln Contractors Supply and they hired me. And so I started here and the guy who was running it here was a very proficient carpenter and he could make more money as a carpenter working for C.R. Meyer so he left the company which left them without a manager here. So I took over. And they had an [ASOP] when they got employees they wanted to keep, they gave em company stock and gave em raises to pay for it. The only condition was that when you retired you had to sell the stock back. And I did. So I was part owner and branch manager here in Oshkosh. That was 1970. (Bob apparently is now working for the C.R. Meyer firm in Oshkosh).
T: When did you retire?
B: I was 67 years old and came to work one day, hung up the phone, I figured who I was talking to and said, who was I talking to, how did I get here today, what streets, who did I talk to, how many quotations have I made? Hey Robert, you better retire. You're not with it altogether anymore. And the company went along with me. They let me stay. So I retired in January of '89.
T: C.R. Meyer is an old line company in Oshkosh. I guess they're pretty strong.
B: Well, I was the second employee to retire from that company. It's a small family-owned company. Then the two founders retired right after I did. And their sons took over. (Some dialogue has not been recorded here at the request of Mr. Rieckman).
T: It's all there. You had three boys and we know that one of them is Stewart. Were they all boys?
B: No. The youngest was the daughter, Susan. We had to have a girl.
T: Is she in the Oshkosh area?
B: She's in Berlin. And Stu's younger brother Bobby was killed in an automobile accident in 1971. He was a caddie out at the Country Club and he qualified for Chick Evans Golf Scholarship. Now that's a full ride. All you need is a pillowslip and bedding. They pay for everything. He was a second semester sophomore with a four-point grade average. Hitchhiking home one Friday night. Head on collision out towards Columbus.
T: Ah, that's too bad.
B: Both he and the driver were killed instantly. Changed our life.
T: Yes, I'm sure it did. That's really sad. Well, is there anything else Bob that we should be talking about regarding your experiences in the Second World War? Is there anything that we've missed, that we haven't covered?
B: Oh, I had an experience that I'll never forget. V-E Day, victory in Europe? I had a test that day, I forget what it was on, anyway I was late landing and all my buddies had been to the bar and eaten dinner and were back at the bar to get drunk. And I hadn't eaten yet and it was an officer's mess hall. And we had a contingent of Russian pilots up there to receive Lend Lease planes. They'd take delivery of them in Fairbanks, fly them to Nome and then they'd sign for them there and fly em back.
And the only open seat at the dining room table was next to a young Russian 2nd Lieutenant who luckily spoke some English. So I sat down to eat my dinner with him. "You having a big celebration in Moscow now too?" "Oh yeah, bigger than you folks. We've been waiting for it longer." And we chatted about the weather and the planes they were getting. And just to make conversation I asked him, "And how do you feel about Alaska?" Now this is an insignificant little 2nd. Lieutenant in the Russian Air Force, and his words were - verbatim, "We like it fine. You people have it on only a ninety-nine year lease; we are going to have it back." And here my neck was just standing up. I'll never forget that.
T: I've never really thought about them having any interest in it after the original sale to the U.S. I figured that was the end of it.
B: Oh there was a lot of Russian influence up there.
T: Do you think that Russia is still interested in…?
B: No, not now.
T: I wouldn't think they are either.
B: I don't know if you remember Molotov?
T: Yes, I remember him very well.
B: He stopped in Fairbanks on the way through. And he was a visiting dignitary so we had to have a parade for him. This was the main hanger at Fairbanks. (Shows photo). That guy, the parade leader is me. And he was right up here. And I spit at him as I went buy. (Laughter). You weren't supposed to do that.
T: No, I wouldn't think so. Well Bob, it's been very nice talking to you.
B: I've enjoyed it.
T: We really appreciate your willingness to come down and tell us about your experiences.
B: I didn't know what to prepare for. These are my class books.
(The interview ends here).
||World War II
||6: T&E For Communication
||Oshkosh Public Museum
|Location of Originals
||Oshkosh Public Museum
||Rieckman, Robert L.
||World War II
United States Army Air Force
||Oral History Interview with Robert L. Rieckman.