|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Donald N. Denow, who served in the 77th Fighter Squadron, 20th Fighter Group attached to the 8th Air Force. Don worked on P-38's, P-51's, and P-47's. He handled all the ordinance, from machine guns to cannons and bombs.
Donald Denow Interview
3 September 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; D: identifies the subject, Don Denow. 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: It's September 3rd, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with Donald Denow who served in World War II. His last name is spelled D-E-N-O-W. Don is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war. Let's begin then Don by having you tell me when and where you were born.
D: I was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I'm local, April 7th, 1922.
T: Were your mother and dad from this area?
D: My mother was from this area and my father came from a farming community near Navarino, Wisconsin west of Green Bay.
T: Navarino, I haven't heard of that. How is that spelled?
T: What did your dad do for a living?
D: My father was a carpenter.
T: Did he work for one of the big mills here in Oshkosh or was he a sort of independent?
D: My father worked for Hillsberg and Neuman. It was a small contractor-type deal and they built homes and this was most of the time he spent as a carpenter. He did have a brother that was a carpenter/contractor over on the East Side and he built some homes with him in the early years.
T: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
D: I had one sister who passed away at the age of 65 a number of years ago.
T: Tell me about your childhood. Where did you live in Oshkosh? Where did you go to grade school and what did you do for fun after classes were out? Tell me about that.
D: I think Tom, with your permission I'll go back to my grandparents. I think it's a perhaps unusual, a little different story from the background of a lot of people that you may interview.
All four of my grandparents were born in the Prussian province of Germany. My grandfather, my maternal grandfather died on the same day in the same house that I was born in on the East Side of Oshkosh at the age of 77. I often said he died to make room for me because the houses were small and we only had two bedrooms in the home. Needless to say, funds were very scarce at that particular time.
Now that particular grandfather, I have his discharge papers at home from the Franco/Prussian War. He was a soldier in that Franco/Prussian war. I also have a medal which he received. It was made of melted down French cannon. And for many years I didn't realize, until a relative wanted a copy of his discharge papers, that Germany at the time of the Franco/Prussian War was not a complete country but a congregation of states.
T: Yes, I understand that.
D: Yes. What happened there, France declared war on the State of Prussia and the rest of the German states got together and the war lasted one year. And it was after that, that they realized for their own good they better unify and become one country. That was the unification of Germany.
And one of the things was, the farming community that my father came from, his right name was William and yet all of his life everything was done under the name of Emil. I asked him one time, why? It so happened that all of that farming community were from German farmers from that same part of Germany. They all named their first son or one of their sons after Kaiser Wilhelm. And he went to class and every boy who went to that class, his name was William. So instead of going by the first name, they went by the second one. I just had to get this in a little bit before the rest of it.
We'll go to the school I went to. I went to the old Washington School here in Oshkosh which was located at that time up on the corner of Otter and Bay.
T: Did you live in that area?
D: I lived in that area, yes. I lived between Rosalia and Bowen Street on Otter, in about the middle of the block. And the years of grade school, after so many years get to be a little bit fuzzy. I do remember certain things from that particular time. I know that going to grade school was quite a bit different probably from today. But from the standpoint of playing, we played a lot of baseball. We played it in the street. The automobile wasn't existence the way it is today.
T: Weren't there any empty lots nearby?
D: No, it was pretty well built up as far as the area was concerned. And we had the lake. I lived about a block and a half from Lake Winnebago. And the lake was a place that we'd just go down to the end of the street and jump in. And ice fishing, going out on the ice in the winter was a big thing. And that was almost the end of my life.
T: Did you have a close call?
D: Very close. I went out one day. I was going to a fishing shanty and they had a path to go out to where the shanties were. It so happened that we had about an inch of snow the night before. And then going out there I followed the path up to the point where you could see the shanties. And I cut across and with the inch of snow it so happened that there was a crack in the ice. There had been a crack in the ice oh, about maybe two feet wide that had just frozen over to about an inch of ice. And then the snow had covered it up and it was totally something you couldn't observe, you couldn't see. And I was alone walking out there.
T: How old were you then?
D: Oh I was still in grade school. I was probably in about the sixth or seventh grade. And all of a sudden the bottom fell out. And I remember that very well, as well as December 7th. But I caught myself on the thick ice on the way down. It was below zero that day. I pulled myself out onto the thicker ice and I ran all the way back into shore which hadda been, which was well over a mile.
My clothing was pretty well frozen by the time I got in. I went to the house at the foot of Otter Street and they immediately put me in a tub of hot water and called home to get some dry clothes down there. And another thing they did and I never forgot it, that was the first shot of whiskey I ever had in my life. This was an old time cure for it apparently. I remember telling my folks that's one thing they never had to worry about; I'd never drink that stuff again. Unfortunately it never turned out that way!
T: We develop a taste for those things as life goes on.
D: Those were the early years. Those years of course led up to the years of the Great Depression which I remember.
T: I was going to ask you how you and your family were affected by the Great Depression. And if you weren't affected, were there any of your pals that you knew that were affected?
D: I think the Great Depression is something that had a great effect on people that were in the military in World War II in general. I don't think there's any argument on that. And I remember it very, very well because about three out of four people in the city were unemployed at the time.
And it was no different with us. My dad being a carpenter, carpenter work, people, there just wasn't the money around to have it done.
And the thing that I remember and the thing that I am most proud of probably is the tremendous pride that my family had at the time of not asking for help from anybody. Our entire yard was garden. I mean we grew food all over that yard down there. We also had a chicken coop. We had chickens. We'd go out in the morning to get the eggs from the chickens. But all of this was part of being as self-sufficient as you possibly could be. And it was something in the old background of mine that was drilled into me to always be self-sufficient. The one thing in the family that was forbidden was debt. My folks never had, there was never a checking account, there never was a charge account. And you never bought anything unless you had cash to pay for it. And that was the way I was brought up.
T: That's changed a little bit now hasn't it Don?
D: It's changed considerably. But you know, I've often looked back at that, I ran a business successfully in this city for many years and I credit a lot of that to that experience in the Great Depression. It taught me something and it taught me a great deal. The only thing is, today I find myself unable to shake some of those things when I probably should let go a little bit more.
T: I think I understand a little bit. Now how about your education after grade school. Did you go to high school ion Oshkosh?
D: Well, high school was the limit of my education. Of course I had further schooling in service but high school really basically was the end of it. And one of the reasons for that I think, my father went to a parochial school for three years. And of course the pastor of the parochial school, the pastor was also the head of the parochial school that he went to. And he went to the school one morning in the third grade. He went through the fields. It was snowing, it was cold. He got to the school at a quarter to eight. And he was turned away and told to come back at 8 o'clock; the school started at 8 o'clock, not a quarter to or quarter after. When he got home and he told his father that, his father said, "You work on the farm from now on." That was the end of Dad's schooling.
My mother had eighth grade through a parochial school right here in the city. But I think the thing that happened with Dad was a typical hard-line German deal. Those were, that's the type of thing up there, discipline was sometimes unbelievable. My grandmother told me about some of it prior to their coming over to this country. And it was extremely, extremely strict.
T: I think too, some of the old-timers had a different attitude about schooling, especially on the farm. It was just as good for a young fellow to work on the farm as to go to school.
D: Oh yes.
T: And of course that changed.
D: Both of my children, I had two children, both of them had a university education and are successful. And the thing there of course, another thing was that financially going to school was just about impossible for us. There wasn't money for my sister or I to go on to school. There just wasn't.
T: Then you completed your high school education.
D: I completed high school. I went to work after high school. I took the, the thing there, I did know the Stannard family that owned the laundry in the city here. And at the time there were no boys in the family. They were all girls. And the father of these girls was opening a cash and carry. Up to that time everything was delivered. And they were on Main Street. Cars were becoming more in use and they were opening up this place as a cash and carry drive-in type of place to drop the clothing off. And I was glad to get the job. It was seven in the morning until six at night, six days a week and I was glad to do it. It wasn't a lot of money either but I was working.
T: What year did you graduate from high school Don?
D: January of 1940.
T: So at that particular time there was war in Europe, just cranking up, there was war in the Far East. Did you at that time give any thought to those conflicts or was it just too far away to think about?
D: I think perhaps I was taken in with the isolationism that was prevalent at the time. Now you know we were taught, I want to bring this in, we were taught at home. My mother and my grandmother, my maternal grandmother lived with us. Grandfather of course was dead. And Mother and Dad and his grandmother used to speak to each other on different occasions in German. But I was never taught that and it was always English when they talked to me. "You are an American, this is it."
And there never was any feeling, I should get this out, I mentioned about my grandfather being in the Franco-Prussian War. Loyalty to this country never was in question in our family ever. One of the reasons that the grandparents came over here was because of the fact that over there unless you were one of the wealthy landowners your chances were very, very limited. And of course the military conflict in Europe was another factor. So we were just glad to be over here. But also there was a work ethic. A tremendous work ethic, not only in my family but in the entire neighborhood. And it was always, you worked for what you get. Which I appreciate that I had that type of upbringing. Because having the hand out, trying to have somebody else take care of you like you find a lot of em today.
T: Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor?
D: Oh, I sure do.
T: I guess most of us can.
D: Yeah, you know that's a day, there are certain days in our life that we never forget. And this is probably an unusual thing too. I had a very good friend of mine whose father served in World War I and came back to the United States and opened up a business here in town. I think it was the first one in the city. His name was Irv Hoffman. And what he did, they had biological supplies. Turtles ands frogs ands items of that nature. Frogs were used at that time, not only for biologic, for biology classes in school, they used em for pregnancy tests in hospitals; frog legs were served in some of the local taverns. And they had a place over at Rush Lake and then another place on the South Side. And his son was a good friend of mine.
And the day, that December 7th he asked me if I wanted to go up to Louie Van [Zooner's] up in Sturgeon Bay; He was an old Dutchman up there who would always have, we'd take a pick-up truck, run up there and get a load of frogs. We went up there and I still remember the wooden shoes on the Van Zooner farm, all by the door. We got the load of frogs and came back to Oshkosh and it wasn't until seven o'clock that night that I realized we were at war. So I always think of my trip up to Louie Van Zooners. But we knew right then and there, that the future, what the future held.
T: Well you had to register for the draft. Were you drafted or did you enlist in the service?
D: That's an interesting question too. I did register for the draft and I had friends of mine that joined the Marine Corps. And in the early summer of 1942 I had some friends that had gone down, joined the Marines, came back for ten days and then left. I thought I could do the same thing. So I had a friend of mine take me down to the Marine place in Milwaukee where you enlisted. I went down to enlist in the Marine Corps. When I got down there and they found out what my draft number was they said, "You're too close to being inducted into the Army for us to take you. The only way you could do it is leave here tomorrow morning." I was still working at the time. My mother and dad expected me back. I wouldn't have had any other way to get back there. I just was not prepared for that.
So we came back. We came back and my friend talked to me. He said too, he said, "You just come back." He says, "What the heck, you're gonna be in service. Not in the Marine Corps." And of course like all young men I didn't know what the difference was, I knew certain things about different armed forces but not too much. And I guess young men are the ones that are designed to fight the wars. Period.
D: So I entered in August of 1942. I was drafted into the Army. I was inducted at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
T: What was the next step for you?
D: I was sent down to Shepherd Field, which is down in the panhandle of Texas. Shepherd Field was an Air Force base and there was a base also for training Air Force mechanics. And if you ever go to the panhandle of Texas you'd see why I didn't like it particularly. Well when we got down there, one thing I never forgot was being in a big hallway down at Shepherd Field. And a fellow that was ordered to wake us up, all the new recruits down there - he said, "One thing I want you to do, I want you to look at the fellows on either side of you. And I want to tell you this, out of the three of you, only one of you will survive this war the way it's going today." That was kind of a wake-up call.
T: Yeah, very sobering.
D: Yeah, and the next thing was we were interviewed as to what part of the Air Force we would like to be in. And I can still remember telling the gal at the table, I said, "Well," I says, "What's the quickest way out of Shepherd Field?" She said, "Well," she said, "I'll tell you. They need an awful lot of aerial gunners." And she said, "We have armament school up in Colorado." She says, "You'll be out of here quick." So I signed up to be an aerial gunner. And this never materialized either. The thing is in an Air Force, you need an awful lot of ground support for a fighter group or a bomber group or whatnot. And you need a lot of people in the armament section as well as mechanics and others in photography. And I did go to the school there and I did not wind up as an aerial gunner. Once out of the school, I could take a 50-caliber machine-gun apart blindfolded and put it back together again. We had good training.
T: Now where was that school located?
D: That was located at, it was a temporary school at Buckley Airbase it was called. Buckley Field in Colorado. There were two of them. There was [Lory] and Buckley. Buckley was a temporary one and that's the one I went too.
And after completion of that, a little story there on Buckley Field too. While we were there, we were there about a period of three months. I made some good friends there. One friend, this will come up later in our conversation, his name was Tom [Calkins], Tom was from Garden City, Long Island. And he was just a wonderful guy and I think he came from quite a well-to-do family. But we got to be real good friends there and he was in a bunk right across from me. And there was another one next to him and his name was Erickson.
And when we shipped out of Buckley Field, they went up to the state of Washington to Olympia Field, I believe it was. And I was on my way to March Field in California. I went to [Hammer] and then down to March. [Hammer] was just a temporary stopover. And March Airbase was located down on the edge of the Mojave Desert at Riverside. There is where we got our first training. We were very short on aircraft. We were unprepared as a country when we got into World War II. There is no question. And there was a shortage of a lot of things. And there was a shortage actually in some respects of aircraft to work on.
While I was there I also went out for a period of time out to Muroc Air Base which was out in the Mojave Desert and is now Edwards Air Base. We lived in tents out there for a little while. Fortunately it was in February. So I had some pretty good luck there too. And the fact I guess that I wound up in an armament department rather that sittin in a ball turret in a B-17, that wasn't the worst thing to happen to me either. I say that because those were all possibilities. This was the thing when you were in the service. What happened to you…
T: Uncle Sammy called the shots.
D: Sometimes had very little to do with it. But this was my first exposure. When we were in the airbase out there in California… some of the hazards these people faced. The 8th Air Force, or the Air Force, the groups, I should say, well I can just take the 8th Air Force in general of which we were a part of. You had between fifteen and sixteen thousand people lost in accidents around the airbases. And California is the first place that we had em. We, at that particular time, had P-38 fighter planes. And these P-38's would go up. They'd have target practice. Some of it was coming down at ground targets and others were tow targets that they towed behind an airplane. Items to shoot, to get their aerial training as far as gunnery was concerned.
And we had the unfortunate thing there one day. It was a young guy that I knew real well. He was a Jewish boy from New York that just loved to dance. And he happened to be out on the runway one day when one of these, this tow plane came in. What had happened, a very, very freak deal but one of the 50 caliber bullets had hit the wire that towed the target. And he came in to release this wire. I was a cable, I shouldn't say wire, it was a cable. He came in to release that cable which was flipping around on the back of the aircraft. And it caught this young man that was on the edge of… Pulled his legs off. He did survive but I mean…
T: That's too bad.
D: One o these freak deals and it was a short while after that out in the desert where I saw one of these aircraft going down, and the fellow must have blacked out going down. He dove airplane and all right into the target and was killed there.
So there were things like that. And we had a bomber base nearby that the gasoline, it was over 100 degrees, and one day two of them went down because of vapor lock in the engines. So there were, you know we hear today in the Middle East about some of these accidents. I think they'll always be common as far as air bases are concerned. You got people, all the training in the world, we're all pretty brave at that time and there are things that just happen. It's accidental and it's not something to really claim somebody…
T: Look at all the accidents that happen here in Oshkosh in civilian life. Freak things that occur. And the same thing is going to occur in the services and of course it's magnified when you got guys flying. From what I've heard from talking to different fellows that flew, that those casualties began very early in their training. They had a lot of casualties.
D: On the lighter side, being out there at March Airbase, I still remember, when we had a couple day pass or something, we generally went into Los Angeles which was the closest place. And we were able to go to the Hollywood Canteen where you had some of the movie stars of that era serving you and so forth.
T: Did you happen to run into any of those people?
D: Oh yeah. Actually there was a private club out there; I don't know how this thing ever transpired but somehow or other one of em, I was invited to go and I was sitting with Kay Kaiser and, what was his singer's name? (Ginny Sims) I was sitting right between the two of em. But we had that type of exposure out there, which was pretty nice. And at that particular time they gave good support. They were very supportive of the troops.
T: I guess a lot of em did a great deal of work and they'd go anywhere and do anything.
D: They did, yes.
T: At that time were you being trained to do the thing that you eventually did?
T: And that was?
D: Actually what it was, was taking care of all the armament on the aircraft. It was loading bombs, loading up the 50 caliber machine guns, taking em out, cleaning em up. Anything to do with the armament of that aircraft. And on a fighter plane in general, the ones that I was on, I was the sole person to take care of it. There was times when we would need help. We did, if I remember, some of the bombs were 500 and I think they did go up, over in England sometimes as high as a thousand pounds. We needed equipment and a little extra help on that generally. But that was still basically the number one thing.
And then there was also another thing. On some of these aircraft you had to synchronize the firing between the propellers. In other words it was a technical thing. Technical training for ground crew Air Corps was of very, very great importance.
T: Were you assigned to fighter aircraft right early on or did you branch off at some later date?
D: No, we were assigned to fighter aircraft and it was P-38's out in California. And the P-38's we had in the squadron in the 8th Air Force in England up until June of 1944 which was when we transferred over to the P-51 Mustang. I'll take you on the trip over to England and then I'll tell you how that happened.
D: Because I think that would be the next phase.
T: When did you complete your training here in the U.S., approximately what date Don, was that?
D: I have the date that we left. Actually it was in August of 1943 that we boarded a train in Southern California. And I tell you, this was a great ride. I think I've heard everything from five days to a week. I remember it more as a week but it was in a train. We were just jammed in there. You were sitting in a seat. The cars, the boxcars where you would eat, and we had this for a period of, I remember a week. But some fellows said it was five days. All the way up to Taunton, Massachusetts. Completely across from one corner of the country to the other.
And this went through the Great Plains. We were sitting about the middle of this passenger train. You sat in those seats day and night for that period of time. It was over a hundred degrees when we got into the Great Plains. You had to have the windows open so you didn't suffocate. And we just happened to be in the boxcar that got the most out of the old coal-fired engine of anybody on there. We were dirty, we were stinky and your eyes were so red you could hardly see when we got off that train out in Massachusetts.
I said at the time, we were there a short period and then we were in New York and we got on the Queen Elizabeth, which was the ship we had to take over the Atlantic. At the time we got on the Queen Elizabeth I said, "It sure is good to get on this thing after getting out of that train."
T: Oh yes! Of course I imagine on those ships, I guess they were converted weren't they? And you probably were packed in there pretty tight too.
D: It was cleaner. That was the only good thing about it because packed in, now we had 19,000 troops on board. You were jammed in. The cabins that were there, they all had hammocks that were three deep. In other words, when you were in there if you put your knees up, your knees were in the rear end of the guy above you. That's how close together they were. And that was a 24-hour in. In other words you were assigned that for a 24-hour period. And then it was 24 hours to lie in the aisles or lie on decks or wherever you could find a place to lay down. You slept on the wooden floor. So I mean it was not, you know. And then they fed these troops twice a day. So maybe you were sleeping there maybe at five in the morning and you'd have em running by with the old mess kits making all kinds of noise already.
T: Did you have a calm sea or was there some weather that you had to contend with?
D: We went over, actually we were very fortunate because going over when we did, the North Atlantic, we left there in August. I think it was early September when we got over. We landed up in Greenock, Scotland, up in the Firth of Clyde. We went past the northern part of Ireland and that's where we landed. But we had a relatively calm trip over. The bad time in the North Atlantic is late in the fall. That's normally, the ones that followed us over there, they had a terrible ride over there. But another thing, at the time when we first got on that ship, one of the fellows, I can still remember him saying to one of the people in the crew, he said, "What about life preservers?" And the fellow just looked at him and he laughed. He said, "Son, take a look over the side of this ship once. If you had a life preserver and you jumped over the side, you'd get killed when you hit the sea." Because it was so large.
T: Now the Queens were pretty fast ships. Did you have, were you in a convoy or could you do it all by yourselves?
D: It was a zigzag route all the way across the Atlantic. We went past a convoy and it looked like the convoy was standing still. They were fast and they could outrun a sub. However, when one of em said something after this man had, after the other soldier had said this about the flotation device, after he made that statement, another one said, "Well where's our," we did have the blimps out in New York harbor. And then we had them, I think it was a five day trip. We had them two days out and then we were on our own for a day and then the Royal Air Force picked us up on the other side. But one of the fellows said, "Well where's our, what kind of support with the subs out there?" Guy said, "This'll outrun any sub." I was standing there when he said it. I says, "It'll outrun em but what the hell if they're waitin for us up there?" He looked at me and he said, "You would say that!" But it did turn out uneventful. There was no problem. We made it and made it safely.
T: When you got to Scotland then I imagine you were sent somewhere else, to England.
D: Yes. That was the place that we got off. There was a train waiting for us. Matter of fact there was, it was rather picturesque, the Scottish hills with all of the heather. They had Scottish bagpipers on the dock there to greet us.
And from there we went down to the airbase at [Kings Cliff], north of London. That entire area was called East Anglia. That's the termination for all the airbases over there. Just about all of em anyway.
T: What were your quarters like at Kings Cliff? Tell me a little bit about the surroundings.
D: Our quarters were considered the worst in England.
T: Why is that?
D: It was an old abandoned Royal Air Force base. And it was dirty, it was muddy. I can remember when I threw something down on the [ ], there were like three little cushions that you had over the springs on the cot. And I threw something on it and the dust just rose up; there was a big clean up deal to be done there. It was a run down airbase, that's all it was.
T: Were you in a sort of a barracks or was it tents.
D: Well we did have a certain period in tents. Eventually we wound up in the Quonset-type huts. But we were in tents. I have pictures of that. It's a little bit remote in some of this but I can still remember the tents that we had, but we did have wooden floors on em, you know.
T: Was Kings Cliff the name of the town?
D: The name? Yes, there was a little village called Kings Cliff.
T: Was this right on the coast or was it inland a little ways?
D: It was inland, directly north of London. I've forgotten the exact number of miles from there but you know, that whole area is relatively small.
T: Now on this base there was your unit, which was a maintenance thing. Tell me about all the rest of the people that were on this base. Was this mainly a fighter…?
D: Entirely fighters. Matter of fact you see the 20th Fighter Group consisted of three fighter squadrons. And each squadron would have, like we were at Kings Cliff, one of our other fighter squadrons in our group was at Wittering. They were all little villages, probably smaller than Omro. And you would have a fighter base there. Actually they were English farms that were converted. Although we had three fighter groups in the squadron, they were all in separate bases in little areas like that.
The fighter planes, you could make a berm like a big W. In other words if you had a hill that made, that went like this, like a big W and each area there surrounded by this would be an aircraft parked there. And then they also had, in addition to that you could walk into, they had an opening there where you could walk in, in case of a strafing attack or something like that where you had some protection. The aircraft, of course they would work on the aircraft there and whatnot. They called em revetments. These were scattered all around like that. And it was fairly widely scattered around.
The thing there was, you know actually we were fortunate in that respect. Germany had mainly fighter aircraft and not bomber aircraft to any great extent. They had the JU-88's but you didn't have any range to any of the bombers or anything that they had there. And as far as the strafing and what not, the Battle of Britain was over when we got there. That was pretty well over.
T: I understand. But you did, I imagine there were German aircraft that were still making sortees.
D Very limited. But by that time they were rather limited. We were the ones on the offensive. But that did not mean that the Luftwaffe was out of the war by any means whatsoever. With the Russian Front and everything they had so many changes to make that…
T: Was your fighter group operational right away or did it take a little while for them to get into business?
D: Well, the most time it took was to get enough aircraft. We were actually without aircraft to put pilots in for a couple of months.
T: Really. I see. And as you said, I think they were all P-38's up to a certain point when they converted to P-51's.
D: But now I'll explain the reason why that change was made. The P-51 (Means P-38?) was a terrific airplane. There's no question about it. Its greatest success was in the South Pacific. They had great success in the South Pacific. As a matter of fact, Major Bong from Poplar, Wisconsin, our leading ace in World War II flew in the South Pacific. They had great success there. They ran into one horrible situation over the continent of Europe. The altitude, you had these bombers flying up at 30,000 feet. The P-38 was equipped with an Allison engine that was made by General Motors. It performed beautifully all over but it did not perform in the bitter cold of 30,000 feet in the air over Europe. And they had, they would throw rods. I would say that the P-38 outfit, we probably lost as many men for that reason over Europe as we did to flak or enemy fighters.
T: That's interesting, Don. I never heard that.
D: Well it actually got to the point where they replaced the engines with the British, let's see, they used the same engines they used on the British aircraft. But Allison engines were definitely - Rolls Royce. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was the one that replaced the Allison engine.
However by that time, the P-38's were pretty well, we had three different aircraft, the P-38's, P-51's and P-47's that were involved in Europe as fighter aircraft. The P-51 was the best aircraft from the standpoint of flying support for the heavy bombers into Europe.
The bad thing that they ran into late in '43, I'd just like to make an example here, I'm sure that people that are familiar with the 8th Air Force are familiar with the word Schweinfurt. Schweinfurt was a city in Germany with a ball-bearing plant. In August of 1943 the 8th Air Force conducted a raid on Schweinfurt and lost sixty B-17's. They repeated this particular type of raid in October 1943. They lost sixty more. There are a lot of people realize that sixty bombers were shot down or subject to flak over the city of Schweinfurt. But I don't think many of em realize that it happened twice.
Now a B-17 has got ten men on board. So you might say in two raids on Schweinfurt, Germany 120 B-17 bombers were lost and 1200 men were shot out of the sky. Now German flak was responsible for a great deal of this also. And we cannot underestimate what great products these people had over there. This flak, they had 88-millimeter flak guns. And they could set those. They generally knew about what altitude bombers would come in. And once they were committed to a bombing run, they had to follow that commitment. And they never turned back. But if they were coming in at 30,000 feet, they could set most of that flak to go off at 30,000 feet. And flak is an explosive that sends shrapnel all over the air.
So this was the thing that happened with a lot of them. And there was a period there, now getting down to that, after the second Schweinfurt raid they stopped deep penetration bombing runs into Germany until they had fighter support capable of going in to those deeper targets. And that is where the, actually our outfit changed to ground strafing and things like thatl.
T: I heard that the P-47 was great at that.
D: Yes, they were. They were great at strafing and actually the P-38 was very good at it too. We had a Colonel Rau was the fellows name. He came in and took over our squadrons. And we for a long time didn't do the ground strafing. There was the idea there in the Air Force that they didn't want to go down and shoot up trains and things of that nature, buses and so forth. Actually there was a threat, someone said, of court martial if you did this. Well this Colonel Rau came in and he said, he called and he got permission. I think that permission came from British… The British generally, a fellow by the name of Harris conducted the bombing section over there. I don't know if that's who Rau, anyway somebody said, "Go ahead and do it."
T: How do you spell Rau's name?
D: R-A-U. And it turned out before this was all over, the 20th Fighter Group that I was in destroyed 400 railroad engines. Now those are pretty hard to replace. And this is one of the things that really brought Germany to its knees I think. You had a tremendous amount of boats and engines and utilities and things like that, that were wiped out because of the strafing. That did more damage than anything else.
(The first tape ends here).
T: Go ahead Don and tell me a little bit now about what your specific duties were in your outfit. What did you do?
D: Well, our particular fighter group flew between three and four hundred combat missions over Germany during the period I was over there. Now that period started in September of 1943, or August or September 1943, and it ended in October of '45. October of '45 is when I came back. Let's put it that way. Well we had between three and four hundred missions off the airbase. We were very busy during that particular period of time. The missions were as weather would permit for the most part.
T: How many aircraft were involved? How many were on your base that would go up at one time?
D: I would have to make a guess at this, Tom. Twenty years is a long time ago. And I would say 16 to 20 perhaps - fighter planes. They were in groups of four. And I think that's quite accurate. 16 to 20. And actually the thing there, I was assigned to the armament on this. We would have a crew chief, he would be taking care of the engines, the mechanical part. The armament man would take care of all of the aircraft armament. You had some of them, I don't know if they all did, but, well they did. They had photography on em. You know that's how a lot of the pictures you see on the History Channel were made. There were photographers. And of course on an airbase you've got supply, you've got the kitchens; you've got everything to be taken care of.
Basically on a fighter plane I was pretty limited to that. And you kept pretty busy on that. I would like to say that it didn't take very long for me to realize, although I made close friends with many in the armament department, I found that it was a better feeling not to get too close to the pilot of that aircraft. I was close to em in one respect; we had a great deal of respect for what he was doing. But it was not an easy thing to watch em take off. And we were all on the airbase when they started to return home from a mission. And when that airplane didn't come back, it wasn't a good feeling. And probably not knowing the fellow real well was a little bit better to go by. But they had a great deal of respect, pilots treated us beautifully. We were non-commissioned officers and the pilot was always a commissioned officer, let's put it that way, and rightfully so. And I respected what they were doing.
T: I'm sure they respected what you were doing too because you were vital to them.
D: Oh yes. They depended on us. They needed us, period.
T: Now you were concerned then with the machine guns and probably the cannon as well. Did they have cannon on P-38's.
D: the P-38 did have a 20-millimeter cannon in the nose of it. There were six machine guns, three on each wing, 50 caliber, and one 20-millimeter cannon. And of course you had the racks below to carry bombs.
T: Were you concerned with the bombs too then.
D: Oh yes.
T: I imagine loading an aircraft with bombs was a sort of a tricky thing because of their weight.
D: The weight was tricky and then of course they were on what we called, they had…
T: Little dollies of some sort?
D: No, the aircraft themselves, they weren't generally on the ground and when they were off and in the revetments and places like that, they had, it was all metal that they were on. It was a kind of a web type deal. And of course in the English countryside with all of the rain and in the colder months the frost and everything like that, footing was terrible. I did have one case where I slipped and dropped the bomb and they had to block off the whole area. Nothing happened. We didn't blow up with it. But it was easy to have something like that happen.
T: At what point in a fighter aircraft, at what point was a bomb armed?
D: Well, this was the thing. There was an arming wire and that bomb, that arming wire, when the bomb was dropped from the aircraft, the arming wire is pulled out and the bomb goes down. Fortunately that didn't happen when I was involved. We didn't have that particular thing. I guess I wouldn't be sittin here now if… But we had some fellows that monkeyed around. One guy blew a hand off one day and that was just monkeying around, carelessness.
T: When an aircraft was damaged, did you have to work on repairing the damaged aircraft as well, or was that some other crew that did that kind of work?
D: Damaged aircraft, that was handled separate. It would be very difficult to explain just exactly how but you see the thing with a fighter aircraft, we had some but not to the extent. I think when you see damaged aircraft you look at the B-17's and the way many of them came back, just shot to heck. But the only one I can remember of an aircraft that went out was very late in the war that came back with a huge hole in one of the wings. And this was one of the very early raids that they ran into the ME-262 German jet. They had 37-millimeter cannon on em and they'd be up 50,000 feet in the air, come through a formation and be gone before they knew what hit em.
But we had airbase accidents over there, some severe ones too. We were on the airbase one-day, myself and a couple of other fellows and we saw a fellow coming out of a dive and all or sudden the guy said, "Hey, he isn't going to make it. Hit the deck!" We all were on the ground. I tell you it was maybe twenty feet around. This guy hit at 500 miles an hour. He took parts of two aircraft and one of the revetments out with him. Set a whole, there was fire all over the place for awhile from burning gasoline and shells blowing off. We ran through that thing, I mean it was a horrible sight. Just a horrible sight. But those things happen.
T: After a mission did you have to, I know in bombers they would actually remove physically these machine guns from the aircraft and then somebody'd work on em and they'd haul em back in. Did you have to remove the machine guns from the aircraft and service them in some way and then put them back up in place? I don't really understand that. Or did they stay in?
D: You know Tom, I'll tell you that's something that's hazy in my memory too. I remember cleaning em up. And it was very important to clean em up. And of course you had to keep em in good condition because we were in very, very - as they say, the sun only shone over there one out of three days. And that was about it. So you had very, very high humidity and damp and fog and rain.
That's a little hazy to me, some of that today. It became hazier this last year when I went out and was looking at a P-51 and they had em open. I walked around and I looked at the fellow. I said, "My God, I used to take those things apart and put em together blindfolded. Now I look in there and I see what a mess I'd do if I tried it."
T: Tell me now about your daily life on the base. Were you in touch with your family? Did you get mail regularly and what was the food like?
D: Yeah mail came regularly. All the while I was gone I was never home on furlough and I never spoke to my mother or father. Let's just say I never had the money for long distance calls. But they were very faithful in writing. I got it on a regular basis.
T: How was the food at your particular base? Did you eat good?
T: You didn't go through the C-ration thing?
D: It was better than being in the infantry I'm sure, by far. Actually over in England, England wasn't noted for their, let's face it, there were shortages. And as far as the air base was concerned, we had a lot of Brussels Sprouts, which was common over there.
T: So they obtained a lot of locally produced things.
D: Yes, to a large extent. Powdered eggs, powdered milk, things of that nature. Most of it was things that were shipped over from the United States.
T: You were there then through the winter of '43 and '44. What was winter like?
D I was there for two winters. And the first winter it was much more moderate than it is around here. Actually London, England and the parts, those particular areas of England are as far north as the Hudson Bay region of Canada but the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic is what keeps the temperatures more moderate. And the winters are not as severe. The humidity and frost, I never saw frost that heavy anywhere. The first winter we were over there, I can't remember any snow at all. But on the other hand, in the summertime, you wore heavy jackets most of the time right straight through the summer. And it would be light at 10:30 at night in the summer time. And it was probably dark at 3:30 in the afternoon in the winter.
But the second winter, of course that was the Battle of the Bulge time, you know, the Battle of the Ardennes. And …
T: I guess all of Europe was cold.
D: Oh yeah, we were snowed in. I mean the 8th Air Force couldn't take off and I remember that very vividly.
T: That kind of weather would make it difficult to service those planes too.
D: Yeah, you got pretty cold fingers.
T: Because in those revetments, they weren't under any cover at all. Doing everything out in the open.
D: Well, you were working in the open all the time. That's right. And incidentally, you mentioned the English people and the treatment, things of that type. I found that the English people treated us great. And I think the thing there, if you're in a situation like this, negative things that you may hear were generally done because there were so many…
Probably for the most part, we as Americans are not always of the best of behavior. And they had a rough time. They had a lot of tough years there. And having people from a foreign country come in, I think if you had a teen-age daughter and you had a foreign soldier come up and want to take her out, you wouldn't like that too well. I mean you've got to look at a lot of areas there. And then of course you know, "Over paid, over sexed and over here." You've heard that terminology. And there's some truth to that all the way around too. In general we were treated well.
T: Did you get much opportunity to go on pass or on leave while you were there?
D: I would say that normally we were, once a month we would get a three-day pass. Now that did not, the thing we could do, there were times on the air base, we had this little village called Kings Cliff. We would get passes at night occasionally to go into Kings Cliff. And they had, the thing there, Kings Cliff had just this little downtown section and they had pubs. I think a pub you might compare to one of our taverns here in town. They would probably be open from two in the afternoon to six and then open again from 8 to 10 at night. They didn't have a lot of stuff to serve to anybody but they were gathering places for people. And I think you see that here in Oshkosh, probably more of a Germanic area here but a similar type of thing.
But they treated us nicely. And while we're speaking about the English people and I'm speaking about some of this, I'm going back to the name Tom Calkins to tell you a little story. I mentioned him earlier out in Colorado. In 1944 I was in London for a couple of days. And I came out of the Regent Palace Hotel one morning and here Erickson is standing in front of this hotel. He's the young man that had gone up to Olympia Fields in Washington with my friend Tom Calkins. And I said, "You know," Swede we called him, "God am I glad to see you!" I said, "I just wondered what the heck happened to you and my friend Tom." And he looked at me. "Don," he said, "I haven't got very good news to report on Tom." He said Tom was a bombardier. And he said, "He became a bombardier after he left the armament school." And he says, "The B-17 he was serving on was shot down over Germany and there were only two parachutes." He says, "We have no idea who the eight were that went down and the two that survived." He said, "We know that eight of em are dead."
Well I felt pretty bad about that thing and hadda wash it from my memory. Until 1951. I was married in 1950 and my wife and I in '51 were taking a ride through North Park in Oshkosh. And our name hadn't been in the phonebook long enough, we hadn't been married to have our name in the phonebook. I said, "Let's stop over and see Mother and Dad for a minute." This was on a Sunday afternoon. And we went over there and I walked in the house and here in the living room is Tom Calkins and his wife! Here's this young man, a good friend of mine. I said, "Tom, I can't begin to tell you how happy I am to see you. How in the heck did you get way up here?" He said, "Well I was in Chicago on business and it was a beautiful day. We decided to take a drive up into Wisconsin." And he said, "I got up near Fond du Lac and I saw a sign that said, 'Oshkosh.' So I said to my wife, 'I got a buddy up there. We're going up there to see him.'" So here he was one of the two that had been out of there safely. This is one of the good stories of the war.
T: And I suppose he had quite an experience then as a German POW.
D: Very much so. On the other end of it, you know, the Kings Cliff, which was a little village there, they had the Women's Land Army over in England which a lot of women took the places of men because the men were off to service. They called em Land Army and they would be in a hostel. Generally they took a huge, nice home near one of these villages and most of these women worked helping out on the farms in the area.
T: I didn't know that, Don. The expression, Women's Land Army is unfamiliar to me. It's nice to know. Were they in uniform?
D: To a certain extent yes. And the thing there, I met the gal who was only about 20 years old that was the head of this whole group there. And I got to know her quite well. She was quite a nice gal. I actually dated her for awhile there. And as time goes by, things change. But one of the surprises here, fifty, let's see. I left England in '45, yeah. In 1997, 52 years after I left England it was around Christmas time. My son was working, he was with Chrysler Corporation in North Carolina. He was home for Christmas and I had gone over to my sister-in-law's. And I came home and he had an odd smile on his face when I walked in the house. He said, "Dad," he said, "Mom's on the phone," he says, "she's been holding this conversation for awhile, hoping you would get home." He says, "Your old girlfriend is calling from England."
D: Here it was 62 years after leaving England that I had a call from the same gal that was the head of the Women's Land Army. And ah…
T: Was she calling from England?
D: She called from England. And what had happened there, she had friends, she had married a fellow who was on a Lancaster bomber during the war. After the war she married him. And he was a banker and they lived in South Africa, first in Kenya then in South Africa for a period of time. Then went back to England. And he died and she was a widow and she had some friends who had an ocean-capable type of boat that came over and came up the St. Lawrence Seaway. And they came all the way up to Green Bay and they sent her a card. And the card they had bought in Appleton and there was a scene from Oshkosh. When I talked to her that day she says, "There's a letter in the mail. You'll find out how I found you." But they'd looked up the name in the phonebook and sent her the phone (number) and that's how she came… How unusual.
So I just had to throw that in there because it is an unusual thing, you know, after all those years.
T: You were telling me about your friend Tom Calkins. Did you have other close friends in the service that…?
D: Yes, as a matter of fact, I'm the lone survivor. I kept in touch with about a half a dozen of em from various walks of life. It was very interesting. I had one of them, his name was Julio [Duran]. And Julio was a Hispanic from the West Coast, from Salinas, California. He'd been a lettuce picker before the war. He was a fellow who, there was a roll call - I wasn't there - he would always answer "Here" for me. Julio and I, we were bosom buddies. We got along good. I always got a kick out of him. He was a hard worker and he was a tough character. He was somebody you wanted on your side too, you know. A matter of fact, I visited him in Salinas after the war.
T: Most of us that were in the service can remember guys, some of em were just exemplary characters, wonderful people. Then there was, on the other end, there were some odd ones. Real strange people.
D: Some you didn't pay any attention to. But I had a core of about a half a dozen. Really, I've had several come here and I've visited them. We've kept corresponding and so forth. And they have generally just died off.
Another thing Tom, I've got something here today that I would gladly give you if you could make use of it. This is the story of the 20th Fighter Group. Probably the second, we were told it was the second most secret mission of World War II other than D-Day. And this is the story of a mission that involved Joe Kennedy Jr.
T: Oh yeah, I can remember vaguely something about that.
D: Joe Kennedy Jr. was a naval pilot. And they were having a great deal of problems over in Europe in wiping out a particular launching pad for the V-2 rocket. The V-1 and the V-2's are something that I'm very familiar with.
T: Did you have some contact with some of those?
D: Well I had a contact with a V-1 "buzz bomb" that - I've always told my wife and I've said many a time that I'm the soundest sleeper that the world has ever seen. There was one night at Kings C,liff where we had twenty men in the barracks and nineteen of them were out of the barracks at night and one of em remained in there asleep. That was me. The other nineteen were out because the windows rattled and the whole building shook because one of em came over so low. That was the "buzz bomb" and that did go off and that landed on a railroad track down aways from the airbase. But I slept through the whole thing and didn't know about it until I was told the next morning.
But that was the flying bomb and those things, they could have, they could detect them to have an air raid siren like in London. Most of em went into the London area. London had a suburb called Croyden. And that was a place that was heavily bombed by them. They lost between twenty and thirty thousand people to that particular weapon. Now they could launch them from railroad flatcars. They were in different areas. They did have other places but they were susceptible to bombing.
However, the rocket was a different thing. And they had a place off the coast of the Netherlands that they launched these from that normal bombing wouldn't take out. And what they did, well before I go on with this, the losses, the Air Force losses from the V-1 and the V-2 during World War II, there were on record, 450 aircraft and 2900 airmen lost in just bombing those two particular types of installations. That's a lotta men and a lotta aircraft.
But this was so severe and such a big concern that what we needed at the time was one of these cave busters that they used over in Afghanistan. And they made one out of a B-24. They took a B-24, 4-engine Liberator bomber, they put 21,000 pounds of explosives on it and they had it rigged up to be radio-controlled. However they needed volunteers, a pilot and co-pilot to get that off the ground. And Joe Kennedy Jr. was one of the two that volunteered for that particular mission. Their duty was to get it off the ground and fly it to the east coast of England till they got to the North Sea. There, radio control would take it in and it would guide it in to the target.
Although Joe Kennedy Jr. was Naval, the 20th Fighter Group that I was in were the ones that were called to supply the pilots to go along. Now whether there was two or four, I'm a little unsure on that. But I know that we had at least two of the pilots. There were only four that accompanied him. Two were 20th Fighter men. 20th Fighter Group men. And even the headquarters of our - didn't know what this was for. They just knew that they had to supply two men. That's all, it was that secret. And they didn't find out for quite some time just what this was all about.
That aircraft, when it got to the area where they could see the North Sea and just about the time that they were to bail out and turn it over, the whole thing blew up. Never did hit it. Meanwhile V-1's
(means V-2's?) wiped out over 30,000 people in London. And there was no way, there was no aircraft warning, there was nothing and they came up and they'd blow up a block of buildings and that was it. That was a frightening thing and thank God we got Werner Von Braun over here.
You know, I remember that very vividly because during that particular period we never stopped going to London because of a V-1 or a V-2 or anything like that. When you're young, you're not going to get hurt.
T: Right. It can't happen to me.
D: So we went in anyway but I can still remember on the trips back to the airbase which was north of London, those trains were loaded with women and kids going north, getting out of London. Because that's basically where that was targeted at. So it did cause a lot of interruption. And I can remember very well the subways; did I mention the subways with the cots and the people sleeping on them?
D: And the trains. Well the English subways, we got around, I think I mentioned that before but the people that went down there, they'd have to lay around in those subways and then they only had about a six hour deal when there weren't any trains running through there. It was interesting.
T: Where were you when the war ended, Don?
D: At Kings Cliff. I can still remember going in to London. I mean we went in to London, it was very close to it. A lot of celebrations going on.
T: What happened then after the war in Europe ended? What was the disposition of your group?
D: Well frankly, when the war in Europe ended, our thought was when we would be going over to the Orient. We definitely, we knew that the 8th Air Force people were being sent over there. And I can still remember because to me, after being gone for the period of time that I was gone and everything, I'd kinda given up on getting home. I kinda had the idea, well this is next. We'll just have to take it a day at a time as it comes, you know. You can't change things. You can't sit around and worry about it or anything like that. We just went ahead with everything as it was. And man-oh-man, I'll tell you, the day that they announced the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima was probably greater than anything other than that. Because we realized that was our ticket home.
T: Were most of the fellows quite happy about that? I guess, were there celebrations or was it sort of a subdued type of thing when you knew that the war was over?
D: There was not cheering or anything like that. I think it was the realization of all the people that were killed and everything. But it was the realization that it had to be done and it was a realization that it was our ticket to finally have the thing behind us.
T: Early in the war Don, when we were suffering a lot of setbacks, you know right after Pearl Harbor things were not real great, was there any doubt in your mind at that time that we would win the war? Was there ever any…?
D: I don't think there was a doubt about winning the war. And I think the thing there, that we realized that there was a long tough road ahead. Winning it, no. And I think one of the reasons there was the very, very fact that we never felt that Germany or Japan had the power. I mean Germany in itself is not much bigger than the State of Wisconsin. And you take these two that are oceans apart and I think that like with Japan, Yamamoto said that, "We'd woke up a sleeping Tiger." I don't think we had those kind of doubts.
But another thing, the thing that is amazing on this thing, and I think one thing that was underestimated, I think we always underestimate enemies. I think we make big mistakes and underestimate enemies. I think we've done that in the one that's going on. And I'm glad they're doing what they're doing because we sure as hell want that in another country and not around here. But in World War II with Japan, we always used to look at Japanese products as inferior, as copies. And they were. They were for the most part. And Germany definitely, you know, to me their taking on Russia in addition to everything else, there's no way that one nation can do this.
And if we go back Tom, I don't know, I wonder how many people in this country realize, the 8th Air Force was the biggest military unit in World War II. The 8th Air Force had more casualties than any military unit in World War II. Pretty strong statement! The number of people killed, missing in action and wounded in the 8th Air Force in World War II has never been totaled completely. You know the missing in action we don't know for sure.
T: There were so many planes that were shot down. Just so many.
D: Well you know you had ten people go down every time a bomber went down. Now the statistics, I think they might be in this here book but I think they are right around fifty thousand killed and wounded. And then that doesn't include the missing in action. Now missing in action - there just was nothing left of them when one of those bombers blew up. And when you figure there were 450,000 Americans that lost their lives in World War II, or 450,000 casualties, you know you're taking ten percent right there from the 8th Air Force.
T: Yeah, that's true.
D: And you take the quality of the competition, we mentioned about the Japanese and their fighting to the end. The bombing of Germany, a lot of that was the idea that they could break their spirit. And unfortunately it just went the other way.
T: What was your opinion of the German soldier? Were they a pretty formidable opponent? You know, not having real direct contact with them, but hearing and observing the events of the war there?
D: Tremendously well-trained. And you know, from the Air Force standpoint, the head of the, two of the heads of the 20th Fighter Wing wrote a book, "The Blond Knight of Germany." That particular book is on Eric Hartmann who was the leading World War II ace. It's fantastic and I think this is something few people realize but this is the type of thing they had to contend with. They had good aircraft and they had well-trained pilots. Eric Hartmann was the World War II leading air ace. He had 352 enemy aircraft to his credit.
T: That's a lotta airplanes! Gosh!
D: The German Air Force in general, I copied this out of this booklet just for the heck of it here. He was one of two German pilots that had over three hundred aircraft to their credit. There were eight more that had over two hundred. There was twenty of em that had over a hundred. When you look at this, one of the reasons, Eric Hartmann was shot down ten times. These fellows, you read the story on some of them. They kept flying until they were dead. There was no quit.
T: Yeah, I heard that from bomber pilots. They said those German fighter guys had a lot of guts. They would just bore right in.
D: We had a lot of brave men. Germany had a lot of brave men. And Japan had a lot of brave men. Let's face it, we're not all heroes from one country or another. And this is so true.
T: Don, you received some medals and citations. Can you tell me about those things? How did you get these various citations? For instance there's a Bronze and Silver battle star mentioned here.
D: Those citations, you see for every military campaign that you were involved in, in World War II, now I have the European African Theater along with the Good Conduct. I don't know why they gave me…
T: By virtue of being there.
D: I don't know why they gave me a Good Conduct Medal.
T: I think everybody got that unless you got a dishonorable discharge.
D: You know you had a lot of that stuff. This medal stuff I have to laugh at sometimes. It's like, the Bronze and that, I have my discharge papers here and there were six major air campaigns over Europe that the 20th Fighter Group was involved in while I was there. I was part of that. I was part of the group. For each one of those you got a silver battle star to put on your European Theater ribbon. Now we had six of those. There isn't room for six battle stars on one ribbon. So what they would do would be issue one bronze to represent five silver. So there was one bronze and one silver.
Some of the things I didn't put down there. Like I had four stripes on the arm for to take in the six months being overseas, and a lot of little things like that. We did receive also, our group, based upon some of the missions they flew, one of them was an extremely successful strafing mission where they knocked out just a tremendous number of German aircraft, and steam engines and things of that nature. And we were cited by the War Department and given a unit citation. Actually we had a unit citation and we had, our unit was cited twice. Everybody in our unit got it. You could have been a cook in the kitchen and you got. But you were part of it. That's true of a lot of medals.
You have your individual ones like a Purple Heart. What's confusing there probably is there's a Silver Star for bravery in action. And so that's a crossover there.
T: I see. After you were mustered out of the service, oh I assume that in October of '45 you got shipped back to the states. Did you get discharged pretty much immediately.
D: In October of '45 we climbed on the Queen Mary in Southhampton, England so I rode the two biggest ships in the world.
T: Was your trip back as crowded as the one going over?
D: Yup, it sure was. And in New York Harbor, when we shipped out, the Normandie was laying on its side. That was the third largest ship in the world.
T: Yeah, I remember that.
D: Sunk by the Mafia actually. Did you know that?
T: No, I did not know what the circumstances were.
D: The Mafia controlled the union. The shipping, the stevedores on the East Coast. And this was part of the Genovese crime family. They had this on one of the History Channel things one night not too long ago. It said they were responsible for the sinking of the Normandie to show the United States who controlled the docks of New York.
T: And what a time to do something like that. After you were mustered out, what did you do then, Don?
D: We came back in October of 1945. Got off the train and walked all the way home. There was nobody waiting.
T: No flag waving?
D: Yeah, and I didn't have anything but the clothes on my back. I was just glad to get home. And at that particular time the main thing for me was to get back to work. I went back to work the week after I came home.
I wasn't sure what I was going to do. Actually I was offered the opportunity to go to the East Coast to school, to laundry/dry cleaning school. I went back, I contemplated that for a little while Tom, but then I began to realize that wasn't probably the smartest thing to do. I mean you had four daughters in this family. You have this particular business. You better find yourself something else.
And I knew one thing that I wanted to do. There's no way, I looked at the consideration in going to school. That came up but when I looked at the calendar and I thought, four more years, I thought life isn't that long to spend all this time and then start out at that age. That was a drawback. And I went to the university here. They had, at the time, they would check you out for what they felt was a field that you might be good in.
T: Sort of an aptitude test.
D: It was an aptitude test. That's right. And I was always good at math and various things like that. And they said, "The business world would be a good place for you." And I went and I interviewed in Chicago, the head of Credit and Accounting for the Sherwin Williams Company. And I was hired and I started at Sheboygan as credit manager in their operation over in Sheboygan.
T: How did you meet your wife and when did you get married?
D: I met her through some friends right here in Oshkosh. She's from the city too. She's local. And we met and you know I started to date her and oh, this was probably in 1949, somewhere around there. And I came back here to Oshkosh in '47 or something like that. I started with Sherwin Williams in '46. I was in Sheboygan briefly and I came over here as credit manager in the Oshkosh operation. I was appointed manager of the Oshkosh store on the first of January, 1950.
T: Where was that store located, Don?
D: They were located on Main Street down where the Firststar Bank is.
T: I'm sort of hazy on my recollection of that because I was away for a number of years. And even though born and raised in Oshkosh I was just trying to recall where that store was located.
D: Those were old "tunnel" stores, you know. It was 150 feet deep and 50 feet across the front. They were all old stores down there that had to be taken out of there, you know. And I mean you had stores and taverns all the way to the river.
T: I can remember Henderson-Hoyt, and there was a Sears Store that…
D: That was burned up. That burned during the war.
T: I watched it burn when I was working at Leaches after school.
D: Let's see,…
T: You said you started dating your wife around 1949.
D: It was December of 1950 that we got married. Because I remember I was called to take over managership of the store the first of the year. And we made a quick decision to get married but we had planned on getting married the following summer. But I realized we were in our infancy in that business here in the city at that time. There was only one other person that I had. And the fellow that was running the store left the manager over in Sheboygan so I was taking it over. Had to hire somebody for my position. And hey, I'm not going six months later to get married. That's a prime time of the year and everything else. We got married about a week or ten days after we decided that we were going to get married, and got married sooner. But it was mainly because of that.
But then I was in that, I turned down different positions over the years, I mean chances to go to larger operations and leave town. I wanted to bring up my - I don't like big cities. And I wanted to bring up my children here in Oshkosh, period. That was it.
T: I guess a lot of people think Oshkosh is a nice place to raise kids, being on the lake and so forth.
D: Tom, I think it's a great place. It has been. I know it's changing like a lot of things.
T: How many children did you have, Don?
D: I have a son and a daughter.
T: I was going to ask you about the changes you have seen in Oshkosh, having lived here practically all your life. I was away for over forty years and you hear stories about the changed downtown - it's going to be revived - it shouldn't be - what are some of your thoughts on that score?
D: Well the downtown section of Oshkosh, Tom, I think we all know it'll never be what it was before. Those days are done. And one of the things that's changed them of course is the advent of the Wal-Marts and places of that type. There's just no question about it. I'm not a big Wal-Mart fan, I'll be honest about it.
(The second tape ends here).
D: Geographically you got the lake, you can't go out that way. You got the airport out this end of town. I think it's too bad that years ago the Winnebago and Outagamie County didn't get together when they were discussing that and put an airport between here and Appleton. But that's over and done with too.
T: Were any of your friends from Oshkosh killed during the war, Don?
D: I had a cousin of mine that was blown up in a tank over in France but the close friends that I had here in the city, no. Surprisingly they all survived. Some were injured.
T: Did the war change you, and if so, how did it change you?
D: Well I would say the biggest change was we grew up a helluva lot.
T: I guess most of the guys would say that. It made a man out of them.
D: You know, it did. You go in, you're - I look back, nothing would bother me. I could take care of everything myself, you know. But you do grow up and I think you look back, I think you see things that… I consider myself at times one of the luckiest guys in the world. I really do.
T: It's good to be able to look at it that way.
D: I really do. I tell you my attitude when I got back, I worked long hours, Tom, in the job that I had here in Oshkosh. I'm not patting myself on the back. It's the way I was brought up. I was taught, "Arbeit uber alles." That was the old German [ ] during World War II, you know. And always, I mean this is the way it was so I worked hard. The Depression years, I remember at my retirement the district manager came in from Green Bay. He said, "I'm going to do something I've never done in this company before." He said, "I'm going to run your figures in front of all of the fellows in your district." He says, "You know, we've got a lot of young people here today with different backgrounds. And I want to show them how expenses can be controlled and how a place can be run. And how it can be run from a guy that never got more than a grade-school education." See, at that time I wouldn't have been hired for the job even. But we had some of the lowest expenses in the area.
T: What year did you retire, Don?
D: I retired in January 1985. I was fortunate in having two children that are very successful. My daughter and her husband have been in California for 25 or 26 years now. They live in a 4200 square foot home in the hills outside of San Francisco.
My son, who did it all on his own I might say, he went to Stout University and wound up with Chrysler Corporation as District Service Manager in Charlotte, North Carolina. He had that position up in upper Wisconsin and then in another place prior to that. And he's 47 years old today. He's done a wonderful job in putting himself in a wonderful financial position. And he decided to leave and have a better life and he took a job teaching engine technology down at [Marion Parker Park] in Fond du Lac. So he's got the whole summer off. He went over to Switzerland with my wife who's got relatives over there. And rode a motorcycle through the Alps and had just a ball of a time there. This last summer my granddaughter got married in California and he rode his motorcycle out to the wedding. He's just living it up.
T: Great! Do you think very much of the war today Don, or is it something that's pretty much in the past for you?
D: Like I said, I've been a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society and the 20th Fighter Wing. And I've kept up on a lot of of things.
T: Do you have reunions periodically?
D: I didn't go to - Tom, I've never gone to a reunion. I don't go to reunions for various reasons. I had my friends. I kept in contact with them individually in different parts and whatnot. And these were the fellows I served with. I served with pilots too. But let's put it this way, we were the non-commissioned officers. The pilots were commissioned officers. I could have been one. Frankly, I was offered to go to pilot school when I was out in California. We were playing ball out there one day, lack of airplanes, and I had a company commander come over and he said, "I'd like to send you to pilot's school. I think you'd be a good pilot." I said, "If it's required, I'll go but I want to tell you something. I'm not in the Air Force because I like aircraft. I don't. I've never been interested." And I said, "Flying doesn't interest me at all." And it didn't, right to this day. I wouldn't have made a good pilot. You gotta be interested. And fighter pilots in general, I had a few clashes with a few of them. Some of them were pretty Goddamned cocky.
T: Yes, I think maybe you had to be to pilot one of those things. You had to be a brash character.
D: Yeah, we're recording?
T: Yes, we're recording.
I want to mention one that was very well known in the entire country. I won't mention that name. That why I ask you about recording. But no, I had a little argument with one of them one time down in the village, you know. You can carry that just so far and keep your mouth shut; I'd been noted to shoot from the hip once in awhile. That's part of my nature and always was. I just decided no, I thought, you know if you were a guy, I'll tell you, the thing with a lineman or a man working on a flight line like I did, they depended on us for their life - which is true. I give them all the credit in the world and have admiration for what they did. But it was like a couple different lifestyles there. Now once that war is over we're all thrown in together in a little different place, aren't we? And I just didn't feel comfortable. That's one of the reasons I've never gone to them. A lot them have been mainly fellows that were pilots, you know. Reliving the past in that respect. And I respect em for that. I have no problem there.
T: Well Don, I think we've covered all the territory that I wanted to cover; is there anything else that relates to World War II that you'd like to talk about? Anything that we may have missed?
D: Well I'll tell you, there is something that I would like to say in regard to this. And it's something - I'm in here and I think it's something I'm glad I could come in and talk about because a guy that served on a flight line normally probably wouldn't be here. And I'm talking in terms of a fighter unit. Fighter aircraft are single-engine aircraft with one man in them.
I have a friend of mine that piloted a B24 in World War II. The bomber end of the Air Force is another story. You look at these aircraft carrying ten men, going on these raids repeatedly, originally they were told 25 missions and you could get home. Life expectancy at 25 missions was 15 missions. The first one to go 25 was the Memphis Belle. They even made a movie about that.
But they were flying when they had no fighter support and whatnot. Talk about guys putting their life on the line. And when they went down and ten men went down… The thing that few people realize, the number of those bombers that would come back from Germany, they had hours to come back with mortally wounded people on board. One fellow I talked to, he had his co-pilot's head shot off and he rode back all the way to England that way. These are the things there, and when they landed on those airbases in England, this was a sight to behold.
And you had air raids over there, you had one on Munster, Germany. Thirteen B-17's left that base to bomb Munster in Germany. In a ten-minute period twelve of those, that's ten men apiece, twelve of em was gone. Nobody survived. That night one bomber came back to base and it was so badly shot up, it had a couple dead men on board, it was so badly shot up that they had to junk it. And it landed. These are the things that they have in these bomber bases over there. Horrible.
T: I can't imagine that.
D: But these guys that fought, talk about guts, I had a case that I never forgot over there in a fighter plane. A P-51, now fighter planes, you know, they depend on loft because the speed of the engine. They got the short stubby wings and they're not gliders by any means. P-51 that I worked on came in with engine problems one day. He had to make a dead-stick landing with the wind. This isn't supposed to even be possible without killing yourself. He made it. I was up on the wing of that aircraft when he was [ ] it out. And had a pack of cigarettes. I handed him a cigarette. He couldn't hold a cigarette in his hand he was shaking so. It just flew out of his hand. They took him and took him down on the base, gave him a couple shots of whiskey and put him in another airplane and sent him right up in the air. These were some of the methods that were used to keep mentally, that deal from destroying him as a pilot. You had to do that with some of these people.
T: Sounds pretty difficult.
D: Just a couple more things to throw out here. This bomber thing and some of the stories there are totally incredible. On those bases, when those things came back and you know, taking dead men off, people that were shot up and whatnot. Those were the places, they saw a heck of a lot more than we did on the fighter base.
T: It must have just been awful. Thanks very much Don, it's been a great pleasure and I appreciate your willingness to come down and talk to us.
D If you have any other questions I'll be glad to answer them, Tom. I'll tell you, one of the things here, one of the reasons, in our schooling system today on December 7th a number of years ago out on the West Coast, with a couple young people there that were honor students in school, I was asked if I remembered December 7th. And I told em what I told you here today, how well I remembered it. And I looked at these and I thought, here we are on the West Coast and knowing some of the teaching things today, they said, "Do any of you know who bombed Pearl Harbor?" They all looked and finally one said, "Germany?" And it made me mad, not at the children. My daughter is a special education teacher out there and I said, "What the hell is the matter with you people out here today? Are you afraid you are going to hurt somebody's feeling by telling em the truth." And I says, "This is it. People have just gone too far without, we don't want to hurt feelings."
(The third tape ends here).
Oral History Interview with Donald N. Denow.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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