||Lee Weigert was born in Iron River, Michigan on September 10, 1917. His father was employed as a butcher until the family moved to Marquette around 1926 when he became a tavern owner. The family was not affected by the Great Depression to any degree.
Lee graduated from Marquette High School in 1935, took a job in Leuerman's Department Store and played drums in a local four-man dance band for about a year. Then he attended Geo. Williams Jr. College and Milwaukee Teachers College, graduating in 1943. He had previously enlisted in the Air Corps, obtaining deferment until graduation. He attended Officers Candidate School in Florida, completed training but neither he nor the others in his class received commissions. They were used in other positions.
Lee went to communications, photography and gunnery school. After training he was assigned to a B-17 and they flew to Africa and then to their permanent base in Foggia, Italy where he was attached to the 15th Air Force, 97th Bomb Group, 341st Bomb Squadron. Lee's chief duty was aerial photography. He flew 52 missions - a total of 246 combat hours to areas such as France, southern Germany, Austria and Romania. Losses were heavy, approaching 50%. His squadron bombed the oil refineries at Ploesti several times. Lee used a large camera mounted in the belly of the B-17 to record bomb damage. He also used a hand-held camera to record action in the air around him.
Lee came back to the U.S. early in 1945 and was discharged in September 1945. Just prior to that, on June 16, 1945, Lee witnessed the explosion of the first atom bomb in New Mexico from a distance of about 100 miles. He and some pals were hitching a ride early in the morning when they saw the sky light up in the distance, but didn't know the cause until much later.
Lee began working as a counselor and placement director at the UW Extension Center in Milwaukee, met and married his wife Eileen and had three children. The family moved to Oshkosh in 1954 where Lee became a teacher/counselor at Oshkosh High School. When Oshkosh West was built, he became a full-time guidance counselor. He retired after 25 years of employment by the Oshkosh Public Schools. He died on May 14, 2005 in Oshkosh, WI.
||World War II Oral History Project
|Dates of Accumulation
||October 10, 2004
||Cassette recorded oral history interview with Lee F. Weigert, he was assigned to a B-17 and they flew to Africa and then to their permanent base in Foggia, Italy where he was attached to the 15th Air Force, 97th Bomb Group, 341st Bomb Squadron. Lee's chief duty was aerial photography. He flew 52 missions - a total of 246 combat hours to areas such as France, southern Germany, Austria and Romania. Losses were heavy, approaching 50%. His squadron bombed the oil refineries at Ploesti several times. Lee used a large camera mounted in the belly of the B-17 to record bomb damage. He also used a hand-held camera to record action in the air around him.
Lee Weigert Interview
8 October 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; L: identifies the subject, Lee Weigert. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood, or that proper spelling for the word is unclear, in that order).
T: It's October 8th, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the home of Lee Weigert who served in World War II. Lee is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war.
Let's begin then Lee, by having you tell me when and where you were born?
L: I was born in Iron River, Michigan, a mining town of 5,000 people. And I lived there for the first nine years of my life. And then we moved to Marinette, Wisconsin where I graduated from high school in 1935.
T: Were your mother and father both from that area?
L: My mother and father met in Goodwin, Wisconsin where my father was a butcher and he was from Marinette. And my mother, she was born in Merrill, Wisconsin. Her father was a cook in lumber camps. And she had been in Rhinelander and different cities in northern Wisconsin.
T: Did you have brothers and sisters, Lee?
L: I was an only child.
T: Tell me about your childhood, where you went to grade school and what you did for fun after school was out for instance in those days.
L: In Iron River, being a small town, I had one teacher for Kindergarten and then the same teacher for first and second grade. And the same teacher for third and fourth grade. And I had a pal who lived in the neighborhood and of course the winters in Iron River, Michigan were pretty severe. And oh, I lived near the woods just about a mile away from the woods. In the wintertime there was a hill and I'd go skiing.
And then we lived on a high elevation in the town and I had a coaster wagon where the sides folded up and I used to amuse myself; I'd go to a hilly sidewalk and coast down that sidewalk.
Then playmates would come. We had a front porch swing and we'd sit on that front porch swing and my friend Willard [Croutey], he had an Airedale dog and so we played with the dog.
There was a livery stable near downtown and they had horses and carriages. See, being born in 1917, and we used to be attracted to the livery stable because of the horses and carriages that were there.
T: Where did you go to high school then?
L: Then we moved to Marinette and I had started there in the fifth grade. And the schools were excellent and I had a wonderful fifth grade teacher and then I graduated from Marinette High School in 1935. And that was a great school.
T: Were you active in any athletics or things like that Lee, when you were in high school?
L: I was in the high school band, orchestra and glee club.
T: I see. What instrument did you play?
T: I see. When you were growing up and in high school for instance, we were experiencing the Great Depression here in this country. Was your family affected by it to any degree? You said your dad worked as a butcher. Did he maintain full employment during the Depression.
L: When we moved to Marinette my dad and two of his brothers opened what they called a soft drink parlor. That would be before Prohibition because Prohibition was repealed in 1933. And they ran this soft drink parlor, a great big bar where people could stop in for soft drinks. And then when Prohibition was repealed they had a tavern and they did very well in that. Our family was not affected by the Depression.
T: How about that area as a whole where you lived? Can you think of oh, pals of yours. Were their families affected by the Depression, when things weren't so good for them.
L: We moved there in 1929 but when FDR was elected president, they had Civilian Conservation Camps and the National Recovery Act. And so I was not aware of any real poor people and Marinette was not seriously affected. They had a paper mill, glove factory and a knitting mill. And the retail stores and banks.
T: And all those places kept going apparently during the Depression.
L: They had [Ansul] Chemical Company, which manufactured the fluid for fire extinguishers, so Marinette did pretty well.
T: What did you do after you graduated from high school Lee?
L: Well, my first year I had a cousin who was working in Leuerman Brothers Department Store, the largest small city store in America. It took up a half a block. And he was starting college at the University of Wisconsin. And he said, "Why don't you apply for my job?" So I applied for the job and I was a clerk in the boys clothing department.
T: How do you spell that? Was that Lorimer?
L: Leuerman's. L-E-U-E-R-M-A-N-S. And then when I was a sophomore in high school I started playing in dance bands and I was working. Leuerman Brothers was open six days a week. And we were open Friday nights and the farmers would come to town.
And I was in a four-piece band, very talented musicians. A pianist, a reed man - he played tenor sax, alto sax and baritone sax - and we had a brass man. He played cornet and trumpet, and French horn and baritone. And we, our leader was Stanley Olson. And he was an intellectual and musical genius. He was a great leader. And we had a job, Prohibition hadn't been repealed, the dance halls were booming.
And I worked in the department store six days a week and played in the dance band six nights a week. I'd get home from work at 5:30 and eat right away. I'd go to bed about six and sleep until 8:30 and drive eight miles west to the [Blue Ribbon] Casino. It was a Grange hall converted to a dance hall. And there were booths surrounding the dance floor. And they elevated the stage. Well, there were no closing hours and there were times when we were driving home on Sunday morning in early sunrise in the summertime. And we'd see the sun rise driving home. And the owner of that place was Harry [Blotke], a fellow from Chicago. He had been a carnival barker in a carnival and his wife had been a high diver in a carnival.
T: Sounds like a colorful couple.
L: Yeah, sure was. So I enjoyed the band very much.
T: How long did that go on?
L: Well that went on for a year and then we decided that we were all going to go to the University of Wisconsin and work our way through school playing in this band.
I had a geometry teacher that knew our family and she heard about our plans. And she called me up one day and said, "Come on over to my house, Lee. I want to talk to you." And I went over, Jenny [Colton], she said, "You know you got an aunt that lives in Milwaukee and she's a wonderful cook and you might appreciate a home-cooked meal on week-ends. Why don't you think about Milwaukee State Teachers College?"
And I took her advice and I quit the band and they went to Madison and I went to Milwaukee.
T: Did you ever regret not going along with those guys?
L: No I didn't. Well, our leader, they were going to school and playing at the [Chanticleer] Club in Middleton, Wisconsin and they were broadcasting on the radio at night. So I could tune in. I did get lonesome for them but after two years in Madison, Stanley was a straight A student in pre-med but he got tuberculosis and he went to Plymouth where he stayed for a year. And he married a nurse there and then the band broke up. But they all went on to be musicians the rest of their lives. And I would see them from time to time. And I always felt I would not wanted to have continued as a musician.
T: So you went to Milwaukee Teachers College. And what year was that, that you entered the teachers college?
T: Did you graduate from there?
L: Yes. I finished there. It's a long story but I, at that college I worked for the Milwaukee YMCA on weekends as a recreation director, physical trainer and swimming instructor. And there, by the end of my sophomore year, in those days they had a men's YMCA and a women's YWCA. They were separate. And a general secretary and a boy's secretary. And he and his assistant were going to George Williams College in Milwaukee. So I went there with them for a year which would have been my junior year.
But after down there, I was a swimming instructor at the central YMCA in Chicago and it was quite a trip after school to the Loop in Chicago. And I got to thinking about YMCA work and I realized it takes over your whole life. Your weekends seven days a week. So I decided to go back to teachers college and my credits from George Williams, it was a Junior College also, the University of Chicago. But none of my, the only credit transferred was Political Science. So that was a year where I couldn't get any more than three credits. But I then finished at Milwaukee State Teachers College in February of '43.
T: During this period, in the late thirties and early forties, there was war in Europe and there was war in the Far East. Did you give any thought to that at that time, thinking that maybe some day we were going to be involved in that? Or didn't it enter your mind at all?
L: Well, there were groups, anti-war groups like there are today. And students would march up and down the street protesting the war and our getting involved in it. But I had a draft card number and when I finished college I knew I would be drafted. And at Milwaukee State Teachers College I took a lot of physical education courses. And one day a recruiter from the Coast Guard came to a class and he said, "All you men in this class, you've had the appropriate training and you could be a physical trainer in the Coast Guard. And you would be enlisted as a Chief Petty Officer." And a number of us signed contracts to enlist in the Coast Guard.
T: Did you do it? Were you one of em?
L: Yes. But here's what happened. I always wanted to be in the Navy and I took the physical. I could have gone in as an Ensign with a college degree but my left eye was not good enough and the Navy recruiter said, "Go home over the week-end and eat carrots." Which I did and I went back Monday for the eye test and I still couldn't pass it. It was my left eye.
So I couldn't get into the Navy but I heard about the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve. And they said, "If you enlist with us, it'll cancel your contract with the Coast Guard." So I signed up with the Army Air Corps Enlisted Reserve. And was in the Reserve while I was in college.
T: I see. So by being in the Enlisted Reserve, that kept you out of the draft until you graduated from college.
L: Right. And in my last semester in college, I was in what they call - there was no shortage of teachers in those days. In fact, if you wanted to be a teacher in Milwaukee, you had to be a substitute first. But in the Central Division they taught you how to teach handicapped children, deaf, blind, physically handicapped and mentally retarded. So I went into that division.
And in my last semester the director of the program, he came into class one day in a First Lieutenant's uniform. And he said, "This is my last day." And that was near the end of the semester in February that they were getting desperate for men. And he was going to teach reading to soldiers that were not good readers, that couldn't read.
And then they were so hard up for men in Europe that one day I got a call and he said, "In two weeks you're going to have to report for active duty."
T: Now you had graduated at this time?
T: You were still in classes?
L: Two weeks from graduation. I had five courses and three of the teachers said, "Finish out the week and we'll give you a grade. And good bye and best wish." And two of the instructors said, "We'll give you the rest of the week to prepare for the final." So I had a couple days to prepare for my finals and I took the finals in two courses and I reported to Fort Sheridan in Chicago.
T: What was the approximate date that you reported to Fort Sheridan in Chicago. Looks like January of '43, was it?
L: Yeah but it was actually February. The Army is not always correct.
T: Yeah, I know. So around February of '43, that's when you went on active service.
L: Yeah. And then I was assigned to basic training in Boca Raton, Florida. This was officers training. You know they talked about "90 day wonders" so that was three month of basic training for officers. And that was a breeze. We had chemical warfare, military courtesy and I had no problems with that. But two weeks before we were to be commissioned, they said, "We're not going to commission you officers because too many go on to technical schools and they don't make it and then we have to make em mess officers or something like that." So I successfully completed officers training but was not given a commission.
T: Well that's too bad. It's hard to believe that they would do that .
L: Yeah, they did it. Well then I had had a lot of psychology in college and I thought I'd end up in training or personnel but instead I was sent to the Yale University Communications School. They had armament and photography and communications. And I got along alright in that but when it came to the last couple of weeks I thought, boy, I really don't know what this is all about. I didn't have that much related to electricity communications.
And a civilian instructor looked at me and he said, oh I said to him, "I would like to repeat the last couple of weeks of this training." He looked at me and he said, "You think these guys know what this is all about?" He said, "You're one in a million." And he said, "Well, I'll have you talk to the commander here of the school." And the commander said, "Well why don't we switch you to armament or photography?" I had had photography in college; it was a physical science course. And I said, "Well, you know I'm really pretty weary of this training and I think I don't want to go to one of the other schools."
So they put me on temporary duty in plans and training at Yale University. And one thing I should say, when I was training at Yale, having been an instructor at the "Y", they were teaching men to swim and what to do in case a ship was torpedoed. And this one instructor was an assistant to Bob [Gippels] who was a very famous coach, swimming coach. And he said, "You don't belong in the water, get out on the deck here and help me teach." Which I did. And we would teach the men if they had to jump overboard, to empty their barracks bags and use em like a balloon.
T: Yeah, you could do the same thing with your pants. Tie the legs shut on the bottom…
L: So I can say I taught swimming at Yale University. Then in plans and training, I was working with a major and we were going around to different stations, checking up on how the training was going. And there had been an entertainer, Tony Martin who was at Yale, the Army Air Corps Band with Glenn Miller. And they played every day as we ate our dinners. They were on the balcony in the dining room. And this Tony Martin was a singer with Glenn Miller. And Glenn Miller, he had no basic training. He was a Captain but he would be walking along. He didn't know how to salute. We would salute the officers. He wouldn't salute back. And when I had worked a few days, oh Tony Martin and he went for officers training. And after I'd been there about three or four days, he said, "Now we're getting something done here." He said Tony Martin was a goof-off.
And then in plans and training, when the orders came through for gunners - they were hard up for gunners - and there was a request for them to be sent to gunnery school. So I put myself on the orders for gunnery school. I thought, I'll get a pair of wings.
And I went to Panama City to gunnery school, which I completed. And it was in the wintertime.
T: Was that the winter of '43 then? In December of '43?
L: Yeah, well no, no. This was the winter of '44. But I completed gunnery school. But anyhow, there was a pond on the range and that pond froze over. It was that cold in Florida. And then after I completed gunnery school, I was assigned to [phase] training, supply B-17's as a gunner. And when I left Yale, the commander, the general, he said, "We'll give you the status of a radio operator. You had enough training so you could be a radio operator."
So I went to Panama City, or I went to Drew Field, Tampa, Florida as a radio operator/gunner. And I could type so they put me in supplies typing laundry lists. They had a folding chair with an army blanket to get me high enough to type on a typewriter.
And after a couple days of that I went to personnel and I said, "Can I do something other than this typing?" And they said, "Well we have a crew in phase training and they're in the fifth week of eight weeks. And their radio operator assistant is getting airsick and we could put you on that crew."
So I said, "Okay." And I took the last of eight weeks phase training; I took the last three with the crew.
And we had quite an experience once. We were out over the Gulf of Mexico shooting at tow targets. And your slugs would have chalk on them and your score would depend on how many chalk marks or holes were in the tow targets. And with the B-17, they shot out of the right waist window. And you shoot in short bursts. And there would be three gunners on the right waist window. And then three gunners fired a machine gun mounted from the left waist window.
And as they started to fire out of the left waist window, that gun jammed so they moved the gun that had been fired out the right waist window over to the left waist window. And here's three of our men shooting that gun. And I was sitting in the radio room on the floor and all of a sudden there was an explosion in the waist. And the cables - there are twelve control cables on a B-17 - and eight of the control cables, well the gun barrel had started to melt and it warped. And a slug went out of the gun barrel and severed all our control cables on the left side and some on the right side, two others on the right side. We were all waiting for the buzzer to sound, getting our parachutes tightened up. But we were headed back for Drew Field and they had the ambulances and fire trucks there. And we landed safely on just four control cables out of twelve. Shows what a great aircraft the B-17 was.
T: I guess from what others have told me, it could take a tremendous amount of punishment and still keep going, keep flying.
L: Oh sure.
T: Had you, now let me ask you this Lee, had you ever been up in a plane before that time that you got into the B-17's in the service? In your civilian life had you ever had occasion to fly?
L: I only had a few flights. I took, I was thinking I might go and be a pilot, you know. So I took a lesson. My father had taken me on some flights in Marinette but it was no more that four or five flights before that. But I loved flying in B-17's.
In that phase training, we flew over Cuba one night in night flying. And Havana looked pretty beautiful, all the streetlights and the beautiful moonlit skies.
T: When your training was completed, what did you do then? Where did you go then Lee?
L: When we finished our phase training we were sent to Charleston, South Carolina for a few days and then they gave us a B-17 that was to be our plane to fly over. We left Charleston, South Carolina on Easter Sunday of 1944. And you didn't know where you were going until the pilots opened the orders. And the orders said you're going to Tunis in Tunisia. And we flew to the island of Trinidad and you could only stay overnight. You had to take off the next day. And from there we went to Fortaleza, Brazil and then a few days there. And we left Fortaleza, Brazil to fly across the Atlantic. And we left after dark and our destination was Dakar, French West Africa. And we, our navigator was so good, after flying all night across the Atlantic, he brought us right over the airfield in Dakar.
And we were there one day and then we went on to Marrakech. At Marrakech our engineer had an attack of appendicitis so we were grounded there until he got out of the hospital. And our assistant engineer, he knew the manager of the Air Corps post. And we were sleeping in tents. And one night this guy came staggering into our tent, drunk. And he said, "I want some of you guys to come with me." He says, "We can get chocolate bars and Army shirts and stuff." And he said, "Empty your barracks bags and bring em along." And nobody in our group would go with him.
But he went and he got the bombardier to go with him. And they went and loaded up their sacks. And he said, "You know we're going to make a lot of money." And they brought these sacks back and we had mailbags in the bomb bay, piled up. And they pulled up those mailbags and buried their loot under those. And I was on guard duty one night and the MP's came looking because they knew there had been a robbery of the PX. But they didn't find anything and when we did get to Italy finally, their stuff didn't bring that much money. It wasn't really worth it. That guy was the black sheep of the crew. I didn't care for him very much.
T: So you went to Italy then next after you got to….?
L: Yeah. Then from Marrakech we went to Tunis and they had advanced up to Italy and then we went to Foggia on the east coast of Italy.
T: How is that spelled, Lee?
L: F-O-G-G-I-A. Italy. Now as a radio operator, I was to be a ball turret gunner. But I'm about six feet tall, at least I used to be, and my feet were size twelve.
T: You would have been pretty cramped.
L: I was, so I flew three missions as a ball turret gunner. They have different footrests. I'd have to turn my toes inward or outward to get my feet in there. So I went into operations and the pilot says, "Well, I'm not as tall as you are, I can't get into a ball turret." He said, "You don't belong there." So they said, "We're running out of photographers." And of course I'd had this training in college. And they gave me three days of training and I became a radio operator, gunner and aerial photographer.
Now aerial photographers are different from combat photographers. There's that picture over there on the wall, and those cameras, they take film that's 12 x 12, so it's got a big housing. And there are brackets in the floor. There's a camera well in some of the B-17's. And after three days of training I was an aerial photographer. Well, the reason they were having aerial photographers, more of them, the aerial photographers were flying every day. And none of them were ever finishing. They were, to be an aerial photographer - I didn't know this - was certain mortality.
L: You were certain not to finish. And one of the photographers, on days off, he was going out and getting drunk and they'd have to go out and look for him and they'd find him in the ditch along the road. But they tripled the number of photographers. A squadron is twelve. And then there is a group of squadrons, four or five squadrons. So they would have us fly two missions and have the third one off. That increased our chances on finishing.
T: How many aerial photographers were there in a squadron? Just one or was there more?
L: Three. The photographers before us, they had a little hut built. Foggia had been bombed. The city of Foggia had been bombed and they built a little block hut of stone blocks. It would hold three photographers. And we photographers, we didn't sleep in tents like the rest of the men did. But we slept in this concrete block hut. We would do what they called [ ] damage reports. The cameras were 12-inch focal length, 24 inch focal length and 40 inch focal length. And the one in the picture is a 40-inch focal length.
T: So you were carrying more than one camera on a flight, or just changing the lenses?
L: One big camera. And we used 24-inch focal length or 12 inch focal length. And we also had a hand-held camera to catch any action out the waist windows. And that's with a large camera, something like a video camera of today. And take a picture, there's a handle, we'd just flick the handle and it would take a picture.
T: Now the hand held camera that you were using, was that a 35 mm. Film that you used in there?
L: Oh that was bigger than that.
T: What kind of film were you using in these big cameras? Was that plate film or was it something else?
L: I've got a roll of film in the box over there. It's just ordinary film. A roll of film, I have pictures from that but I can't find the large box.
(The film is examined by Lee and Tom).
Now I've got pictures of this place we bombed but I can't find em right now.
T: So that film was on a roll then and you could crank out how many pictures off of a roll of film?
L: Oh you could get at least 25 or 30.
T: Now you mentioned taking the pictures out of the waist gunner's windows. You were photographing the type of action that was going on with other planes and so forth. But what were you looking at when you used the biggie? When you used the big camera was it to get bomb damage or…?
L: They called it a photo damage report.
T: How did you know when to take the pictures? Did the pilot say well now we're gonna do this or was that strictly up to you?
L: It came over the intercom. You'd have headphones on, or earphones on. They'd say, "Bombs away." And I would take pictures of bombs as they left the bomb bay. And then I'd count about 35 seconds and start the cameras and they'd take pictures of the bombs as they were exploding. Now before we got there, P-38's, we flew at around 29 to 37 thousand feet. And it was sixty below zero. We had heated suits. So we had to plug into an outlet and wear these heated suits.
T: I heard there was a time when they didn't have the heated suits and that was very difficult, I guess.
L: Oh sure. Because it was sixty below zero. But before we got there, the P-38's would go in low and they had cameras in their nose. And they would take before bombing pictures. And then after the smoke had cleared, the P-38's would go in and take after pictures. So there were three phases of the photo damage reports. And we would see these pictures. And there was like a gunsight on the camera and you'd move the camera around, try to keep it pointed at the target below.
T: Now where were your missions concentrated? What area did you go to? What areas did they bomb?
L: I have a list of the missions over there but we would fly in a six hundred-mile radius from Foggia. And we would go to France, we'd go to southern Germany, Austria, Romania. We bombed the oil storage tanks in Ploesti, Romania. And like we would bomb Munich. And some of these were heavily defended targets. And in the briefing they would say, "We anticipate that your percent losses." And we'd go, "Ohhh!" Now a squadron is twelve. And we'd usually have eight or nine planes. And we'd go out with eight or nine planes and come back with four or five.
T: Oh, that's like 50%!
L: Yeah. For those missions with heavily defended targets, we'd get double credit. So in flying and getting credit for 52 missions, that was 37 flights on that list that I have there. And it includes in Vienna and places… Now in northern Italy there wasn't much defense and we would call those "milk runs." Because there wouldn't be fighter defense or anti-aircraft.
But as far as anti-aircraft flack, talk about the damage that a B-17 would take, we would come back sometimes with 200 holes in the plane. And the sheet metal men would be working all night trying to make these planes ready to fly again the next day.
T: I suppose you have to worry not only about sheet metal damage but what happened to the innards of the plane, the various controls and so forth. I imagine that the pilots, well all …
(The first tape ends here).
T: Lee, I noticed when looking at the list of missions that you had here. There were several visits to Ploesti. Apparently that was a big important target and one hears about it during discussions of World War II. Can you tell me a little bit more about Ploesti and the oil fields there? How come you went after it, oh it looks like three, four five times here?
L: Because oil was so important to the Luftwaffe and the trucks for the Nazis. And it was the oil supply, the more of that, that we could deprive the Nazis, the better off we were. And as I was there, the defenses were pulling back toward Germany day by day.
T: Was the Ploesti area still heavily defended by the anti-aircraft?
L: Yes. When we bombed, it was. That's why we got double credit. As well as places like [Einereustadt] and Munich. But where you'd find your defenses kept drawing closer back to Germany.
T: How about the Luftwaffe. Were they a formidable force at that time or were they sort of kaput?
L: Well we were escorted by P-51's and P-47's. And they did a pretty good job of keeping the Luftwaffe away from us. Now what the Luftwaffe would do, if our P-51's or P-47's were grounded and they were still flyable, they (the Germans) would pick them up and fly along as our escort and then suddenly turn on us and start picking off our bombers. And I talked about this hand-held camera. One of the worst things that I ever saw was a bomber that was hit and the fellow was bailing out. And one of the parachutes was on fire. And he was out for a few seconds and then whoof, his parachute just went up in fire and he plunged to the earth below.
That was ah, I was lucky on the crew that I was on. No one was ever seriously hit.
T: I was going to ask you if any of your crewmen had ever been injured.
L: You know, we had oxygen masks and there were vents on both sides where your air comes out. And those vents, at sixty below zero weather, little cakes of ice shape of the vent. We'd have to force em out so we could exhale.
And oh, I should mention that this photographer that I replaced, when we would be coming back from Romania, Hungary and Austria, sometimes the planes would be damaged and they had to ditch in the Adriatic Sea. And the photographer that I had replaced, he had ditched three times. In [RPA] training, we learned how go get out on a wing and get into a rubber raft in case we ditched.
And there is one flight that was remarkable and that was we were bombing the port of Genoa, Italy. And flying toward the target of Genoa, our B-17 lost two engines on the left wing. So we turned around and there was the Tyrrhenian Sea and we were flying back toward Italy and we dropped our bombs in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Now many times when planes were flying back, not having dropped out bombs, they would drop them. You didn't land a plane with a load of bombs. And we were flying back, having dropped our bombs. And doing this had just gone out. And as we were flying back towards Foggia, of course Italy is a wide country but the third engine went out. And that was an outboard engine. If it had been an inboard engine we would have had to ditch. But we got back safely. Fire trucks and ambulances were out, but here we landed a B-17 with one engine.
Now we got a cloud cover day here. I remember one mission we were to bomb, our target was Vienna. And I thought, oh we have to go and bomb, now we always try to avoid civilian areas. We had ball bearing factories and airfields and specific targets that related to military efforts of the Nazis. But there was extensive cloud cover. Usually you had a primary target and two other targets in case the first one was clouded over. But the cloud cover was so great that we couldn't drop our bombs. And I thought, thank goodness we aren't going to damage buildings in Vienna. And of course on the way back we had to drop our bombs in the Adriatic Sea.
T: How many planes did a raid consist of when you were going after a target like Vienna. How many planes were involved? Was it one of these real massive things where there were a number of squadrons?
L: Sure. Heavy bombings.
T: Did you use a bombardier or did they do that differently? I've heard guys tell that when they had these very large groups of planes they didn't use the bombsight in a different method. They, when they got to a certain area you let em go. I don't know just how to describe it. But the bombardier was sort of secondary. Or wasn't that the case?
L: Well things changed. This war beginning in the late thirties, and the first bombing was by the 8th Air Force out of England. And then the other air forces, like I was in the 15th and by the time that I talked to other 8th Air Force people, things were done quite differently.
T: At any time did you have to operate the guns? Or wasn't the German fighters a big problem then?
L: Well, any plane that pointed its nose at us, came flying toward us, they would call out, like on one flight they called out, "P-51 at 2 o'clock high." And there's a gun in the ceiling of the radio room [ ]. And so they called it out and that meant we should shoot at it. It was a P-51. But I couldn't get a lead on it and it didn't point its nose down at us. It just kept flying over so I think it was one of ours but he must have thought he was high enough above us, and he was, and he got past us.
T: I suppose it's possible for a fighter pilot to be mistaken for the enemy. I know you have plane recognition and all that sort of thing but in the mix-up of combat I suppose things can happen.
L: Oh it could but we had little cards. I've still got em. My son's got em in his house. To identify the ME 109's and the German and Japanese fighter planes. Generally you could tell. If it was close enough you could tell by the shape of it and the shape of the tail and the wings and such, just what it was.
T: Tell me a little bit about your daily life when you weren't flying. What was it like in Foggia? Did you get a chance to go on leave? What was the food like, and your living conditions so to speak?
L: Well, my living conditions, being in this hut, were good. Because we were sheltered from the rain. We didn't have the wet canvas. And the food, well the food was very acceptable. We didn't sit down to eat. We had a mess hall. We were stationed at a farm outside of Foggia. And the tables were iron and they were long narrow tables like a banquet hall setting where you got a lot of people at the same table. And we stood up for our meals. And we'd eat from our mess kits. We'd walk through and get our mess kits filled.
And when we'd go to put our garbage, there were Italian civilians working on our base and scrambled eggs and scraps, they'd be there to retrieve those scraps and take them to their families to eat.
And we had a recreation room and I listened to Glenn Miller. He was on the radio and of course we had days off. Now Foggia is southern Italy. It's very different from northern Italy. And on our days off there were only two places we could eat. Other places were off limits. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
But on weekends off we would ride in a Jeep over to Naples and of course we would have a rest camp. After so many missions you'd have rest camp.
T: How many missions would qualify you for going to the rest camp?
L: Well, of course I had thirty-seven flights so twice I went to rest camp. Just take a third of, after ten or eleven missions. And one of my rest camps was Rome. And that was a nice visit, three days. And then Isle of Capri. I had a week at the Isle of Capri. And there, there'd be a small group of us like three or four. And we hired a fisherman guide to take us fishing around the Isle of Capri. He had his son with him and his son was fishing with us and he caught a small octopus. And he brought it up and he was just screaming with joy. And he put it up to his mouth and he bit above the eye of the octopus and killed it that way. And they would have that as a delicacy.
T: I guess it was a delicacy but it doesn't intrigue me very much. Did you eat that kind of food? Did you try some of those local dishes that those people had or wasn't there any opportunity to eat the local fare?
L: Well, when we were in Naples and Rome, then we could eat in the restaurants. A strange thing, when I graduated from Milwaukee State Teachers College there were three men in our group and the rest were women. And there were six women in the college then for every four men. And one of the guys was arthritic so he was 4-F. And the other guy, he was a navigator and one night I was in Naples and I had been in an area, Army facility where I was in a locker room and I paired up with a guy; I was a Staff Sergeant and he was a low rank. And I said, "Well, I'll take you to dinner." And we walked into a restaurant and here was this George Elmer, the guy from Teachers College. He was in that same restaurant. So there we met.
T: Tell me about some of the, did you have any close friends that you made in the service or were there some fellows that stood out in your memory as being sort of wild and wooly? I guess all of us who have been in the service can think of fellows that were characters that we knew.
L: Well, I can remember in gunnery school there were some guys that would go to the PX and drink a lot of beer and then they would come into the barracks and be real noisy and wake you up at night. But as an aerial photographer, I left my crew that I was brought over with and that was a great crew.
Our pilot, he worked for General Dynamics after the war and he worked on the electrical systems for aircraft and he was a brilliant guy. And the members of the crew, except for this one that robbed the PX, were just wonderful.
And we would have reunions about every other year and one year we invited em all to come to Oshkosh, which they did. And our navigator and our co-pilot had died. But see, as an aerial photographer, I was the eleventh man on a crew. So instead of ten, we were eleven and they would always recognize the crews with the greatest number still surviving. And we were recognized for that.
When they came to Oshkosh, of course they went to the EAA and spent about a week here, stayed at the Americinn Inn. They were from New Hampshire, Delaware, Florida, California and Indiana. They thought Oshkosh was a great place. They said it is so neat and clean.
T: Do you still have reunions? When was the last one that you had?
L: Yes. Well, I went to a reunion in Alexandria, Virginia and Tucson, Arizona. And Alexandria, Virginia is very close to Washington, D.C. But since my stroke I have not, well I did go to one reunion, oh, on that reunion we were flying into Tucson and I was sitting at the aisle and my wife was in the middle. There were three seats. And there was a man over at the window and my wife got into a conversation with him and talked about where we were headed. And he said, "I'm headed for the same reunion." And that was Paul Tibbets, the guy who piloted the atomic bomb plane at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And there's one thing. When I came back, they sent all the photographers to Clovis, New Mexico and they were gonna train us to do map-making, they called it […..metry]. And go to the China, Burma India Theater. And one weekend a group of us went from Clovis, New Mexico to Roswell. And Sunday afternoon we were getting ready to drive back to Clovis and we met a guy, he said he was a salesman for Minneapolis-Honeywell. And he said, "If you want to stay over Sunday night, I have to be at your base at 8 o'clock, so you can ride back with me. And there were four of us and we were driving from Roswell northeast to Clovis. And it was dark and all of a sudden it was like day had dawned. And then the light faded back to the southwest. And I went to the post library in Clovis and looked up the newspapers and there was nothing. And I went night after night. This was Monday morning June 6th of 1945 and finally when the atomic bomb was dropped they said it had been tested that morning.
T: So that's what you saw.
L: There weren't many people that could see that at that time of day. And some people near Alamagordo called up the Army headquarters and asked what had happened. And he told them that an ammunition dump had exploded. But then when they finally dropped the bomb, in Clovis they said they got us out for the convenience of the government. That was to save money. So after the atomic bomb was dropped they got us out within two weeks.
I came back to Fort Sheridan and there were still were German prisoners of war serving us the food at Fort Sheridan. And from there I went to Camp McCoy. And from there I was discharged and that was in September of '45.
I went to Milwaukee and having a teacher's degree, I went to the school board and they said that there were 150 teachers to be hired in Milwaukee County. And they said, "How soon can you start work?" I said I needed a few days to go home and get some civilian clothes. So they said, "Here in Milwaukee you can teach at this school or that school." I said, "Well I was a student teacher at [Roosevelt] Junior High School and I liked that pretty well." But I didn't know how it had changed during the war.
So I went to Roosevelt Junior High School and there were some groups coming from communities that weren't integrated. And the kids would vote and decide whether they would integrate or stay segregated. And I had two classes of all black students and they were pretty tough. I remember one kid sitting there. He had a jackknife in his left hand. He was flipping it and I walked over to him and stood by him. And I didn't ask him to hand me the knife because I'm sure he would have handed it to me blade first.
Then I, during that time with the GI Bill, I went to the University Extension Division, a two year school in Milwaukee and I talked to the veterans counselor. And when I went into his office in downtown Milwaukee - he was in a six story building which is now the arena - and I said, "Boy, you got a lot of veterans waiting." There were folding chairs outside his office and there were about six guys waiting to see him. And he was a professor teaching Spanish and being veteran's counselor. When I left I said, "You sure are busy." And he said, "Well, I'm going to be hiring an assistant." And we got to talking and I was the guy he hired for his assistant. So after my first year of teaching in Milwaukee, I became a veteran's counselor at the University Extension Division.
T: How long were you in that position, Lee?
L: Well he said it would be a temporary position for about a year and a half but I handled the veterans counseling and a two- year business course. And I was teaching how to study and another course in the two-year business course. They called it "How To Get A Job."
I don't remember the title of the course but jobs were so plentiful, every Wednesday I would go out in Milwaukee to Kearney and Trecker and there were glue factories where they manufactured glue for labels on beer bottles and things like that. And with the two year business course, oh yeah, that was called, "Personal Adjustment to Business," with majors in accounting, real estate and sales. And the first year I placed sixty students. Six years later I was still there and I was placing 600 students a year. But I cooperated with Marquette and the University of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Technical College.
And in the meantime I got my Masters Degree but I found that I could make a better salary teaching in the high school than I could at the University without a Doctor's Degree.
T: So where did you go to teach then?
L: I was bringing my credentials up to date to go back to teaching in Milwaukee and the placement director knew me pretty well because I had gone to Madison summers. I was getting close to my Masters. I would go there every Thursday afternoon for a seminar. And he wrote to me a letter and he said there's a job in Oshkosh that you should look at teaching psychology.
So I came up here and was interviewed and the Superintendent, Perry Tipler, after ten minutes he said, "Do you want the job?" And I said, "Well I want to think about it. He told me that Josephine [Steiger] was going to be somebody that would break me in and she organized the course. And I said, "Well I'd like to meet her." And he said, "Her mother is in the hospital and she's not available now." And I said, "I guess I'll go back to Milwaukee and sign my contract." And he said, "Let me call her and see if she can come and meet you." And she did. We went to café; there was a State Hotel on the corner of State and Waugoo and I met her, and she was an influence on me. I thought - we had three children - and I thought it would be better to move to a smaller city, and I'm glad we did.
T: When did you meet your wife and get married?
L: Oh that's quite a story. That day I was at the school board in Milwaukee, I was single all the while I was in the service but in the school board office there was a woman there and there was a big board room table. And on the other side of the table there was this woman and I looked at her and I thought, she's pretty and somebody's already got her. Forget about her. And we exchanged a few words and that was it.
T: When did you get married?
L; When I reported to Roosevelt Junior High School, I walked in on a Monday morning and they said, "Your mail box is over on that wall. Go over and check it out." And walking into the principal's office, here was Eileen Gross who became my wife. And we were getting together after school. She was living in an apartment with her sisters and she invited me over for supper and all three were marvelous cooks. We were married for 54 years until she died.
T: What year did you come to Oshkosh then?
T: And you had three children at that time. Where did you teach in Oshkosh?
L: Oh I taught first of all at the high school which was the old City Hall building.
T: Yes, that's where I went.
L: And then in 1961 they built West High School. Then I had been a teacher and counselor at the old City Hall high school. And having a graduate degree in guidance and personal services, I became a full-time counselor at West High School. Taught there for, well I taught in the Oshkosh School System for 25 years.
T: Are your children still in this area or have they sort of spread out, gone elsewhere?
L: I have a son Jim who lives in Ripon. And he's a real estate broker. He comes every night to see me. He's single. And I have another son who lived in Appleton, Menasha and Oshkosh. And he was a rehabilitation counselor for the state. And now last year, 2003 he moved to Palm Beach. He's right on the ocean. And my daughter, she's married. I have three granddaughters and she lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
T: Do you think the war changed you Lee? Being in the service and being in the type of activity that you were in during the war. Do you think that changed you, made you a different person than you would have been otherwise?
L: With the atomic bomb dropping I was concerned that it would spread. And I'd always been, I liked to camp and go to Boy Scout Camp. And I worked as a waterfront director for a boys camp during my college summers. And I thought in case of atomic bombing I would like to take my family out of the city and rough it somewhere. So I said to my wife, "We're going to try to visit most of the state parks in Wisconsin." So we went to most of the state parks in Wisconsin: Devil's Lake and Potowatami and [ ] and we did a lot of camping with her kids. They enjoyed it very much.
T: Do you think of the war today or is it pretty much in the past?
L: It's certainly not in the past. It's something I think about pretty often. Mainly getting ready to die. I say I had to be ready so many times that I just got…
T: I suppose that when you were talking about the casualty rate, I imagine that you had to more or less be prepared for things like that. It must have been sort of scary.
L: Sure, sure.
T: And I suppose there were fellows that were lost from your squadron or your group that you knew. Was that difficult to handle that? To know that this guy that you've been paling around with is gone now. Or was there a tendency not to make real close friends when you were in a situation like that? Outside of your crew of course.
L: Well, I'd say you weren't long enough in one place to make close friends. You were transferred around so often so that wasn't anything that… And aerial photographers were were kind of unwelcome crew. They were extra weight and someone else could be injured or in trouble. But when I began flying missions, some of the guys would say, "Can you have your cameras put on our plane?" There were only about three planes in a squadron that have camera wells. And I didn't have any control over where the cameras went.
Well, I think it certainly changes you to go through combat.
T: I suppose it changes a boy into a man in some respects.
L: Well of course I was big for my age and …
T: You were probably a little bit older than some of the guys that were in. You were born in '17. You were a little bit older than the rest.
L: I was the oldest man in our crew.
T: Is there anything else relating to World War II that you'd like to talk about before we quit?
L: Well, the way things are going today, you know there have been wars going way back in ancient history. And it seems like something that is going to be with us way into the generations ahead of us. And we have to be prepared to defend ourselves.
T: I'd agree with that, Lee. It's been very nice talking to you. I appreciate your willingness to let me come into your home and talk to you like this. We're very appreciative of that. And thanks very much.
L: You're welcome.
||World War II
||6: T&E For Communication
||Oshkosh Public Museum
|Location of Originals
||Oshkosh Public Museum
||Weigert, Lee F.
||World War II
United States Army Air Force
European Theater of Operations
||Oral History Interview with Lee F. Weigert.