|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Ralph C. Bohlssen, a navigator assigned to the 8th Air Force, 3rd Division, 100th Bomb Group after his crew flew their B-17 in England.
Ralph Bohllsen Interview
8 October 2004
Conducted by Tom Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; R: identifies the subject, Ralph Bohllsen. 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 8, 2004 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the home of Ralph Bohllsen who served in World War II. Ralph is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war. Let's begin then Ralph by having you tell me when and where you were born?
R: I was born in Oshkosh April 29th, 1919.
T: Were your mother and dad both from this area or did they come from somewhere else?
R: No, they were both from Oshkosh.
T: What did your father do for a living? How did he earn his keep?
R: Well, at one time in their early marriage he went into a sash and door, sash business. And they were at Norwood in Ohio. But that didn't last long. My dad developed a lung condition. They came back here and then most of their married life he was in the grocery business.
T: Did he have his own store or did he work for someone else?
R: He had his own store.
T: I see; where was that store located? By the way, where did you live when you were a kid in Oshkosh?
R: Oh, on the East Side, I suppose the number has been changed but it was on Grove Street; that's over on the east side of Oshkosh.
T: I lived over on the East Side too, over on Washington Boulevard, just near Bowen Street.
R: Oh yeah.
T: Where was your dad's grocery located? I can think of one that was on the corner of Bowen and Merritt. Where was his place?
R: For a length of time, most of the time he was, I think the number was 1007 Oregon Street. Almost on the corner of 10th and Oregon. He had the grocery store there. South Side.
T: Do you have brothers and sisters?
R: I have three sisters.
T: Are they all living yet?
R: All dead.
T: Tell me about your childhood Ralph. Where did you go to school and what sort of things did you do after school was out, you know for fun?
R: Oh, well in grade school I went to Longfellow School, which was right across the street from our house. And but now Longfellow School has been torn down. I don't know what's there now, a parking lot I guess, or something.
T: Was Chas. I. Yule the principal there when you were there?
R: Yeah, Charley Yule was the… And he used to drive his Franklin, at that time he was driving a - anyway he had a special car. But that's where I went to, my elementary was there.
T: You were pretty close by and that was easy.
R: And then we used to, we always played baseball in the back there. We played baseball and we used to sneak into the gymnasium with help from the custodian there. We used to help him set up chairs and take them down. Then he'd say, "Well, you guys can play basketball for awhile." And that was one thing.
Other than that, Menominee Park was so close. We used to go to Menominee Park and do that. And of course summertime I think we were down at Menominee beach swimming, I think, almost every day that we could down there.
You want high school too?
T: Oh yeah.
R: I got into high school. I was never a very good student and in high school I got along pretty good with everything. My trouble was I was going to go into pharmacy. I was going to become a pharmacist and then I hadda take Latin. And that was a big mistake. I don't know why I had to take Latin.
T: It's not a fun subject, is it?
R: Oh, and I had more problems with that Latin! But then I finished high school. I graduated there in 1937. I think it was June of '37 that I graduated.
T: Were you active in anything like sports in high school?
R: I went out for basketball and I never made anything above the reserves. I was in the reserves. I tried out for football and then after I got tossed around, I could plainly see that that was no game for me.
And then I went out for what they called Matt and Mitt. So I went in for that for a little while. That was kind of fun. I enjoyed that. I didn't participate in any programs like school publications or…
T: When you were growing up, Oshkosh and everywhere was in the heart of the Great Depression. Was your family affected by that at all, your dad's business for instance?
R: Oh, my dad must have had a heart bigger that a bushel basket because he used to give credit to so many people and aw, he got stuck for so many bad bills that nobody paid! And then talk about that, we never went, I think we were a place that all the relatives used to come in. We used to have thirteen people sitting at the table when we had supper at night. And of course my folks were the ones that were paying the bill for that. But we, oh my folks were generous with everybody.
T: Sounds like they were good-hearted souls.
R: And they would put up, we found room for them. I don't where we all slept, but packed em in someplace.
T: When you got out of high school did you go to work or did you continue in school? In college?
R: Well, no. I got out in '37 and before then I had a couple of, I used to go to school and then when school was over I'd scoot over to my dad's store. And then I would take over there maybe half the day and my mother, my mother would go over and then she'd go home. And then I'd take over.
But then when I graduated from high school, of course jobs were scarce and few between and I couldn't locate anything. I couldn't find any jobs. They were hard to find.
T: Right. A lot of guys had trouble getting work.
R: So I was working full time for my dad. I spent the day with him. But occasionally I would go to work at, I had a couple of part-time warehouse and truck-driving jobs. One was for Siegel Company. You remember them?
T: No, I can't recall.
R: And the other one was with H.P. Schmidt Milling Company which now is that restaurant there. And I used to work for them off and on and it gave me a little spending money, but most of the time I was helping my dad at the store.
T: Can you remember where you were and what you were doing when Pearl Harbor happened?
R: I was in service. I just came back, I was with the fellows and we just came back from a, must have spent the day or something over in St. Louis, that's St. Louis, Missouri. We had just come back and I was stationed at Scott Field. So we just came back and I was all set to go on a nice 15-day furlough they were going to give me. I came back and that was December 7th and they said, "We are at war. Furloughs have been cancelled." We had just come back from St. Louis, didn't know a thing about it. We stopped in Belleville, Illinois. Stopped at a little place having something to eat with the guys and they come up with this Pearl Harbor has been hit so we're all at war.
T: When did you go in the service, Ralph? Tell me about that.
R: September of 1940.
T: What prompted you to go into the service?
R: Well, for one thing I couldn't see myself helping my dad for any more length of time than I had to. And this friend of mine, you know we associated together a little bit. And we talked and he said the Air Force was offering some nice school programs.
What we finally decided, the two of us, we were gonna go in the service and take part in some of this aircraft maintenance. It's what really what we were gonna try to get into; it's an Air Force program. And so he wanted that. He was more mechanically inclined than I was but we thought we'd go in together and try to sign up and try to get into an Air Force training program of some type. And we thought that would be a better thing than sticking around Oshkosh.
T: So you went in, in September of 1940. What was the next progression of events when you were in the service? Tell me about where you got your basic training and so forth.
R: All the drilling and that? I got in, of course I was sworn in, in Milwaukee. And then from there I ended up at the Jefferson Barracks just outside of St. Louis at the river there. And I was there. Then we marched, we got all of our shots and everything else that we needed there.
And from there they assigned me to Scott Field, Illinois which was at Belleville, Illinois. And they were just developing, well they had a radio school there but they were developing it, building up and they were getting a lot of people in there. And so that's where I went. But I didn't go for that radio stuff. But I went to work in their testing department. That was an office of us testing where these guys would sit and take these weekly tests. And then we would have the test booklets that we would have to see how they were doing in testing and all that stuff.
So I was at Belleville. And then from there I had the opportunity to go back to - you wanna know all this stuff?
T: Sure. I want to know what happened between the time you went in and the time you got to be a navigator. How did that all come about?
R: Oh, if I tell you all the places I've been… You haven't got time for all that. And then after that they opened up a radio school at Truax Field in Madison. So I thought that would be kind of convenient. I had the opportunity so I transferred to Madison. And while I was there I did the same thing. Worked in the testing department there. But that was building up, going into a big radio school again.
And after being in there for awhile this friend of mine, good friend of mine and I were pretty good buddies. He said he wanted to become a pilot and I said, "I'm not going to be a pilot. I'm not going to leave here. I'm only ninety miles from home. I can go home week-ends and I can have it pretty nice." And then the guy said, "Oh, but God," he said.
And at that time, originally you had to be a cadet. You had to have a college degree I think for a long time there. Or some kind of a college.
T: I don't remember what the requirements were.
R: And then they dropped the college degree. And then he went in and he would write back about all the flying he's doing. And he made it sound so interesting I thought maybe I would do that. So I went in. So I followed him and I don't know exactly the date that I went into, took that pilot training.
But I left Madison, left Truax Field and my next stop was in Alabama down there. What was that place, Esther? (Throughout the interview Ralph's wife Esther helps him recall dates and place names). We said Georgia or Alabama.
T: So you went to Maxwell Field, Alabama. Did you have to, when you expressed an interest in becoming a pilot did you have to take some sort of an examination?
R: I imagine so. It couldn't have been anything too…
T: You would have remembered if it was something real big.
R: Because from there I went to Maxwell Field and that was kind of a schooling thing because I remember going to a bunch of classes there. You took a bunch of stuff. I don't know if they were trying to prime you up to continue on with you pilot training. I suppose it was some things…
I think I was there for I don't know how long. Well, you don't want to know how long I had been there. And then from there I went for Primary Flight Training down in Arcadia, Florida and geez, if I was younger, I could do that every day. I loved that. We flew an old PT-12, that biplane, Stearman? Oh God that was fun! I loved that plane. And I used to fly and my instructor asked me one time, he said, "You flew before haven't you?" I said, "No, I haven't." I felt pretty good because he said, "Your coordination is terrific." He said, "You should do pretty good." So I felt real good about that.
So I had no problem down there flying and oh God, you know, all them fancy rolls. Snap rolls and all that stuff you could do. That was enjoyable. But then after Arcadia, well then I completed everything at the primary. And then I was supposed to go to Basic Flight Training. And that was in Mississippi.
T: Well the names aren't all that important.
R: I wasn't there long enough anyway, Mississippi. And then they, there was a Vultee aircraft and this was, geez when I first got in that thing and that big old engine in front of me and all those dials. And I was supposed to do a lot of stuff on take off. And I'd' forget half of that stuff. So I was flying there and my instructor, he used to get so mad at me. So after a bit of that he said, "You're never going to be a pilot. You're just going to kill yourself and take somebody with you." So I washed out at Basic Training. I didn't make that.
And then I had the opportunity, they said well I could return back to the base that I came from. So then I was all set to go back to Madison. And then instead of that I found that I could go into navigation. So I said, "Well, I'll go for navigation." So I took navigation and training. And there I went down to Sellman Field at Monroe, Louisiana. And there I started my navigation training down there.
T: I guess fellows that washed out of pilot training were given the opportunity, as I understand it, of getting to be a navigator or maybe engineer, or bombardier. Something like that.
R: Right. Oh I think the pilot was kind of a top-notch. It was kind of a knock down but I knew well enough that I wasn't doing good with that basic. And I thought, do something else. That wasn't good at all. Oh yeah, then all these little incidental things like, while I was navigation, they sent me to aircraft, aerial training, you don't want to know all that stuff do you?
T: Well if it seems like it's an important part of your training. Let's concentrate on how you got to be a navigator, the type of things you had to learn and so forth.
R: Well, then of course we had to learn, the simple thing is you just sit there and look out a window and look at a map and you can go there. But the difficult part of navigation was night flying. And you got those celestial missions and you had to use that sextant, anyway that equipment. And shoot the stars or something. Oh, that was the most painstaking, long figuring. Then you got all these tables. Correction tables. Oh I hated that but I did all right there.
And we had, one of our big missions was going from Sellman Field over to Wichita Falls, Texas. And just a little jaunt there. And we were supposed to spend the night there. And I think the day we were supposed to take off they had a sandstorm there and we couldn't take off so we had to stay another day. And then the following day we were supposed to take off and we were all wound up on the taxi strip. We were supposed to be the next one to take off on this runway. And the guy just ahead of us must have been a new pilot there. He didn't realize that some of these low power lines were stretched across and he didn't pull up fast enough. He hit those power lines and geez that plane just went, whoosh! And took all the, I think there was maybe about eight students in there and the pilot and instructor. So it killed ten of em. That was bad business.
T: What type of aircraft were you training in when you were training to be a navigator?
R: I tell you, I really…
T: Was it something like a DC3, a bigger plane?
R: No. It was a small one because we had the seats and we had little tables that we worked off of. And I would think there was about eight of us. Four on one side and four on the other. And then we had the pilot and the instructor who would come by and help us if…
No I really don't know, I really can't tell you exactly what the….
T: How long did the navigator training last? Was it a lengthy thing or did they run you through pretty quick?
R: Oh I think we went through quick. I would imagine it was about a three months program. I would think about that.
T: During the navigation training were you at Sellman Field all the time?
R: All the time.
T: What state was that in again?
T: Did you have an opportunity to get home at all during this training time or was it just one thing after another?
R: One thing after another. When I finished my navigation, oh see that's why sometimes you'll see in my thing there that I went in as an enlisted man and that's when my serial number was 16006860. And then I was discharged and that's how I was flying, as a flying enlisted man I think is what they call it. And then when I finished my navigation, then I was discharged as an enlisted man and they picked me up as an officer. So that's why I got two serial numbers.
T: When was that when you got commissioned? Can you remember the date of that commissioning? I should look on here and see if it tells. (Tom examines Ralph's service record).
R: I don't remember but I was in the class that graduated in April. April class and I don't remember the date. Wasn't it April of '44. See, we need you anyway Esther. April of '44. Separation is what?
T: This gives the overseas stuff mainly. (Ralph and Tom are examining service records). I guess we can get along without knowing exactly…
R: April of 1944.
T: Well you enlisted in 1940, September of 1940. And then you went from there …
R: Oh not '44. That should have been…
T: Yeah, you must have got commissioned as a navigator earlier than that.
R: I spent about two and a half years as an enlisted man and two and a half years as an officer. So I would have been…
T: 1943 maybe.
R: That would be '43, I'm sorry. '43, '44, '45 that would be about right.
T: After you got your commission and completed your training as a navigator, what happened then? Were you assigned to the crew of a plane?
R: They did give me a ten-day leave after I finished here. And my orders were to report to Rapid City Air Force Base. And there the crew I was to join, well they were there already and they had been there for awhile working together and they had become acquainted and everything. I don't know how long they were together but I was the last one to join the crew.
T: That crew consisted of how many men? Was it ten men in a B-17 crew?
R: Ten men.
T: Did you, I guess I should go back a little bit. When did you learn, when did you know that you were going to be flying B-17s? Was that when you were assigned to that crew? These guys were already flying B-17s?
R: Well, we were flying B-17s but I don't know if they had any B-24s or not. Because I think we really weren't, what was your question again? I was trying to think about if we had the possibility of going to B-24s. But I don't think so.
T: When did you go overseas and where did you go, Ralph?
R: Going over?
T: Yeah. Right after you were assigned to this crew did you have a period of training where you practiced…?
R: Oh yeah, we were together. We practiced a lot of practice bombing. Just went out and the bombardier practiced bombing out in the country there.
T: You had to get em there and back I imagine.
R: Well yeah. And then we took a couple of flights that checked me out a little bit. I had a night flight there that I went with that celestial stuff. But I guess I managed to do all right. I hated that but there was so much looking at tables and checking things. But I guess that's the only thing…. And then you go overseas and right away they slap you with a piece of equipment, Loran.
T: Something that you were unfamiliar with?
R: It was such an improved piece of stuff that you had, that you horse around with.
T: How did you get overseas? Did you fly your B-17 over?
R: We were assigned a '17. We picked it up at Lincoln, Nebraska. We took off from there and the first night we landed over in Maine. And then from Maine we took off the next day and landed over in New Foundland. We took a little jaunt. Then the next day we took off, we landed in Greenland. And then the weather moved in on us in Greenland. Foggy and those clouds, I think we spent I bet three days in Greenland. And that's a real nice place to spend three days!
T: Not the way I heard it!
R: We spent a few days at Greenland and then the weather started improving. Oh you couldn't really do any fancy maneuvering of that airplane where they were located. In order to get to the field, this [Pluie] West One or what they call that thing. But we went down and then we flew in a fiord and here on each side that snow and ice was piled up and you're flying down this thing and all of a sudden you make a circle and here the base is over here. And they used these metal holes in the landing things…
T: Oh yeah, like a metal mat.
R: So that's what they had. But see in order to take off, you couldn't take off straight because you had this gol-darned wall here. So you couldn't chance taking off unless you could see where you were going.
T: Sort of tricky then.
R: And then we ended up leaving Greenland and the next stop was Iceland. And there we just spent the overnight there. And then the following day we landed in Wales, is that Wales?
T: On the West Coast?
R: Yeah, we landed in Wales. And there all of us, well I don't know about all of us but the officers when we went over, they all issued us '45's. Oh, we had a '45, we thought, phew, phew phew! And the first thing they did when we got to Wales, they took all of our guns away from us. And they also took away the plane that we flew over in.
Well we were there one night and one of the fellows there, his brother had been over there for quite a while and had quite a few missions in. And he came over one time and he says, "If you have any choice at all, go to an old established base like RAF bases. They are nice solid buildings and everything is fine. But don't get into the 100th. That is a hard luck outfit. Don't go into the 100th.
Well our orders came and of course we're going into the 100th. And then they haul us over to the 100th and that's where it started.
T: What was the official name of your group? These Air Force names are always real long, tell me what the official designation of your outfit was?
R: We were 8th Air Force, 3rd Division, 100th Bomb Group. Would you like a Coke or something?
T: No, just fine. Where in England then were you stationed? Where was your base of operations?
R: It was Thorpe-Abbott. It was located in what they called East Anglia, way up in the north, right near Norwich. Norwich was there, Ipswich was over on the water's edge there.
T: So Thorpe-Abbott was the name of…
R: Thorpe-Abbott was the base.
T: I don't imagine you got off the base an awful lot initially but what were your initial impressions of England and the people and so forth when you were over there?
R: Well I think generally what I met up with, they were friendly and I felt sorry for them.
T: Well some of them had taken quite a beating I guess.
R: Oh yeah, and some of these buildings that no, I mean they'd send over these well, the buzz bomb would come over and you could tell. The buzz bomb, they come over and you could hear that thing, flame coming out of it. The buzz bomb would come over and as long as you could hear it you wouldn't have to worry because the thing kept flying. But when the dropped the buzz bomb and went to the V-1 I think is the next one, there they just sent this thing up, arched it over and you don't hear those things. (The V-1 was the buzz bomb; the V-2 was the rocket). Geez, and sometimes they would land, well I know that one time they landed right in the middle of some tavern there and loaded with American soldiers. And I would go by and I met some people there that oh, she was all broken up, their home was hit. Well I mean that's pretty sad.
T: When did your group start flying combat missions?
R: The 100th?
T: Yes. Was it quite soon or did you have a sort of a break-in period?
R: Our crew?
R: Our crew with the 100th?
R: Oh no, we started flying right away. They took us on, of course when you first start there they stick you in the worst positions. They put you way in the tail end and you just fly along and you're just flying in back. You know, there's nothing… We started but the first couple I think were really little short runs. I think we went over to France to a submarine pen over there. They were just little jaunts but they weren't too….
After we got three or four of em under our belt then we started heading way into Germany.
T: And approximately what time was this? What date. You know you finished your training in April of '43 and then you…
R: When we started flying over with the 100th?
T: When you got to Europe and really started in?
R: Unless there's something in there… We graduated in April of '43 and then I went home for ten days and then I was over at Rapids City for.. I think I was only there for a couple weeks.
T: Well did you get to England before the winter months?
R: Well now wait a minute. April, oh yeah because that would be the winter of '43-'44. Yeah because we had that problem and it developed that it was November 7th of 1944 was when we had that fire on our plane. And at that time we had 20 missions in already.
T: When you started going into Germany, can you sort of run me through one of those missions? How you got ready for it, how you were briefed, how you took off and just sort of run through that? When did you find out when you were going to go on a particular mission?
R: Let me go through this for you. We were given some pretty good, we were flying like the lead crew. The lead crew, the big lead crew would be this guy down here, the lead squadron. Then we had the low down here. There would be a lead crew on that one and then we had the high squadron and there would be a lead. At that time we were flying in one of those lead planes. We were in those real often so we would be one of the first ones to be called.
And this guy would come and wake you out of your sleep at three o'clock in the morning. And he'd say,"Briefing at 3:30." And so we'd get up and they'd haul you over to this place and then there'd be just the officers and pilots and navigators and bombardiers from the lead crews would be grouped together for the first briefing. And then a guy would come in and get up on the platform there. And he would pull and open up a thing and he'd say, "Today you're going to……" And he'd tell you where the target was of the day. And then they would talk about the weather and what points to look for, to pick out, and definitely define where the target is. And anything that would be around there. Because we were warned that on a few of them, no careless bombing because there would be PW camps nearby.
And we'd go to this one city that had a lot of old cathedrals in. And they said, "Be very careful, they don't want to bomb the old cathedrals."
And so after that thing, from there we would go over to breakfast and have a quick breakfast. And from there we would go back to another briefing where everybody was there, all the crews. And they would go through the whole thing again. So we knew oh, by 5 o'clock, 4:30-5:00 where we were gonna go. And a lotta times in the briefing the guy would stay, "We start engines 5 o'clock or something like that. 5:30, "Start engines at 5:30." So we had to get out to the place where our airplane was and we'd get all ready and the time came and we would start the engines and get lined up with all the people ready to go.
Then we'd take off from our field and then we would head towards the North Sea where they had what they called a "buncher", a tower there that was sending out… and we would head for the buncher and there the planes would just keep circling and circling and all these other planes that were supposed to line up in formation, they would line up with this guy. Then we would gradually circle and circle and…
T: And get more altitude.
R: Get more altitude, right.
T: That must have been quite a process to form up all those planes for those raids.
R: That took a long time, yeah. And I know this one plane went in there one time. And somebody banked and cut him kinda short and the guy stalled out. and a B-17 stalled out, that's kinda fearful. Geez, the guy come down and how he kept flying, I don't know how he did it but he pulled it out of the stall and he come back up and he went on the mission with us. When he came back I think all the rivets were loose on the wing. Rivets, oh God, he really stretched that! It's kinda fearful when you…
And then on a regular mission we would be up at 16-18,000 feet and by that time everything was in good shape and we would take off for Germany.
T: And you had fighter escort at least part of the way.
R: As soon as we got over into Europe fighters would come up and they would, we could see em flying around. Most of the time we had full coverage with the fighters. They stayed with us most of the time. But still there were openings where the Germans would get through and they….
T: I heard that the German fighter pilots were real gutsy, that they weren't afraid of anything. They would just bore right in.
R: Oh yeah. And it all depended on exactly where you were in the formation. Because I know that one time we came by and we had hit the target. We had come out and we made the turn to come back home and we looked back and here the Germans were hitting kinda the tail end of this and were just making a mess. And we could see the big explosions back there. They were just …
(The first tape ends here).
T: Now let's continue Ralph on this typical mission that you'd be on.
R: Like going over there? You want me to…
T: Well after you've formed up and are approaching the target, then tell me what all happens?
R: Well, we would be leaving England at about sixteen, eighteen thousand feet. Then we'd be flying and we'd continually gain altitude going into Europe. Until we get over Europe and by that time usually our bombing altitude would be twenty eight to thirty thousand feet. Well most of the time between twenty-six and thirty thousand.
So we'd be up about that and we'd go in and well we'd go in and we knew where the target was and they had the bombing run would start at the IP, the initial point. So we'd come in there and we'd head for the target and I would tell the pilot what heading to take and after he's got everybody lined up, and see the bombsights were only on the three lead planes, the rest of em didn't have any.
T: That's what I understand.
R: So they'd have these bombsights and the bombardier would take over flying the ship then. And he would sight his bombsight into the target and he would just make small corrections. He would line everything up and he would make very small corrections on the plane as we went there. And then pretty soon the bomb bays were opened, the doors opened and you go over and pretty soon you get to the point and he would toggle the bombs out. And when he did that, the whole group would drop their bombs according to when that guy did. When the lead plane drops bombs, they all did. So that's why when you went on this IP, instead of being all spread out you had to kinda tuck it in, otherwise you got bombs for miles. Tuck it in and get it as tight as you can. So then you can drop the bombs within a reasonable distance.
T: Now as far as navigation goes, if you're flying with a bunch of planes - on some of these planes I guess there were hundreds of planes - were you, did you have to do your thing all that time? Did you have to navigate or were there times when your guys, your pilot could just follow the guy up ahead and you didn't have to really navigate. Do you understand what I mean?
R: You follow the lead plane. That was generally it. Occasionally as you're going along, there would be a plane having problems and he'd fall out of formation. And when we got down for the critique, when we got down the guy would say, "Did you see anything? Did you see anybody, any 'chutes open? You see any planes go down?" And then if you say yes, they want to know approximately where it was. So usually, well I didn't do any elaborate navigating but I would be aware about where a plane went down. I would say we saw this one come down. He landed right about in here somewhere.
T: Which would be sort of valuable sometimes. And I suppose during this bombing run you've got continuous flak that you're experiencing.
R: The flak usually, we always thought it was something that's kinda threw you off a little bit. The thing was that this gol-darned stuff, we'd find all these little pieces of metal come through the plexiglass nose of the plane. You could hear it hit and sometimes you'd have a little piece but it would leave a little hole. We'd come back with holes in the plane but as long as it didn't hit directly your plane, it was just kind of a nuisance.
T: What kind of casualty rates did you have? Out of your squadron, how many planes would get damaged or lost on a typical raid? I've heard that at some points the loss ratio was very high.
R: Oh, especially earlier, before we had all those fighter escorts. I remember one time they had a Jewish guy that had flown. He had a personal vendetta and Jesus, he'd fly everything, anything anytime. And I don't know, the 100th got a bad reputation for doing something that wasn't right. And the 100th, they picked on the 100th and geez, that one time they went out and I think the Germans hit em and I think they wiped out half the group. Not too good. But other than that, except for getting hit with flak, we didn't have, our group was lucky. I don't think we had a lot of…
T: Tell me about when you had the fire on your plane. You mentioned that earlier when we were just shooting the breeze. Tell me about that incident.
R: Well I'll tell you, we had been flying lead crew on these other positions. Then they decided that we had a good crew and they wanted us to be checked out as the lead crew that would lead the whole thing. And that's quite an honor there because if you're leading, if we lead the 100th, frequently the 100th would lead the entire, sometimes we'd have ten, twelve hundred planes up there. And you would lead the entire 8th Air Force. And then depend on this guy here to lead you right. And then you have this whole string of planes coming up. So you got a lot of responsibility to do the job right.
T: How many aircraft were in the 100th when you flew a mission?
R: I would think there would be about forty of us. And so they wanted to check us out as the big league crew. They wanted to check us out because we were doing good on all the other ones.
So in order to check us out, they had a mock mission planned. We'd take off from here and they had a target set. They even had fighters, just as if it was a regular mission. So we took off and circled a bunch. And we got up and flew over here and then we were supposed to hit this one target.
And as we went over we hit the Initial Point and at the IP, even on a mission at the IP the aerial (engineer) had a Very pistol and he got a little opening in the top of the B-17 and he fires this flare out there. I don't know how big but everybody in the back notices that the flare goes off at the IP and that kinda indicates how you're supposed to go.
And so we did the same thing here. We went there, went to the IP and our aerial engineer pulled a Very pistol and the gol-darned flare didn't go off. So the guy pulled the gun in and as soon as he brought it inside the plane, it went off. So then we had a ball of flame shooting around while the pilot is here and the co-pilot here and we're up in the nose. And the thing come down and it was flittin around and it kinda nestled over here in a corner where our oxygen tanks were set. We thought that isn't the best place. And the bombardier, he was a pretty sharp character, he come out with one of these little extinguishers about that long. Well that didn't touch that flare. Anyway, when we were there and we were looking He and I were looking out here and we could see that over here by the oxygen. And the next thing I noticed was that our ship's pilot, our crew pilot came down and he went over by the escape hatch and he went like this. Well I kinda assumed it was "follow me," follow him out. So I snapped on my parachute and I kinda followed him and I kinda assumed that he had called the rest of the crew because we were off of the intercom then. We had pulled off.
As I went out, I could see our aerial engineer. He was up in his position and he was just hanging there in his harness. He looked dead to me. I didn't know. So I went to follow our pilot out and oh, by that time the fellow that was flying as pilot of our plane was a command pilot that had a lotta time in and he was flying command pilot with us.
And so our pilot went out. And so when I went to follow him, this escape hatch isn't too big and you're suppose to just pull the handle here and this whole door is supposed to drop out. So I went up there and I was pulling and pulling and it never happens. Here you have to push that door open against the slipstream of the plane and then you have to wiggle your way out. I was kinda afraid that I was going to hook my harness or rip cord on door handles or something.
But anyway I went out and I'm not too knowledgeable about jumpin out of a plane. I pulled my rip cord too soon and pretty soon the 'chute opened and I was, the chute was there, cause the plane was too close. I could see that. I could see that thing flying along here. And then I looked above our plane and there was another 'chute, oh up there six, eight hundred feet. And that thing was just flying. The parachute was open and the 'chute harness was empty and it was going, flying along.
And so I started going down. And I had this one pilot, one fighter pilot, one fighter plane there. The guy kept circling and circling. He circled me because we bailed out at twenty seven thousand feet, see.
T: Where were you located as far as the ground? What were you over? Were you over friendly territory?
R: Oh, we never left England. The whole thing was over England. The North Sea was over here, and Ipswich was over here and Norwich here. And so when I came down he kept circling, I suppose to make sure that nobody flew into me, I guess. And so he followed me down until I came down. And I hit the, I thought I was going to go in the water but I was back quite a ways from there. So I came down in this kind of pasture or marshy ground. And I waved to the guy. He tips his wings. He leaves me go. I'm telling you quite a story here.
T: Did everybody bail out of the ship?
R: Well the aerial engineer he was, I'm pretty sure he was dead when… Our command pilot for some reason he stayed in the plane and he went down with it. Because as I was coming down the plane hit a jetty of land that was sticking out there. He hit that and that's where he went down.
T: So there were two guys that didn't make it then.
R: Oh, and our pilot, when he put his harness on, he did not fix his leg straps and so when he pulled his 'chute, he just fell through.
T: Oh, was that the empty 'chute that you saw, without anybody in it?
R: He dropped from 27,000 feet so he didn't…
T: Was there a, now the engineer died. Was it because of the flare? Did it hit him in some way?
R: Well I would think so because as soon as he brought that pistol in it went off. I suppose that maybe, he was just hanging there.
T: When you got down and got back to base, were there a lot questions asked about that incident? I suppose they wanted to know what happened?
R: There was just one time when there was a few, I think there was a group of about four of em came down there and questioned me if I remembered exactly what happened. And about our pilot, you know. And I said, I saw that 'chute open and empty, the empty 'chute harness up there but I didn't know anything about it. And he said, "Well, it looks like he dropped right through."
T: Were there any other flights that you had, missions where there big problems. Where you had big trouble that you can remember? Things that stick in your mind so to speak?
R: Not really. Things went pretty good.
T: Tell me a bit about the life on your base when you weren't flying. What were your quarters like and the food and so forth?
R: Well the quarters were just like the old barracks they have here. With metal cots or beds. They weren't bad. There was all these pot-bellied stoves for heat that we got there. There was some, but what I objected to was that we didn't have any hot water. And we depended, they had a bathhouse which was an old masonry building, cruddy type of construction. And I think half of the glass blocks were out. But cold water and we could only take a, no shower but we had to go in the cold baths and that wasn't too enjoyable.
T: I wouldn't think so, especially in the wintertime. Now I heard that food was pretty good in the Air Force. Was that true or not? Did you eat pretty good?
R: We ate pretty good. I had nothin to quarrel with the food there.
T: Did you get a chance to go on leave there between missions?
R: One time I got a three-day leave.
T: Where did you go?
R: Into London.
T: Was it a nice place to visit?
R: Yeah, take a tour and you go to Piccadilly Circus, which was a hangout for ladies of the evening. And then there was another park, I don't recall the name of it where some of these agitators and politician types would get up and spout off. I'd just stand and listen to em for awhile.
I think I went to a movie there once or twice. One thing I enjoyed there was these fish and chip shops that were along the sidewalks. Used to get the fish and the chips and they'd wrap em up in newspaper. That was the best tasting. Trying to think of what else…
T: When you were over there, did you have much contact with the English people at all? Did you get to make friends with any of the English people?
R: Not really. We were mostly, if I go with a fellow or two, we kinda stayed with ourselves.
T: Most of us who have been in the service can remember colorful characters that we knew, guys that were different. And can you recall fellows that were in your unit that were sort of strange or weird or did crazy things? Or didn't you have anybody like that?
R: I'm trying to think. Oh, there was a buddy of mine. He was head navigator. He led the Air Force a number of times but we used to go over to the officers club at night and they had two lights, one was green and one was red. And as long as, I'm not sure, as long as red was showing, we could sit there. All we had was beer. We could be drinking our beer. But as soon as it changed from red to green, the bar shut down. "Okay boys, that's it. A mission tomorrow so everybody out." So they could shut down.
But this one guy used to come in there with his friend and oh God, he used to be a comedian. He and his friend were silly. And this one time he was going to go, they haul you around on these flatbed trucks with these sides on em you know. And most people go off the back end but he hopped over the side and he had a big class ring on his finger and he got that hooked on something and it took his finger off. He lost his finger, oh God, from maybe this knuckle it came off. And he saw the finger, he picked his finger up and every time the thought would be to, he'd have a big, and pretty soon this one guy came up and said, "Hey Pete, look at your finger," he says, "You're bleeding." Pete looked down and, "By God, I am," he said. Then he went to the hospital. They took him to the hospital and then they tried a new way. They stuck that finger back on and put a slit in his, put his finger in there and it was supposed to, with some natural juices I think, supposed to heal itself. (An incision was made in the abdomen and the finger encased in an opening in the subcutaneous tissue). And he said after a week he said nothing was happening and he said, "Boy, I couldn't stand the smell," he said. So they took all the finger off.
Oh I got burned, you know. In the plane thing. And I had…
T: In the incident that you told me about?
R: Yeah. I came down and I had second and third degree burns. My face was burned. The skin was just hanging, and my hands. The rest of me was covered up so that wasn't bad. And of course I come down and I land in this field and there's a cute little cottage. It's just a short distance away, stone, just like a typical English cottage of some type. So I take my 'chute off and I walk over there. And I knock, somebody says something, "Come in," or something. So I opened the door and here was an elderly fellow sitting there and he had a fireplace and he had that thing just boiling, burning away like crazy. And as soon as that heat hit my face, oh, I couldn't stand it! And he says, "Well, come on in. I'll fix you a cup of tea. That'll fix you up real good." I said, "I don't think so."
But I was surprised. I mean I didn't stay at his place for just a matter of minutes, I guess. And then there was a hospital ambulance that came from an English hospital. And so they took me to this English hospital and they did whatever treatment there. But they used to use this tannic acid, this black stuff? Oh geez, they had me all black. Maybe they took the skin off and they had this black. And I looked like a zebra. It was funny.
I couldn't, and then I was in an English hospital for just a couple of days and then the Americans came over and got me and took me to the American hospital.
Oh, and this has nothin to do with it but while I was in the American hospital there was a guy, I've never seen a guy bandaged up like that. He was bandaged from the top of his head, well he had bedclothes on, bed sheets on. And he was covered from his head as far as you could see, just solid. He had two little things here, thing for breathing and a little thing for his mouth.
And the guy, I don't know how he managed but every once in awhile you'd go by there and you'd say, "Hi," and I'd mention his name, I forget. And he'd say, "Hi, lieutenant." I'd say, "Would you like a cigarette?" Yeah, he would. So you'd light up a cigarette and you'd have to hold it for him. He would smoke, because he didn't have any hands, he couldn't hold anything.
And I said, "What happened to you?" First mission overseas, he was on his first mission and he said they were on this field and the runway was being extended but the runway lights had been shut off here but they had all runway extension here. Anyway his pilot, being a new man, wasn't aware of a lot of stuff. But they took a full bomb load, full gas load. They took off and as they went down, they were running out of runway lights and the pilot thought, "We're running out of runway." He pulled back on the, pulled back and he didn't have enough speed and he got up just a little ways and then they come down and they went, whoosh! And geez, that guy, I was always curious about what happened to him. He was just, oh boy!
T: I suppose there were a lot of injuries like that. A lot of really serious injuries. Where were you when the war in Europe ended? Were you still over there?
R: When I got out of the hospital I went back to the 100th and that was, it must have been first part of, what is that? The first part of '45. And I think the handwriting was on the wall because they, D-Day was comin up. And they would take, these guys were flying these missions. 17's would take two missions a day. They'd load up, go over and drop on the German armament positions over in France and they would come back, load up and go back and they'd get two a day. Boy, you could really rack up a bunch of bomb-bombs [ ] a mission. But they ended up, but then I was there for awhile, I was at the 100th for just a short time and then I don't know, a flight surgeon or somebody interviewed me and he said, "I'm going to send you home," he said. "I think you've had it." So …
T: How many missions did you fly when you were over there, Ralph?
T: Twenty missions. When they decided to send you home do you think that the burns that you got had anything to do with it or was it something else?
R: Well I suppose it was the burns and then problem of losing three guys that I was flying with. I suppose maybe they figured that maybe that was it.
T: So when did you come back to the states, approximately? That would have been early in '45 that you came back?
R: Early in '45, I don't recall exactly the date.
T: Were you discharged right away or did you have some duty in the states?
R: Oh, I had duty in the states. I came back and the first thing they sent me was rough duty. They sent me down to Miami Beach. Miami Beach for R&R. They brought all my records up to date and everything else. Oh we were there at the beach for a short week I guess.
And then from there they sent me over to Ellington Field at Houston, Texas.
T: What did you do there? Were you flying?
R: No. They just, I guess they didn't know what to do with us so they sent us over there. No, we weren't flying anymore. They just sent us there and we had classes. We viewed training films and we spent a lot of time out in the, playing basketball. Played a lot of basketball then. But other than that I think there were getting kinda… I know Ellington Field was crowded and I don't know, I guess a lot of guys comin back or something.
T: So you got out then in September of '45 at age 21. What did you do then after you got out of the service, Ralph? What was the next phase of your life?
R: Well, that was September. I came back. Of course I figured I needed some training so I thought I'd go back to school.
T: Well, a lot of guys did.
R: The old GI Bill came along and I said, "Why not take advantage of it?" So I went to, well originally it was Oshkosh Teachers College and then it was Oshkosh State College. Now it's somethin else. Anyway I went to the local school here and I started in January of '46 I guess it would be. And I don't know what I had planned, I had a plan on a program… But anyway I went there for I don't know, two, two and a half years I went there.
T: We were there at the same time then. I started there in September of '46. I was there for a couple of years.
R: Oh you did.
T: So we were there roughly at the same time. There was a lot of veterans there, just loaded with ex-GI's.
R: Oh yeah. And then after that then this friend of mine was going to Seattle University and he was praising up the school and he was praising up the climate, and scenery and everything. And he had a place, he said, "Why don't you come out there?" He talked and I finally ended up going out there. It didn't work out for me. It was a poor move so I just stayed out there for one semester at Seattle University.
And then I came back home and I enrolled at UW at Madison. I think it took me about five years to get through college or something like that. I probably liked going to school so much that I….
T: Probably become a professional student, eh?
R: But then I got married and things changed?
T: Did you get married while you were still in college?
T: How did you meet your wife?
R: I won't tell him really, the real truth. (Ralph is speaking to his wife here who just stated that they met through friends). They all drew straws and she was the lucky one.
T: Would she agree with that? That she was the lucky one?
R: No. She never had it so good.
T: What did you do after you got out of college then; you were married?
R: Oh, when I was at Madison I thought I'd like to go into water treatment and water supply and I wanted to get into municipal water stuff. But I didn't specialize. I didn't , oh what do you call it, I wanted to go in for that. Anyway when I come out here, oh, I was going to go to work for Uncle Sam out in California. Engineer, civil engineer. So I came back here and I had been working, I worked for Fluor Brothers in summers past so I stopped there for a brief visit.
T: They were in construction weren't they?
R: Building construction. And then he said, he [ ] it to me. "God," he says, "We could use somebody like you." So he went back and talked to the guys and he said… So I went to work for them. It was a long ways from, we often wonder how we ever would have made it out to California. We didn't have a cent to our name.
T: When you went to college was your degree in some sort of engineering? Is that the type of study you pursued?
R: Just civil engineering.
T: I see. Okay. Did you stay with Fluor Brothers?
R: Not very long. I went with Fluor Brothers just offhand, a couple of years. And then from there to Immel, I-M-M-E-L. Immel Construction at Fond du Lac. And I was there I think about ten years. And then from there I went to Eau Claire, what's the name? L.G. Arnold. And then from there I came back and went to work for C.R. Meyer. Retired from there.
T: Big construction outfit. They're still going strong aren't they? They're really a big outfit.
R: Meyer? Yeah, they're doing good. I don't say that just because I left them.
T: When did you retire Ralph? What was the year that you retired?
R: Let's see, no I was sixty-four in nineteen… I've been retired for twenty years. 1984.
T: Do you have children?
R: Oh, yeah. We got five. Three girls, no we got four girls and one boy.
T: Four girls and one boy. That poor guy!
R: Oh no. I don't know about that. I like that son bit though because he's a big help to us.
T: Do you think the war changed you at all Ralph? Some guys say it made a man of them; you know they went in as a kid and came out as a man.
R: Oh, I really don't think it affected me that much.
T: Were any of your friends from Oshkosh killed during the war that you can remember?
R: Oh, geez, there's that monument sittin there at the corner of Ohio and 11th.
T: By South Park.
R: Yeah. All those fellows were…
T: Did you know quite a few of those guys?
R: Oh yeah. And a couple of them I used to go to school with them all the time.
T: Do you think very much about the war today? Or doesn't it really enter your mind?
R: Oh no, no.
T: Is there anything else that relates to World War II that we haven't talked about, that you'd like to talk about? Something that we might have missed.
R: I wouldn't think so.
T: I think we've covered the topic pretty well Ralph and I certainly appreciate your willingness to be interviewed. We're very happy that you've consented to do that and I thank you very much.
Oral History Interview with Ralph C. Bohlssen.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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