|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Clifford A. Karrels. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corps cadet program in September 1942. He graduated in Jan. 1944 as a 2nd. Lt. and trained in P-47s. He was assigned to the 8th Fighter Group, 525th Squadron in Italy. THe began flying combat missions in July of 1944, escorting bombing runs of B-25's and then bombing and strafing likely targets on the way home. On a bombing mission to Livorno his 43rd, on November 5, 1944, Cliff's aircraft was hit with a 20 mm. cannon round and he was unable to make it home and bailed out near Bologna. He eluded the Germans and was taken in by partisans with whom he remained for almost six months - until liberation by the US forces.
Clifford Karrels Interview
11 May 2005
Conducted by Thomas M. Sullivan
(T: identifies the interviewer, Tom Sullivan; C: identifies the subject, Cliff Karrels. Open brackets [ ] or bracketed words indicate that either a word or phrase is not understood or that proper spelling for the word is unclear).
T: It's May 11th, 2005 and I'm Tom Sullivan at the Oshkosh Public Museum with Cliff Karrels who served in World War II. Cliff is going to be telling me about his experiences in that war.
The best place to begin Cliff I guess, is to have you tell me when and where you were born.
C: I was born in Port Washington, Wisconsin, May 24th, 1922.
T: Were your mother and dad also from that area?
T: What did they do for a living?
C: Well Dad was a farmer and worked in a canning factory to keep things running. And he farmed about a hundred and some acres. My mother was just a stay-at-home mom. A housewife.
T: Do you have any brothers and sisters?
C: I have one sister.
T: And she's still living?
T: Tell me about your childhood Cliff. Where did you go to school and what sort of activities did you engage in for fun outside of school? In grade school that is.
C: Alright. I went through the parochial school at Little Chute, Wisconsin. Graduated from St. Johns in Little Chute in 1940. In grade school, I attended twelve years there at St. Johns. In grade school I had just normal experience playing kids games.
T: Football and baseball and that sort of thing?
C: Yes, but I got interested in aviation as a kid and model airplane building.
T: Oh yes, I guess a lot of us did. When did you move to Little Chute? How old were you when you moved to Little Chute?
C: I was six years old. That would be about 1929 I guess. I had three first grades. Started in Port Washington in a country school. We moved to Appleton for six months until my dad got a house in Little Chute and then I started over in first grade. So I had a good foundation.
T: When you were growing up during the Depression Cliff, was your family affected by the Depression? A lot of people were. Was your family affected and if so, in what way?
C: Well yes, the place where my Dad worked, for Little Chute Lumber and Fuel Company, things were pretty tough there in a small village or city at that time. And a lot of times - he worked for $25.00 a week at that time - hauled coal, shoveled coal on a truck. Some weeks he didn't get paid. But my mother was the type of a person, she had a German background and she's the type of person who could go to the refrigerator and make a meal. No one surprised her even if they came for unexpected dinner.
T: When you were growing up were you able to have any part-time jobs? I know during the Depression they pretty much stayed away from the kids. They wanted to provide jobs for the breadwinners. But did you have any part-time jobs?
C: I started at about thirteen and I did garden work for the neighbor lady across the street. Mrs. Jansen got me started in working and I did everything from pruning raspberry bushes to planting flowers, and planting gardens and mowing and raking.
T: After you graduated from high school in 1940 what did you do then, between then and the start of the war?
C: Well then I, I wanted to interrupt you there. I worked for a garage and a filling station too as a kid, taking a mechanics job, taking parts off of an automobile then the knowledgeable mechanics would put em back together. But I did that and then they started a restaurant there and I was flipping hamburgers there - in the garage.
T: You had a varied career.
C: Yeah, I did everything. I actually did. But then after I graduated from high school I went and got a job with Kimberly Clark because I lived right across the river in Little Chute. Little Chute and Kimberly were twin cities practically. We were connected by a different bridge. That bridge is down but I rode my bike over to Kimberly on shift work.
T: What kind of work were you doing at Kimberly Clark?
C: Sheet finisher, they called it. Was working in the trimmer room and I worked with the girls where they would fan the sheets for slime spots in em and sort em out. And then I would pack em in a crate and nail the wooden crate shut. And then I worked on trimmers too where we trimmed em to size. It was a finishing room.
T: About that time, in the late thirties and early forties there was war over in Europe and war in the Far East. Did you or any of your pals ever think that we were going to get caught up in that? Or didn't you really give it any concern?
C: Well, I didn't give it that much concern but I thought in the back of my mind I knew if I had to go war; I wanted to go as a flier.
T: Had you ever been up in a plane as a young fellow?
C: No but the West Brothers had an airport at Appleton. They've changed the location now. It's not the one where Appleton has the airport now. But it was closer to Little Chute and I saw those biplanes flying around all the time. I was lookin up in the air every time somebody flew over - I ran out of the house.
T: I guess that's not unusual. All of us kids were sort of captivated by flying. It was something pretty unique.
C: Well I had a motorbike too. I had a 1906 motor wheel that was made by A.O. Smith and Co. in Milwaukee. And I still know where it is now but the fellow that's got it won't give it back to me.
T: It's probably worth a lot of money like a lot of those old things. Where were you and what were you doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked? Do you remember that/
C: Yes I do. I was flying model airplanes in Manitowoc, Wisconsin and the news came over the radio. There were four of us at the airport flying models. They were the rubber-band type. Wound em up, had a big bunch of rubbers in it for propulsion. And when we rode home we all decided we were gonna, we all had a common interest in models, we were gonna try for the Air Force. The cadets.
T: I see. Speaking about those models, were there any gas models available at that time? I can remember a cousin of mine that had some gas models just before he went in service. I guess they were around.
C: Yes. I had one too. I bought a Comet kit and I built the model. And I flew that model too. But it was not you control. This type was free flight.
T: Right. Once it was up, that was it.
C: Yeah, and you hoped the wind wouldn't blow it over in the next county.
T: Well, you were probably registered for the draft. What did you do then about getting into the service?
C: I had registered for the draft but before I got drafted I tried to get into the Air Force. They relaxed the rules, that you did not have to have a college education to be a cadet, an aviation cadet to fly. The minute that happened I went down and I signed up for the cadets, the Air Force Reserves. And I was home then for about six months after I signed up. And the neighbor boys that went into the Army; they were drafted, they ended up in the infantry, artillery and drivin trucks and everything. And I was screwing around home yet. They kinda resented it. The minute I got called I went to Chicago then and signed up.
I'll digress a little bit. When they examined, the examination board made a field trip and they were recruiting in Green Bay, Wisconsin. And my dad drove me to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Well I passed all the written tests and that, but I couldn't pass the physical. I had such a high heartbeat that they said, "Well, I think it's the excitement of being in the Air Force and you're so anxious to get in but that's what's causing your irregular heartbeat." And they told me, they said, "We are going to be in Iron Mountain, Michigan tomorrow. We've got all of your records here and your examinations except that final paper. And if you can meet us there at Iron Mountain, Michigan we will check your heartbeat then at that time. And if your pulse is in order, we will accept you."
And that's what happened. My dad took all the gas stamps he had to get gas to go from Little Chute to Iron Mountain, Michigan in a '29 Buick. And we went up there and I got in. I was home about six months before I got called. They had to wait for the class, to assign me to a class.
T: What date did you actually go in the Air Force then? It says September of '42.
C: Yeah, that's probably it.
T: Now you were a guy that was interested in planes but you'd never been up in a plane before. There were a few fellows that I talked to that actually knew how to fly before they went in.
C: Yeah, in college they had this training. They got about seven or eight hours.
T: Right. That pre-flight program that they had here in Oshkosh. But there were some guys that actually took lessons, fellows with a few bucks to spare, took lessons as a civilian and could actually fly. But you had no experience at all. I'd like to have you sort of take me through the process of how they take a guy that's never been up in a plane and turn him into a pilot of a fighter-bomber. What are the various processes in that program?
C: Well, when I got called in to Chicago, they took us all by train, about three hundred of us and sent us down to San Antonio, Texas for the classification center. The Air Force classification. They classified you there as a potential pilot, bombardier or navigator.
T: How did they do that?
C: You took tests, an aptitude test for that. And when they figured that you were an aptitude for flying, then they assigned you to a flight school. And my first flight school was Sykeston, Missouri. It was a civilian flight school and they had a regular program where they put you on the back of a truck and hauled you out in the country to an auxiliary field in the middle of a farm someplace.
T: Sounds pretty crude.
C: Well they had a little barracks or hangers for the airplanes. We flew PT-19's. That was the nomenclature of the airplane. It was a low wing plane with a 175 horsepower engine. And double cockpit for yourself and… Front and back. And you got in back. At first the instructor was in front.
And well, the first ride I had I got so sick I thought to myself, what in the hell did I ever sign up for something like this? But I got over it and then I took a natural aptitude to it.
T: How many hours did you get in that particular type of plane?
C: In that PT-19 we had about thirty hours.
T: What was the next step in the process?
C: Well they put you in a cross-country, navigating. You had to go out and plot your maps. You had ground school there too while you were flying. In the morning you had ground school with courses like radiotelegraphy and Morse code. And navigating and geometry. Some weather courses, we had that. But then we learned some minor aerobatics and that. They taught me how to do Immelmans and loops.
T: It sounds like they brought you up early on, when you're doin things like that. You haven't really been in the air that long. It sounds like they really socked it to you as far as speeding up the training.
C: A young fellow about 35 years old was my instructor. I lost track of him now because… But he was a special individual and he liked to fly. Whenever I was flying in the back seat of this PT-19 I noticed a lot of times he would have his hands out to the side of the cockpit - it was an open cockpit - he was, he could tell if I was slipping and sliding on a turn, wasn't banking right. Then he also put me in a class there one time, we had stages, landing stages. And I know that we'd have to land at a little farm field someplace and they'd run a string across the field and you had to land as close to the string as you could. Short landing. And we practiced forced landings and that. And the first time I did that I landed on the wrong side of the string and drove right through it. And he got on my case right away and he sent me back to the main field. "You get the hell outta here," he says. He says, "I'm going to send you up with the instructor so you can't screw up like that again." The next time I did so well on it, the next day I did the same procedure again. I found out later that he was bragging all over the class with his other instructors that I really was a good pilot.
T: Had you soloed by then?
C: Oh sure. We were doin that. He stopped me one time, he says, "You're going to land this God-damned thing correct or you're going to be on the train tomorrow." And another thing that he had, he had a stick between your legs, you know. And if you screwed up, boy I had a lotta nights I couldn't sleep; my thighs hurt so because he'd rap that stick that he had for control.
But then we moved. The next state we went to basic at Coffeeville, Kansas. And we had a better [ ] more horsepower.
T: I guess they gradually increased that.
C: Yeah, that was a 250-horse engine then. And it had a controllable pitch propeller. Still fixed gear. That was the Vultee "vibrator" they called it.
T: Everybody I've talked to that flew, flew that particular plane and almost without exception they hated it. What was your impression of that particular aircraft.
C: I loved it. It was flying! And it was just one of the things about it, it kinda vibrated. That's why they called it the Vultee "vibrator."
One time we went out on a cross-country flight at night and we started night flying then. In primary we never flew at night. And we landed one time and the guy that was on the radio ahead of me, he said, "I lost my engine." Well they said, "Taxi off." He said, "I cant' taxi off the runway because the engine fell out of the airplane."
T: He really lost it! It did more than just quit.
C: I suppose the firewall bolts broke and then he dropped it in on the concrete runway.
T: At least he was on the ground when it came off.
C: Yeah, we started to lose a few pilots, cadets. A few of them, I got newspaper clippings from the local paper where the instructor and his student were killed in Coffeeville, Kansas.
T: I guess that happened all during the training process. I guess there were losses. It's too bad but I guess it's just part of the procedure. It just happens; it's an accelerated program and well, why do you think they had…?
C; Well, some of them, they froze up after awhile, I think. This one fellow as a cadet he was a kind of a nervous man and I think he was on the verge of washing out. And he, that's where we learned how to do spins. And minor aerobatics. In basic training, that was basic. We had formation flying too. We learned to fly in formation in basic. And I don't know what happened. They went into the ground and were killed.
T: What was the next phase of your training?
C: Advanced. And that was an AT6. And that was at Victoria, Texas. Foster Field. Any other fellows flew Foster Field?
T: No. That's a new name for me.
C: And that's where we got about, let's see, going through the cadet program we got about 200 hours total. It was 60, 60, 180, roughly 180 hours.
T: Was there a fair amount of classroom work at that time?
C: Yes. We had quite a bit of classroom but a lot of calisthenics. And we had shotgun shooting. We had trap shooting. Learning to lead the clay pigeons.
T: Had you ever done any hunting as a kid or was hunting new to you?
T: What was the AT6 aircraft like?
C: That was 600 horsepower. You see a lot of em out here, flying around here in formation at EAA.
T: That was with a retractable landing gear.
C: Retractable landing gear. About four hundred and some horsepower; 400 or 600, in that area. But it had retractable landing gear. And we had a lot of rat racing in that. The instructor would take you out and other instructors would get simulated aerial combat. They called it rat-racing. Chase each other around in the air.
And then we learned to fly instruments there too. We went under the hood and had to fly instruments.
T: Was that a difficult procedure to learn how to rely on the instruments rather than your own feelings about how you were…?
C: Your feelings would run you into the ground if you believed in your feelings. You had to believe the instruments.
T: I heard that for some that was a difficult process to rely totally on those instruments. At some point, as I understand it, they separated the guys that were going to be single engine pilots from fellows that were going to be flying multi-engine aircraft. When did that process take place?
C: You had to make that decision in basic. Because then if you went to basic and they designated you as multi-engine, then you went to a different advanced school. You did have to fly the AT6. You flew, I forget the number of it now. It's a little Boeing bamboo bomber, they called it. A twin-engine plane.
T: After you completed your training with the AT6, what was the next step?
C: I graduated in class 44A. They designated the year and the month. And 44A was January of 1944. I graduated and I got my 2nd Lieutenant's…
T: That's when you got your wings?
C: Yeah, you got your wings. My parents couldn't afford to come down there to Victoria, Texas. I just got my wings and went home on leave after that.
T: I imagine that was a pretty proud day for you to graduate.
C: Oh yeah, we went to a, they had a couple of uniform shops in town. Those fellows were making a mint on that. Because you had your dress greens and pinks, pink trousers. They gave you a couple hundred dollars for the uniform at that time.
T: What did you do then?
C: Oh after that I went home for leave. I had about two or three weeks leave at home and then I went to RTU at Macon, Georgia. RTU is a replacement training unit. And we learned to fly the P40's there.
T: During this training process a number of guys washed out. Do you have any idea about what the percentage of fellows was that washed out? From when you started, right at the very beginning and when you got your wings? If there was a group of a thousand guys, how many of those would make it all the way through?
C: Just kind of an educated guess, I would say that about, some places you could have about 20% could wash out in primary. They never got to basic. Then the percentages, after you got to basic, then the percentage was less intense. More of em made it then. Some things you could wash out for would be lack of ability and others were if you made a real bad screw-up. I mean smashed up an airplane or something. That would take you out. So I would say that out of that thousand you talked about, you probably have 50% of em that got washed out.
T: Were those wash-outs given opportunity to become…?
C: Glider pilots.
T: Glider pilots, or bombardiers, or engineers or something like that?
C: That's right.
T: So they still had a chance to become an officer in the Air Force.
T: Now you're going to be flying P40's…
C: Down in Macon, Georgia over the Okefenokee Swamp.
T: A place you probably don't want to force land in.
T: I remember one saying that if you went down in the swamp, they weren't going to come after you because it was impossible. This particular fellow related the story where one of his pals went down in the swamp and the locals eventually brought him out.
C: It wasn't all water. You had a little land and islands. They'd go in there with an airboat or something and they'd bring em out.
T: Now the P40 was used in combat so you were flying a combat aircraft at that point. I suppose you had aerial gunnery and all that sort of stuff.
C: We had aerial gunnery after we graduated. We went to this RTU. We had two steps in RTU. I went down to Macon, Georgia and flew there. But we didn't have the gunnery there yet. Then the next step was we were assigned to RTU P40's and that was out at Carolina. I can't remember that city now. It was South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia. I went to what is now the Washington National Airport where Air Force I is. Camp Springs, Virginia. That would be the airport for the Air Force I. And we flew there. That was the second one.
After the P40 I went there. Now I'm recalling it. Camp Springs. And there we flew the P47 then. And then at that time from there we went to another place, Vinland, New Jersey was the second one. Where we got the aerial gunnery over, that was right next to the Atlantic Ocean out there. We flew the aerial gunnery over the Atlantic Ocean. They didn't want us shooting live ammunition…
T: You might hurt somebody.
C: They would get a twin-engine plane that would tow a target behind on a steel cable, big banner. You had colored ammunition that you used. If your color was red for the day, when they landed if they had bunch of holes in there with red stain, you got rated on that.
T: When did you go overseas?
C: That's easy to remember. We finally went, after Vinland, New Jersey then we went down to Richmond, Virginia. We didn't do any flying there but we got all our A2 jackets and all that stuff. And the put us in a group, a contingent. And we left on a ship from there and went overseas. We were on the ocean going east across the Atlantic when we listened to the D-Day invasion. That would be what? '44, wouldn't it? On June 6, of '44
And from there we were thirty days on a freighter. There were airplanes on the deck and fire engines on the deck and trucks on the deck. And we strung our hammocks there at night because the weather was, in June it was mild. And we slept on deck. Thirty days to go to Naples, Italy.
T: That's a long haul on a freighter.
C: Yeah. Well it was about ten miles an hour maximum. Well we ate good. The cook got so damn mad at us because we got so tired of being on that freighter we played cards all night and wouldn't get up for breakfast. And he had to throw the breakfast over the side because he didn't have room for all the garbage.
Naples Italy, we landed there sometime in July. Because we took off around the 6th so thirty days would put us in July. And we landed next to a wrecked ship. They docked right up to a sunken freighter. I don't know if it was Italian, or German or what. And we walked across that and got onto the land then.
T: Were you based in Naples all the time you were in Italy?
C: No, about two weeks and then we were assigned to the 86th Fighter Group. We were replacement pilots. They needed them.
T: And where were they stationed?
C: At that time when I joined the group there, we were stationed at Orbitello, I believe. It was the city that this Italian bunch of airplanes flew over for the 1939 Worlds Fair in Chicago. I forget his name now. The pilot. But he was an Italian general in the [ ]. That was Orbitello. That wasn't much of a field. It was just a strip of dirt.
T: When did you start flying combat missions?
C: We got assigned to the 86th Fighter Group and they were flying at that time, they were flying the A36. It was a P51 with dive brakes on it. And I had about four missions in that. And that was sometime around probably July of '44.
T: Now you were trained as far as being a fighter-bomber, you were in the P47.
C: Yeah, we flew P47's in Camp Springs.
T: That's the plane that I always think of as the classic fighter-bomber that was used for ground support and so forth.
C: That's exactly right.
T: Big, hot engine in that baby.
C: 2,000 horsepower. 2,600 with water injection.
T: But then you went into this P51, or did you fly the P51.
C: I flew it and we had one, I had one mission in the P51 and then we were transferred out of the 51's, they took em out. They weren't as good a plane and they were liquid cooled engines. The Allison engine in em. And hell, somebody throwing rocks up from the ground would punch a hole in the radiator and you, if they were shooting at you they lost a lot of em that way because the minute they lost the radiator liquid, they overheated and the engine froze up. So that was the advantage of going into the air-cooled engine of the P47.
T: Well, that's interesting. I didn't know the distinction between the air-cooled and the liquid-cooled engine.
C: That's why they lost a lot of P51's that were escorting the bombers. After they had finished their escort mission they were still flying over enemy territory and if they saw something on the ground, a bunch of trucks or so, the P51's would go down and shoot em and tear em up. But they lost a lot of 51's doin that. So that's why they decided to go to the P47.
T: Was that the aircraft that you flew then for the remainder of your duty?
T: Tell me about some of your missions. What type of work were you doing then?
C: Well, we would take off with a twelve-plane flight. And we'd have a 500-pound bomb usually under each wing. And then we would fly in formation and the flight leader would navigate and find the point that was our designation for bombing.
T: This would be in Italy?
C: Yes. Well it was Italy and Corsica. I flew quite a bit in Corsica, out of Corsica over the Mediterranean. In fact we had to sit on a little dinghy, packed up dinghy. That thing had a cartridge of compressed gas in it that inflated when you landed. And we said that damned thing was right near the surface and you always had that under the left cheek while you were sitting in your plane. But we flew escort missions for the invasion of southern France on August 14th. And that was the only time that I saw an airplane in the air, a German fighter. The German fighters came through the formation. We were escorting B25's. And I think they thought the hell with it, and they came right through our thing and I had a 109, a Messerschmidt 109 go right by me. I could see the pilot. Damned near winked at him, you know. And he kept right on going. He went right down to the ground, low altitude. They never mixed it up with us. But we damn near knocked ourselves out of the air because everybody dropped their tanks. We had belly tanks on for the escort.
T: You had to drop your tanks before you could engage?
C: Yeah,. Other planes. And the air was full of those great big tanks.
T: I heard that the German fighter pilots were pretty gutsy fellows. That they had no fear.
C: Yeah, but we were, in '44 it wasn't that bad anymore in our part of the country. I think that a lot of the better ones were over in Russia and some of those places.
(The first tape ends here).
T: Okay, I'm sorry to interrupt you Cliff. I'd like to have you tell me more about typical missions that you flew, what kind of activity you encountered.
C: Well, we would take off, twelve planes. And we'd find a bridge that we wanted to blow out. Well you would be up there about 12, 15,000 feet and you'd gradually let down and you'd get in line astern formation. That means one plane right behind each other. And the leader would peel off and roll over and dive down. You'd go about 70 degrees, you'd go down. You couldn't go too fast because, and you couldn't get too low before you released your bombs. Because if you got too low you'd fly into a bunch of rocks from the explosion from the fellow ahead of you. And so we just dropped off, dropped our bombs.
We'd line up on a railroad track for instance. We'd call it an "Abe Lincoln." That was the rail-splitter. We'd split the rails. The Germans would have to fix em up again. You'd bomb trains and that. Then you'd strafe em. Your gunsight was on the front of the cockpit on the windshield. It was projected on the windshield electrically. It had rings on it and you could tell by the size of the ring, the lead you had, so many yards ahead of the target you had.
After we dropped our bombs, then we hit targets of opportunity on the way back. Saw some trucks, you would shoot em up. Saw locomotives, we loved to get those locomotives but the Germans wouldn't haul much freight at night. They would sneak someplace and lay low. Because you'd catch a train, when they could see you coming in, when you were attacking a locomotive and they were hauling freight cars, the engineer would bail out the right side of the locomotive and the fireman went out the left side. And they'd let the engine go!
T: I would too!
C: One time we caught a train like that. He was laying in some kind of a ravine. It was quite mountainous in Italy. And this guy was laying in a ravine at night. It was just because, we took off at daylight and we caught him. And the first man down called it out. He said, "Hey, that's a Red Cross." They had red crosses. I don't know if they were cheating or not, if there were Germans in there or not. But we didn't shoot that one up.
T: Did you encounter any opposition either in the air or from the ground in the form of antiaircraft fire?
C: Oh yes. We had a lot of targets, the Germans had the 88. It was a red-hot gun. That was one of the best guns of the whole war. And it could pierce about three or four inches of armor plate. They used it also for an antiaircraft gun. And they had three 88's in a quadrant, proximity. And on the fourth corner of that, for protection, they had a 20-millimeter, the small ones. And every time we saw those, every time we saw flak like that we went for it. We dove down and tried to shoot em up.
T: Everybody talks about the 88, what a formidable weapon that was. How about German fighter aircraft?
C: I was never, just that one on the 14th of August was the only time I saw one in the air. We shot up an airfield in Italy a couple of times. They'd pull out the 109's and their 190's (The Focke-Wolfe 190) and they would be under the trees at the edge of the airfield. I know one time we raked over a German field there in Italy. Again it was early in the morning, [ ] came running out in his long underwear. He was running for the antiaircraft gun in the middle of the field. Well he didn't survive. We just strafed him. See, on that '47 you had eight 50-caliber machine guns, four in each wing.
T: When you pulled the trigger did all eight of em go at once?
C: Yeah, they all went at once but you'd never pull the trigger too long. You'd burp it. Because you'd burn the barrels out. Then later on. I never got there. I got knocked down before we ever flew with rockets but they, some of the later planes had rockets under their wings.
T: At this point tell me a little bit about your life when you weren't flying. What was the life like in your camp as far as your food and your accommodations and so forth?
C: We lived in these perimeter tents. They were about sixteen feet square, those tents. And we had a wooden floor in em. In Corsica especially, we had a wooden floor in em. And we had our cots, we slept in regular old Army cots. And it got pretty cold because you had to have as many blankets underneath you as you did on top, unless we were in a sleeping bag. And the mess hall, we'd all go to the mess hall. If you had an early mission somebody'd come and tap you on the shoulder in the middle of the night and wake you up because you were assigned a mission and he knew what tent you were in. He knew where to get you. So you'd go and get your breakfast and you'd pile on a Jeep later and drive to the airplanes out on the field. They were a little ways away from the camp area. And you had all of your gear on these Jeeps. Four fellows on a Jeep with the parachutes laying on the hood..
T: Now you mentioned attacking these German facilities. Was your airfield ever of attacked by the Germans or weren't they capable of doing that sort of thing?
C: We didn't have that. One of the fields in Corsica, we had five fields in a row there on that island. And one of the fields had a one-night raid of bombing. It didn't affect us. And so I don't know why.
T: Well maybe at that point the Germans weren't capable of mounting that kind of attack.
C: They were pulling out of Italy anyway. Italy surrendered.
T: Did you get mail from home frequently?
C: Yes. And in fact I had hay fever as a kid. And it kinda affected me, made me a little bit asthmatic. Incidentally that disease left me when I was thirty years old, just like when you turn off a light switch. But I know one time I wrote home that I was having trouble and I needed the pills. And there was one doctor around Germantown that had, Orthoxin was the name of the pill. And my parents sent for those pills and I had em within a week. I wrote them and the letter went to them and they went from Little Chute to Germantown and got the pills, and mailed em and I had em in a week. It was divine intervention almost. And along with em came an angel food cake in a box packed with popcorn around it. Just as though it wouldn't get… But I got off the track her.
T: Well I was asking you about your life in general when you weren't flying.
C: Well I should have brought more pictures. We got hit by floods a lot of times.
T: When you were in Corsica?
C: :Yeah, in Corsica.
T: Did you get a chance to go on leave at all?
C: Yeah, we got to Rome quite a bit.
T: I imagine it would be kind of interesting to go on leave in a strange country like that where everything is so different that what you've known at home.
C: I brought this along.
T: This is a newspaper clipping from Stars and Stripes. You got your picture taken.
C: Yeah. Here's my work permit. My name was Johnny [Samojo]. That's when I got to Bologna. I got a whole bunch of pictures at home.
T: Apparently you, at some point were shot down, lost your plane. Tell me about that experience Cliff, when that all happened.
C: I'd like to go back to when we were on leave in Rome. I met some friends of mine in Rome that graduated from Little Chute. And he was a multi-engine "truck driver," airplane driver. And we met him. And we had a lot of fun there in Rome, Italy. And then , well that part of it you're not interested in. I got laid there. Here I went through a Catholic school….
T: Sometimes, despite one's best intentions….
C: And we just came out of the Pope's place in Rome and some woman met me on the street and invited me in. That was on Good Friday!
T: That sounds pretty awful Cliff!
C: Here I've been a Catholic all my life. What were we talking about, how did I get shot down?
We took off to bomb in Livorno, Italy. That was one of the main freight yards on the route from Germany to southern Italy. In fact that was the town that who was it, wrote the opera and… I'm sorry that I'm stumbling a little bit but I had a stroke about twelve years ago so I'm not as lucid as when I went, when I sold insurance.
T: Well, even without the stroke the years have their effect.
C: Well we got into formation and we went down and we dive-bombed the freight yards at Livorno. That was right outside the, who was the fellow that wrote all these plays that, Shakespeare, and the fellow that died on his wife, prostrated himself on his wife's casket when she died?
T: Romeo and Juliet.
C: Romeo and Juliet. That's the one I was trying to remember. That was the town that we were shooting up there. And I, when I was making the approach on the freight yards there, the 20-millimeter got me in the engine. And it blew, I lost my oil supply. It wasn't the radiator. It was the oil supply in the front of the plane. We had a 30 gallon oil supply when we took off. I nursed it, tried to get back to Piza. And I couldn't get, we took off from Piza, Italy. It was the place I left in the morning.
T: Did you have to bail out then?
C: Yeah, I hadda bail out and I had pretty good luck in that because I hit the back end of the stabilizer with my arm. And if it had been the right arm I probably wouldn't have been able to jerk the cord, the ripcord. I know that, and I often wanted to take another parachute jump because I really didn't, wasn't in the air long enough. I counted ten from the time the chute popped till I hit the ground.
T: Really. So you were pretty low. You were lucky to survive.
C: Exactly. When I got out I was in a farmyard. And I ran to the farmhouse and they, well I wasn't thinkin real clear then. But I shouldn't have run to the farmhouse because a woman came out and was standing there with about four little bambinos and they're all crying. And I'm all covered with oil because when I had to put the hood back of the cockpit, and the cockpit full of foaming oil, you know. So I looked, scared the hell out of them.
Well I took off and ran and I went through a vineyard.
T: Did the Germans capture you?
C: No, they didn't capture me but they got pretty close. I heard Fritz and Rudolph - were two of em. And they were calling to each other because they were looking for me. When I was going through this vineyard I came to the side of a hill and it had a whole bunch of wild raspberry bushes. And I thought to myself, they're like the American soldiers. They aren't going to look through those raspberry bushes. So I crawled up in that raspberry bush and I stayed there. And that was 11:30 in the morning when I, because I heard church bells in the neighboring church there. And I thought to myself that every damn church had the same tone on their bells because it sounded just like home, at Little Chute.
But they didn't catch me then and at night when it got dark out I came out of my hiding place. But they were talking to themselves. Every once in awhile they would holler to make sure that they weren't attacked yet by me.
So I started walking and two women came along on the street. I had to cross the street or country road or lane. And I heard the gibberish in Italian, you know, the women would. And I let them go by and the next person, I saw a young kid about twelve years old. And I approached him, I knew he was Italian. I figured I could handle him if he gave me trouble. I could understand a little bit and I told him I was an Americano, a pilota. And he said, "C'mon with me."
And he took me to a place and it must have been like a little country roadhouse or so. The were having a barn dance or something. I could hear the accordions. And they were singing and dancing.
And he left me out in the bushes. And he went in and two men came out then. And they took me to an Italian house and they fried me up two fried eggs and some fried potatoes. And that was at night in the dark.
They put me in a suit of clothes and took all my oily clothes off because everything was soaked with oil. They put me on a bicycle and took me up in the country and put me in a cave. It was on the side of a hill and the next morning when I woke up, oh, they gave me a stack of bread like thick pancakes. And a stack of that and a bottle of water. And they said, "You stay here for a few days." They would come and take me then.
The next morning I saw the German soldiers walking the fence lines all the way around that farm. Because I could see a half a mile in either direction. And they had big German police dogs with them. They were looking for me. And they never captured me.
And the next night I got on a bicycle again in civilian clothes and we pedaled a ways there right through town. The town's name was Bizano. And it was about ten miles from Bologna. And I went through another farmyard and there was a whole bunch of partisans, Italian partisans. They were just coming back from the battle that they had. They had a battle, a skirmish with them there in Bologna about a week earlier. And they were some tough looking guys. I wouldn't want to tangle with them.
T: But they would be sympathetic to you, right?
C: Oh yeah. They didn't give me any hard time. In fact they put me on a motorcycle and drove me in to Bologna. I had an Italian uniform on.
T: Now was Bologna in German hands?
C: Yeah. German tourists.
T: What was the course of action then in Bologna?
C: Then I got to, some fellow took me in and he said, "You stay with me here. We'll protect you for awhile." He was an official in the partisan group. Those partisans, they had a regular military thing going there. They had their echelon of officers and there were…
T: They were pretty well organized then.
C: Organized. There were a couple hundred of them in Bologna. And I had a fellow that went with me every time. He was a fellow that you'd want on your side if you were in a bar fight. And he went with me a lot of times when things got hot. It seems like they (the enemy) knew I was around someplace. And they would have to pawn me out.
One time I had to stay for a day or two at an empty apartment building. It was with him. And about two weeks later I got sent off to an apartment house. Went into the apartment house and here's a real luscious looking young Italian woman. I never got sexually involved with any of them. For one reason, I didn't want to leave a bunch of little kids around Italy.
T: I imagine that even being with the partisans who were friendly to you was dangerous in itself because the Germans probably were after those partisans all the time.
C: They were. They came, we had a meeting one night in a big shed and it was kind of a library building with massive front steps to it. And all at once, bang, bang, bang, they were banging on the door to get in. And everybody took off. If you ever saw two or three people trying to get out of the same window in the back end of the building, that was it.
I was laying there on this big floor before they raided the place. And I was talking to a German about fifty years old. And he played the tuba in a German band. And he was conscripted and was a German soldier. And he was a deserter. And they had another young German paratrooper, 25 years old in that band of partisans too. And those two fellows got caught and they shot em right then and there.
T: I suppose that would be the way they would do it.
C: Yeah, they didn't fool with them. The SS, they just put a bullet in their head and that was it. But that was long gone that I found this out later that they caught those two Germans. And I remember this fifty-year-old tuba player. I learned a little German from him. I learned how to ask for a pencil. Habst du eine bleistift? Means, "Have you got a pencil?" And I still remember those words. Poor old guy, well he's gone now.
T: Well how did you get out of Bologna? What happened next?
C: I worked with the partisans too. I fixed guns for em and I was a kind of a mechanic for em. Bicycles and stuff, they brought it over to me. And I, when the 21st of November, no the 21st of March the American Army came into Bologna.
T: Did you know that they were pretty close? I suppose you got wind of what was happening?
C: When we took off from Piza on the 5th of November, they told us the American army is going to be into Bologna in two weeks time. And that's why they wouldn't try to walk me through the lines. They said, "We wait here." Came winter and we listened to the radio every day. And the Armed Forces Radio, I listened to it every day. And it was nothing but - no military missions, just patrols.
T: Then you were with the partisans for five or six months.
C: Exactly. Six months.
T: And I suppose for most of that time it was pretty scary. You didn't know from one day to another whether you were gonna make it.
C: That's right. We didn't but I learned, I could converse with them. And I was with a family. I had Nino was the, Nino's father was killed in the war, the last war, World War I. And Nino was in the Italian Army but I think he deserted. He used to tell me about the Italian Army. He says, "Yeah they really had it real good. We had clean sheets every month!" (Laughter).
T: What more could you want?
C: I often remember that. He thought that was so great.
T: And for them it probably was.
C: And when he got to Ethiopia, when they went in and invaded Ethiopia, he was in there. When they surrendered to the American Army, he was a plumber.
T: Eventually you got back to your unit when the Americans came in. Did they think that you had been killed or didn't they know?
C: My parents?
T: And your unit itself.
C: They knew that I, they saw me parachute and run. They knew that I was living someplace. They wrote my parents and said, "Don't be surprised if he shows up again sometime."
T: I suppose that your parents were pretty sick about that.
C: Oh yeah. They aged quite a bit.
T: So sometime in March of '45 you got yourself out of there. Did you go back and start flying or were you pretty much over that then.
C: They didn't fly then anymore. I got some of this stuff I brought here.
T: Now you gave me the newspaper article here.
C: You can have that if you want it.
T: What we'll do, we'd like to copy this and then we'll give you these back. We'll make copies of these. Tell me Cliff about this ID card that you have. You got this in Bologna. This was sort of a fake ID then.
C: No, it was a genuine, that was a stamp and I got a work permit signed by Kesselring of the German Army.
T: Then you apparently had to, in fact, go the Germans to get this thing. Wasn't that a little bit difficult for you to do?
C: I never went personally. The neighbor across the road from where I lived …
T: But you didn't speak the language.
C: No. You know when I even, when I rode that motorcycle I took a pocketful of apples with me and figured if I ever got stopped I would be chewing on the apple and let the other guy talk.
T: It's just hard for me to understand how you could get this permit.
C: It was a genuine permit. The neighbor across the way worked in the city hall at Bologna. And they took my picture. I had a picture.
T: So this was something you could show in case you were stopped. If you didn't have to speak Italian to them you were in business. We'd certainly like to copy those two things. And I imagine this newspaper article tells how everything came about.
What did your unit do then after you got back to it?
C: They went to Germany. They left Piza and went to France and they were in France for awhile. As the American Army moved up from the landing on the tip of southern France, they joined up and…
T: Were you with them then?
C: No, I never got back to em.
T: What did they do with you? Did they send you back home to the states?
C: I ended up at Camp Lucky Strike. You've heard of it. Okay, I ended up at Camp Lucky Strike and I never got back to the outfit.
T: And from there you went back to the states.
C: We got on a ship and came back.
T: What was your rank at that time, Cliff?
C: First Lieutenant.
T: What did you do when you got back to the states?
C: Well then when I got back to the states I had a thirty day leave and I went back to work for Kimberly Clark until I joined the University of Madison.
T: So when were you discharged from the service then. You got out in January of '46 it says here. Were you discharged from the Air Force as soon as you got back to the states or did …
C: No, I was still in the reserves. I was discharged from the Air Force in Chicago at what's the name of the town there near Great Lakes?
T: Fort Sheridan?
C: Right. Fort Sheridan. That's where they discharged me. But then the Air Force got ahold of me when we went, separated from the Army we went to the Air Force then. We had our own branch of the service. Was that about '51 or '52 that they separated? Then the Air Force got ahold of me and I joined up with them. Took a lot of courses and never flew any more with em.
T: So you were in the Active Reserve.
C: The Active Reserves.
T: Some fellows regretted it when Korea came along.
C: Yeah, did you talk to any of em? Did they get recalled?
T: Sure. Some had to go back in. Some Army guys. I was in the Korean conflict and our cadre were all fellows that were in the Active Reserve and they were quite bitter about being active.
C: Pissed off is what they said, what the word is.
T: So when you were discharged you went back to Kimberly Clark for awhile. And then you started your college training. Was that at Madison?
C: Yes. They gave me $500.00 for coming back. Kimberly Clark gave me $500.00. I don't know if it was a bonus or what it was.
T: Did you complete your college education in Madison?
C: Four years.
T: And what kind of a degree did you get?
C: Not a BS. A BA in business administration. In light building. I took a lot of engineering courses.
T: After you graduated, what did you do then?
C: When I graduated I went to Midwest Shook and Lumber here in Oshkosh.
T: The name isn't familiar.
C: No, it's all vacant land down here. It's on the corner of Pearl and Jackson. That building is torn down and Radford's is torn down.
T: When did you get married?
C: I got married in '51.
T: Do you have children?
C: I have four children.
T: Are they all living?
T: As you told me before we started talking, you were with Midwest for awhile and then…
C: Ten years.
T: And then you went to?
C: Sentry Insurance.
T: And that's where you were for the balance of your career, right?
C: Yes. I retired from them in about 1980. I was with em twenty years, twenty-two years.
T: Early in the war when we suffered some setbacks, was there ever any doubt in your mind about whether we would win the war?
T: I think most of us felt that we were eventually gonna prevail. And you were awarded some medals I see here. You got the Air Medal and two Oak Leaf Clusters. Was there any specific circumstance that was responsible for that?
C: No. I would be bragging if I said I did something spectacular for that. They gave it to us in the Air Force after ten or so missions we got one. I had forty-three missions, dive-bombing missions.
T: I see. Well that's a considerable number of missions.
C: So they could take any one of those missions and write something up and award me the medals.
T: I see. I think I understand. Do you think that the war changed you and if it did, how, in what way, Cliff?
C: Well it made me more disciplined. Once in awhile I get in an argument with my wife and she says, "Well that's the military in you." (Laughter).
T: Were any of your friends from Little Chute killed during the war? Guys that you had chummed around with?
C: A couple of em. I'm trying to think now. Yeah, some of em were but I can't remember their names.
T: Do you ever get together with any of the fellows that you were in the service with? Do you have any reunions for instance?
C: Yes. We've had reunions. The 86th, just last year I went to one that the Air Force Museum at Columbus…
T: When you go to those do you see guys that you knew when you were in the service?
T: I suppose a lot of em are gone.
C: Yes, close friend of mine, we motor-homed after, mine is the second marriage now. And we motor-homed and we visited a few of those people. We'd park out on the street in front of their house for a few days.
T: What do you do for relaxation and so forth now, now that you're retired? Are there any special activities that you take in?
C: No, I joined the Legion but I'm not real active in that. I played tennis when I got out. I was quite a tennis player and a hockey player when I was in high school. But since the stroke, watching TV is the…
T: When did you have the stroke?
C: It was about nine years ago.
(Second tape ends here).
Oral History Interview with Clifford A. Karrels.
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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