|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Leonard L. Baer by Gordon Doule. He discusses his experiences in the Army Air Force, 438th Troop Carrier Group during World War II.
Interview with Leonard Baer
January 11, 1994
Conducted by Gordon Doule
B: I'm Leonard L. Baer, I'm a Major in the United States Air Force reserve, retired. I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the 17th of November, 1923. And I am now seventy years old. My wife is Sharon Lee Pagel Baer. Ah, we were married on the 11th of February, 1984. My wife was born on the 5th of July, 1952. Her occupation, my occupation was as an electrical power engineer. A research and development engineer. Also I was a teacher in the inner city schools for a couple of years in Milwaukee. I was [ ] a teacher of astronautics where I did development work on the "Heads Up" program which later on became our standard ah, became our standard [ ] shown many times on television. I was a project engineer at Astronautics for about two and one half or three years.
After I left Astronautics I came back to Neenah. I worked for some time as director of project engineering for [ ] in the design of electric motors and generators and power generation systems.
D: What were your children's names if you have some children?
B: Ah, alright, we had four children, three of whom are still alive. My oldest son Kenneth Louis Baer is in Talahasee, Florida. He's assistant director…
D: We're gonna be pressed for time.
B: My daughter Beverly June Baer lives in Orlando, Florida. I might mention that her husband is director of operations for Martin Marietta. My son in law.
My youngest son Martin is in Mobile, Alabama and he works [ ] The reason my children are in that area of course is that my home being in Wisconsin, there are no military activities to speak of in Wisconsin. With the result that after I finished my active [ ] in service, in order to work in military [ ] in the Florida, Alabama area.
D: Where did you go to school?
B: Ah, I went from to Bay View High School in Milwaukee where I graduated. From there I went to the University of Michigan. Then to the Air Force. In the Air Force, I went to the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and the University of California which [ ] where I had three and one half years of college. I eventually graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Stout with a Bachelor of Science degree in tech education and a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial education and ended up just four credits short of a Masters degree.
D: How many years did you live in the Oshkosh area [ ]?
B: I've lived in Neenah since 1970.
D: You were in the Air Force. [ ]
B: I was on active duty in the Air Force from the second, from the fourth of May 1942 continuously until the tenth of October 1953. At that time I entered the reserves and actively flew with the 357th Troop Carrier Squadron out of Mobile, Alabama as a squadron [ ] navigator ah from 1959 until 1964. At that time, with twenty two years of service, [ ] somewhere between four and five thousand hours of flying time. Ah, I …
D: Your total years of service…
B: What, what?
D: Your total years of service were?
B: Twenty two years active and reserve and I stayed in the inactive reserve until I had 41 years at the time I retired.
D: And you enlisted on the fourth of May in '42.
B: In '42. I was recalled to active duty in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and served until early '63. I had about three months of active duty.
D: And you were discharged then in?
B: I think it was one, one January '64.
D: Do you recall when you were completely out of the service altogether.
B: Oh, seventeen November 1983.
D: What do you remember most about the Neenah area prior to your going into active service?
B: Well, prior to going into active service, all of my, all of my family in Neenah were farmers. My father told me then and has told me since that he did not care to spend his lifetime walking behind a plow. So my father was ah, was supervising engineer of foundry division of Nash Motors. I [ ] seen Wisconsin [ ] Kenosha during the 30's. And in the 20's, my father was chief inspector of the Nash [ ]. The rest of the people I knew were farmers who were just wondering how they'd make enough money to pay their taxes. And ah, my uncles, everybody seemed to be extremely poor. When my grandfather died in 1935, there was no question about it; my dad was the only one who had the money to buy the farm and he did. He wished to retire on that farm. He did, at the age of sixty five.
D: What was different about the area when you got back?
B: Well, when I got back in '45, I very much wished to work in the local area. Ah, I went in the mills and they were only paying sixty five cents an hour. And I was used to earning $250.00 a month. As an air force officer. The result was, I looked at all the mills and all the jobs available and went back and stayed in the service. On through Korea until 1953 at the end of Korea. And by that time, I had enough position where I could go into ah, into an executive position in Florida in corporations. And stayed in the reserves and pretty soon I was able to augment my pay down there with a paid position in the reserves. The interesting thing was that after 1955 when I was promoted to Major, ah, I was able to go out on weekends. Ah, leaving, taking off Friday evening and flying to Bermuda, or flying to Puerto Rico or to [ ] and coming back Sunday afternoon, drawing three days pay and on three days of major's pay was flying pay. Earned more money than my boss could earn all week long at work.
D: Ah, where did you serve, this is for the record, where did you serve during World War II?
B: In World War II I served exclusively in the European Theater, arriving over there in November 1943. Flying my first combat mission in November of 1943. Transferring to, transferring to troop carrier early in 1944 and ah, doing extensive training in troop drops. Through March, April and May of 1944 and eventually flying deputy lead navigator when the very first squadron went over the beachhead. I ah, the lead navigator of course was, I was on the wing of the lead navigator and in other words, if the lead plane got shot down, my plane was ready to take the lead.
D: Were you pulling gliders or were you dropping paratroops?
B: Well, the first mission was to drop the paratroopers. Then eight hours later, we went in with the gliders. Into the same drop zone.
D: And that was really the night before D-Day, wasn't it?
B: Well, I, ah, I dropped my first paratroopers 44 minutes after midnight, the 505th paratroopers, now the interesting thing is that the 505th that I dropped 44 minutes after midnight in, a mile out of St. Mary Eglise was commanded by Col. Edward Krause. From Neenah. Not only that but Col. Krause's home was five houses down the street from my house where I live now. And where my family lived then. So those of us who live in Wisconsin who think that Wisconsinites were not there in style in Normandy on D-Day have another guess coming. We were. And it was Col. Krause although he did not know me and I did not know him, who sent out a patrol a mile or more into no-man's-land to rescue us when we were surrounded on three sides by Germans moving in on our burning airplane.
D: That was near St. Mary Eglise?
B: Yes. Actually my plane was laying in the road 800 yards from St. Martin [ ] . Which was a town three or four miles outside of St. Mary Eglise.
D: Probably west.
B: West of St. Mere Eglise And I hope that's the place I want to go back to. I hear that they have made a sort of roundabout in the road. My plane went down in this gully like a bowling ball. It was going down the gutter when we crashed.
D: It was a C-47?
B: C-47. And I understand that the French have left the wreckage right there and it's still there today. I'd like to go look.
D: I can imagine.
B: I have [ ]. And I dearly want my camera to take a picture of the site of the wreckage. Fifty years later.
D: Well, I hope you make it. Tell me, when you went into the service, ah, what led up to your arriving in England? Tell me a little bit about your trip over on the boat…
B: No, no. I flew over. We flew the southern route with the C-47…
D: To the Azores?
B: From ah, [ ] field at West Palm Beach we flew to [ ] field which is now known as [ ] Air Force Base in Puerto Rico. From Puerto Rico we took off and refueled at Waller Field in Trinidad. From Waller Field we flew to Atkinson Field in British Guinea. From Atkinson Field we flew into Belem, Brazil and refueled at the Pan American runway, and we were right opposite the docks where Pan American was landing its flying boats. And we refueled in Belem and took off past [ ] where incidentally I spotted a German sub through glasses. Circled the sub until some fighter planes came in and dive bombed the thing. And then we went on to Natal, Brazil. From Natal we took off , flying over the South Atlantic to Ascension Islands. And we were all rather nervous because none of us was 21 years old. We landed on Ascension Island just after dawn, refueled and went to Monrovia, Liberia. To Roberts Field at Monrovia. From there we went to Rufisque Field at Dakar in French West Senegal. We took off from Refisque by way of Attar and Tindu through the gap in the Atlas Mountains for Marrakech. Landing at the French aerodrome at Marrakech, we waited for good weather over the Atlantic. We flew from Marrakech up to a field in Rabat in Morocco called Port St. Louis where we refueled and topped all tanks off, including so-called bolero tanks in the cabin we carried. Six extra 100 gallon tanks that would give us six extra hours of flying. And we took off from Port St. Louis, it was 13 hours and 59 minutes before we were able to land at Balley, Wales. In England.
D: What was your field in England. Was that at Barry?
D: Where was that in regard to London?
B: Well it was on the west coast of course, but actually we weren't, ah, actually Barry, the actual field that ah, that we ended up landing at was down on the west coast of England. Ah, south of Wales, south of the Cardiff Channel. Can't remember the name of…
D: It must have been fairly close to Southampton.
D: Down in the Southampton area.
B: Well no. We were, Southampton's over on the east coast and we were on the West Coast. [ ] From there we stayed only one night. In our landing spot. And then we took off for [ ] Field at Nottingham. Nottingham was a field from which I was called 8th Air Force replacement crews. We turned our plane over and surprisingly enough the plane we flew over was picked up by guys who came over on the boat. After we'd flown it over. Ah, but they tell me they were gonna need me. Ah, they needed experienced navigators on B-17's and it looked like that's where I'd go. I flew a mission, two missions in B-17's as a relief navigator for the navigator on the crew had been wounded. And I was flown in and the funny part of it, I can't tell you for sure, I believe one of those bases that we took off from was Marham, that we took off from. Marham at Norwich. But anyhow, ah, after only two missions, I suddenly found myself at a troop, at the 435th Troop Carrier Group at Wellford Park. After a week or two, maybe two weeks at Wellford Park, I was transferred to the 438th at Newbury, Berkshire. The 88th Squadron of the 438th Troop Carrier Group. And I stayed with them for the duration of the war except when I was sent on temporary duty to Royal Air Force Pathfinder training. And to fly Pathfinder missions with the 4th Troop Carrier, 4th Pathfinder Squadron.
D: For the record, since posterity won't know this, explain what the Pathfinders were.
B: Oh. Well the Pathfinders were the British. I'll have to explain that the Royal Air Force, in the early parts of the war were throwing bombs all over Germany. And frequently missing targets by twenty five or thirty miles. Ah, it is not very hard as a navigator to get, become, ah, totally disoriented in the middle of combat. Therefore, the British took trained navigators and formed a pathfinder training school. The main thing that they had in pathfinding was "G box" or "Oboe" as it was also nicknamed I believe. Now it's interesting, I've used the names oboe and G box interchangeably and I was very, very familiar with the G. All my planes had G boxes on them. But G box had a limited range. Ah, after you went deeper into Germany than Cologne, say, the last 200 miles into Berlin, G was not too good. But, if you coupled this with H2X radar that the British had, and pinpointed yourself over the mainland with the G box and H2X, you could ride the H2X all the way to Russia if you wanted to. You just had to be careful what you did.
D: What was G as opposed to radar?
B: G box was similar to our Loran today. Except that it ah, we had long range Loran too. But the G gave us printed on the screen both lines, both lines of position. And our position was the center where they crossed and you could read your numbers instantly and get an instant position right off your map by looking at the screen.
The early ah, the early Loran which I also had at this time; in 1944 I was using Loran. This, the APM4 as we called it, required that you would tune one line of position, mark it, and tune the other line of position.
D: Did the Norden bombsight employ any of that?
B: No. But I…
D: Maybe a crosshair…
B: The Norden bombsight is a visual arrangement. And I must say they have never built a bombsight better than the Norden. The Norden bombsight corrected for every single possible error except the range component of cross trail error which it didn't cover. Ah, this would mean that as the wind drifted you one way or the other and you were correcting, you would come in, but the range component of this cross trail was not corrected and your bombs might fall 25 feet off from 24,000 feet. But if you're dropping a string of bombs and you're within a hundred feet you're gonna put 'em in there.
D: Now, to go on with that ah, can you describe some of your missions for example. Starting with perhaps a few minutes after midnight on June 6th which was D-Day.
B: I'll - on D-Day you see, the big problem in D-Day, I was in headquarters laying out the missions and making the decisions on where the 9th Air Force would go, even though I was barely a twenty year old navigator. We were going to be in the lead. Now we all remembered that in Sicily the, someone had run the troop carrier over the fleet and the fleet had shot down over half the troop carrier. I think there were twenty four planes that were shot down, the crews wiped out so the navy could have target practice. We were resolved that this would not happen over Normandy. So therefore the fleet came in off of Utah and Omaha beach. But Pete Armour sat with me and we, and he was the lead navigator with Col. Bob Gates and we all decided that the Guernsey and Jersey Islands would be the place for our initial point, "high P." We came across and flew completely across the [ ] Peninsula to Ste. Mere Eglise. Dropping our paratroopers ah, in that way without approaching the Allied fleet. Then we turned, flying up the coast to a point. Then back to ah, England to ah, Christchurch along an open corridor which was cleared.
Now the interesting part of the whole thing is that during my training in March, April and May I flew countless missions with the British Lt. Gen. R.M. Gayle. And got to know his wife Daphne DuMaurier quite well. We had dinner at the officers club frequently. And I thought, I thought quite a bit of Gen. Gayle. Now surprisingly enough, going through my maps I cannot find the map that I had, that I used in Normandy on D-day. Somehow I guess I left it at Eisenhower's headquarters after I was shot down. I think the general picked up my charts is what happened. I'm sure he did.
But later on General Gayle dropped over and in going through my maps last [ ], I have the map that I laid out for Gen. Gayle's navigator for the 6th British Airborne Drop. And I still have that map. And I'm thinking of donating it to the military museum.
D: Now tell me a little bit about ah, your other activities right around that same time at D-Day. [ ] You made more than one flight.
B: We got home that day. Obviously we dropped at forty four minutes after midnight and we were home on the ground sometime, I forget the exact time, about three o'clock in the morning, or three thirty. We landed at our base at Greenham Commons. Now we…
D: It was daylight then, wasn't it?
D: Yeah, because the British were on double British summer time…
B: Yeah, we went to bed though. Pretty soon. Now it was very, not only was it dark when we dropped, but the fireworks display from the Germans all the way across the [ ] Peninsula was a sight I'll never forget. It looked like the 4th of July all the way with roman candles coming up all over. I had never seen quite a show like that. They were shooting, the problem was they apparently could not see our airplanes. In the, in the ah, black of night. The overcast we were flying under.
D: No searchlights?
B: Apparently…I did not see searchlights. Though there were some, I did not see 'em but ah, automatic 20 mm. and 40 mm. Bofohrs which I knew were hot and heavy.
Now we came back, sometime about four o'clock in the afternoon we hooked up gliders. In broad daylight now. We crossed the Channel in C-47's in double glider tow. In broad daylight. Now we went in on the north side, on the north side of Utah Beach. And I could look out my left, the left pilot window and see a thousand, the whole area was paved with boats. And barrage balloons were all over the place and of course we were flying over the barrage balloons so fortunately we were off to the side of the actual landing beach. Ah, the area we flew over, ah, I thought at the time it might be in German hands. Ah, apparently the fighter division had gone in and heavily strafed that area. But as we approached the drop zone at Ste. Mere Eglise. Ah, we took shell fire and our right engine was hit. Also the right side of our airplane was hit although we didn't know it at the time. Ah, the engine started sputtering out and with the left engine wide open, we got to the drop zone. However we dropped our gliders, we were down about one hundred feet off the ground with the rest of our formation six hundred and fifty feet above us. Now our formation turned right to get out of there, and they all got home fine. There was only one thing about it. Our right engine was shot out and we were too slow to turn into a dead engine.
D: [ ] into the ground.
B: Yeah. So therefore we had to turn left. Well we got about three, four miles from the drop zone, trying to get up a hill and all of a sudden the whole top of the hill turned red and our good engine went out, in fact it went right out of the airplane as a matter of fact. We kinda stalled and we hit a German flak battery, got two of 'em, ah two eighty-eights. And we went between 'em, shearing a wing off on each one and dumping our load of gas right into the gun pits. Well the burning engines kept the Germans busy. We went over the top of the hill, and went into a road, went down this road for about a quarter of a mile. Just like a gutter ball in the bowling alley. Whereupon the fuselage of the airplane broke in half at what had been the trailing edge of the wings and we all fell out. I had gotten the entire crew back in the cabin before we crashed and we put our backs against the cabin walls. And to this day, I think that was better than safety belts. My pilot steered that plane 'til it got [ ]. Then he put his feet up on the instrument panel and it broke his safety belt and bent the panel all up but survived. The copilot safety belt held but his seat tore off and he went right physically through the front of the airplane and smashed him up pretty bad. He has been a cripple I guess most of the time since then. He was the only person of our crew that was injured. The radio operator, flight engineer, myself and our airplane commander were able to walk away from the wreckage.
D: That's a miracle. Now were you taken captive or were you behind our lines?
B: Well no. We were behind the German lines. And ah, we were always kind of thieves in those days. My pilot had been an ex marine and somewhere Sam [ ] had managed to, he had managed to steal or borrow or beg a Garand rifle. And he had a briefcase, it was supposed to have maps in it; it was jammed full of rifle ammunition. I had a navigation briefcase. In my navigation briefcase I had eleven loaded clips for our submachine gun which was the only weapon, plus several clips for my '45 that I had. But each of us carried a '45 and there was a submachine gun on the plane and that's the only armament it had. My crew chief I believe it was took the submachine gun for awhile. But then at the last minute, when we got to the beach head a day or two later, the guys had to go back and one of them wanted that machine gun very badly so we all piled, we all filled our pockets with German pistols that they gave us and gave them our submachine gun and what remained of our ammunition. Which wasn't very much. I think mainly I gave them the empty clips out of my briefcase. I think we only had four bullets left in the last clip when we go through to the lines.
D: So tell me what happened then. You got back to England, I presume.
B: Well it all started when I got to the beach head and got out on the beach. Well first of all we had a hospital there and we had our copilot and all the wounded paratroopers were available, loaded on this truck. And I mean we had 'em jammed all over the place. And we were hanging out on the hood and everything else. Now we ended up at the beach hospital with them. And we were pressed into, we carried the, the all those wounded into the hospital. Laid 'em down and everyone was busy.
And then I was told to get out of the hospital and get down to the beach head and I still had my briefcase in my hands. I got to the beach head and the beachmaster was a full colonel there and, "Who in the hell are you guys?" And well, "We were shot down back there." Well what… I said I was the navigator. "You're a navigator?" I said, "That's right." "What do you got in that…?" "I got maps." "Let's see those maps a minute." I opened it up and we sat down on the beach head and I showed him where we'd been and what areas were held. He was around and he marked up my maps for me. He said, "You're going to be on the next piece of equipment that gets off this beach head." With that, a 'duck' came up, he ordered priority and I was out to a boat. That boat was soon ordered to pull anchor and get for Southampton.
When I got to Southampton, there was a colonel on the dock screaming my name with a bull horn. I went up and reported to him, asked him if he was going to take me back. I told him that I was with the 438th Troop Carrier Group. He said, "Well I ain't going there." But he said, "You're going with me." I wondered where he was taking me and after about a half hour's drive or so he pulled up in front of a place. There was just a little sign outside. It said, "SHAEF Headquarters." He opened the door and called inside. He says, "General, I got that navigator from the beach head for ya." Out came Gen. Eisenhower, grabbed my hand, "We need you." Here I am, covered with mud, I didn't have a thing on me that wasn't muddy. Layin in the ditches. Eisenhower asked someone if they couldn't fix me up with a respectable uniform, which they did. I came out after a quick shower and a clean uniform and sat down. He says, "I suppose you need something to eat." Well, out came a fine breakfast; ham, eggs and everything. And I looked behind me and here was a very detailed map of the entire beach head. And he says, "First of all, lieutenant, I'm going to introduce you to the men here at the table." And he started out with Gen. Patton and Gen. [ ] and Gen. Omar Bradley, and Gen. , ah, and Field Marshall Montgomery, and Gen. Demsey, and Leslie McNair, Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair was there…
D: He was killed subsequently to that…
D: He was killed at St. Lo. McNair was killed at…
B: I know. Oh yeah. McNair was killed at St. Lo. And this has been a sore spot with me ever since. As you know, later on in my career I was an instructor in visual bombing as well as being a radar instructor. And of course at St. Lo, McNair was killed by bombs that fell short. Now here is the problem that we were faced with at this time.
D: The bombs either fell short or he was up too far.
B: Well that's a real good question. Probably was both. But you must realize that I was considered an experienced navigator. I had been shot down and returned. I had not yet been commissioned one year as a navigator. You do not learn to be a precision navigator in combat in one year.
Now after I was shot down, 'course I flew, I was scheduled for Royal Air Force Pathfinder school. And then the 4th Pathfinders. But I did fly with the 438th in Holland. At Eindhoven, Nijmegen and all of that.
D: When they crossed the lower Rhine…
B: That area. Now. And then I went back to Pathfinder school. Pretty soon I met I guy by the name of Gen. Jesus Lazarus who later on became director of CIA clandestine activities. And under his ah, direction I started flying, well he was Maj. Lazarus then. Ah, he became Gen. Lazarus. I began flying clandestine missions dropping OSS troopers into Germany and along the Rhine River area at night. And into France. Into the depths of France where the Germans were still in control. Ah, it really, if you were, if you were careful and held your altitude under 200 feet, and knew where you were and even when on fairly dark nights but had good enough vision to map read and follow your roads and railroad tracks.
This was a very safe kind of mission. If you went up above 500 feet, it was not safe and you'd end up with a German night fighter and 'that was all she wrote.' Once you tangled with one, you wouldn't get rid of him. That was it. But you could fly 100-150 feet off the deck. And our planes soon all had radar altimeters. And they had red, green, amber. I'd set the radar altimeters for 100 feet and tell the pilot to fly with the amber light on. I didn't want to see the green. And I had some of the finest pilots in the world. I had pilots that would, over enemy territory, under extremely difficult conditions, hold the course I gave them within a degree [ ]. That takes precision and you must realize that these guys were all civilians two years before that. So, but when you ask people to become professional airmen in two years… I'd like to step at this point into another war, to show you what I mean.
In Viet Nam we had a place called Ke Sanh. And our object was to supply Ke San. We had to re-supply it under the fire of Viet Cong gunners. The C-130 Hercules planes that were used to supply Ke Sanh were ideally suited for it. They're a very strong airplane. They're strong enough to do a complete, a complete acrobatic routine. They could be looped, they could be rolled. You could do everything with them. Although they were four engine transports. As long as you flew them like fighter planes. And came in five or six thousand feet over Ke San and rolled out and came damn near straight down and dropped gear and flaps and flared out sharp at the runway like a, like you're doing a carrier landing. Open up the back door and dump the darn stuff out and gun the engines and get out of there. You're home free.
The problem was at that time I had 23, 22 or 23 years of service and was grounded and very irritated because young navigators coming along were trying to land these airplanes at Ke Sanh like they landed them at airports and wondered why they got the living hell shot out of them. They'd park 'em on the ramp and unload 'em. [ ] You can't do that. Now when I got into the, when we considered things at a later date, we finally, after pilots got experienced, now we can take a C-130 transport in on a dirt runway, throw a hook out the back and dump the stuff out on the ground while the plane is still flying in the air and take off. This should have been [ ]. We would have never lost an airplane.
Much of the, much of the loss that we have in combat comes from - am I running out of tape? Much of the loss that we have in combat comes from inexperienced people who do not seem to have combat vision. Ahead of them. And this is not to belittle them. For example, ah when I was …
Let's see, where did I leave off from the last tape? It was something, I had mentioned the fact that Ke Sanh ah, and places like that, they… We really ah, I really wonder if the proper thing to do in the Air Force is to retire people at twenty. At thirty, yes. But it takes fifteen or twenty years for a person today in the technical military that we have to master his trade. And until they master the trade, they are in a learning proposition. And this was brought forth to me very forcibly.
When I got out of the Pathfinders where I flew with real pros, the Royal Air Force boys, who'd been around…. I flew with Wing Commander Gibson on his two hundred and I think, fifty sixth mission. Now ah, in the meantime ah, American troops flew twenty five missions and went home. However, it was very noticeable that Americans who flew twenty five or thirty missions over Germany and went back to the 'States and flew B-29s over Tokyo after that were a whole 'nother ball game because they'd had time to sit down and digest what they knew. And our losses over Tokyo were infinitely less than losses over Germany. The moral of the story is: the untrained, untrained people have heavier losses. And what is the lesson we're learning today? The lesson today is that our military is being downgraded and is being weakened as far as it can be weakened. Now obviously, we don't need the military now that we needed when Russia was in ascendancy. Ah, but on the other hand, our problems seem to be ah, more difficult. Especially in places like Somalia where we don't seem to be able to handle and master a simple little thing like handling a little war lord in Mogadishu. What we've got to do is maintain in position people who would know how to handle situations like this.
Ah, I guess that the best book I've seen lately that's come out on it is Norman Schwartzkoff's book, It Does Not Take A Hero. And if you have not read it, and are interested in military logistics and how to handle things in battle, one should read this book.
D: We're too anxious you think, to rotate troops home ah, when they've only been away for six months. When most of us were away for two years before we got home.
B: Now that's the whole thing you see. Ah, sure. Combat crew's a rough deal. And there's nothing wrong with [ ] and R&R here at times. There's nothing wrong with taking thirty days and relaxing with family and coming back. This is fine. But those that get through those twenty five missions are probably gonna make fifty or maybe a hundred missions. And some of the best German aces flew nine hundred to one thousand missions. And they lived through them and they were hard men to beat up in the sky. And I know that one of the souvenirs I gave to the museum was a camera out of Hubert Zemke's P-47 Thunderbolt. It, the plane had ah, been lying wrecked at the end of the runway at the end of the war. Ah, Colonel Zemke hit the runway with it while he was strafing German airplanes and bent his propeller blades and Col. Zemke said he could not get back to England with the props all bent. So…
D: Makes for a pretty rough engine.
B: So he pulled up and bailed out and the plane turned abound and sort of bellied in. Part of it did not burn and part of it burned but anyhow the camera in the wing was alright. Brought it home for a souvenir and now its over at the museum.
D: Did you get - were the films o.k.?
B: Well the film had been taken out by the Germans. But I got the - they opened up the door and removed the film but I got the camera. Thank heavens.
D: Now tell me if you will what experiences do you like to recall? What stands out in your mind that you don't have any problem talking about
B: Well I guess I enjoyed that day's visit at SHAEF headquarters. Unfortunately…
D: We should point out to posterity that SHAEF meant…
B: Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. And every, on that day every command, every general in command was there. I think the thing that strikes me the most, as I start showing positions, I believe the exact words, Gen. Patton's exact words were, "Balls of fire, I should have been on that beach head yesterday morning." And Montgomery saying, "I [ ] there, Gen. Dempsey. I think we ought to be able to set up our headquarters Monday, next Monday morning." I think that amplifies in my own mind the difference between the two generals. They did not see eye to eye on [ ]. Omar Bradley and the rest looked, didn't say anything especially, except that they felt that they oughta get over, they all, the remark was that it looked like our beach head was firm enough for them to set up headquarters on the [ ].
And so far as I know, I [ ] I got out of SHAEF headquarters and got home to my base [ ] that afternoon. And when I got to the base there was nobody there. Finally I found ah, a British ah, mechanic, ah he was cleaning up and picking up and I was wondering where the hell is everyone? "They're all over at the base chapel having services for the crew that got shot down."
I walked into the chapel just as my squadron commander said, "It's a shame that Lieutenant Baer has been taken from us at such a young and tender age."
D: Must be nice to go to your own funeral service.
B: Later on, as my wife and ah, we're sitting up here in Neenah and Col. Bob Gates who was up here for EAA and a couple other officers from our 438th were up here, Al Perry, who came up several times, stayed with me. Al Perry [ ]…
D: You keep contact with these people?
B: Oh yes. Oh yeah. We. Oh yes. Al Perry was the maintenance officer of the 89th squadron, I don't remember which but anyhow he was the squadron maintenance officer and a good one. And of course Carl Hash was our own operations officer in the 88th squadron.
D: Who do you, of all the people that you've met who was the most interesting person? Most interesting individual? Person that you've met, Ike and some of those are kinda hard to say.
B: Yeah. I did have, I did have a private audience in February '45 with the Pope. And ah, I was rather struck by the fact that the Pope spoke very fine, very understandable English.
D: That was [ ]
B: No. That was Pope Pius XII. [ ] He was still in there and I was told later that there was one thing he never did. He had never given a private audience to a German or an Italian. But ah, when I came in and told someone that I wanted some rosaries blessed, and a missal. And they came in and [ ] come on over. He had audiences where the public could come in and kiss his ring and all that. I was able to come in and sit in a chair and talk to him personally. I was very impressed with that.
D: Do you keep in touch with any of your buddies? Paul mentioned some…
B: Oh yes. Ah, we ah we had approximately one hundred of our ah, of our 438th Troop Carrier Group members at our reunion in September of 1993.
D: Where was that?
B: At McGuire Air Force Base. And of course I guess to me the interesting thing was, it may not be something for the Guiness Book of Records but I flew my first combat mission against the Germans in November 1943. I flew my last, took off on my last combat mission to take a ride to Somalia in a C-141 Starlifter in September 1993. Just seven weeks short of 50 years between my first and last.
D: How do you think that your experiences ah, changed your life? When you got back.
B: Well, I got in service not because I cared anything against, about the military, but because I had a great love of flying. Flying I loved. I would have flown for nothing. Ah, by the time I got in service, I guess I was a rather happy go lucky ah, certainly not too well disciplined. And not a very knowledgeable individual. By the time I got out of service, I was certainly ready to take over in a supervisory, in a supervisory position. Almost any [ ]..
D: It had matured you.
B: Oh yes. I ah, as a matter of fact, now that I look back, my oldest son was a Marine paratrooper and Green Beret in Viet Nam. My other children did not serve. They were too young. The oldest son has done very well at making his own business. My son-in-law also was a Navy pilot and an Annapolis Academy graduate. These two people have made their own way in a very outstanding way. My son is Assistant Director for Health Education and Welfare for the state of Florida and besides that has his own CPA business where he has forty graduate accountants working in his ah, corporation for him. And I have no idea how much but he certainly does not have financial problems. My daughter and her husband, son-in-law as Director of Operations for Martin Marietta and Director of Engineering that he was. Certainly have no problems in handling of high pressure boiler type job without letting it shake [ ].
D: How many of those were in the military? [ ] Just the oldest one was …
B: My oldest was in and my son-in-law. Now my next son tried. He's now dead. He died several years ago. And my baby son wandered around awhile. It was only after he got through Navy welding school and got to be a certified Navy journeyman welder and started working in naval shipyards and had the discipline for doing precision hard stuff instilled by the Navy. Even though he was a civilian that enabled him to forge ahead to the point where he is in charge of day to day operations on the computer; the computer that drives the Chevron Refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. And in his…
D: He wasn't actually in the Navy but got trained by…
B: That's right. Ah, these are the things and of course I'm looking at ah three men who ah, I made ah, under no way can I find out what they earn. They might be my own sons but they wouldn't tell me. If I asked 'em, and I don't. [ ] but I'm sure that they earn something over a hundred, probably over a hundred fifty thousand dollars a year. Apiece. Exactly what I [ ]
Of course my youngest son, my daughter and his wife, my daughter-in-law there is the brains of the family. She has a bachelor's in engineering, a bachelor's in theoretical mathematics and a masters in petroleum engineering.
Ah, today, if anyone's listening to me, don't attempt to even think about going out in life until you're well trained. [ ] Without the training and without the discipline, ah life will be a disaster.
D: Now this will conclude the interview on January 11 with Leonard Baer, retired major and will not be, it's a continuation of an interview, the beginning of which is on a separate tape. It will not be used indiscriminately. And Mr. Baer, Major Baer is going to put his voice on this tape, giving the interviewer which is Gordon Doule, control over the contents.
B: In other words, I am giving this so that being 70 years of age, I would like to have posterity know what these things were like that happened 50 years ago. I do not feel that these tapes should necessarily be used by any other group for hire or for pay unless it is to benefit a ah, to benefit a good non-profit cause.
Oral History Interview with Leonard L. Baer
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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