|Cassette recorded oral history interview with Paul Fergot by Gordon Doule. He discusses his experiences during WWII in B-24 Bombers as a navigator and POW.
Interview with Paul Fergot
Conducted by Gordon Doule
November 18, 1993
F: My name is Paul Fergot, and I'm 71 years old. I was born on the 21st of September, 1922, in Embarrass, in Waupaca County, Wisconsin. My wife was Loa Hutchins, born and raised in Neenah and we were married September 5, 1942. I'm a mechanical engineer and was in administration in a paper felt mill, Appleton Mills, when I retired at age 65. We have two children, boys; our older boy is named Dion and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, works for Social Security. Our younger son, Gary, lives here in Oshkosh, and is a administrator in a corrections - State of Wisconsin Corrections Department. I went to school, most of my pre-college years in Wautoma - Wautoma High School. Graduated in 1941, then I took three semesters at Oshkosh State Teachers' College before I enlisted in the service. In the service, I had a semester at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown. Then I finished and took my degree in mechanical engineering at the University in Wisconsin in Madison. Graduated in 1949 and came to Oshkosh. My family moved to Oshkosh and I came with them in 1941, and then Loa and I moved back in 1949 after I graduated, and went to work for Carl Steiger at Deltox until they went out of business, and then I went to work for Appleton Mills in Appleton.
I was in the Air Force - active duty from 1942 through 1945 - and then another seven years in the Reserves. I was enlisted in November of 1942 and was called to active duty, actually, the first day of February of 1943, and was discharged in 1953 from the Reserves.
My recollections about Oshkosh, prior to my enlistment deal mostly with my time at the University and the fact that I met, and courted, and married my wife who shared my life with me since then, just now over 51 years. Question of what was different about my hometown when I returned - well, I was really not here for any extended period of time. It seems as though there was plenty of work in spite of the number of veterans returning, and I found, while I was waiting to get into the next semester at the university, I found it was relatively easy to get a good job at the Wisconsin Axle. It seems as though most everybody works at the Axle at one time or another.
I worked with Marty Kozak in the Tool Design Department, since I had some drafting before I went into training at University, before I went into the service. And I stayed there until the January semester of 1946 when Loa and I moved to Badger Village Veterans' Housing near Baraboo and we lived there until I took my degree. I rode the bus 35 miles one way every day for that period of time.
Combat: I served in the EAME, the European Eastern Mediterranean Area - flew with the 15th Air Force, 460th Bomb Group, out of Spinazzola, Italy. Probably...I like to recall my experiences, actually, but one that I like to recall most - and find both good and bad about - but mostly some very good, is the fact that when I was shot down and before I was taken prisoner, I spent better than two months as a guest of an Italian family in the Po River Valley in northern Italy. Some very, very interesting experiences that we had. And what brings it to mind particularly right now, is that for our 50th wedding anniversary, a year ago, Loa and I wanted to do something special, and so looking over, on 50 years, we realized that the time that I was in Europe in the Service was the only time we hadn't shared our experiences. We were apart for the better part of a year. And so we decided to go back and share some of the things that I had done, some of the experiences that I had, and so forth. We had lost contact with the Italians who had hosted me. We made arrangements to go back to Europe and visit some of the areas, either that I had been at, or which otherwise were important during the war, such as the Ardennes and Nijmegen Bridge head, and the Rhine area, and down through the Brenner Pass where I actually hitchhiked in January of 1945, and finally down to Italy. We, by mail, discovered that of the nine people who had hosted me and the co-pilot of our crew, at the risk of their lives, six of them still survived and five of them were anxious to meet with us, in the same home where we were hosted 49 years previously.
D: Then you were not really a prisoner of war, as such?
D: Did the authorities know that you were being...
F: Eventually the Fascists were told - it's kind of a long story, but there were one or two other families in the area that knew that we were being held privately there. One of them had a son who was of military age. When the Armistice with Italy was signed, all the military people, (non-Fascist, just the regular army people), went home, or tried to go home. In the meantime, behind the lines, in the area that was occupied by Germany, the Fascists were rounding up these people, and arresting them and sending them up into Germany for forced labor. One of the families had a young man at home that had also knew that we were staying with the Spillers and hoping that things would go better with them, they told the Fascists what the situation was. To this day I don't know who beat the Fascists to where we were staying, but somebody did and told us that they were coming, so we were forced out into the fields. We lived for about two weeks in haylofts and corn shocks, trying to find some way to get south - we were about 40 miles north of the battle lines - and we were unable to do it. In the meantime a couple of other evadees - evaders - that we had met were captured by the Fascists and killed - one of them beaten to death and the other was hung in the square. We knew that anybody was safer, actually, as a prisoner of war under the Germans than if he was caught by the Fascists, and since we couldn't get south, and we knew nobody and we knew that the Fascists knew we were there, we decided that we'd rather be prisoners of war than corpses, so we turned ourselves into the Germans, in fact.
D: Then you spent the rest of the time with the Germans until the surrender? Or did...
F: We were taken about the 18th of December and then we spent Christmas actually in an Italian Guard House, or jail, but under the auspices of the Germans. Then after the first of the year, we literally hitch-hiked to - two guards and three prisoners - hitch-hiked up from Bolzano up through the Brenner Pass and into Innsbruck, Austria and then finally to Frankfurt where the Dulag Luft Interrogation Camp was, and spent some time there in solitary and were interrogated, and then went on went up to Stalag Luft I in Germany. We were there until May 1 when we were liberated.
D: That's really interesting. Who, during that period of time, I would imagine that the Italian families were the most interesting people that you knew...
F: Surprisingly not!
D: Oh?! Who was your most...
F: The most interesting person I met, was at least indirectly responsible for our having to take to the fields and eventually being taken prisoner, and his name was Elio Bocatto. If you try to visualize the movies that you may have seen, years ago, where you had Latino types of villains, with dark, sparkling, evil eyes...
D: Floppy spadora... [laughter]
F: Well, he didn't have that, but basically the expression on his face was such that you know he was evil when you met him. He was very proud to use the American word 'gangster.' Whether or not he was a communist is anybody's guess, because basically he was just a gangster. He had a small band of people, and he literally had a bandoleer over each shoulder with ammunition and he carried a Tommy gun and a pistol in his belt. Surprisingly, he had a young brother who was my age and was - traveled with him with his band - but who was very much different in every way. Just a neat young kid. Anyway, Bocatto, two times while we were with the Spillers, came, in a band, with their weapons, and indicated that they could get us across the lines. What they really wanted, of course, was to find some way to get some money out of the fact that we were there. They were being chased by the fascists almost continuously. According to Elio Bocatto's story, he was - one reason for his attitude and one reason why he was doing this kind of thing was that he claimed the Fascists had beaten, raped and killed his sister.
D: They were actually what you'd call the Italian Underground, then?
F: Accept that they weren't associated with any Underground Movement, they were just a little band of gangsters. One time they came, they said had a boat on the shore of the Po River Valley - where we were was right on the mouth of the river. This was a couple of miles from the shore on the Adriatic. He told us he had a boat down there and was gonna take us by boat, within 50, 60 miles to get south of the battle lines, actually. And each time that this happened they'd they would take their bicycles and we'd all walk at night and then sleep in barns in the daytime, and two or three days we'd be gone and then turn around and come back. Of course, we couldn't speak Italian so we didn't know exactly what they were saying. We knew 'Andiamo' meant, 'Come on, we're gonna go' and stuff like that, but in both cases whatever they had planned wasn't successful and they would turn around the bring us back to this Spiller family and leave us there.
D: Did any people in the Spiller family speak English, or how were you able to converse with them... Mostly sign language or something?
F: Well, believe it or not, in roughly two months, if you are living with somebody who speaks a foreign language you learn an awful lot. Today, even, I was surprised - we spent a night in Venice before we rented a car last year, to drive down in the Po River Valley. I called to make sure where we would meet them - they were expecting us and everything - on the phone, and I was able to at least communicate with them in Italian, after 50 years, and I've never really spoken it at all.
D: You just lived with it. Then you start to think with it. If you start to think in a foreign language then you've got it made. School books don't do it. They teach you conjugation of verbs, but...
F: This Bocatto was the embodiment of evil, and what he did a week before the Fascists created this havoc that caused us to have to leave: he went to a family, about a block away from where we were, this was all rural. He apparently knocked on the door, and what he did, he subsisted off of wherever he could go and say, 'Feed me.' So he went to this home, and apparently the family probably was just to poor to have anything that they could give him to eat. He went and asked for dinner, and for one reason or another they didn't feed him, so he took his Tommy gun, wiped them all out and left a note - 'This is what happens to people who don't feed Bocatto'. Well, that started the Fascists with what they called the restrelemento or 'raking up' and they went from house to house to house and searched from attic to basement. Eventually they went to this home where we were hiding out so that's how this all happened, it was all basically Bocatto. Eventually, the Fascists cornered him in a culvert somewhere, threw a couple of hand grenades in and finished him off. I don't know what happened to his little brother. I've often wondered because he had a lot of potential.
D: Getting back to before you were shot down, how many missions...Were you a pilot?
F: I was a navigator. It was our 20th mission when we were shot down.
D: Can you tell us anything about of those combat missions that were possibly a little more spectacular than others?
F: Well, some of the most spectacular - I think anybody who flew combat missions had planes shot down or blown up around them. Contrary, I guess, to most inexperienced people, instead of being most afraid of the unknown you became most afraid of the known. The first mission you were curious. By the 20th, if you knew tomorrow was a combat mission, you probably didn't sleep.
D: You probably agonize a little bit when you go through the briefing room at the EAA Museum...
D: ...about some of the experiences that you went through prior to missions...
F: That's my favorite spot at the EAA, is that briefing room.
D: Mine also.
F: When I work as a docent, I almost invariably make sure that people realize that there is some legitimate black and white screening of an actual briefing for a combat mission. Well, I could...
D: What kind of planes were you in?
F: B-24 - Liberators.
D: Liberators. Did you get involved in any of those [ ] raids?
F: Too late for [ ]. But I made Vienna, Munich, and as I recall it was 800 anti-aircraft guns at Vienna, and 1100 at Munich, so there was no shortage of flak. I guess I had three or four interesting missions prior to combat, and several afterward. Probably one of the most interesting facts was the fact that I, technically, was more qualified for combat duty as a navigator, because I graduated from Selman Field Navigation School on the 10th of June. We had ten days at home and then my orders called for me to go to Muroc Air Force Base in California, which is now Edwards, of course. They stopped en route at Fresno where they did physicals. I took my physical at Fresno, they held me over for a week - there were some things they wanted to check - and that caused me to miss out on my schedule at Muroc. My schedule was, of course, was to go there for replacement training - RTU. And to join a new crew that trained together for eight weeks I believe it was, eight, ten weeks. Get to know the crew, get to know the B24, and so forth. Well, because I was delayed a week when I got there I had been replaced, and put into a navigative pool, which said you're gonna sit there until something happens, and we've got an opening for you. Well, it was only a week and Crew 139 had a navigator most of the crew felt was...malingering. In any case...
D: Or what they used to say, 'gold bricking?'
F: He had problems with his nose, he said, relating to altitude, in any case, he left the crew, with one week of training left, and they substituted me. So I had one week in which I ran instrument calibration missions and I think it was one gunnery mission. And then we flew one simulated combat mission in which they made me the squadron, or group lead navigator, flew out over the Pacific Ocean. That was the sum total of all my training. The sum total of the time that I had with my crew. We then left by train, went to Hamilton Field, outside of San Francisco and picked up a brand new B24J, and I had to, with that background, I had to calibrate all the instruments on the new plane, and the pilots, of course, checked it out, and then the flight engineer checked it out. And we flew the northern route to Italy by way of...
D: Iceland? Greenland?
F: No, when I say northern route as compared to going down through South America we flew by way of Texas, and Grenier, New Hampshire, and Gander, Newfoundland and then from Gander down to the Azores.
D: That was a circuitous route.
F: Yes. And from Azores to Marrakech in North Africa, and then to Italy.
D: Where were you stationed in Italy, then?
F: Spinazzola, it's down by [ ]. The mission that we flew from Gander to the Azores, the entire distance we flew over- and under-cast. And one of the things that I had not related to, of course I didn't have the opportunity without having RTU, but it was not a type of situation that was ever covered in navigation school, what do you do when you've got no radio and you've got nothing underneath you, the only thing you've got to navigate with was the sun. So the only option wasn't anything particularly brilliant because the only option you had was to shoot sun lines. In order to get a fix from a sun line you had to be an hour apart. So it took three hours - two hours actually - three hours to find out whether, in fact, you were on course. And if you found out you weren't if you didn't get a fix. if you got a big triangle, you could be most anywhere.
D: And you usually were. [laughter]
F: More luck than skill, and apparently some very accurate meteorological winds that we started out with, after the third hour I got a fix and I got a point. And so we flew on the basis of that, but after that every hour I got a fix because I could [ ]
D: And at that time you were a pretty young man. You weren't even 20 years old at that time, were you?
F: I was 21.
D: But even then, after one week you did miraculously well.
F: The amazing things was that the crew was willing to trust me. Because at that point in time I hadn't even met then more than about two weeks ago.
D: You were over a pretty good-sized chunk of water.
F: Like I say, without luck and skill... when the pilot asked for a final heading, and I gave him a final heading and an ETA. And I always have to rely on the other members of my crew, because I think maybe I'm very biased about this, but when we drop down through that over-cast after flying all that distance, and we see the size of the Azores, the runway was in front of us. Zero-zero mission has to be on luck alone. Sure, you shot your lines accurately and all that, but if the winds had been off, any one of a million things could have happened.
D: Now, tell me a little bit about your missions, as to whether it was flak that got you or whether it was fighters, did you have any encounters with fighters and so forth...
F: Practically the only fighter planes I saw in 20 missions were the Tuskegee Airmen. Of course, respected they had the reputation and they demonstrated it, too. By that time, most of the missions that we flew, they could accompany us a significant part of it.
D: For the record, the Tuskegee Airmen were black pilots - Negro pilots.
F: We're talking now from August through October of '44. Most of the German fighter planes were basically north, fighting the 8th Air Force, what was left, so we didn't see an awful lot of them. We did see a lot of very heavy flak, and I mentioned before about having to check with my crew, I have some problems, and I don't think it's mine, but in any case, on Prodigy on my computer we have a bulletin board, I've taken it off now because it's kind of a closed corporation. But there's a group that log on and off on the bulletin board that call themselves the B24 Roll Call, and they like to share their memories and experiences and so forth. I've been back and forth with some of them, and one of them recalls the same mission that I recall, and I still have my 201 file incidentally, I mention I have everything, all my records, so I can go back and say, yeah, this date we flew this mission and we took off at this time and we flew for so many hours. Anyway, this fella recalls being attacked by enemy aircraft and he tells a thrilling story about it, and I simply don't remember ever having been attacked by enemy aircraft. He was in the same Air Force, and it would have been the same group on that specific mission. Some times our recollections are different. But I don't recall - I've seen some really disastrous results from anti-aircraft fire, including the last mission we flew...
D: Did all of your fellas get out?
D: You were able to stay together then? What were there, ten men?
F: There were ten men and the flight engineer was very seriously wounded. He lost practically the entire right side of his face - his lower jaw and he still has no upper palate. He lost his right eye. He spent three years, as a matter of fact, in VA hospitals after he got back. He looks reasonably decent now but he finds it difficult to eat anything that isn't soft...
D: Obviously, you've kept in touch with him. Was he a local?
F: He's from Pennsylvania - near Pittsburgh. Six of the ten Air Crew members are alive. About every other year we try to have a reunion. We had one here three years ago at the EAA convention.
D: You don't have a 15th Air Force reunion?
F: Yeah, every other year. And the 460th Bomb Group reunion every other year.
D: Are either of them still in action? I was with the 9th it's still...
F: 15th is still stationed at [ ] Air Force Base and they have a museum there.
D: Your old bomb group is still active?
F: Not 460th.
D: My old 416th is, and my old squadron 668, they were upgraded ROST and we have our reunions, too. That's very interesting. Well, let's see if there is anything else that we can put into posterity? I won't get this chance a hundred years from now. [laughter]
F: What would you like? I can tell all kinds of stories.
D: Of course, you were married all the time you were in the service. So you didn't have any of these escapades like some of us that weren't... Get into the local community and have a few dates with the ladies of the community and so forth.
F: No, but I think part of it has to do with who we were. Our bombardier was kind of a different breed. Very shortly after we moved into our tent, our officers had a tent, the four of us, and very shortly after we got there apparently he felt that he was more like what you're talking about and he moved out and moved in with some other fellas. The rest of us were pretty...even though I was the only one that was married, were pretty sedate types of people. My first pilot who was 20...19...celebrated his 20th birthday in prisoner-of-war camp, was just extremely mature for his age, and incidentally, the best first pilot in the 15th Air Force.
D: He managed to see that you all got out of that plane, didn't he?
F: Yeah, and one image that I will carry with me until I die, is, I was the next to the last person out. So I saw the expression on his face when he was holding the plane, trying to keep it up long enough, with two engines out and one that he couldn't feather, and turning around to see that everybody was out and I was the last one to go, so I was the last one to see him in the plane, and I'll never forget that.
D: He was true to his word and he was the last one out?
D: Testimonial to the kind of guys we had.
F: I've run into this phrase, or reference, since then, by other people. It's interesting how you think you originated something, and you discover that other people have used the same phrase, but our crew members always said this little saying, when he was flying which he flew, incidentally, number two position after our first combat mission he was moved up.
And his commanding officer said, hey, after the second mission, he said, I wanted somebody up there that was good, but he said, we got a crazy man. He stuck that big old Davis wing right into the [ ] window of the number one position and just held it there and I was sitting up in the nose trying to navigate, the minute the co-pilot took over I knew it.
D: The airplane flew differently.
F: But he was good.
D: That was a lot of airplane. Whole bunches of [ ]
D: It was totally different than the B-17 that everybody touts so much.
F: Sure was. We'd come back from a mission and he'd come over and dip his wing, and slip it down like that and practically land standing still.
D: It takes a [ ] of talent, and as you point out he was only 19 or 20 years old.
F: Yeah! Incredible today when you look back.
People can't believe it when I tell them that so many of the fellas that I was working with were 18. 18! Now at the college they call them kids. I refuse.
F: I'll tell you another anecdote - pre-combat - that is interesting for a number of reasons. You, of course, are familiar with [ ]
D: Yes, indeed!
F: As I mentioned, I didn't have any RTU, so essentially I went right from navigation school to combat. And typically, I guess, of the military - the navigator's log that we used in combat was arranged entirely differently from the ones we used in school. When we got to Marrakech we were filed down - stood down - for several days because of bad weather and Gideon was first pilot, Jones was a real eager beaver. He was a guy that wouldn't accept a [ ] mission. If we didn't complete the mission, if we had to abort for some reason, he went so far, they'd give you credit for it even though it wasn't a regular successful mission, and he wouldn't accept the credit, he'd say, I'll fly that one over again. So he was anxious to get to Italy, and when they gave us clearance we ran out to the airplane and before I had the chance to think straight, he was down the runway, [ ] and fell out the nose wheel door and then I put my log together, and flew up to Algiers and Tunis, and between the two of them, somewhere I added the wrong figures on my flight log, and instead of flying essentially, directly east, I was going 90 degrees off course straight south, went down into the desert. We flew that way for an hour [ ] pilotage. On my - whatever I was looking for - which I can't remember now - didn't show up and I started checking my figures and discovered that we had been flying for an hour ninety degrees off course. And I recall, very clearly, when I called to tell him, I didn't call him until I knew what the correction was, and I could give it to him.
D: During your navigation, let's say, on a mission, did you have to stay right at your table - you were constantly making corrections and so forth - you never manned a gun?
F: No, of course we did have to be trained, all navigators and bombardiers had to go to gunning school. But I never had the opportunity. In theory, if something happened to the nose gunner, then I was back-up.
D: Did the bombardier, for the most part, man a gun until he was, or after he didn't drop his bombs?
D: He stayed right at his position?
F: Yeah. Our nose gunner was basically full-time. The bombardier sat up in the wing - he was back up for flight engineer and top [turret] or he was the second back-up in the nose gun.
D: Tell me this, if you weren't able to drop your bombs, in other words you had an overcast or something that prevented it, did you try to take your bombs to someplace else and drop it?
F: We had targets of opportunity and secondary targets.
D: Secondary targets, but were you permitted to do, just indiscriminately, if you couldn't see your secondary target, just go bomb something?
F: I can't answer that because I don't think that it ever happened to us. At least twice we had to jettison...
D: You had to get rid of it. Well, the reason why I ask is, that I know, that in our outfit, we were told that if we would do that it was a court-martial offense as to go find a village and drop your bombs on it.
F: It should have been.
D: Well, we were told that it was a court-martial offense. I wanted to get that out into the record that it wasn't normally - did you just go someplace and drop your bombs, if we couldn't drop our bombs, why,
we were told to [ ] into the English Channel...
F: Clearly, again, I don't remember the rule, but I remember what we did and why we did it, and in both cases, we would have been better off had we been able to jettison over land, because one time we ran out of gas and got a vapor lock just as we hit land fall over Italy and actually had to bail out. And we didn't jettison the bomb until we [ ].
D: And you bailed out?
F: We bailed out, yeah.
D: I think that's about it, then, unless you have something else, Paul, that stands out in your mind...How do you think your experiences changed your life once you got back?
F: Well, I think that my experience had kind of like a three-fold effect. When I came back I was...I had been a prisoner of the Germans, and I had been very fortunate to have been an officer and to have been in the Air Force, so I had really no complaints whatsoever, in terms of how I'd been treated. The WWI Esprit de Corps was still basically in existence, and people that took us prisoner, and took us up into Germany treated us with respect. We went from the Po River Valley to Bozano by car, and at that point was when we had done such a good job on both the [ ] Passes and the Brenner Pass that there were no regular transportation going at all. We stopped at a castle at Bozano, stayed overnight, and again, we were treated with respect. They had a dormitory room there for American prisoners of war in transit. Unfortunately, by that time we were infested with lice and we admitted to the to the commanding...
...a number of very human things, though, that happened to me in the POW camp, in the interrogation camp, during Christmastime. Perhaps, probably, because I'm also a descendent of a Pomeranian, I came out thinking that something had to be done, that people who fought wars had nothing to do with them and shouldn't be fighting them. I was very, very strongly in favor of some kind of world government, because I felt that the average man was just a pawn. The people that I met from all the countries, including Russia, were basically the same, and we're all the same. So I came back with some real strong feelings about that type of thing. And I think like most of the, I don't want to get into the politics of all of that, but most of the veterans that came back from WWII at the time, said, it's over, forget it. There wasn't a mad rush to join all the veterans' organizations and drive in parades and wave flags or anything else. We went back to our family, we went to school, we raised our kids, and then somewhere along the line you and I reached a point in time when we began to realize that we were part of a very significant and very important part of history. And we didn't want that to get lost. And almost by magic, in a way, all of us started contacting those whom we had lost, I hadn't [ ] my crew members, I didn't know if they were all alive ten years ago. But all the organizations are now appointing or directing historians and getting all this information down. I think it took that long for us to realize that individually and collectively it was a very, very significant part of the history in this country, and we don't want to lose it. So, the change, it's not been one change in my life, it's been at least three [ ] experiences.
D: Sometimes hard for people to understand why we even want to talk about a war. It's not that we're glorifying it, we know that if we hadn't fought that war, that this country could have been in a very serious situation. Not that it isn't in a serious situation right now, morally, but they don't realize that had we not done what we did we'd either be bowing to the Japanese emperor or heiling Hitler. Mussolini got his comeuppance's rather soon after we got in, he was strung up by his feet, as he should have been.
Well, very good, thanks very much, Paul, and this is Gordon Doule and I'm going to sign off now from the interview from Paul Fergot, and we'll preserve this for you when you, want to listen to us, hopefully, a hundred years from now. This is being conducted on the 18th of November of 1993, virtually fifty years from when the experiences were created.
|Oral History Interview with Paul Fergot
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
COPYRIGHT INFORMATION ~ For access to this image, contact email@example.com