JCC: “The crew leader of our group, he didn’t get the mission notice, or he decided he was just going to go in anyway. They went in by themselves, and bombed a target in Berlin.”

What is your birth year?

1921. 

How old are you?

That makes me 96. I’ll be 97 in September. 

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

The Air Force.

What was your rank?

My last rank was First Lieutenant.

Where did you serve?

In Europe, primarily. I ended up flying with transport planes after the surrender. I still have a passport that says, “Valid for use in occupied Japan.”

Where were you born?

Atlantic City, New Jersey.

What were your parent’s names?

Marvel and John.

What city did you grow up in?

I grew up mostly in Jacksonville, Florida, until I was about 13 years old, and I moved to Princeton, New Jersey. 

What sort of technology was available to you while growing up?

Very little. I grew up in the old South; we were never referred to in school about the ‘Civil War’- it was the ‘War Between the States’. I went to a public school, and was part-home schooled until the sixth grade, until I was a member of the military school they’d started there called Bowl School, and then I moved North to Princeton. At Princeton, I was schooled by a country day school there for two years, and then I went to Philips-Exeter Academy for three years. I had two years at Princeton University until Pearl Harbor. After that, I joined the air force. 

Can you tell me about any specific memories from your childhood?

No, except for playing marbles. I was the representative from my school as the marble-champion. I won a big red bicycle by winning a big limerick contest run by kid’s [companies]. My addition was, “If the ancient Egyptians got news, about kid’s most wonderful shoes, they’d think it a scandal, to put on a sandal…” For that, I got my picture in the paper and a nice red bicycle. 

Did WWI impact your family?

My uncle fought in WWI as a pilot and was shot down. Merian C. Cooper- he’s famous not just as a solider of fortune but as a Hollywood person; he created King Kong. My father was a code-person; he did the Morse code, and he was with the government in Washington receiving coded messages for the President. Later, that affected his whole career, because I remember growing up, he would teach me to do code because he was an amateur per himself. He was a lawyer with a practice in Jacksonville, and he knew some of the members at the American Bar Association. He went to one of their conventions, and was asked what committee he would like to be on. He said Air Committee, meaning radio, and the next day he read the paper, and he’d been made Chairman of the Air Convention. He thought, “This is ridiculous, I’ve got to tell them this is a big mistake.” He thought, “I’ll just find out what there is,” and he looked it up in the law and discovered that there practically was no air law at the time. He was asked to be a member of a convention that went to Italy, when they were going to have one of the first world meetings on air law. He represented the United States on that, and after that the Pan American airways asked if he would come with them, because they were getting ready to try and create laws for being able to cross oceans, etc. Juan Trippe was the president of that, and my father was his special assistant, and involved in a lot of the negotiations that led to Pan American being able to land in foreign countries, particularly Africa and Ireland. 

Did the Great Depression impact your family?

My wife, but not me. She is the person who can tell you about that. [JCC’s wife: My family had a terrible time, and we had to move constantly [while] my father looked for work. We lived in New England, so it had a big impact on us.] My family was quite well-to-do in Jacksonville, where my father was a member of a successful law firm. 

FDR was the president at the time; do you remember hearing a lot about him, growing up?

Yes. I remember that my family, of course, were Democrats. There were nobody except Democrats in the South, then. They were Dixie-crats. {Laughs} My father, actually, was a member of the convention- I guess it was 1924- Al Smith was one of the candidates. When he got to the convention, [with] about half dozen other members of the convention, he discovered that he was the only one who wasn’t a member of the Ku Klux Klan. {Laughs} My father was the only one who wasn’t a member of the Ku Klux Klan! 

You grew up in the Jim Crow South. Did you notice racism and segregation?

It was so segregated that it never came within my cognizance. There were two high schools in Jacksonville; one called ‘Lee’, the other called ‘Jackson’. Every year, they’d have the city football teams to discover who would be ‘the school’. It was never an African-American school there, so I really didn’t come in contact with African-Americans at all. 

When did you first hear of Hitler, and the Third Reich?

I remember when I was going to the school, the country day school there, with a couple of my friends who lived in Trenton, to the movies. We saw a movie that had a newsreel at the end of it, and the newsreel was about German soldiers marching into the Rhine when they broke the treaty. We all said, “Someday, we’re going to be involved in that, too.” Some of us were members of a group called Veterans of Future Wars; it was a joke for us, then, but it wasn’t that good a joke. 

Do you remember learning about Pearl Harbor?

Yes, I certainly [do]. I’d just come home, and of course my father was in the radio things, because of his background in electronics originally, and he said that there’d been news that we’d been attacked there in Pearl Harbor. We just listened to all the radio reports we could, and of course it was a lot of talk in my dormitory at Princeton about what’s going on now. A couple of us decided that we would want to join the Air Force- I’d been thinking about joining it anyway, but a good friend of mine, one of my roommates, Nicholas Katzenbach, who later become a general under Kennedy, said, “This is what I’m going to do.” He took off for New York that night; I think he got very drunk, but he was able to sign up for the Air Force. {Laughs} I joined a couple weeks later.

How old were you when you enlisted?

I was 20 when I joined, because I remember for my 21st birthday, I was in a barracks with the cadets, and my parents wanted to send me a birthday present. They got ahold of a bakery down there, and they sent around 21 cupcakes to me. {Laughs} 

What was your family and friends reactions to your enlistment?

I think I’d been talking enough about it; I actually had been talking, even before Pearl Harbor, about possibly joining the Air Force. I had always said that I would like to join the Air Force and become a navigator, because my father had stared the navigation school as a member of Pan Am for the Pan Am clipper ships, once they discovered they were going to have navigators to fly them. I had said for a long time that that’s what I wanted to do. 

Do you remember your first days in service? Did you go to a boot camp?

No. Originally, I went to Montgomery, Alabama. We were all in boot camp there, just learning how to march, and then I was sent to training for navigation in Monroe, Louisiana. I stayed with that; I graduated there, and received my officer’s certificate. I stayed there for a while as an instructor, and I said that I didn’t want to be an instructor, I [wanted] to be actually flying. When the opportunity arose, I volunteered to join a group of B-26 training planes, in Florida. I became a member of a training crew there. The Martin plane was a very poorly engineered plane; it would fly a little faster than what they already had there. We did that by just cutting down the wingspan, and it made it very un-flyable. They had a training plane there, that they still have at Tampa- they used to say, “What a day in Tampa Bay!” {Laughs} But, we trained as a six-person crew; there was myself, [the] pilot and co-pilot, and three gunners. We went overseas as that, and we were stationed in Northern Ireland, at first. They said they had to wait to find out where we were going to be assigned. We were getting really bored at that.

On his service abroad:

One day, the Eighth Air Force in August of 1943 underwent one of its greatest losses when it bombed a place called Schweinfurt, and lost 60 of its about 360 planes that flew that day, including a lot of their best pilots. A man came by and said that we had a little problem, that we were a little short of pilots, and would anybody here like to volunteer to fly B-17s? {Laughs} Nine crew bombers instead of your six crew bombers! Everybody raised their hand! We actually had no training in it; the first time I flew a mission, I’d never used an oxygen mask. It was definitely on-the-go training. We had about three weeks of supposedly ‘orientation’, and then we were sent to our base in Essex county, northeast England, between Norwich and Ipswich. Our pilots all had to be re-trained, so I was flying with true crews that were already firm, but needed extra people for one reason or another. The first mission I flew was to Denmark; I remember coming back, and a couple of our gunners said, “Do you remember that Messerschmitt coming in from here?” I said, “I never saw Messerschmitt, I was just so anxious to see if I can fly on the tar!” That meant nothing to me. I flew rather routine missions for the first half of our tour; they had a tour of 25 missions, and then you were supposed to be able to go home.

It was fairly easy until one day, we went into a conference. They’d always show where we were going to go with a big map up in the collection for those who where there to fly. They had a red line from where we were to Berlin. [Everybody talked] about that ‘big one’ to Berlin, but nobody had been there yet. We were still being broken up, our pilot was still being trained, but our co-pilot flew as an extra crew member on that first mission, which turned out to just be an accident. We got the recall signal; there was very bad weather, so we thought we’d come back and give up the mission, half an hour before target. The crew leader of our group, he didn’t get the mission notice, or he decided he was just going to go in anyway. They went in by themselves, and bombed a target in Berlin. They lost a couple planes, because apparently the Germans thought the whole thing had been called off, too- they could hear our transmissions. Most of them went home, and so there was not much loss in their group that time. But, two days later, we went back to Berlin again, and by that time, I think the word had gotten out to the Luftwaffe that we were the ones who had gone in by ourselves, because they had the whole Luftwaffe just waiting for us. We got hit from the time we crossed the Rhine, practically, until we got to Berlin. Our group lost 8 planes out of the 21 we put up, and I think we had one famous pilot, Robert Rosenthal, and he was a Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who had volunteered for the Air Force the day after Pearl Harbor. He was the head of our little group; we had three groups- the 95th, which was our group, the 390th, and the 100th group. The 100th group was known was the Bloody 100th, because they’d been wiped out at least twice before we got there. On that Berlin route, we had two planes that came back, one that was piloted by Rosie Rosenthal- he had come over there saying, “I’m not flying a regular tour. I’m going to fly until I get it, or hit the dust.” He was only one of two people of the 100th who got back that time. Later, he was shot down twice, and always got away, even though he broke his arm both times, and ended up as a member of the American Legal Commission at Nuremberg. That was my experience with that group. 

What was your job or assignment on the planes?

A lot of the time, I was just a navigator, but because we flew in a group, and they had decided that they were not going to have individuals go in and bomb targets, they were going to bomb as a group- the navigator of the lead plane would be the navigator of that group. Everybody else was just told to drop their bombs when the lead plane did, so they’d have a pattern. Most of the time, I would just connect and [assure] the bombs were free to go, and when we got over the target, I’d watch the lead, and when it did, I’d just hit the switch to let ours go. There were a couple of times we were disoriented, we had to turn back by ourselves. There, I was just being a navigator. We were trained to use octants- on a ship, you’d have a sextant to show you were the stars were and you’d secure your position by that. In Europe, where we were flying, it was all daylight, so there were no stars or anything, and nobody ever used an octant. We just picked out the best we could by looking at our maps and, when the weather allowed us, picking out ground symbols; we could move around there. On at least one mission I had to find our way home just by navigating by what I would make out from the ground. 

You mention that you had interactions with the German Air Force; did you ever have experiences with German soldiers?

No, just the Air Force. How often did you interact with the German Air Force? Oh, unfortunately, almost every time! {Laughs} We finished our missions before the invasion, so the German’s Air Force was assigned to intercept us when they could. It wasn’t bad, because after Schweinfurt, they decided that the air force they had planned to do wasn’t going to work without long-range fighter escorts; the losses were too great. For about three months, when we were first learning flying with the B-17s, we had very short-range easy targets, because we didn’t get long-range 51 escorts. By the time we got to the first mission to Berlin, they had some long-range escort that could go with us. Actually, on one mission, we were supposed to go to Poland, and they didn’t give us any escort, because they said it was so far that we were just going to take low-level flying. We got out there, and we discovered the Germans had sent a group of rocket planes out to intercept. They could just stand out there, long-range, and throw rockets at us. They were old planes, very old planes- I think they were all Spanish types that were second-rate for their Air Force. The rockets never got to us, so they decided to come in and shoot at us, like fighter planes. That was a big mistake, because they were so much slower than we were! {Laughs} One particularly came in on us, and our gunners had been firing at all these planes that had come in at us. I saw it coming and hit my little pop-gun, and I was firing at it. It blew up, and when we got back to the mission headquarters, they were taking down these notes of if we had shot down any planes. The gunners had all shot down three or four different planes, they claimed, and then they came to one and said, “Oh, let’s let [JCC] take that one!” They all told them that I had shot this one down, so my official records indicate I shot down one. 

Were there casualties in your crew?

Yes, one of our gunners was killed in one of our missions. He was DOA. He was hit on a mission by fighter planes, near the target. 

What kind of equipment did you carry with you?

We all had oxygen masks, and [things] so we could talk to each other electronically. We had electronic suits; that was very necessary, because flying at 20,000 feet, the gunners had the biggest problem with that. If they lost their electricity that heated the suits, they had a real problem with not just being too cold, but having their limbs freeze up. I never had that problem, because I was up in the nose, and we always had enough warmth. 

What was your uniform?

On walking ground, just a jacket and a little cap and [light] pants. 

What were the best memories of service, or the people you served with?

I saw them sometimes after the war; the best moment was getting out. I served for about three months after the war ended, because I had volunteered for a mission- I wanted the chance to fly as a real navigator. We had to fly as real navigators in the Pacific, because they couldn’t have electrical communications then. For about, oh, two months before the war ended, I was stationed at Marshfield, near Sacramento, and later what is now Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco. I was flying as a navigator out of there, out of planes that were regular transport planes to take military personnel at least as far as Hawaii. After the war ended, we were flying into Okinawa in Japan, to pick up people who were wounded and brought home. Later, when I was going to law school, I volunteered, because I could get $10 per day per deal, to fly as a civilian navigator during the Korean War.  

Were you injured during the war?

No. 

How did you stay in touch with your family and friends during your service?

I was very lucky, because during the actual combat, we wrote letters that were read and acceptable; we were usually able to read our letters. Just mail, back and forth. 

What was the food like?

Well, it was referred to as ‘Shit on a Shingle’. {Laughs} It wasn’t bad. We had a separate mess for the flight; when we were going on missions, we would usually be wakened around 5 in the morning, and then we would eat in a separate mess for flight crews. 

Did you feel stress or pressure about the war and its effects?

No, I think that mostly we were in it to get through our missions, and come home. I didn’t want to become an instructor again, so if the war had continued, I probably would’ve flown in the B-29s. 

Did you keep in touch with any of your crew-mates? If so, for how long?

The members of our crew, I did. As a family, we went to see one [who] lived in New Jersey. He had been a radio operator. Our pilot, who died about six or seven years ago, I kept in very good touch with. One of our sons, his name is Francis- one of our sons has his name, was his godfather. 

Why, or when, did your service end?

Just because I had been told that I had to stay on for two or three months to fly those flights back and forth from Japan, and I’d get out as soon as I can. Finally, one day, they said, “Okay, you can leave now.” I was in California to try and find a friend of mine, and get a car, and go to school there in California. That didn’t work out, because they put us on a train, and next thing I knew we were headed for Massachusetts, where I actually got my papers at the air base there. 

Did you have a family after the war? 

Yes, I had a family. We had [a daughter] and three sons. 

What was your job or career after the war?

First, I wrote that book. I had transferred to Columbia, and while I was a student there, I thought I was going to be a writer. Well, I discovered that that wasn’t gonna work out, so I went to law school at New York Law School. From then on, I was living life as a lawyer. 

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

I would say that I feel very sorry for the soldiers who are constantly involved. We lived in Colorado Springs after 30 years, and we knew a lot of the soldiers there- that’d be the military Air Force people, the combat GIs. I was very much against the Vietnam War, and I so expressed myself at that time, and even did some legal work helping some students who were there at Colorado College, if they wanted to get a conscientious objector status. They just to explain that they were against war in general, not just this particular war, but just generally, and introduce them to what they would be interrogated about if they went to the draft office and were trying to get excused. I would say now that I think that the Army became professional after the draft, and we saw a lot of these soldiers who were first going overseas from Fort Carson there. I feel very sorry for those who are in Afghanistan, because I think that’s a kind of war we never had to fight, individually. I think that’s a very trying experience for them, not just in the war itself but after they come back to this country. 

Do you think the world has any misinterpretations about WWII?

No, I don’t think so. I think it is known today as the ‘good’ war, and I think that’s wrong- I don’t think there are any good wars, but ours was as good as you get! {Laughs} I had an incident which is involved in [my] book that there was a group stationed close to us who were African-American engineers, most of them GIs but also a couple officers. There had been an incident- at that time, the armed services were all segregated and there was no one of color in the Air Force. They did start flying training planes, in Alabama eventually, for colored pilots, but at that time it was completely segregated. There was a riot, one time, in one of the English pubs nearby between some of our soldiers and some of theirs, so then they segregated it so we couldn’t connect with one another. That became the subject of my book. 

How has living in Portland now shaped your veteran experience?

No. I’m a playwright, so I just wish I met some more playwrights who were interested in what I’m writing! 

How did your service affect your life?

How did it affect my life? When I was 95, I said, “95 and still staying alive!” Just that I felt that I was very lucky to survive it, and wouldn’t want one of my own children to have to go experience it.

img_3646-copy.jpgAuthor’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s