World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Marvin Coffee, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
602nd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Randy Stange
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
The Radisson Hotel, Covington, KY., September 13, 2003
The 398th has been interviewing its members as part of the Timeless Voices of Aviation project. More information about the project and a current list of video interviews can be found at 398th Timeless Voices Interviews. In addition to the video interviews, some of the interviews have been transcribed to text.
Marvin Coffee, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
602nd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
RS: Interviewer, Randy Stange
MC: 398th Pilot, Marvin Coffee
RS: For the record this is Randy Stange interviewing Marvin Coffee. We are at the 398th Bomb Group reception at the Radisson Hotel, in Covington, Kentucky and it is Saturday, September 13, 2003. Where were you born and raised?
MC: I was born in Ohio. Salem, Ohio and grew up there on a farm.
RS: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
MC: I had one sister and three brothers.
RS: Did your brothers serve also?
MC: My older brother served in the Navy and my next younger brother served in the Army.
RS: What did your parents do for a living? Just farming I assume?
MC: Well, farming. My dad was in World War I as a medic and he was a machinist at Deming Pump Company and farmed as an additional labor.
RS: Do you remember about the years leading up to World War II when you were in high school?
MC: I remember in high school I graduated in nineteen forty-one. We followed what was going on in the war and we didn’t like what we heard. When I turned eighteen I had to register for the draft. So, I knew I was going to have to serve in some manner.
RS: What do you remember about Pearl Harbor?
MC: Well, that was quite a situation. We were almost overcome with that. We were getting the newsreels in the movies and so forth of what Hitler was doing. We didn’t have television that we could keep up to date on things. We did get the film views of the war at the movies.
RS: Did you have an interest in aviation prior to World War II?
MC: I did. Matter of fact, we had some airplanes that visited our area and I took some rides. So I was interested in aviation, but when I got drafted they put me in a Quarter Master Corp outfit.
RS: How did you like it there?
MC: I wasn’t too happy but I went through basic training. Then they transferred me to an ordnance outfit.
RS: Where did you do your basic?
MC: Basic was in Camp Lee, Virginia. [This is now Fort Lee.] Then I went to the ordnance outfit and went to Raritan Arsenal in New Jersey. I didn’t care too much for what I was doing there. I was in town and picked up some literature on Aviation Cadets. Two things indicated we could get out. Those were for paratroopers and aviation cadets. Since I was interested in aviation I just filled out a form for Aviation Cadets. Eventually my commanding officer in the ordnance outfit called me in and said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “You know you won’t transfer unless I sign it.” I said, “Sir, I hope you will sign it and let me get into Aviation Cadets.” He did and I went through basic training again in St. Louis at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
RS: Where did you go from there?
MC: For my pilot training I went to college training detachment in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Then I went to Primary in Dos Palos, California, well Santa Ana and then Dos Palos. Then I went to Basic Training in Chico, California.
MC: For my pilot training I went first to Santa Ana, California, then next to training detachment in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Then I went to Primary Pilot training in Dos Palos, California. After that I went to Basic Flight Training in Chico, California."
RS: Would that be advanced small engine?
MC: No. I flew PT-13’s. [PT-13 is Primary Trainer-13]
RS: Oh, Basic Flight Training.
MC: Then I went to Pecos, Texas and flew the UC-78 and got my wings [This was probably Advanced Training which culminated in graduation]. Then I went to Roswell, New Mexico where they put me in B-17’s. I took some transition training there.
MC: From there I went to Lincoln, Nebraska where I was introduced to my crew and we went to Sioux City, Iowa to do our crew training. That got us prepared for combat.
RS: I assume you still keep in touch with all of your crew members?
MC: Well, all of the living ones. There are only three of us out of nine that are still living. My Ball Turret Gunner is here with me on this trip. My Tail Gunner who lives in Buffalo, New York wasn’t able to make it for some reason.
RS: You were one of the replacement crews then?
RS: From Saint Louis, did you ferry your plane over?
MC: No. They shipped us to New York and we went over on a ship, The Aquitania.
RS: What were your first impressions of Station 131?
MC: It was interesting because it basically had been farm land and agricultural. I grew up on a farm and I felt comfortable there. I liked the base.
RS: Was the food good?
MC: The food was very good. It was a little damper climate than I was used too.
RS: How did you feel about your first mission?
MC: Like I told my crew before our first mission, “Now we’ve all been trained to do what we are trained to do and we are prepared, but none of us know how we are going to react under enemy fire.” I guess I told my crew I did not want them to feel embarrassed if any of them froze because we don’t know how we are going to act under enemy fire. On the first mission, with an experienced co-pilot, I followed his lead in a lot of things. We dropped our bombs and on the way home he dropped his flak vest off and dropped it in the catwalk. I took mine off. We just got them off and flak starts up right in-between our wing tips. From then on I never took my flak jacket off on other missions until I saw the English Channel.
RS: What was that mission you were on? What was your primary target?
MC: I think it was Nurnburg. I can’t say for sure, but I think it was Nurnburg.
- Research indicates that is was 20 February 1945 to Nurnburg. Lt. Coffee flew in the High Squadron.
RS: How many missions did you end up getting in, Marvin?
RS: Any particularly memorable ones?
MC: Oh, yes, there were a lot of memorable ones. As a matter of fact, I’ve written a book about my memories. [Bird of Prey: Alone But Together, See link below.] I guess every crew could write a book about their experiences because that’s important. They all had their own experiences. We were basically shot down twice, but we got back to England both times.
When we got across the English Channel, to the French side of the English Channel, I started losing power in the number three super-charger. It did not seem to work. The group kept pulling away from us, and of course they are climbing at the same time. I am falling back and I power up my other engines just trying to keep up with them. But, I can’t do it. When I got to the point where I thought we might be getting into enemy territory I thought, “I am here all alone and I’m not catching up to them. I guess I better just abort and call this off.” I did and we went back to England. Of course they checked us out real quick to make sure we had a reason to abort. I had over-stressed all four engines in the process. They found metal filings in all four engines. Then when the group came back from the mission someone said, “I saw Coffee’s crew get hit with a piece of flak in the number three engine.” We didn’t know we got hit with flak, but someone had observed it. Then they said there were a few Germans left down there on an island off the coast. They just decided to leave them alone because they wouldn’t bother anybody and it wasn’t worth going after them. But, they were able to shoot up one burst of flak. So I got credit for the mission because I had enemy action.
- Mr. Coffee later stated that this first time in which he was basically shot down is described on page 63 of his book. It was his Mission #2 to Nurnberg on 21 February 1945.
RS: But no one was injured?
MC: No one was injured. No.
RS: Did you guys carry any lucky pieces or anything of that nature?
MC: No, not really. I don’t recall any. We had our prayers before the missions. I am sure each crew member had his own prayer at certain times.
- Mr. Coffee later stated that this second time in which he was shot down is described on page 67 of his book. It was his Mission #8 to Chemnintz Oil Refineries on 5 March 1945 and not to Berlin.
Berlin was heavily defended when we made one pass over the target. We got shot up pretty good before we even got that far. We were loosing fuel at a rapid rate. When we got over the target, Lead said, “Our target is obscured with smoke, we’ll have to make a rerun.” We had already calculated we didn’t have enough fuel to get back to friendly lines. I felt we were committed to stay with them until we dropped our bombs. So we made a rerun and that consumed more fuel. Then Lead said, “We cannot drop bombs yet because of smoke so we are going to the secondary target.” It was on our way home. I stayed until we dropped and then I got on the radio to tell them I wanted to abort. Another crew got on the radio and said they didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to friendly lines, but they were going to go into the Russian occupied area which was instructions that we had. So they aborted and then I called Lead and said I had the same problem, but I don’t trust the Russians. I’ll take my chances with our enemy, the Germans. They said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll make a decent with the whole group because there is not any fighter support at this point. That way you get the protection of the group and maybe you can save some fuel on the decent.” We did that for a while and then he said, “I’ve taken the group as low as we dare take it and you are on your own.”
RS: Do you remember what altitude that was?
MC: I don’t remember what that altitude was. But, as soon as I aborted I continued a decent. I used a “May Day May Day” call and our ground people up ahead said, “Give me a long count.” I got up to four and they interrupted me and said, “Take a heading of such and such and in so many minutes you will find a recovery base.” In that count of four they gave me a heading that was right on. With wind being a factor, they were very accurate. I didn’t dare go so low we would get ground fire. I wanted to have enough altitude that when we had bail-out, if that was the situation, we would have room for bail-out. About the time they said we should find the field, right over the nose, right straight over our nose was the field. We made an approach and all the time my flight engineer [probably Sgt. John H. Edwards, Engineer] was transferring fuel. We didn’t know if we had tanks or fuel lines. We knew we were loosing fuel there at a pretty rapid rate. Anyhow, we made the final approach. I lost an engine on final approach. Just at touch down I lost a second engine. Before we got to the end of the runway, I lost a third engine. We had everything maxed out pretty well I think. We shut down and they towed us off behind some other disabled aircraft on the taxiway. We made it safe at the recovery base.
RS: And no one was injured again?
MC: No one was injured. We eventually refueled and went back to England. I did something. There was a fellow here at this reunion said he had backed-up a B-17. I had not heard of anyone else backing-up a B-17.
RS: I had heard of somebody doing it.
MS: Some of the crew wanted to go see what the night life was like in Brussels. We could hear the war going on from where we were and felt kind of uncomfortable. Being young kids we refueled that aircraft. Now that is a risk because there is fuel fumes in the cavity of the wings and you are going to restart everything. I think about it now and I wouldn’t want to do it today.
RS: Do you want to describe how you backed-up the B-17 for everybody?
MC: I did a standby with all the fire bottles to start up the engines. Then with the wheels being under the number two and number three engines I could lock my right break and fire up the number four engine and rev it up. That brought that wing tip forward but the wheel didn’t move and the left wheel moved back. Then I could lock that break and power up the number one engine. I did that until it walked back to a connecting taxiway. I got ready to go out onto the taxiway and I saluted the ground personnel. About half of them saluted me and the other half raised their fists. I guess they are the ones who lost their bet.
RS: So you and your crew managed to have a night on the town and fly back the following day?
MC: No, we didn’t stay over night.
RS: Oh, you didn’t stay overnight! Just took a quick run into town and left?
MC: Yah, we got back to England that same night.
RS: Did you ever get a flak leave?
MC: Yah, I got a flak leave, went into London, and had some experiences there in London that were unusual. I got to meet the Queen on one trip. The Queen was there with her daughter, Margaret and Elisabeth. So I can say I met the Queen at the time and the Queen they have now.
MC: I was just collared by them on the street and told to go into the hotel and go to a certain floor. I didn’t know what I was being sent there for, that was what it was. When I got up there the Queen asked me, “Where is your home?” I said, “Salem, Ohio.” [The Queen wanted to know] “Is that near Cleveland?” I was almost flabbergasted by her knowledge of geography. It amazed me.
RS: Do you remember any of the USO tours at the base or didn’t you see any?
MC: Well, I saw one. I don’t remember too many or I don’t remember any but one.
RS: Do you remember who was entertaining there?
MC: No, I don’t.
RS: Did you guys pull any pranks either on the base or in your hut?
MC: Oh. laughter… We had a flare gun battle one night. We were in the tent with my own crew. We got our flare gun. We had to go to about half way across the compound there to get it to reach the Quonset [Nissan] Huts. They were firing with some German flare pistols that had more range. They were going over our heads. When that got all done we went back to the tent and I am writing a letter. I looked up and there was an orange circle glowing in our tent. It didn’t dawn on me right then what it was so I kept writing. I noticed the orange circle was getting bigger. I finally said to my co-pilot, “Dave [Lt. David A. Woodring, Co-Pilot], I think our tent is on fire!” It was right over his bed and he kind of balled me out for waiting for it to get so big. It was big enough he could stick his head through it then. So yah, we had some silly stuff.
RS: Were there any other memorable experiences you can think of while you were in Europe?
MC: My crew had all close calls. But we had twenty-seven mission in and got flak on almost every mission or fighters or something. We didn’t have a crew member who got injured or drew blood. So we were pretty fortunate. I had a German fighter come up and fly off of my wing tip. That was pretty nervy on his part because all my crew could have him dead on. I asked Lead if we could fire on him and they said, “Negative, don’t you dare.” I said, “Well he is getting our altitude and everything [and] he is going to report to anti-aircraft people.” “That don’t make any difference. Don’t fire on him.” When I got back I asked why and they said, “He’s got his buddies sitting out there and if we fired on him they would have just swarmed on us.” We didn’t get anything bad out of it except we did get flak like I expected.
RS: To Pilsen?
RS: How did you feel about Eisenhower announcing you were on your way?
MC: Well that was unusual…laughter… we felt like we were running into more opposition maybe because they knew we were coming. The two crews that were lost were crews that we were friendly with. The one, the Colville crew was the one that we trained with in the States. [The other was the Ferguson crew.]
RS: Did you actually see them go down?
MC: Yes and my Ball Turret gunner counted the chutes and there was one missing. I figured that would be the pilot probably the last one out, but he made it.
RS: When did you end up going back to the States and how did you go back?
MC: I flew a staff ship back. I don’t remember the date we flew but, we were the last ship to leave. I had on my ship some of the ranking officers. The flight surgeon wouldn’t fly with us. He was a little air, afraid to fly. Someone told him our ship was not a good ship to fly in, that it had problems with it. So he got taken off our airplane. On every leg of the trip back to the States, the ship he was on got into some kind of trouble. I told him I was glad he got off our airplane because trouble followed him.
RS: Do you remember where you were when they dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Were you back in the States then?
MC: Yah, I was back in the States. I think I was in Florida waiting for reassignment.
RS: How did you feel about them dropping the bomb?
MC: Well that was alright. That was good.
RS: Did you have enough points to be discharged prior to that or were you being reassigned?
MC: I was being reassigned but before they completed that I was offered a discharge. They wanted to promote me to a Major because I had flown Deputy Lead for the Eighth Air Force on several missions.
RS: With which squadron?
MC: The six hundred and second squadron.
RS: The 602?
MC: I had enough points to get out as a Second Lieutenant. My squadron commander made sure I didn’t get promoted. I had a little run-in with him early on.
RS: So you were discharged shortly after VJ Day?
RS: What did you do afterwards? Did you go back to school?
MC: I wanted to take advantage of my G.I. Bill. I wanted to get into architectural school in Minnesota. I had married a girl from Sioux City, Iowa. I thought we would just go to Sioux City before we went on up to Minnesota. When I got there all the people said, “How did you get into the University of Minnesota? We’re a neighboring state and we can’t get in.” I didn’t want to drive up there and then have them tell me, “We made a mistake.” I called them and gave them an opportunity to cop out I guess. They told me, “No we can’t, that was a mistake.” So I decided to go to school there, Morning Side College in Sioux City, Iowa and I got a job at the airport.
RS: As an architect?
MC: No, I did all kinds of basic work around the airport. I ended up becoming the Acting Manager of the airport. That got me into airport management and I made a career then of airport management.
RS: Okay. You worked in airport management then until you retired?
MC: Yes. I got, I think forty-three years in airport management. I went from Sioux City to El Paso and from there to Casper, Wyoming and then to Saginaw, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio, and then to Lubbock, Texas where I am now.
RS: That sounds good. Any memorable aviation experiences during that time?
MC: Oh, I had a lot of situations in my airports. I built a couple airport terminal buildings, expanded runways and so forth. I started crash fire training and rescue training program for airport firefighters to attend. I got that academe started pretty well.
RS: Any other veteran organization you belong to besides the 398th?
MC: No, that is about it.
RS: Is there anything else you would like to add Marvin?
MC: I can’t think of anything right now.
RS: Okay. I guess you can always write it down later or add it to the book.
MC: My book that I am writing is just a lot of experiences that we had on our missions.
RS: Well thanks for your time Marvin and thank you for your service to our country.
MC: Thank you.
Marvin's son David reviewed the above transcript with his dad during the summer of 2009. During the discussion, Marvin expressed a wish that he would have commented on two experiences in particular that he found to be of unique interest.
Beginning on page 109 of his book he wrote a chapter entitled “Bombs Away And More” which describes his observation of Harry Overbaugh almost meeting his end when he slipped halfway through the open bomb bay while trying to dislodge a jammed bomb. Dad found it quite fascinating how he later got the rest of the story from Harry at a 398th Bomb Group Reunion.
A second experience that he would have liked to have include in his interview is described beginning on page 131 of his book, a chapter entitled “POW Pickup”. In this chapter he relates his experience with taking two unauthorized pilots back to England on his B-17, one of which was Col. Gabreski, a distinguished fighter ace for the U.S.A.
- Coffee's Crew - 602nd Squadron - 12 March 1945
- Bird of Prey: Alone But Together by Marvin Coffee, Publisher: Authorhouse, ISBN: 1425980007, EAN: 9781425980009. Bird of Prey is available in the 398th PX.
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. Marvin Coffee was the Pilot of his own 602nd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Eddie Ebbert, an interested High School teacher in July 2009 who uses various 398th material as part of his classes.
- The transcription was obtained from a video file.
- Punctuation, grammar and minor word changes may have been made to improve readability.
- Additional information may be shown in brackets [ ].