World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
George Graham, 398th Bomb Group Radio Operator
600th 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.
George Graham, 398th Bomb Group Radio Operator
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Q: Interviewer, Randy Stange
GG: 398th Radio Operator, George Graham
Q: Where were you born and raised?
GG: Born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in Detroit, Michigan
Q: Did you have any brothers and sisters?
GG: Yes, one brother.
Q: Did he serve in the war also?
GG: He was in the navy. As a matter of fact, he was on Okinawa ready to land in Japan as part of the Navy land forces.
Q: What did your parents do prior to the war?
GG: My dad was a farmer.
Q: And your mother, I assume, was just a homemaker?
GG: She was just a homemaker, correct.
Q: Did you have any interest in the aviation prior to World War II?
GG: Well, I was in high school and I went into the military right after high school and was always interested in the air force and aviation.
Q: Did you enlist?
Q: What did you remember about the years prior to the war?
GG: Those were pretty carefree years. I was in high school. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. The war had started; this was 1942. I graduated in June and went to work in the defense industry. I enlisted in September of ‘42 and was called up in March of ‘43.
Q: You were in high school at the time Pearl Harbor occurred. Where were you when you heard about it?
GG: I can’t really tell you; I don’t remember.
Q: Do you remember any of your thoughts about it?
GG: I listened to Roosevelt, of course he made his speech. I just remember that everybody in high school, my class, of course we were just six months away from graduating, they were all thinking of enlisting. They were all prepared to enlist as soon as they graduated from high school. That’s the most I can remember from that era.
Q: Which base was that?
Q: But you did your basic at San Antonio.
GG: Yes, Shepherd.
Q: Where from there?
GG: From Shepherd, they sent me to radio school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was there I think from the 1st of April to the 1st of October. After radio school they sent me to gunnery school in Kingman, Arizona. I was there 3 months, maybe two and a half months. Then came home for a short furlough, maybe a week, then to the classification center, no not classification center, assignment center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Was assigned to a crew. The crew was one of the original 398th bomb group crews. We were sent to Rapid City, South Dakota around the 1st of January 44.
Q: Who’s crew was it? Who was the pilot?
GG: The pilot was Ira O’Neal from Florida. What I do remember he and I were the two youngest individuals on our crew. We were 19. He was 19 and I was 19. The rest were either twenty all the way up to 26. The co-pilot was 26 and the engineer was maybe 30.
Q: What were your first impressions.. well first of Army life, and then Rapid City?
GG: Well I fell right into the routine of Army life, I rather enjoyed it. In high school I had no idea of what I wanted to do after school. Joining the military was to me the thing to do. I enjoyed the military. I enjoyed radio school. I enjoyed gunnery school. I wasn’t one of those that was ready to get out and I was looking forward to flying. I enjoyed every moment of it and have pleasant memories of my time in Rapid City.
Q: When you shipped over did you fly your plane over or were you transported over in a troop transport on a ship?
GG: We flew over as a crew with our own ship. I don’t even know when we got there. It seems to me we left April 13th or 14th, but we flew as a crew.
Q: Did you fly the Northern Route?
GG: We landed in Iceland overnight, then Scotland somewhere. I even forget the base in Scotland.
Q: What were your first impressions of Station 131?
GG: Well, to be honest about it, I didn’t know much about it; I was only there 3 weeks. We landed there in April, the 23rd or whatever it was, then on our fourth mission, was shot down over Berlin, so I never got off the base. I never even knew they had a pub.
Q: How about describing your first mission? Do you remember your first mission?
GG: Seems to me the first and second missions were milk runs. I don’t think they were anything. I remember Cherbourg was one mission and I forget what the other three were. All of a sudden one morning [19 May 1944] they awakened us and said it was Berlin. I think that was the first serious mission we were on. The third might have been, but Berlin was the first long mission I can recall.
Q: Do you mind describing the fourth mission?
GG: We were over Berlin, having dropped our bombs. I was in the Radio Room, throwing chaff out and looked through the bomb bay doors and saw the bombs descend down. I continued to throw out chaff, and all of a sudden while I was bent over, I felt something hit me in the back and knocked me flat on the floor. I thought what in the world had happened to me..I thought maybe an anti-aircraft shell had hit me in the back. Pretty soon the ball turret gunner came up, and I said “Joe, turn me over, I can't move. I must have a big hole in my back”. He [Sgt. Joseph G. Barzano] turned me over and said “no George, you don’t have a hole in your back”. I said “Why is it I can’t move”? We looked up above and the radio hatch had dislodged and hit me in the back with tremendous force.
I found out later that the group above us had delayed dropping their bombs, and we either got hit by flak or something happened where the planes got out of formation, and the bombs from the planes above us had contacted our airplane. So one hit the hatch with a glancing blow and of course it broke the latch and that’s what hit me in the back. Another one or an anti-aircraft shell had gone through the number 3 engine nacelle. I noticed huge flames shooting out of it. I was laying on the floor, and didn’t have my parachute on. Joe, I forget his last name..started with a ‘B’ [Sgt. Joseph G. Barzano], gave me my parachute, and I crawled toward the waist.
I got to the waist and saw both the waist gunners, the tail gunner, and the ball turret gunner there and myself. So there was five of us there, I thought this is crazy, I looked out the window and saw the plane was on fire, the engine was on fire. So I started to crawl, pulled on the ribs, crawled to the edge, and pulled the emergency handle and the door flew off. In the meantime, the others were still talking, there were four of them there talking, when all of a sudden we went into a spiral, and as we went into the spiral, I could see them flung against the side of the fuselage, and we went into the spiral down, then all I heard was a big crash or loud noise.
The tail had separated from the rest of the aircraft. There was a huge hole, and then we went into a deeper spiral. I was in the hatch and trying to get out. I couldn’t get out because the cables had kind of entangled me, leading to tail assembly, and finally something happened. I pushed myself out, I had my parachute on at the time, and I pushed myself out and was floating in air and everything seemed peaceful.
I could see the airplane spiraling down, and no one else came out, except one and I was coming down, I thought to myself that I need to open up this parachute, so I pulled the rip cord and I was kind of mesmerized by the whole thing, and I looked at my hand and had the red handle in my hand and nothing was happening, I finally threw the handle away and started pulling on the parachute strings of the chest pack we had, and the parachute opened and I was floating down.
As I was floating down, oh maybe 300 feet away from me was another parachute at the same altitude and I thought I recognized him as the navigator [2nd Lt. Howard F. Baer], and in between us was another parachute with the legs straps open, and I thought I heard a scream, I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a scream, but this parachute looked like it was going up. I think it was the pilot [the pilot that day was 2nd Lt. Ira L. O'Neal, Jr.], he may finally gotten out and he may not have had his leg straps on, as I understood some of the pilots didn’t fly with their leg straps, and when the rip cord opened he went right through the chute. I came to find out later that the navigator had the same issue, but his arms kept him in the chute. He said his leg straps were open.
So, when I got down, I could see puffs of smoke coming from a group of people in a wheat field outside of Berlin. I could hear this ping, ping, ping – it was civilians shooting at us, but luckily there were soldiers there, and the soldiers came and looked at me and found out that I couldn’t move because when I hit, it was a hit it was a no-wind day, it was 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning, no wind at all, on May 19th and when I hit, I went straight down and my back gave out completely then. I was immobile at that time. The navigator came over to me when the soldiers also came over, they looked me over and put me in a cart and took me to the hospital in Berlin. I was in Hermann Goering Hospital for a month. Wherever the navigator went [2nd Lt. Howard F. Baer], he went to his camp, since he wasn’t injured at the time.
Q: Who was your navigator?
GG: Howard Baer. I tried to make contact with him for years. I knew he was from Pittsburgh, and I checked with the VA, and the Pittsburgh telephone directory, but never contacted him. I asked George Hilliard [398th Bomb Group Memorial Association contact officer] how I could get a hold of the navigator, he tried, and he said to try the VA [Veteran's Administration], but they couldn’t give me any information. They said to write him a letter and they’d forward it to him. I did, but apparently Howard didn’t get it.
But one day, George Hilliard sent me a letter one day, and it was addressed to George Grama(?), my name before I professionalized it was Grama. And I changed it from Grama to Graham soon as I finished college. He sent a letter to George Grama, and said “George Grama, I’ve located your navigator, Howard Baer, would you like to contact him?”. I said “George, my name is Graham also”. He said “Oh so you’re Graham”. I said “Right, Howard Baer’s the one I was trying to get a hold of.” So I called Howard Baer, it was unbelievable to him that we had made contact. So I said to him “Are you going to the reunion” in 1989 in Dayton. He said “I don’t know anyone.” I said “What’s the difference? Most of those don’t know anyone either. You know me and that’s all you need.” So he came from that point on. We became very close up until he passed away about 3 years ago.
Q: How was your treatment at the hospital?
GG: It was first class treatment. I can’t believe that the hospital was clean and neat. The nurses and crew were very capable and caring. The doctors, two, a surgeon and general practitioner, took care of me. I was in a room with about 14 or 15 other Air Force personnel because it was a Luftwaffe hospital. I couldn’t complain about the care at all. It was the best care you could possibly receive.
So from there they sent us to Frankfurt, and that is an interesting story, a month after I had parachuted out. In Frankfurt they put me a typical 6 x 8 cell, it wasn’t very big. Second day I was there they were interrogating me asking for my name, so I gave them my name. He asked me something else and I told him “I can only give you my name, rank and serial number.” He asked me where I went to school, ground school. I said “I can only give you my name, rank and serial number.” Now I was a staff sergeant at the time. So finally he said to me, “That’s alright.” He proceeded to tell me when I graduated from high school, when I went into the service, where I trained, what bomb group I was in. I said to him, “why are you asking me these questions then?” He said, “Its routine.” So he didn’t need information from me.
Then they sent me to Stalag Luft IV up near Stettin. I was there up until February when they put us in a box car.
Q: How many to a box car?
GG: It must have been about 100. I just saw a box car at Dayton and they said it was for 40 men or 8 horses, but the only space you had was where you sat. You couldn’t move. The doors never opened except for food and water. It was a terrible experience because we were in the marshaling yards of Berlin and they were night bombing. The fact that we survived the trip was frightening; in fact the stay in the hospital was worse; in the daytime the Americans would come over and night time the British come over. They took us down to the basement. I understood how the Germans felt to be bombed day after day.
Q: Where did they take you after you left Stalag Luft IV?
GG: They marched us to Nuremburg.
Q: What time of year was this?
GG: Must have been February.
Q: It was pretty cold then?
GG: It was cold. I take that back, they transported us to Nuremburg. We were there from February to the first part of April. In Nuremburg, I was standing at the fence and saw my navigator. I said, “Howard, how have you been?” We communicated orally for a 10 – 15 minutes. I was on one side of the fence and he was on the other. That was the last I saw of him. I was in Nuremburg till the first of April.
In the daytime, I could see the American formations go over, see the contrails up in the air. At night, the British would come over and bomb. One night the air raid alarms went off, of course they had trenches outside; I said, I am not going out to the trenches I am stay[ing] in this barracks. I was the only one in the barracks. I looked out; they had dropped these flares that lit up the whole town. Then all of a sudden I saw a huge flash way up in a distance, it was 15 to 20 seconds and then the barracks shook. They must have dropped Blockbusters, those 4000 pounders. It frightened me so I ran out of the barracks and jumped in the trenches with the rest of the fellows and said, “this is about the safest place there is around here. I thought it was safer in the barracks.” Though, I was naive.
That night there were British planes, you could see them on fire, just a ball of fire; and then the engines reviving up. The next day they brought in a number of British flyers as prisoners, but there were a lot of planes in the air and there were a number of them apparently that were knocked down. You could see a number of fireballs in the air.
We were at Nuremburg until about the first of April, and then we marched to Moosburg. I guess that is where everybody ended up. On the way to Moosburg, I was in a group of 4 and in this group was my gunnery instructor from Kingman, Arizona, Ted Maddox. He was very subdued, quiet and reserved. He was in a state of depression because he was in the same plane as his brother, a B-24, and his brother got killed. So he never spoke much.
We escaped on this march, they had about 6 to 7 thousand of us so we went to the lines ourselves. When we found out it was that easy to escape, we went to the village and they thought we had captured the village. The mayor was ready to turn over the village. We told them we were American prisoners and they told us we should go where the SS are. I suggested we get back to the line figuring the war was about to end soon and I was not about to get shot now. We went back to the line then to Moosburg.
In Moosburg, we were there maybe 3 weeks when the Americans came. The 4 of us took off to go see what was in town. Right off base we met a group of engineers, who fed us and asked about the number of prisoners. They loaded up a truck with cans of food. We went in and threw the cans to the others. The engineers took us back to the village to a motel and slept 1 or 2 nights, and one morning about 7:00 I heard airplanes, C-47’s.
I said “We better get out of here. I think they are transporting the prisoners out of the camp.” Got back to our tent and everything was gone. They had a lottery and they selected who was to leave first and our tent was first or second because by the time we got there, there was nothing. What had happened after we left was Russian prisoners came in and they took everything. All of our personal belongings were gone, we ended up with nothing. We have to get assigned an airplane and we made the mistake of going to the colonel who was in charge of the camp at that time. I told him the story and he replied that we would be the last people to leave this camp. He wasn’t kidding. We were there 5 to 7 days. I was the last person to walk up the last airplane that left that camp. There was nothing left when we left there. I learned a lesson.
We flew to Rheims, France to be deloused at Camp Lucky Strike. Then they put us on a boat coming home. I was still fearful that there may be German submarines out there. I wasn’t comfortable coming home.
Q: When did you get back to the mainland?
GG: I really don’t know. I think it was the middle of May or even the end of May. The trip took 6 or 7 days. Then they gave us a month furlough and I requested additional 15 to 30 days and they granted that also. I thought it was great; I was having a ball at home. I was at home when Japan surrendered.
Q: So you heard about the dropping of the atomic bomb while you were on leave?
GG: Right. So I was home right through then.
Q: What were your thoughts on that?
GG: It was kind of a relief. I was worried about Japan although at that time I knew we were a formidable force to contend with, and I figured it was only a matter of time. Knowing how the Japanese were fighting and reading all the stories about the Japanese had me concerned, so I was happy about it. I know my brother was in the South Pacific, I didn’t know where so contrary to how most people felt, I think it was a great thing that the bomb was dropped. I think it saved a lot of American lives.
Q: Backing up a bit, I know one of the other residents of Moosburg had told me they had come in asking for anyone who spoke Hebrew/Yiddish and it was after they had liberated Dachau and wanted people to help translate. Did you hear any about that?
GG: No, nothing.
Q: After your leave was up where did the Army send you?
GG: They sent be back to San Antonio and they processed me for discharge.
Q: Then after you were discharged you went home again?
GG: It was interesting, prior to going into the military, I didn’t like school. I couldn’t wait to get out. In fact, I left school two weeks early. If you had your courses passed and the final didn’t impact your grade you could leave two weeks early if you got a job in a defense plant. I got a job instantly so I left two weeks early. When I was in prison camp I kept saying, “What am I going to do when I get out of the military? I’ve got to do something with my life.” I had grown up working with an uncle that owned a very successful grocery store. So I always thought that when I got out, I would go into the grocery store business. When I got home I spoke to my uncle because I lived with him. He told me that I didn’t want to go into the grocery store business, I should go to school. So that is what I did. Went to Optometry school and became an eye doctor in 1950.
Q: G.I. Bill?
GG: G.I. Bill. I was just talking about that the other day. Most of the soldiers in WWII couldn’t afford to go to school. Most of the students at school were GI’s. Without the G.I. Bill I would have been lost. I had some savings but that wouldn’t last long. Took advantage of the G.I. Bill, finished school, came home, and took my state exams. My wife, stopped in this grocery store where I was hanging out, she was a high school classmate. I often tell this story. She graduated 5th from the top and I finished 5th from the bottom. I was really not interested in school at that time. We had made contact at that time a year later we got married. She was also a customer at the store and I used to wait on her. I finished school and started a family. If there was anything about my life to change, I wouldn’t change a thing.
I have three children who are all professionals. Two daughters are doctors and a son who is an attorney. I’ve had a good life. I do not regret the military one iota. It’s been good to me.
Q: You were awarded a purple heart for your injuries?
GG: Yes, that is the only thing I received. I didn’t have enough missions to get the air medal. I wasn’t interested in medals. The fact that I survived. People ask if I was sorry that I was shot down. I tell them I survived it, there were eight of us on the crew. The co-pilot [2nd Lt. Roger Drake Comer] had a young baby when he went overseas. The pilot [2nd Lt. Ira L. O'Neal, Jr.] was an only son whose dad was a very successful automobile dealer in Miami. He came to visit my uncle in Detroit while I was a prisoner of war, trying to find out all he could about his son. The tailgunner [Sgt. Robert W. Jenkins] was the only son. The 2nd radio operator [Gerald Ferren] was the only child in his family. His mother was a widow.
Q: Did you ever travel prior to going over to Europe or prior to the war?
GG: I often tell people, I had 3 children that went to Europe by the time they were 14 years old. I never went farther than Toledo which is only 75 miles away till I went into the service.
Q: Right, that is pretty much a common thread for the children of the depression. Most didn’t have the money or the means.
GG: Today it’s so different, everyone is so mobile it’s nothing for a youngster to go off to Europe.
Q: How did your parents find out you were a prisoner of war?
GG: It took maybe 3 months before they ever found out. My mother was a widow and had lost her sight, so I was really worried about her. I think it was about 3 months before they knew.
Q: Red Cross?
GG: Beats me. I think they just got a telegram. I don’t think it was the Red Cross, that I was missing in action and the second one said that I was a prisoner.
Q: Anything else you would like to add? You missed out on all the flak leave, visiting the pubs, the USO show. About everything.
GG: I didn’t even know there was a pub on the base. Can you believe that? I was surprised to find that out. After the war, I did take an interest in flying, much to the dismay of my wife. She hates flying. I got a private pilot’s license in 1957.
Q: What were you flying at that time with a private pilot license?
GG: Well, I learned to fly in a Cessna 120, then I joined a group of fellows and we bought a 170. Then we bought a C Bonanza 1960. As we bought these airplanes the group got less and less. In 1966, we bought a V35 Bonanza, in 1980 we bought a V35B. I flew all around the country, California, Texas, Virginia. I enjoyed flying it, an extremely well equipped airplane. May of this year, I decided enough was enough. My medical was up so I figured I had better give it up. I just found that I didn’t have enough time to maintain proficiency but I enjoyed flying from 1957 to 2003.
Been an EAA member for the last 4 to 5 years. It’s been a lot of fun, been up to Oshkosh. I enjoyed flying. I meet with a group twice a week, referred to as airport bums, but people that have coffee and enjoy talking about airplanes. I maintain a very active interest in aviation and I hope to continue.
Q: I thank you for your time and your service to your country and your dedication.
- O'Neal's Crew - 600th Squadron - April 1944
- 398th Mission: 19 May 1944: Berlin, Germany
- 398th Killed in Combat Missions
- 398th POWs
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview. Also see Newt Moy's Interview.
- George Graham was the Radio Operator on Ira O'Neal's 600th Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Amy Goll, daughter of Frank Henning, 600th Squadron in October 2008.
- 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 [ ].