World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Lt. George Hershberger, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
602nd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Marilyn Gibb-Rice
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
Livonia, MI., September 2006
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.
Lt. George Hershberger, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
602nd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
MG-R: Interviewer, Marilyn Gibb-Rice
GH: 398th Pilot, George Hershberger
MG-R: My name is Marilyn Gibb-Rice and we are at the 398th Bomb Group Reunion in Livonia, Michigan and I have George Hershberger with me. We are here interviewing and we’re continuing with the Timeless Voices interviews. So I would like you to state your name and tell us about you.
GH: I am George Hershberger as you indicated. Yes, I started out in World War II. I was a sophomore at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. I thought I was doing the right thing when it came over the radio [about] the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I must say I was kind of ignorant maybe on my geography. I had to ask others how the United States might be involved at Pearl Harbor. I found out rather quickly. So from there I also found out that I would be quickly drafted into the service. However, they were not taking out college students and I could finish that. It [was] spring break in schooling before I’d ever be drafted.
So I started looking around at what I might do in the service. And I’d always wanted, you know, to get off the ground and be a pilot if I could. But I always failed the eye exam and I could never get that way. I did find out that if you volunteered you could be a glider pilot. And they were a little lower on their physical requirements to be a glider pilot. So I went to the Army—there was no such thing as the Air Force itself in that day. I volunteered in the Army to be a glider pilot and they took me in. That was in Indiana and I went to Kentucky to enlist because that’s the way they wanted it done.
So I did start out training to be a glider pilot. They found out later—we were told there would be no more gliders used. The Army tried two invasions with the glider. One was Sicily and I’m sorry to say I forget the other one. But the man came around and they had promoted us all to Staff Sergeant but they said there would be no more glider pilots because they weren’t going to use the gliders anymore. So again I said I’d like to fly. I’d like to go into pilot training and he said, “Alright, we’ll try to get you there.” So they took me back in. The Army has a way of doing things differently all the time and I think they still do.
They threw out the eye exam that I always failed and they put in another one. And the new exam they put in, I passed. And so they sent me on to pilot training. And I graduated as a pilot and a Second Lieutenant. I have to think back now. It was December of 1943.
But after that, I claim--I claim a lot of things so you’ll have to listen. I think they took the shortest pilot they had and gave him the biggest airplane they had and they said now you get the B-17 bomber and not a fighter. I was hardly only 5 ft., 6 in. at that time. And then they gave me a crew and we went into training in Tennessee. The complete crew for my B-17 bomber and we just learned to fly and we managed alright. And when we got through with that training, they said ok, you’re ready to go and fight the enemy now. So you take your crew and your airplane and fly across the Atlantic and get into the war.
Well, those were different days. And I did that but as I got halfway across the Atlantic, we didn’t have the electronic systems they have today. We had a navigator [Moran] looking out the top of the B-17 to tell me which way to go. And I got scared for the first time all at once, at midnight, and I wondered about the navigator. They said he had been over the water before but you know where he had been over the water?
GH: The Great Lakes. And here I was over the Atlantic and he’s telling me which direction to fly. But I had nobody else to listen to.
GH: So am I doing the right thing? So I managed to get across the Atlantic Ocean. In that day and age, things were different too. We landed in Ireland—that’s where we were supposed to land. Ireland was a neutral country. In Ireland, they took my airplane away from me, and somebody else flew it the rest of the way into England to work in the Air Force. And me and the crew I had, we got on a train—we finished the trip to the air base. The 398th Bomb Group is the Bomb Group I joined in with my entire crew so we came by truck and by train to get to there and then they put me in another airplane of course. And so that was my start at war.
MG-R: Do you remember, when did you fly over? When did you join the 398th?
GH: Well, it would have been about March of 1944. And I was a young nut. I was only 22 years old and I couldn’t be afraid of too much. I had…but my good Lord was with me…he must have been with me because I was a lucky man. We lived in Quonset huts with the 398th Bomb Group and they get you up early—very early. And you get out there—we didn’t have pressurized airplanes. Of course you had your oxygen masks. They did have one good thing—we had a heated flying suit. We plugged it in and it kept us warm.
I saw many disastrous things. Here’s a bit about my missions. One day I was flying and I look out on my wing. We flew formation in B17 bombers to get to our target area and we flew formation to get back home because that way we were protected by the fighter planes. And I looked out that window and that B17 had been hit directly. And it was nothing but a ball of fire. And they always asked us to count the parachutes if we saw something like that happen…and no parachutes. Now that was 10 men perished—immediately. And so–that’s no fun.
I was a lucky man—twice—two different bombing missions, I lost an engine. Shrapnel hit it. It was heavy--it always was. I never was engaged with the fighters. I’ll tell you a story on that later. But twice I returned from Germany to England--once with an engine out, once with 2 engines out. And with the one engine out, we had no particular problem. The only problem I had that day was my tail gunner [Page] called me. Now we’re out by ourselves. If you lose an engine, you can’t keep up with the formation anymore so if you haven’t bombed, you get rid of your bombs and you drop down to the lowest altitude as you’ll be safe and try to get back home. And you hope you know the way because nobody’s going to lead you. But then one day I lost 2 engines and I didn’t think I was going to make it that time. But again we dropped down low and we had everything at the doors to take up oxygen (we were below 10,000 ft.) and pitch them overboard. And so before we got to the channel I said I’ll try one more time and you know, the good Lord must have been with me. One of my engines started and I came back with 3 engines and I made it to the air base.
MG-R: That’s great.
GH: I never had a man injured. I forgot to tell my one story when I had one engine out and was coming home. My tail gunner [Page] called me and said there was a fighter. He had a Messerschmitt in his gun sights. And I said, “Has he fired?” I didn’t know--I was looking in the other direction. No, the Messerschmitt hadn’t fired. What should I do? And you know I don’t why but I said this…”keep your gun on him…don’t you fire, keep your gun on him, and don’t fire unless he fires.” Do you know something? That German Messerschmitt may have been lost himself. Maybe he had problems. He never fired. He left us and we left him.
MG-R: Oh…that was nice.
GH: And I returned home safe--so that was a safe trip
GH: Yeah, and they said I was a good pilot and I don’t think so. I think I was a lucky pilot.
MG-R: Well, you made it back.
GH: I flew enough missions that when I flew 30, they said I had a choice in that day. Now I’m in the late spring, almost early summer of 1945 and they say this to me, you’ve flown a lot of lead missions. By that I was the squadron leader, deputy group lead and that’s going to have to do 30 missions. We’ve still got a war, but we’ve got lots of airplanes. We’ve got lots of pilots. We’ve got lots of crewmembers and everything. You can either keep on bombing or you can go home and rest a while. Well, I took them up on it. I went home to rest a while. And so I did. They sent me out on another airplane. But I’m in the United States when the war ended in Germany. The war ended in Germany and many men, even then….well, it was a little later than that because the war ended in Germany. But I continued training in a cargo aircraft. And the war ended in Japan and all my friends, everyone at the airbase, I was stationed at an airbase in Florida at the time, rushed to the table to get their discharge papers to run home. And I couldn’t blame them.
Well my story is this, if you’ll listen to me. I’ll run out of stories after a while. But I ran to the table and I told the man this, I don’t have a job, I’m not married, I’ve got a wonderful girl out there I want to get married to, but I don’t have a job yet. Why can’t I just stay in the Air Force and be a pilot? And the colonel looked at me and you know what he said?
GH: He said, “I don’t know, I’ve never been asked that question before.” That’s understandable, everybody wanted out.
GH: Well, he said come back and see me tomorrow. I went back to see him the next day and he said we’ve gone over your records, and yes, you can stay in if you wish. And they didn’t name any time or anything but I stayed in. As a matter of fact, I stayed in for 22 more years.
GH: And so, I’m now a retired man from the Air Force. After I had 22 years in, I figured I knew everything and I was a Lt. Colonel and I was going to get out and take my retirement pay and boy, I’d be a going-guy. Well I got out—they let me retire. And, I found out something, there’s only one thing I knew how to do. And I was tired of doing that, to be truthful with you and that was flying an airplane.
GH: And so, I had to go looking for another job. And so, now should I tell a little bit of my life’s history?
GH: I never did get tied up with the Pacific, but I did stay with the service for 22 more years and in that time I flew the cargo [plane]—the DC-4, known better to us as the C-54 which was a large, transport, 4-engine aircraft. This time I went in the other direction and I flew quite a few—I flew for 2 years with the military air transport service. And I flew from California to Hawaii and stayed there until the next airplane came through and then you take the next aircraft that came through and so forth. And then you went to Guam and then the Philippines or Japan. And then you turned around and you came back and you just looked like an airline pilot. You stayed overnight at each stop and waited. So you were on the trip for quite a while until you returned home.
But they kept me. I was fortunate in World War II. [You] asked about …in Germany, I was awarded the Air Medal five times, and the Distinguished Flying Cross, once.
MG-R: And what was that for?
GH: Well, sometimes I wonder. They say it was a wonderful bombing mission, that I was a good lead pilot. And everything worked out so smoothly on that particular mission that I deserved the Distinguished Flying Cross. Don’t ask me, I just did the best I could.
MG-R: Well that’s good.
GH: So I don’t think …I’ll make another remark about that war. Thoughts keep coming to mind that I forget about...Cologne, Germany. I bombed Cologne; I was in the bombing mission that was on Cologne. Five(?) straight bombing missions to Cologne [5, 14, 15 and 17 October 1944]. Every time I went down to be briefed, it was Cologne. Why? Cologne had a ball bearing plant. And we were bound and determined to destroy that ball bearing plant. But we were told like this, “don’t you ever…” (Now we were going in at 25-30,000 feet) but don’t you ever drop a bomb near the Cathedral. You know, the Cathedral never got bombed. And I think, from my point of view, that’s wonderful.
Also, the name of Hershberger is strictly German. I’m full-blooded German. My oldest brother was taught German and when he went to school, they found out something. He couldn’t understand anybody—his teachers—and they couldn’t understand him. So they stopped that. But in Germany, I’m sure of this. I woke up a few cousins and I put a few more to sleep. That was the United States and … now, where am I?
Well now, during my 22 years of service, I was stationed in Japan. Then the Korean War broke out. And I commuted to Korea. People think that’s strange—they didn’t hear about people commuting to the war. But I used to have breakfast with my wife in a hotel in Japan. And after breakfast I’d go get my busted down Chevy which I had bought on my own and I drove it out to the airbase and I got in a loaded C-54 and flew it to Korea. And there they unloaded me and then almost always put back on me a bunch of wounded soldiers with nurses. And I returned to Japan and the nurses took the soldiers to the hospital. I went back to downtown Tokyo and had dinner with my wife that night. Now I call that commuting to the war. I never got shot at.
MG-R: That’s good—those transport planes were important.
GH: Now I was stationed in Japan and I have movie pictures in my own camera of the day Macarthur left. Truman and Macarthur got in…they didn’t agree with each other at all. Macarthur wanted to keep fighting China. I was in the midst of it and Truman says, “No, you don’t fight.” Macarthur says, “Yes, I’m going to.” So he was ordered home with the understanding that our president is still the top man. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the wonderful country we have—we’ve never had a dictator. We’ve had generals in there as officers, as president. Eisenhower was one. He was a good man, but he was not a dictator. So anyway that’s kind of my war story I guess. I guess my years in the service were very good.
MG-R: So were you there on D-Day? Did you fly on D-Day?
GH: No, I wasn’t there on D-Day.
MG-R: You weren’t there?
GH: Oh yes, of course I was there but I did not fly.
MG-R: You didn’t have to fly that day. Did your parents approve of you serving in the military?
GH: Well, they didn’t have a choice. I came from a wonderful family. And what did I do? I had wonderful parents. I lost my father early and my mother was a widow for quite some time. But if she knew what I was doing today, she’d come get out of her good grave and come kick me in the butt. You know why? Today I have vineyards and a winery. It’s my 3rd major job. Today I’m 86.
MG-R: You’re birthday is today?
GH: No, that’s how old I am. I won’t be 87 until December.
MG-R: That’s good though—that’s great. So what did you think about living in the UK? About the food? The weather?
GH: Oh, the weather was terrible. And I’ve been back there to visit the Memorial – the 398h Bomb Group Memorial. I’ve been back there twice as a matter of fact. I don’t know if the weather’s improved any. But at that time I had very little connection with the Cambridge people. I stayed on the base and I had a couple of, not vacations, but rest times. One time we even went to Scotland to play golf and I was a lousy golfer and I had a good time in Scotland.
We have some good friends in England today and for that matter we have some good friends in Germany. Yes, the Germans have said we’re pretty good guys. They freed us from somebody too. And they’re our friends.
MG-R: That’s good. Do you remember your first mission?
GH: No, my memory’s not that good.
MG-R: No? So can you tell us what it was like on a mission? What you thought about? Because sometimes you were flying for 8 hours. What were your thoughts?
GH: Oh yeah.
Oh I guess you did the best job you could and hoped everything would work out ok. I didn’t fly in a sense of fear. I flew more in a sense “it’s not safe to be here.” But there was no reason to be afraid—either you made it or you didn’t. I had a good crew—wonderful, wonderful boys. The crew members, back in the United States, at war’s end, sent letters back and forth. It didn’t take long that I lost contact with all of them except one. Waist Gunner, Hines, by name. Hines was a good 398th Bomb Group fellow too. He liked to come to the reunions. I’ve had dinner at the reunions with him several times. A good waist gunner—Hines passed away last year. But we’re all going sometime.
MG-R: That’s true. So how did you find out about the reunions? Do you remember how long ago it was that you found out about them and started attending the reunions?
GH: Oh I think basically when they first started I heard about them. I think I joined pretty quickly. But I’ve missed a lot of them too. I think they’re a wonderful thing. I still come every time now and see a new man and make a new friend.
MG-R: Yeah, we’ve got some new ones this year.
GH: Isn’t that great?
MG-R: Yes. Alright. Any special stories about your missions?
GH: No. Now they ran some funny things. When I became more of a lead pilot they had you trade crews. My bombardier [Thorsen] I know was in a crash on take-off--with another crew—never got hurt. And I and my crew members never had any physical injuries so we were very fortunate people.
MG-R: All right. How many were in your Quonset hut? Do you remember?
GH: I think we had – the officers, the bombardier, pilots, co-pilots, navigators slept in the Quonset huts. I think it was about 16 of us in the Quonset hut. And one of the bad things about the Quonset hut and the set up was trying to keep warm. We were allowed one bucket of coal a day and we had a guard out there. We always tried to swipe a second bucket but that wasn’t easy.
MG-R: Did it snow a lot?
GH: No, we didn’t see much snow. We saw some pretty bad ice. We saw [ice] on some missions—I don’t know if it was ever let down. We thought some times it might be because the aircraft would flex so much ice that it didn’t even want to take off. We were awfully heavy carrying all the fuel we did and all the bombs we did. It was a good airplane, one of the best, but it could only stand so much to it and they were very careful about that.
MG-R: Have you flown in a B-17 since World War II?
GH: No, I’ve been in one. I now live in Springfield, Missouri. We’ve had several come down there [where] they take you for a ride. I paid for a ride in one of them just to see what it was like again and went up to the cockpit just to look things over. I’ve done that several times. And I’ve often wondered—my size—and now I’m a bit older, I don’t think I could even boost the throttle! They were great big things! I’ve often wondered how I managed! But they didn’t seem to be that much of an effort in that day.
MG-R: You don’t remember having any problems with them back then?
GH: No, I didn’t. I had problems trying to get them right.
MG-R: So in your off-time—you hung out at the base?
GH: Most of the time.
MG-R: And what did you do?
GH: Well there wasn’t anything I found to do really. I liked to read Mark Twain and they did have a library there and I’d get some of his books.
At that time I had pretty good eyes—you had to, to be a pilot. Today I can’t pass the exam for a driver’s license. I’ve got glaucoma and it’s about to steal my eyesight. But I like to read. I’ll tell a bunch of no-no’s. We even had a party there one night with a bunch of British girls. And they were the type girl that didn’t care about going back where they came from. They’d just as soon spend the night with us. And so two of them slept in the Quonset hut where we did.
MG-R: Oh wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard one of those stories.
GH: Well, and I was a good boy at that time I guess, because I made [a guy] quit fooling around with one of the girls. I don’t know if I was well-liked or not.
MG-R: You did the right thing.
GH: I guess maybe I’ll quit the war and tell you a little about George and we can get out. I knew I had to get a better job and I did get a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. While I was in college (this was Southern Missouri State), the dean of the school of business called me in and said, “George, I think you’re just looking for a job.” He knew me better that I thought he did. And remember now I’m in my 50’s going to school with kids in their 20’s, and why? Well, I didn’t mind the school but I didn’t know if I was always welcome or not. But anyway he said I know a group of doctors that need a business administrator for them. And I said I don’t know a thing about medicine and he said that’s alright, these doctors don’t know a thing about business either. So I hired on as a business administrator and worked for them for 10 years. Now they didn’t have a retirement plan but I got together with the doctors and we made up a retirement plan of which I was a member. So when I retired from the doctors I went out and bought some land—I wanted to go hunting. I wanted to hunt quail. I tell you how smart I am. I bought the 80 acres—most of it is woods—I’ll admit to that. But some of it is pasture land. But anyway I hunted the quail. And I found out something. Quail hadn’t been in that area of Missouri for years. And here I was with land on my hands to hunt quail.
Well, I’ve got to do something. I became acquainted with two other men that had grapes and a vineyard. And so, I went into that business. And today I have 5 acres of grapes and a winery. Now this is what my dear mother, if she knew what I was doing, she’d get out of her holy grave and come kick me in the butt. My sermon goes this way—why did Christ make wine? Christ made wine and most people don’t know why he made it. They just know he made it. Well the story’s different about that. I’ll give the answer and we’ll continue. His mother asked him to. And if you don’t believe it, read John 2:1-10 [and it] will tell you Christ made wine because his mother asked him to. We always remember things from the Bible we want to remember.
MG-R: That’s right.
GH: And we let the others drift away. I think my Lord meant for me to fight for what was right. And I’ve done that. And I hope that He’s accepted me. We never know. We live the best lives that we can and I don’t think that the 398th Bomb Group made a sinner out of me. If I was going to be one I was going to be one, but I didn’t intend to be one.
MG-R: So what would you like for people to know about that time in history during WWII? What do you want them to remember?
GH: Well it was a trying time for everyone. Not only the troops overseas. I think it was very much a trying time for the families. If the soldier or the airman had a family, or mothers or fathers—it was a trying time for them to live the way they did. For what you had to go through in a war. And just remember though, that if you do it right, things will turn out right for you.
MG-R: Anything else?
GH: Oh no, except do you know what I did at the last 398th Bomb Group? Well I got up and they let me come in as the last speaker at the last party. And I had two cases of wine and I gave them away to those who got my business card. I put my business card in some programs and those that got my business card, got my wine. Now why this? Well, it was my way of giving a toast. I gave a toast to my Savior and then we all gave a toast to the airmen. I think I’ve been a very fortunate man. Remember about World War II. I just hope we never have another one. I just hope we never have another one.
MG-R: Well, I as the 2nd generation want to thank you for your service in WWII and what you did.
GH: We want to thank you, the good people that come around like you, the 2nd generation, that was the reason for our giving.
- Hershberger's Crew - 602nd Squadron - 16 August 1944
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. George Hershberger was the Pilot of his own 602nd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Mellisa Ledlow, 398th Treasurer in February 2011.
- 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 [ ].