World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Jerome Jans, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Randy Stange
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
The Radisson Hotel, Covington, KY., September 11, 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.
Jerome Jans, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
RS: Interviewer, Randy Stange
JJ: 398th Pilot, Jerry Jans
RS: For the record, we are making a tape of Jerry Jans at the 398th Bomb Group Association Reunion at the Radisson Hotel at Covington, Kentucky. It is September 11th, 2003. The interviewer is Randy Stange. And Jerry, can you tell us your name?
JJ: My name is Jerry Jans.
RS: Tell me where you were born and raised.
JJ: Alright, I was, well, I will tell you I was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. Never got out of Illinois and now live in the next suburb north of Chicago in Womack, Illinois.
RS: Did you have any siblings, brothers or sisters?
JJ: Yes, I had a older sister.
RS: What did your parents do prior to the war?
JJ: Prior to the war, my mother was a housewife, my father worked in the steel mill, steel processing. They made weld points for drilling.
RS: Did you have any interest in aviation prior to World War II?
JJ: I had never been in an airplane until I took my first flight in a PT19A, which was your first airplane.
RS: Prior to the war, what do you remember about your growing up period? Conditions, high school?
JJ: A typical kid. I went to Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school, St. George, in Evanston, Illinois and then I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee. During my fourth year in Milwaukee, the Army called and said, “We need you right now.” The Army Air Force said that.
RS: So, you were drafted?
JJ: No, I had already signed up for the Army Air Force, but they said, “You can stay in school until you graduate,” and somebody said, “Who can change this?” The answer was an Act of Congress.
They said, “You people would be on a train in three days, headed for San Antonio.” We said, “Wait a minute! Only an Act of Congress can change this. We are supposed to stay in school until we graduate!” “We need you now, Congress has acted. Goodbye boys!” That was that.
RS: So, you did your Basic in San Antonio?
JJ: San Antonio, Texas, yes. It was one of the biggest air developers, I guess you call it, of pilots in World War II.
RS: Any particular reason you chose the Army Air Corp?
JJ: Yes, the main reason they came through Marquette and they said if you passed the physical, well let’s just say, we’ll put you in the Air Force. You can stay in school until you graduate. But, I told you, that did not go that way.
RS: Oh, yeah. What was your first impression when you were inducted into the service?
JJ: Uh, I enjoyed it; I thought it was great.
RS: What kind of training experiences did you have?
JJ: Before I got there?
RS: No, when you got there.
JJ: When I got there, I got the Basic Training of learning how to salute, learning how to put your left foot in front of your right foot, how to eat in the Mess Hall, how to go through some physical therapy, running and jumping. That took ninety days; that was our Basic Training.
RS: And then from there you …?
JJ: From there you next ninety days was spent in a small airplane, Primary Training. Ninety days later you went to your basic airplane, which was a little bit larger. Then you went to your Advanced Trainer for ninety days and you fly that around, and if you get through, get through with your Advanced Training, you’d get your Silver Wings and now you are a pilot.
And - - go ahead.
RS: Was all the - - where was your Advanced Training done or where was the locations where you were . . . ?
JJ: The first ninety days were in San Antonio. The next ninety days were in Ballinger, Texas. The next ninety days were, I don’t know, somewhere in Texas. The last ninety days were in Lubbock, Texas and I graduated on January 14th [January 7th, 1944] during one heck of a big blizzard down there. We had 11 inches of snow.
RS: And where did you go to get your crew assignment?
JJ: Went to Rapid City, South Dakota. Right there and they were told you will be on this crew or whatever. That’s where we were assigned . . .
JJ: . . . to a crew. Right then, that was about - - They did let us have about two or three weeks off after we got our wings and then we went right back to work. So, that was - - why did they send us to South Dakota on the first of February, I will never know because it snowed every other day.
RS:: So, then you trained with your crew for how long?
JJ: Until the end of, the middle of April. Then we were told you are heading for England. So, from Rapid City, South Dakota we went to Grand Island, Nebraska where we got a brand-new airplane and .45s and all that kind of stuff. We were now headed for war.
Once we left Grand Island, Nebraska, we went to Gander Bay, Newfoundland, where we were told not to make any phone calls, not to be in contact with anybody and over the course of three or four days, we head out over the Atlantic Ocean. We landed in Nutts, Ireland, Nutts? Something. What was it? Do you remember? No?
RS: Nutts Corner?
JJ: Nutts Corner, right! Nutts Corner [Royal Air Force station near Belfast, Ireland] . We refueled and then we went down to - - where did we go? Our base was in Nuthampstead. It’s a dumb place but they named [the] base after the closest town.
RS: Right. So, pretty uneventful flight over?
JJ: Yes, we didn’t have to do any ditching or anything.
RS: And, what was your job at that time?
JJ: I was co-pilot on a B17.
RS: With the 603rd Squadron?
JJ: With the six-oh-three, 398th Bomb Group, the 603rd Squadron and I was on [1st Lieutenant] Unite Brodin’s crew.
RS: How many combat missions did you fly?
JJ: I flew seven, if you count the one that took them a year to complete.
RS: And, how many casualties were in your group.
JJ: The biggest casualty was when on May 24th , we were awakened and went to Briefing and we were told our target for that day was going to be Berlin, Germany. Our crew was selected to lead the group. Well, I thought that was fine. They were going to put our Squadron Commanding Officer in as the First Pilot [Major Judson F. Gray] because he had more experience in B-17s. I said, “Good, I get to stay on the ground.” [They said], “Oh no, Lieutenant Jans, no, no, no. You are going to ride in the tail of the Lead Ship. You are the Formation Controls Officer.” So, I got to ride on the tail of the lead ship.
Take-off was normal. Grouped up, got up to about nineteen, twenty thousand feet. Started over towards Berlin. Finally managed to get up to 29,000, picked up a little flak along the way but then we got down to count-down. You know how you started ten, nine, eight . . . Whoomm!!
We caught a direct burst of flak in our number three engine. It [There] was nothing that anybody can do. All of the control cables were severed. Plane just turned over and started spinning down. A friend of mine who was flying in the ship behind us, he said he saw us disappear at 15,000 feet into a cloud bank.
Well, that was true. What happened was some place between 29,500 feet and the ground, I passed out. I think everybody passed out. The plane was in a very, very tight, centrifugal spin; nobody could get out. I passed out.
The next thing I knew, I came to. The tail of the plane was kind of flying like a leaf [Jerry motions with his hands, slowly going back and forth] instead of being in a tight spin. So, I thought, “What the heck is going on here?” I turned around and looked out; there was no airplane behind me. It was just me and the tail.
I thought I was getting pretty close to the ground, so I turned around and I had my parachute hooked on. You always wear that hooked on, in case you get blown up. I turned around and I crawled on my hands and knees, back to the opening, and I pushed myself out, grabbed the D-ring, gave it a pull, threw it away and I could feel the parachute uhhh! [Jerry suddenly jerks upward, demonstrating how he was hit] It hit me in the crouch, with a sharp bang.
At that time - - Am I talking too loud?
RS: No, keep going.
JJ: About that time, I hit the ground. I hit the ground so hard that I broke both ankles. Picked up a few facial scars. Luckily, I was picked up by two German soldiers; the citizens did not get to me.
They took me, as best as I could remember, in a wheelbarrow to the Hermann Göring Luftwaffe Hospital. In there, I woke up two days later and my feet were in cushioned cotton with weights on, trying to pull them into good condition. That was two days later and I don’t remember any of that. I have excellent medical treatment from those German doctors.
Then the next two months there was them trying to get my feet in a good a position that they could get. So there was . . .
RS: Any interesting experiences at the hospital?
JJ: At the hospital, oh yes, Hermann Göring Luftwaffe Hospital, okay. Hermann Göring himself came down to the hospital one day and came through to cheer up his troops and was told there was some American flyers in the next floor down. So, he being the head of German Air Force, he came down to see us. He came to each of us, spoke very good English.
He said, “Hello. How are you? Where are you from?” And I said, “Well, I am from Chicago.” He said, “Oh, urrrrrggg!!! [Jans makes a sweeping motion with his hands, as if he is shooting a machine gun] Terror gangster!” That’s what all of them over there, the highest man in the German Air Force, thought that all they had in Chicago were gangsters. That’s about all of it.
RS: What happened when your legs got better, your ankles got better?
JJ: When they got to the point where I had to wear my casts down to my knees, I was sent to Frankfurt, Germany for interrogation. I couldn’t tell them anything that they didn’t already know.
RS: What was the interrogation like?
JJ: The interrogation - - oh, you would like to know about that. I was in an isolated, little room there and a German officer came in, looked very good, had a clipboard, and he said, “Would you fill this out for me?” I said, “Sure.”
So, I gave a name, rank, serial number and put an “x” through the rest of it. And, he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Come on. You know as well as I do that I can only give you my name, rank, and serial number.” Then he’s pretty smart, see, [and said] “Oh, you’ve been hurt, haven’t you? Well, I guess you have a couple casts on your legs; you’ve been hurt. How have you been treated?” I said, “Well, you can tell that I have been treated very well.” He said, “Well, we will just have to see if that is going to continue even if you are here four more days.”
I didn’t know if I was going to be treated good, well, or killed. But after four days, I was sent on to a POW camp and spent a year in a German POW camp and was finally liberated on April 29th, 1945. Liberated by ‘Old Blood and Guts’ himself.
RS: George S. Patton.
JJ: George S. Patton, yes.
RS: What camp were you at?
JJ: I was at a camp called Moosburg, which is about thirty kilometers outside of Munich, Germany, Minch, Germany.
RS: Stalag Luft III?
JJ: Stalag Luft VII.
RS: Seven, I’m sorry.
JJ: Yup, that’s alright. I was very lucky because I had a year of German in high school and I knew just enough - - let me tell you one quick story and I will get out of it.
JJ: Frau Clauissin was a lady in Hermann Göring Luftwaffe Hospital. I sometimes speak too softly, so I hope you can hear me. I talked to her a bit in German. Finally, she said to me, “Where did you learn a little German?” I said, “I learned it in school.” She said, “Oh, I see.”
I said, “I can sing a song in German.” [She said,] “What can you sing?” I said “I can sing ‘meine haube hat drei Ecken.’ My hat, it has three corners.” She said, “That is good! Will you sing another one?” I said, “Ich bin hungrig. I am hungry.” [She replied] [Jans stating in a hushed voice] “Ja, ja, ja, ja, ja. Okay.”
She goes out. She comes back a little later, apron was covering her, [she said] “Here is some brot und jam [bread and jam].” I said, “Oh, thank you.” Then she said, “Will you sing for my friends?”
[I said,] “Yes, but more bread, more brot, more brot.” [She said,] “Yes, yes, yes.” So, every day I didn’t have to ask. Once a day, she’d come in with bread and jam because we were all getting kind of hungry.
German food wasn’t . . . I was 172 pounds. No, no, 172 that’s what I weighed when I went in. I was about 122 when I got out. Everybody lost about fifty pounds if they spent a year in the camp. And, to this very . . .
Oh, in addition to getting myself out of the B17, our radioman [Radio Operator/Gunner - T/Sergeant Marlin Woodward] and waist gunner [Engineer/TT Gunner – T/Sergeant Leroy Elton, Jr.] said when the tail broke off, ssshhhuupp, they just slid right out on their bellies, pulled on their cords, weren’t hurt, and spent a year in a POW camp.
RS: Were they in the same camp you were?
JJ: No, I never saw them again after that. I never saw them in person. I spoke to them on the telephone when I got home. They are both now dead so I am the sole survivor right now.
RS: So you are the sole surviving crewman to this day? What happened after you were liberated by Patton’s Third Army?
JJ: We went to a camp called Lucky Strike over in France. First of all, they said, “The Air Force is going to fly you home!” [The POWs cheered] “Yyyeaaahhhh!!” Well, a month later over in France at Camp Lucky Strike, all the tents were named after cigarettes.
The purpose was very smart. You got a chip to go through the mess line and you could put so much on your plate, that’s all you get. The next day, you’d get just a little more, the next day you would get just a little more. If you ate a big meal in our condition, your stomach would probably blow. So, they couldn’t fly us home; we weren’t ready to go home yet.
So, a month later, we went aboard a Navy ship and spent eight days to get over to New Jersey, Camp Kilburn.
RS: Some of the other fellows at your camp told me that when you were liberated, they all took their hoard of creegy? cake and ate it all and got sick. Is that what happened to you too or . . . ?
RS: You avoided that?
JJ: I was told not . . if you get a ???? not to eat it or take a bite.
JJ: One fellow, his stomach blew up and he was killed.
RS: Medically, did you survive the POW camp without dysentery or any other maladies that the other guys got?
JJ: Well, I was lucky. I did have some but not an amount that bothered me. The most important thing was that we did not get enough to eat.
JJ: That was it. And just a little German gruel and a little soup and the Red Cross food parcels. But, hey, we survived.
RS: Yeah. How did you stay in touch with your family? Or were you able to?
JJ: I was able to write letters but I don’t think they ever received them. But, my folks received a postcard from somebody that was a ham radio operator.
JJ: He said that I have word that your son, Jerome Jans, is a prisoner of war.
JJ: So, they knew that.
RS: Obviously, the food wasn’t . . .
JJ: The food wasn’t that very good but a friend of mine who saw our ship go down through a cloud. You see, he met my family in South Dakota and they already thought that we had all been killed.
JJ: After the war, he came to see my mother and father. My mother and father were all happy and talk. He said, “What are they still happy about? Jerry was killed.” So, that’s what my friend thought. [My parents said,] “But that wasn’t so. He was a prisoner of war.” That’s just a sidelight.
RS: You said the food wasn’t pretty good at the camp. How was the lodging?
JJ: [Jerry chuckles] Lice, three bunkbeds in a burlap sack filled with straw. And that was it. We ate out of tin cans that were made into plates. You don’t know what clem is, do you?
RS: Powdered milk.
JJ: That’s powdered milk. That’s right.
RS: From the Red Cross package.
JJ: We’d hammer some of those into plates and you ate out of tin cans if you didn’t have your mess kits, yes.
RS: Well, I would have to imagine it was probably the most harrowing experience that you had in the war.
RS: What happened after you got home from France?
JJ: We had a party.
Oh, on the way home from Camp Kilburn, New Jersey, we were headed for Fort Sheridan, which was a fort thirty miles north of Chicago and I lived in Womeka, like I have told you. The train that I was on, another friend and myself - - he was from Evanston also - - and I said, “Hey, let’s get this jump off the train.” So, he and I - - his name was, ah, what was his name? His name was Jim Reid. You’ll find out about him later on.
So, he and I, the bank is a little elevated there. I was not in a cast anymore. I had a cane and I threw it in the Atlantic Ocean and then he and I kind of hobbled down the stairs on the ramp at the embankment and right across the street was a store. We went in and called our folks and we went home. And just about when we were about to leave, I yelled to him, “Hey, Jim! I will pick you up at 7:30 in the morning!”
So, sure enough, I picked up Jim. We got up to Fort Sheridan. It was only a half hour away. Went up to the gate and I said, “Hey didn’t a bunch of prisoners of war come in last afternoon?” He said, “Oh yeah. They are in that barracks over there.” I said, “Thank you very much.”
So, I went over, went to the back of the barracks, parked, went through the back door, walked down the aisle, down the front steps and fell right into line. But the guys had spent there overnight. So, we were slightly AWOL but we really didn’t give a damn!
Then that was . . . After that, I spent some time getting my ankle getting fixed up a little better and they finally turned me loose from the Army in March of ’54 [Timing doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it should be March 1947, see below].
I was out of the Army in March, I was in the Army in March, so I just went right back up to Marquette University and I told that Dean something like you have never heard before and I just read him the riot act. Anyway, cause, I said to him, “Hey Dean, I learned how to fly a B17, got shot down over Berlin, broke both my ankles, spent a year in a German POW camp. Don’t you think that’s more experience than I’d get in two and a half months in college?” He said, “You are going to have to go back to school to get your degree.”
I did go back to school. I almost walked in where I had walked out. I did go back and got my degree but I have not made a single contribution to my alma mater. I am not proud of that. But, it was just because of him.
RS: So, you finished your degree under the GI Bill?
JJ: Yes, two months. Two added months.
RS: What did you do after the . . .?
RS: After your degree.
JJ: Oh, I worked for an insurance company for five years. I found out that I couldn’t sell life insurance very well. Then I went to work for a big insurance company in Chicago called CNA, Continental National American. I was in the agency department there and I enjoyed the work that I was doing.
In the end, I was travelling all around the country, calling on our general agents. I would walk into their office and say, “What can I help you with? I was there not here to look at you. I just want to help you.”
I set up my own schedules. I visited about thirty-five or forty agencies a year. Always picked San Juan, Puerto Rico in January because I sent my own schedule. I can’t go to Minnesota because I couldn’t be sure I would get out of there in January. So, that’s it.
RS: Going back just a little bit, where were you when the dropped the atomic bombs? Were you in France?
JJ: No, no, no. They dropped the atomic bombs . . .
JJ: August 6th. I was at home.
RS: Oh, you were home?
JJ: I was home, oh yes. I got home in March ’45 [Seems early to be liberated from the POW camp. May 1945 is probable].
RS: March ’45?
JJ: March’45, yeah. No, ’47. I am sorry, you are right. March of ’45 I got home, ’47 I got out of the Army.
JJ: I was at home and I thought I wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do. I still have my - - how can they say it when we saved a lot of lives?
RS: I know a lot of guys in the group felt that, especially the replacement crews, didn’t have enough missions to be discharged. They were transferring over to B29s. The 398th was going over to the Pacific Theater. So, I know a lot of those fellows were real glad it ended quickly.
JJ: They were in favor of dropping the atomic?
RS: Very much so.
RS: Very much so.
JJ: I am glad to hear that. I wasn’t there.
RS: Yes, I don’t think we don’t want to say anything, but you are the first one to say that you are not sure.
JJ: It was just an estimate on somebody’s part that you would have to use more troops to win a war over there. The killing that many civilians still goes against me.
JJ: I probably dropped some bombs on civilians accidentally. I hope not.
RS: Nothing that you can do about it.
RS: Is there anything else that you can think of, Jerry?
RS: Any other experiences, lucky charms, anything?
JJ: No. One sidebar again I was lucky enough to my oldest son into the United States Naval Academy. He wound up flying helicopters. He served his 20 years in the Navy, most of the time about aircraft carriers.
I have a picture of he and myself in full flying uniforms. He was a Lieutenant; I was a Lieutenant. And this was one Lieutenant and another Lieutenant and he took me up in a ride in a helicopter he was flying. That was terrific. That was a good highlight.
RS: That’s great.
RS: Well, thank you for your time, Jerry.
JJ: Thank you for having me.
The interview ends at this point.
- Brodin's Crew - 603rd Squadron - Spring 1944
- The Brodin Crew was shot down on 24 May 1944.
- 398th Mission: 24 May 1944: Berlin, Germany
- 398th Killed in Combat Missions
- 398th POWs
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. Jerome (Jerry) Jans was the Co-pilot on the Unite Brodin's 603rd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Jan Silverstein, one of our 398th volunteers in May 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 [ ].