World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Allen Ostrom, 398th Bomb Group Tail Gunner
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Marilyn Gibb-Rice
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
Livonia, Michigan, 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.
Allen Ostrom, 398th Bomb Group Tail Gunner
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
MGR: Interviewer, Marilyn Gibb-Rice
AO: 398th Tail Gunner, Allen Ostrom
MGR: I am Marilyn Gibb-Rice and we are at the 398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion in Livonia, Michigan, September 2006. Can you give us your name, please?
AO: This is Allen Ostrom. Allen Ostrom from Seattle, Washington and I was with the 603rd Squadron and I flew tail for 35 missions. No other positions, I am glad to say, and survived 35 missions without a scratch and all my crew survived 35 missions without a scratch, for which we were all very thankful.
MGR: Where were you living and what were you doing in the late 30’s, early 1940’s?
AO: In the early 1930’s, I and my brother and mother and father had arrived from Milwaukee in a Model-T Ford. Before that, we arrived in the U.S. on the SS Stockholm, the Swedish liner. We came from Sweden in 1927. So, by 1932, we were in Seattle, and starting school. I didn’t start school in Sweden, so I had to learn American from the ground up. I finished grade school and high school in Seattle.
In 1940, when I graduated, some of the guys were peeling off and friends were joining a brand new anti-aircraft battalion in Seattle. I knew very little about the Army in those days but some of my buddies were going and so I joined them, too. I was a National Guardsman in 1940. First thing, I became a truck driver driving the biggest truck the Army had and pulling a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun around the streets of Seattle.
We were in the Guard until February of 1941. Then we were mobilized by the Army and we became Army folks then. I spent the next six, seven months at Fort Lewis [Washington] and little by little, I gave up the truck and joined a gun crew.
I attained the rank of Corporal and I became the azimuth operator on the 3-inch anti-aircraft gun which means I turned the gun from left to right while somebody else on the other side of the gun did the altitude, meaning they pointed the gun up and down. That went on for several months until November of 1941, my battery was transferred to Southern California. I think the Defense Department of the Army knew something even then because they moved us to a place called Camp Haan which today is an Air Force village, across the street from March Field.
Pearl Harbor soon came and in three or four days later we were moved to Los Angeles area to protect the aircraft plants. We first moved into Hawthorne, where we set up our guns and protected the Northrop Aircraft Factory where it was building the Flying Wing, and derivatives of that plane.
After six month, we moved to Santa Monica and set up our guns there to protect the planes being built by Douglas, principally, the A-20 and the C-47s and others. It was during my time there in late ‘42 and ‘43 that I became interested in airplanes, particularly the A-20. Some of us used to wander over to the field and they allowed us to look around and even got inside and sat inside the cockpit of the A-20. I didn’t know what I was doing but that was a beginning of my Air Force career, which came later.
We arrived at the point where I was teaching Aircraft Recognition to my anti-aircraft buddies in Santa Monica and, eventually, in mid-1943 I realized I wanted to do something else besides stand guard at the Douglas plant. So, I asked for a transfer to the Army Air Corp and they were looking for gunners. They were looking for anybody to fly airplanes and in a month or so, I was transferred.
I left the beautiful confines of Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevard, and transferred to Kingman, Arizona. That’s a far cry from the beaches of Santa Monica. The MP who checked my credentials when I came in overnight in a train asked, “Where’d you come from, soldier?” I said, “From Los Angeles.” He said, “Are you being sent out of here for some punishment?” I said, “No, no, I asked for a transfer.” [He asked] “You asked to come here?!?” He was rather incredulous.
So, anyway, I finished the Gunnery Training there and like all other gunners, we moved on to Lincoln, Nebraska and there we met our crew. That was the beginning of a long-term, wonderful relationship that exists, even today.
We were ten then. Today, now, in 2011, there are only two still living. We all arrived at Lincoln as individuals and we watched the bulletin board for our name [to] appear some place, magically. I was looking for ‘Ostrom’ and I found it and it was under a pilot’s name, ‘Johnson’. So, I said, “Well, that should fit.”
I often wondered, how did they determined the assignments for these guys. Gunners came from several different gunnery training sessions. Bombardiers, navigators, and pilots came from their trainings fields. And, so it was. We all came together here and all of a sudden, we all found our names under some guy. Then, we became the crew of that pilot and we were forever known as ‘Johnson’s Crew’, just as ‘Roderick’s Crew’ or ‘Brown’s Crew’ or ‘Jones’ Crew’ and pilots’ names.
We found after a very short time that we were compatible. Ten people came from ten different states but we all got along beautifully and we stayed together, flew together, although we all didn’t finish together, we all got together after the war on a reunion. Little by little, we began to die off.
It was a great experience to discover that each one of us could come as an individual and still contribute to a crew. If you couldn’t contribute and get along and understand the whims of the others, it was a kind of a no show. Those people really didn’t last too long. But, thankfully, we got along just fine and we suffered through the usual flak and fighters and all. But, we survived.
MGR: So, where did you go from Lincoln?
AO: From Lincoln, Nebraska, which was the collective, we just went on to the Overseas Training session in Sioux City, Iowa. There we began flying B-17s and the pilots, of course, had some time in B-17s but everybody else came aboard not knowing anything about B-17s except what we had seen in magazines. There we began flying formations, gunnery training sessions, bombing sessions, navigation sessions, and thankfully; we had an excellent navigator [Lt. Ike Thacker, Navigator] and we also had a great pilot [Lt. Warren Johnson] who also was an excellent navigator and we never got lost. Some people did.
There are some stories where crews took off, got lost, ran out of gas and had to bail out. I remember about a story about one crew that got lost and landed in Mexico. They stayed there for several days. You know, the local people in Mexico, this is some very attractive visitors. Well, this was one of those crazy things that happened with new crews.
Then, soon on to England. Of course, we were a replacement crew. We didn’t know exactly what replacement meant until we discovered that we were going to replace people who had been killed and shot down and otherwise, no longer available.
We joined the 398th after the group had been there for three or four months. We fit right in and had no great problems. Our 603rd Squadron, sad to say, sustained the highest casualty rate out of all the four squadrons. It was almost 2-to-1 on casualties. I can’t attest to why it happened but the 603rd did take some heavy losses.
MGR: Had you flown before you were in the B-17 in training?
AO: I saw my first B-17 on the ground, combat-wise, in Kingmans, Arizona. I joined six or seven other gunners and were told to shoot at a sleeve being towed by another airplane. Each of us had a certain number of .50 caliber bullets that had been dipped in a color and they counted the number of hits according to the paint in the holes and the sleeves. I not so sure that I ever hit the thing but I still graduated
Then, there was the usual ground firing and training, which we all managed to do okay.
MGR: So, did you fly to England?
AO: No. I shouldn’t say sadly no. I know there were a lot of people who had a great experiences flying to England. Many of them were very difficult; that’s one that we escaped from. We just got on a boat one day in New York – or was it New Jersey – one of the two. It took about seven or eight days to get to Southampton and then to Stone and then onto the Wash, where we had some Gunnery Training. Then, we all joined together at Nuthampstead and then met other new crews and pretty soon, after two, three or four missions, we were veterans. It doesn’t take long to become a veteran when you are flying B-17s over unfriendly territory.
MGR: Wow. What was your first impression of the country, of the U.K.?
AO: Well, my first impression really was very pleasant. It’s a lovely country. It’s a little different from Seattle and the Northwest, where I came from. But, it was an introduction to history. We read about England and, you know, in grade school and high school and we knew a little about it but I had a good impression from the first time that I arrived there. And now, after sixty some years, I even have a better impression of England as you may know, I have taken something like 13 or 14 tours back to England and I have enjoyed every one and I have some very dear, wonderful friends that we commonly call the Brits. We love them all.
MGR: Do you remember, can you tell us about your first mission?
AO: The first mission was not terribly exciting; it was kind of low-level. It was a mission to Eindhoven [Holland, September 17, 1944] in support of a parachute landing and we didn’t really know an awful lot about it. If my memory recalls, I think my mission was so uneventful that we brought back our bombs. That wasn’t exactly an auspicious start but at least we brought back the bombs, landed, and nothing happened to us, thankfully.
But, from then on, they became a little bit more stringent and longer. When we began flying into October, November, December of 1944 into 1945, the missions were almost always 8, 9, 10, 11 hours. Now, that is in contrast to some of the earlier missions that were flown in ’43 and ’44, which were also difficult, of course, but some of them were really to run across the Channel and back, and so on. But, realistically, whether you run across the Channel and get killed is no different than going an 8 hour mission and getting killed.
They were all tough and I did a survey some years ago for Flak News, trying to determine if the missions were tougher during the early part or were they were tougher at the tag end of the thing. I found out that there was an equal number of fatalities and casualties later in the war as before. That is, from the time we began flying in early 1944 to the end of the war. It really didn’t make any difference if you came early or came late; it was all difficult. It sort of was the luck of the draw and those who survived were very happy to have done so.
MGR: What was a typical day like? When you were on a mission? What time were you up? Could you kind of walk us through on of your missions?
AO: The wakeup call was somewhere between two, three and four o’clock. Nearly always early, rather than later. Early in the war, they tell me they used to get up at seven o’clock and do a mission at eleven o’clock and be home by three or something.
Not the case in late in the war where the missions were nine, ten, eleven hours. We were up at two or three, get dressed, and shave if you had to, and on up and take a walk up through by the river, the creek I should say, by our hut and on to the mess hall and get something to eat.
I don’t remember a whole lot what we ate. Mostly square eggs, I think it was. But, one thing I do remember about the combat mess was that we received good rations and all, but we knew that we weren’t always going to be up early in the morning to eat breakfast at their appointed hour, even when we are not flying. So, I was a designated bread stealer for my crew. Particularly on off days, we would walk up usually in our overcoats – it was cold at that time – and with an overcoat it was pretty easy to slip inside the mess hall there where they kept the bread, grab a loaf, and stick it in my overcoat and takeoff. Then, we would have bread for the next two or three days when we were not flying. Somebody usually had some butter to go with it. And a strange thing happened some years ago.
I was talking to a combat mess cook about a story about him in Flak News. I said, “I have to admit to you, my friend, I was a designated bread stealer at combat mess.” “Why did you do that, Sergeant?” Sergeant was from old times. And I said, “Well, we hardly came up on mess hall except on flying days so we needed to have a little nourishment during the off times.” And he says, “Yeah, but you didn’t have to do that. I would have given you all the bread you wanted!” He took all the fun out of it.
And, of course, on to briefings. We, the gunners, what amounted to a five or six or seven minute briefing because we didn’t really need to know all the navigation business, the targets, and the bomb sites and bomb targets and so on. So, we got our briefings over a period of just a few minutes and then on to pick up our flight gear, our heated suits and, finally, we pick up a couple of our gun barrels.
Oddly, we thought maybe all the .50 caliber machine guns would be all set up and ready for us to go. Not so. We’d pick up our gun barrels and we’d carry them out onto the truck and then truck on out to the line and there we’d spend the dark, cold, early morning, thirty minutes, forty minutes or so, installing our guns.
MGR: How did you see? Where did the light come from?
AO: We had a GI flashlight. A GI flashlight, one of those brown, olive drab colored ones that had the lens shining up the sides, for some reason. Different from any other flashlights but pretty soon, as a matter of fact, even before we arrived in England, we were capable of installing, disassembling and assembling our guns blindfolded. That’s what they taught you in Gunnery School and hopefully, you remembered these things. It was very important because it was dark. Sometimes, the batteries didn’t work.
Then, we, the gunners, were there a little bit early. We’d usually help the bombardier [Lt. Peter Special] install his twin .50s in the nose. The navigator [Lt. Ike Thacker] had a pair of cheek guns and we would usually install them for him. Either I did it, or one of the waist gunners [S/Sgt. Larry Zagelow and S/Sgt. Vencil Bolton], or the ball turret gunner [S/Sgt. Doyle Atwood], depending on who was available.
Then, we would just wait until the time came to begin turning the props. We’d always turn the props and so on. That was a ritual. Some of us really never found out why we turned the props. It had to do with getting the oil out of the cylinder heads; very important to turn the props.
MGR: So, you mean before it started, you guys stood out there and turned them for a little bit?
AO: Yeah, it would need about three or four revolutions. It usually took three of us; we’d grab a blade and pull it and somebody else would grab another one and pull it around it. It took about two revolutions or so to make sure there was no oil trapped in there. Otherwise, it could do some damage to the pistons and so on.
Actually, it wasn’t restricted to just the gunners. The officers were up there, too. Usually, the pilots were busy doing their buttons and bells and whistles up there. But, the navigator [Lt. Ike Thacker] and the bombardier [Lt. Peter Special] were usually there helping out, too.
Then, the waiting game came until the flare came from the tower or, if they couldn’t see the flare because of the fog and all, then it would come on the radio saying take off. That was always the exciting part. Being in the back of the airplane, I never really had the joy of taking off in the dark, without any landing lights and just watching those tiny perimeter lights on there. I give those pilots monumental credit for being able to take off a B-17, fully loaded, gas, oil, ammunition, bombs and all, and Lord only knows what else we brought on to take along.
This had to be done in the dark, under full power; you hope for the best that you cleared the trees. As you know, from the 603rd, one plane did not clear the trees with the loss of eleven men of the lead airplane. There was always the unseen tower or the tall tree or a telephone pole that isn’t supposed to be there. Sometimes, I tell you, when the guys were taking off in the winter, December, January and all, there was snow on the ground and you could barely see where the end and the sides of the runway were.
That took some monumental flying to keep that plane on the ground, and on the runway and still taking off, gaining momentum all the time, hoping you have enough power and enough speed to take off and hoping that you have got to get yourself high enough to clear the trees and the tower and all that. It was just an amazing thing in retrospect. Maybe it wasn’t a big thing then, but after 60 years, I have had some time to think about it, I have begun to realize that the guys who were doing this was a couple of 19 year old kids. It was one of those amazing stories of the World War II air war. An amazing story.
MGR: Hmmm. It was tough for you then.
AO: After the pilots managed to take off, in the dark. I say in the dark because all my missions were flown in the fall and the winter of ’44 and ’45, we hardly ever saw daylight until we got up there. So the guys had to take off and follow a beacon to Debdon. Then they’d follow that for about three or four minutes, and then make a turn and then come back to Nuthampstead area and keep doing these turns, all the time gaining about three and four hundred feet per minute. Otherwise, the guys taking off afterwards, would be in danger of some very severe collisions.
So, you had to stay on air course to the buncher, keep maintaining your rate of climb, and keep on that course until you have reached the altitude assigned, and which really came as a result of the guys flying the weather plane in the middle of the night and they would simply say, “You won’t find any clear weather until 8,000, 10,000 [feet]”, sometimes 20,000 feet. So this turning and climbing thing would just go on indefinitely.
These guys in the cockpit would see absolutely nothing out there except fog or clouds. There would be nothing there to go on except their compass and they are reading from the Debdon Buncher and the navigation. Thankfully, the navigator [Lt. Ike Thacker] is also on the stick and knows exactly where he is flying. They had to stay on that course until, of course, they reached daylight.
Then somewhere up there and they would see the lead plane and he would be firing a flare, indicating this is the lead airplane from the 398th and you’d better join up over here. Sometimes, they would fall into formation quite easily. Then, there were other times, when we arrived at daylight, we gunners in the back end would look out the back window and say, “Oh boy! There is daylight out there. There is a sun out there.” And then look for the group lead.
All of a sudden, the plane would heel over on one wing, and we would say, “What on earth is happening?” Well, what was happening was the pilots found the lead aircraft and the formation that was coming up, and so on, and they would turn that airplane on its side and head for that group formation. They would fly to the exact position in their formation and not to one squadron but three, sometimes four squadrons. There could be thirty or forty airplanes out there and you had to pick your way and find your proper place over there.
I also felt this was the time in the air that the pilots really enjoyed flying because they could really turn that plane over and do some flying because they had to do some maneuvering to get into their proper slot. I give them all the credit in the world to have the skills at such a tender age to do that.
MGR: So, when you were on your flight, did they give you food? Did they give you food or anything to drink for those long missions?
AO: [Laughing] When I began to fly commercially after the war and I probably went to some 75 to 100 various cities on business after the war, I had many occasions to sit down and enjoy the meal. That was the days where they were serving food on the airplanes. I enjoyed and told the flight attendants that I am enjoying every bite and I did not turn back any morsel of food because I remembered those long 8, 9, 10, 11 hour flights with the rations that we had which were one candy bar, maybe two candy bars if you could steal one, and a package of gum. So, that was our rations.
There may have been guys who brought a little sandwich or something like that. But, you really can’t enjoy a sandwich when you have an oxygen mask on at 25,000 or 30,000 feet. Besides, if you are sitting there eating a sandwich over the southern part of Germany when you should be watching for some other things and maintaining some sort of health with your oxygen mask on, eating a sandwich is something that is not very good business. So, we saved ourselves for the dinner that we sometimes received at five, six, seven o’clock when we came home.
I have heard of two illustrations where people had brought some extra enjoyment. One guy, I think he was a pilot, but brought a coffee jug and it may have been more common that I realized but it was not common on my crew. My pilot never allowed that.
But, then there was a fellow named Larry Delancey, who was well known for bringing home that nose-blown B-17. But, Delancey was a very dedicated smoker, ‘til his dying day, which was much too early in his life. He was known for removing – this was after the bombs away and we are on our way home and there is a descending pattern—but it was common for him to take his oxygen mask off, light up his cigarette and take a couple of puffs, put the oxygen mask, and so on. You can do that if you were a dedicated smoker and I could never relate to that but it makes for a good story.
MGR: Yes, oh my gosh. So, tell me about the back of the plane. We have had rumors where you laid on your stomach.
AO: Well, I think the only place I have seen where they lay on their stomach is the boom operator of the KC-135s, moving lying on their stomach when they are maneuvering the boom to refuel the fighter planes.
But, no, we had a little bicycle seat that we sat on in combat position. It was uncomfortable because you sit on a bicycle seat, which was okay, but your knees were also underneath and you had to be on your knees for a long period of time. There were long periods of time when we were not encountering not any fighters where we could all simply take up our legs and extend them out into the tail section, alongside each of the .50s. It was comfortable there. But, the bicycle seat itself didn’t lend itself to a very comfortable position so I found a little cushion seat which was 8 by 10 or twelve. It had a soft top but it had a board on the bottom so I just put it on top of the bicycle seat so I could swivel on it and maintain my alertness. I could always see left, look left, look right, look up, look down, which what I am paid to do. That’s what the pilot paid me to do. He wants to know what’s going on in the tail. I think [Lt. Warren] Johnson impressed that on me, even in training, he said, “I want to know what’s happening back there.” And that was in training. It was even more important, when somebody was up, wanting to do some bad things to you.
It was a long haul; it was quiet back there, so I was more or less of a loner, anyway. So, I got along fine.
MGR: So, it didn’t bother you being back there by yourself.
AO: Not at all. It bothered some of the other people in the waist because there were times when, not many, that I didn’t respond to an oxygen check. That came every five or six minutes or so from the bombardier [Lt. Peter Special]. Well, so if I didn’t respond, “Tail okay,” or something of that nature, then somebody had to go back and find out why.
There were a couple of times where my waist gunners [S/Sgt. Larry Zagelow and S/Sgt. Vencil Bolton] had to crawl back there with their five minute oxygen bottle, rap on my back and want to know what’s happening. They couldn’t reach me on the intercom. Well, I couldn’t talk because my intercom had become unplugged. Just a simple little thing.
There were times when there was an infrequent oxygen check when somebody had lost oxygen and then they could be very serious and, of course, that’s anoxia and bad things happen after you are missing oxygen for three, four, and five minutes and that’s fatal. I didn’t want that and I tried to be very careful. I think all tail gunners back there where it was so cold, it had to be very, very cautious to maintain oxygen and keep the ice from forming up in there. It seemed kind of silly to reach up on your oxygen mask and pull out ice but that was important if you wanted to live.
MGR: So, when you landed, you continued to ride in the back, right?
AO: Oh, no.
AO: Oh, no. The pilots didn’t want to have anybody in the tail during takeoff. That was really forbidden. But I must admit, I did one time on a training session in Nuthampstead to say that I did it, but I was not supposed to. Then when we returned from England and we were certain that there were not bad people buzzing around to do us in, then we would come out of the tail. I would land either in the waist or the radio room, so as to equalize the weight some. The airplane, actually, flew quite well with me in the tail or out of the tail, and so on but the pilots have this thing about weights and balances and all that business and so on. So, it’s only realistic that I abide by these rules and which I tried to. Even if I cheated once.
MGR: So, you weren’t ever shot down or you never had to bail out?
AO: No, we never had to bail out. There were times when it seemed questionable. There was one time when we were on a mission to Brunswick [22 October 1944]; we had lost an engine and the prop was wind milling and the airplane was shaking. There was some chatter about what to do. We had fallen behind, which was quite common in those days. As a tail gunner, I really was not in a position to contribute anything to make those kind of decisions. I did say this, “If we can’t get back to England, let’s land in Sweden,” which is a very normal response for me having been born there. Obviously, the pilots and navigators prevailed and the decision was that we could make it back with three engines, in which we did.
But, there were other times where it got a little scary. We all went through those times and all. But, yes, we were hit a goodly number of times and, thankfully, we prevailed.
MGR: So, what did you do on your time off when you were not flying or you had a day or two off?
AO: Well, I guess some of the spare time was taken up on the base by just going somewhere on our bikes. Not all of us, at least three or four of us had bikes and so on. So, we went places. Not very far, but we went and scouted around and looked at things. [We] went into Royston a time or two, and Balldock and Hitchin, and those places. Sometimes we had passes and sometimes we didn’t but I think it was common knowledge that people snuck off the base and frequented the places in Hitchin and Balldock and Barkway and Barley and who knows whatever else.
I didn’t get out there too often but I enjoyed going to London, the three or four times that we made it. It was nothing monumental that we did there but significant thing that I noticed early on with our crew is when we went on pass, and we had three days and so on, it was fairly traditional that we would all go at the same time. Ten of us would be on the same train, heading for London, and then there would be a kind of split.
The bombardier [Lt. Peter Special] and co-pilots [Lt. Robert Lucy] seemed to have something in common and they would head to a certain area. The pilot [Lt. Warren Johnson] and the navigator [Lt. Ike Thacker] would kind of get together. The radio operator [T/Sgt. Mario Procopio] would string along with a couple of waist gunners [S/Sgt. Larry Zagelow and S/Sgt. Vencil Bolton] and they would kind of go their own ways. There might be four different targets when the guys went out. Some guys liked to go to the museum and there’s a couple of them that didn’t care much for the museums and they went their own way. But, we always managed to reunite, you know, ten minutes before the train left at King’s Cross and we always managed…
The only time that I had problems in getting back in time, our waist gunner, [S/Sgt. Larry] Zagelow, had problems with his legs, and he was sent to the hospital near Madingley. That’s outside Cambridge, about six miles. So, the ball turret gunner [S/Sgt. Doyle Atwood] and I each had bikes. We rode to Royston, took our bikes on the train, and took our bikes to Cambridge, which was ten, twelve miles away. Then, we biked out to Madingley to the hospital out there and visited with [S/Sgt. Larry] Zagelow. We’d bike back to Cambridge to catch the train, which left ten minutes before we got there. It was around ten o’clock at night, and we weren’t flying the next day, so we just kept peddling. It was twelve miles or so, or thirteen, or whatever it was; it was a monumental number. We got back just midnight time, in time for a two o’clock wakeup call to fly. They had scheduled us and we didn’t know that when we had left earlier in the day. But, we survived, you know, you are young and fearless in those days. It was not exactly a traumatic experience, but it was cute.
MGR: Could you, like on that mission, did you sleep in the back, ever?
AO: I hope not! I know there’s no such thing as sleeping on missions. I can’t imagine anyone doing that. Of course, if a guy can puff a cigarette at 20,000 feet under the oxygen mask, maybe there is probably a ways to sleep, too. I have heard stories where people have come in quite inebriated at night and gone on a mission and had a little problem staying awake, but that was not what you call a normal routine. It’s hard to sleep when its 50, 60 degrees below zero and you are cold, you know, and you are scared, maybe, and there is people out there who may not be noted to you but you always had the feeling that there’s somebody out there with a pursuit type airplane that can fly a lot faster than you and shoot a lot of bullets at you.
So, I always learned to keep alert back there. I mean, that was expected of all tail gunners or anybody. You look left and you look right and I still do this today when I drive a car, when I get to an intersection, I look left and I look right. It’s so automatic for me. I can’t imagine somebody not doing that but this was borne from looking left and look right and even look up to see who is out there.
I can still remember when I looked up and there was a single airplane, coming very, very fast and it happened to be a ME-262 jet and one of the first times that we had first seen those, the first time that I had seen one. It was the only one, thankfully. He came right out of the sky, and who knows how fast he was going, probably four hundred miles; a lot faster than the Messerschmitt and the Facke-Wulfs, which we had seen. I had barely got my gun pointed that way and got a shot off and he hit one of the fellows in our high squadron, high element and then he was gone. Then, on the intercom, we heard that later that the P-51s were on his tail and that’s the last that we had heard of it. But, who knows what had happened.
The plane did go down, and I followed it down, and it burst, and I saw two parachutes. And, I think others had escaped, but most of them were killed on there. But, some fifty years later, I had an occasion to call this guy; I think he was the waist gunner that got out. He was living, had moved from New York and was living in Florida, and asked him, “Is this so-and-so?”, and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Are you the guy who bailed out of the airplane on February, something or another?” [He replied] “Yeah, yeah, that’s me.” “Well, this is the Air Force Quartermaster and we have a statement of charges for a parachute that you never returned.” And he said, “What?!” I had to finally tell him that this was all in jest. He has remained a friend and we have corresponded periodically. He gives me a rib once and a while for teasing him but those were some of the happy moments that we have had.
I have had many of those where I have had occasion to call them and say, “Are you the guy who did this and did that?” [He’d reply,] “Well, yes.” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you, I was the guy up there a little ways from you and I saw what happened to you and I am writing a story about in Flak News and thought you’d like to know.” And he says, “Man, that’s great!”
So all these memories are being resurfaced. It’s been a joy for me to be able write about these things years over these past 21 years. It’s one of those joys. It’s a lot more fun to recall these great memories than to have actually been there and suffered through some of these.
MGR: Yes, right, you are on the better end of it. So, did you ever go to The Woodman when you were stationed?
AO: I think I went there once and I bought something that I think it was a .50 caliber bullet that had been designed into a cigarette lighter or something like that. There was something else, I think it was a picture that was framed or whatever it was, and it was made by somebody from the machine shop. I think these guys had a little deal going that they would turn out things and they would sell it to the airmen and all. Bless their hearts for that.
No, I didn’t frequent there. I really didn’t like beer, and I still don’t. I enjoy a beer on occasions but it is not one of my favorites. But, I love going to The Woodman Inn now and meeting people who still have these memories of those days 60 years ago and that is one of the joys of going back to the base at Nuthampstead. Not only being at the base which is not, of course, nothing but wheat fields and a few side runways and things, but the folks there who remember those days.
I still fondly recall the folks that I talked to the very first time in 1986 where I took my first tour and this lady says, “You know, if it wasn’t for you boys, if it wasn’t for you boys…..” You can add whatever you wanted to that. That feeling was there then and even now having gone back 14 times or so, it is still there. They may not say so, but that image of ‘If it hadn’t been for you boys, 19, 18, 20 years old,’ as though we saved the world for democracy.
Great memories going back to the old days.
MGR: Were you there for the D-Day invasion?
AO: No, our replacement crew arrived in September . Got there in August, start flying in September and continued. But, no, we didn’t hit D-Day. It was a big effort.
But, in researching and reading about it and writing about it, I found that it was not much of a mission combat-wise. There were so many airplanes out there and there was so few German fighters that it wasn’t much of a contest, really. Just getting in the air along those thousands of other airplanes was a colossal effort of itself. I think a lot of the guys that flew that mission were probably more impressed with the thousands of ships in the Channel that they saw there. They all comment on most things.
The missions began to get longer as the winters began to get colder. My memories are not from those short missions but from those long hauls into Merseburg and into Misburg and to Munich and some of those places where we were after oil targets and chemical plants in the Liepzig area back in Eastern Germany and even on end into Poland and, of course, into the Czech Republic. Those were memorable because they were long, they were cold, they were difficult, and they were deadly. You would go out with twelve airplanes and you would come back with three. You know, that’s serious business.
MGR: You know, there was one mission where almost the whole squadron of yours.
AO: That was our squadron. That was a sad day [21 November 1944, 603rd Squadron]. We, the Johnson’s Crew, were leading one of the elements. At one point, after one attack by the F-190s, our airplane kind of lurched up and I thought, “Why did it do that?” You know, buffeted by winds or something. But, I had learned later that the airplane went up in the nose because one of the two planes in the lead, or Duputy lead had been hit and it had veered directly in front of us and our pilot [Lt. Warren Johnson] had pulled up to avoid him. In so doing, we took a hit in our bomb bay doors, the leading edge of our bomb bay doors. If it hadn’t hit bomb bay doors open at the time, those .20mm cannon shells had hit the cockpit, or the navigator [Lt. Ike Thacker] or the bombardier [Lt. Peter Special] or all. It would have been fatal for sure.
On that run, it was an image that will be forever embedded in my mind. That Focke-Wulf 190 came at us from the nose at probably doing 250 or 300 miles per hour. We are going at 150 to 160 or somewhere in that area. Well, the closing speed there is monumental. When I heard guns rattling, there is chatter on the intercom, and all this is going on, I am looking around, and I happened to turn right, through the window. At the very instant, this Focke -Wulf came by right over our port wing. I am looking directly at this guy and he is looking directly at me. Of course, I couldn’t see the color of his eyes because he has an oxygen mask on just like me. But here are two guys, one in the tail with glasses and oxygen mask and a German fighter pilot, with glasses and oxygen mask, both looking at each other. I remember that thing as like it happened ten minutes ago. If that man is still living somewhere in Germany, he would probably remember me, too, looking at the tail gunner looking at him.
MGR: Were you shooting at him?
AO: No, he came from the nose and then he peeled right off and it was gone. Gone and forgotten. Those were interesting days.
But, we were leading the high element that day when all this chaos happened. All of a sudden six airplanes are missing. Pilot [Lt. Warren] Johnson looked around and surveyed the damage, so to speak. He could see that all three from the lead were gone and he just had the wisdom to radio up and say, “Form on me.” That’s all he said, “Form on me,” and whatever else he said. So, three of us went home together as a squadron. One each from the other elements.
MGR: That was bad day.
AO: Colonel [Frank P.] Hunter came out when we landed and he talked to Johnson [Lt. Warren Johnson, pilot]. Johnson came out of his cockpit and Hunter came up in his Jeep and said, “Where are the rest?” And Johnson says, “There are no rest. There are no rest.”
MGR: Once you got out of the airplane, did you immediately go to the debriefing or did you stay out there and watch the other planes come in.
AO: No, no. We got out of the airplane, got our personal gear and whatever we had, pulled our guns and picked them up and got into the truck or Jeep or whatever was coming for us. Sometimes, we’d all come together, hopefully. Sometimes, it would take two trips, maybe slow in getting out. We would all wind up at briefing and we’d go through that ritual and then we would always have to clean our guns. You never got by that. We also had to turn in our heated suits and then punch out those guns. I think it was Hoppe’s Gun Cleaning pads, or something. They are still used today, I am sure. Hoppe’s.
MGR: What was your living condition like?
AO: A beautiful Quonset hut with enough room for about 15 guys, or 16 guys. We had a couple of single bunks in there and several double bunks, in all. We joined the remnants of another crew when we arrived. We had a couple extra beds in there.
I made friends with a fellow named Atchison [Brooks U. Atchison, 603rd Squadron BT Gunner], who was just on the verge of finishing his tour when we arrived. We bummed around a little bit for a while and got to know each other and chatted about Seattle and that sort of thing. He was one of the guys that went down on that mission to Merseburg [November 21, 1944].
Later on in researching that mission, I found that he had bailed out, successfully, and was captured. The story of another guy on the crew that had bailed out and was captured and was being marched to police headquarters, somewhere. He looked up and there was an American airman, strung up a light pole in some town over there. He didn’t say that he couldn’t identify but he said, “I am sure it was Atchison.” But, that was my friend who met his fate, strung up on a telephone pole, by the German civilians.
But, thankfully -- and they were angry at times, of course -- but more often than not, the German police would intercede and save people from getting beat up pretty badly. A lot of us, a lot of fellows, were killed by the German population. Many others were saved from decapitation by the German military or police.
I would add that there were lots and lots of Germans who looked very kindly on the men, particular the ones that were killed. I remember one story where John McCormick [2nd Lt. John R. McCormick, pilot 602nd Squadron] went back to visit where his plane went down and he lost his crew. He met the people there that were there when the plane came down in bits and pieces and a lady recounted to McCormick when she saw this happen way back then. She went out there and she saw this boy, he was just a boy, just lying there quite peaceful, and she felt so sad and she related this story to McCormick, who came back 50 years later and talked to this lady. There were many, many precious stories of sensitivity and love and compassion that went along with all the anguish that occurred during these days.
MGR: So, how did you find out about the surrender of Japan?
AO: At the time, I was assigned to an Air Force base in Victorville, in California. I was there to train for to be a Combat Photographer, Air Force Combat Photographer, to be sent to the Pacific someday. When this occurred and we got the news that Japan had surrendered and the bomb had fallen, we said something like, “Praise the Lord, it’s over, it’s over!”
To this day, I am certainly happy that this happened. [I am] Sorry for all those who had died, but I am certainly happy for the additional million, two, or three, or four million people who had didn’t perish because the bombs had fallen because there were going to be a colossal casualty rate on both sides had this not occurred.
MGR: So, when did you leave Nuthampstead? How long was your tour over there?
AO: From September ’44 to late February ’45. I got home March of ’45 and went on to serve in the base photo lab in Victorville, getting geared up to go someplace. Many of our fellows came home from their tours, and were assigned to fly B-29s. Some were in training and ready to go. But, thankfully, the war was over and we could all go home and do the things that we were fighting to achieve.
MGR: So, once you could, you got out of the service?
AO: Yes, in September after I had been in the service for about five years, and I thought really that was enough. Besides, I had a girlfriend, and sometime before I had left for overseas, it occurred to me that there would be time for marriage and children in those days. I didn’t dwell on that really, over there. When you are over there, you are not simply writing letters to your loved ones every ten minutes or so. There are other things to consider. I wasn’t perhaps quite ready for marriage right then. When I came home, I said, “Hey, this is what I had been missing.”
So, I have been happily married for 59 years now. It has been a good marriage.
AO: And you have two daughters.
AO: I have two daughters who are now, plus two grandchildren.
MGR: Oh, good.
AO: It has been a good life.
- Warren Johnson's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 19 January 1945
- Allen Ostrom has been the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association's Flak News Editor since its inception in August 1986. See our on-line Flak News Articles by Alan Ostrom and also our Flak News Articles index.
- 398th Bomb Group Remembrances by Allen Ostrom, Seattle, Washington by Vanguard Press, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 89-50736, 1989. Remembrances is available in the 398th PX.
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Sgt. Allen Ostrom was the Tail Gunner on Warren Johnson's 603rd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Jan Silverstein, one of our 398th volunteers in December 2010.
- 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 [ ].