World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Lt. "Pep" Petrocine, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Elaine Stahlman Jurs
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
Phoenix, AZ., November 2007
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. "Pep" Petrocine, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
600th Squadron, Eighth Air Force
MG-R: Interviewer, Marilyn Gibb-Rice
PP: 398th Pilot, "Pep" Petrocine
PP: I am Pep Petrocine. I flew as co-pilot with the crew of Ted Johnston, 398th Bob Group, 600th Squadron and about in the middle of the career overseas I was checked-out as a pilot and had my own crew, so I flew my own Petrocine crew as pilot.
MG-R: Where were you living and what were you doing in the late 1930’s and early 40’s?
PP: Well, I was a student in college and I volunteered for the Air Force, the Air Corps in those days, and they were preparing the country, organizing to get people ready for war and they couldn’t take us as fast as we enlisted, so I had time to actually matriculate from one college to another, and wait to be called. And I was called from Kansas University in Lawrence Kansas.
MG-R: Is that where you grew up, in Kansas?
PP: No, I grew up on the Hudson River in New York State, in a small town called Peekskill, NY about 40 miles from New York City, upstream from New York City.
MG-R: So your parents, how did they feel about your signing up?
PP: I don’t think they even knew it. I was away at college, and I don’t remember consulting them at all. I hitch-hiked 90 miles to go to a place called St. Joseph Missouri to enlist, and hitchhiked back to the campus, and I felt like I was already in the Air Corps, because I got in the car with a fellow who was either drunk or on something, and we went about 90 to 95 miles an hour, so I felt like I was accepted immediately into the Air Corps.
MG-R: You were certainly in danger immediately, weren’t you? So, when did you get called up and where was your first training?
MG-R: And where did you go after that?
PP: A variety of training bases, all of which I don’t remember specific information about; dates and in some cases, maybe not even the names. I got some training in B-17’s at Yuma, Arizona. One place was in California, near where the fires recently were, in that part of San Diego County. It was a lot of ground training, not so much flying, at different bases. And as other guys have told you during interviews, you went through primary training, basic training, and then advanced training. My advanced training was in Douglas, Arizona, in an airplane that they called the “Bamboo Bomber” which was made of canvas and glue and bamboo strips. It was a double engine plane. I graduated and got my wings there, and my first assignment was as a flight instructor in the same aircraft on that same base.
MG-R: So how long did you do that flight instructor’s job?
PP: Not very long. Turns out that there was an order that came through where they needed people to go through a co-pilot training school, and the guys who had just graduated were off on a two-week leave, which seemed to be typical, and there were some of them who were smart enough not to respond to a call to cut their leave short, and so the last few new flight instructors were taken, and we became co-pilot trainees.
MG-R: In the B-17?
MG-R: So when did you meet up with Ted Johnston and your crew?
PP: In 1944, roughly mid-year…
MG-R: And where?
PP: We went a variety of places. I mentioned Yuma, Arizona, that was one of them. That was primary gunnery training, primarily for the enlisted members of the crew. We did some crew training in Alexandria, Louisiana. Later we picked up a new airplane (B17) in Lincoln, Nebraska. We flew it to the east coast where we waited for an assignment, supposedly very secret, to go overseas. When we took off from New England, we had a sealed envelope we were not supposed to open until after take-off, flying an assigned heading for a certain number of minutes. Then, we could open the envelope and find out where we were going. Of course, when you take off from the east coast of the United States, you pretty well know where you’re going. So it was one of those protocols that our country was learning how to get the military deployed into a war zone.
MG-R: And so, you went from there to…?
PP: We went from there overseas to England. And we flew that magical flight across the water, and you apparently would like to hear anything unusual about that. Well, we flew at night, and during our flight there was a noise like machine gun bullets hitting our airplane. That really got our attention. It turned out that we were icing up, and the ice was coming off the propellers and hitting the airplane, and that was a new and memorable experience. So we went to Wales, England by way of Iceland. We were not there for very long, then we flew to Nuthampstead --- the base where the 398th Bomb Group was stationed. We were, I think, what you would call replacement crews at that time, because we didn’t start the base.
MG-R: So can you tell me about your first mission? Do you remember it?
PP: Not very much. Of course it was a new and exciting experience; but, as missions go, it was relatively uneventful.
MG-R: Well then tell me about some of your other ones.
PP: I remember that we didn’t get shot down, and I would probably refer to it as a “milk run.” We didn’t experience tremendous flak or fighter opposition. I kept a diary while I was over there, and I have recorded every mission by name and the number of hours that the mission took, and what the bomb load was, and as I sit here talking to you, I can’t quote too many of those missions by name. I know some of them were outstanding. Merseburg was a famous one because it was not a milk run and we lost airplanes on that kind of mission. And, we went to Merseburg a few times, and we went to Berlin, and we went to all the usual places for that stage of the war. Earlier in the war, the missions were relatively close because we were just starting out. My tour of duty was not real early in the war, so the missions were a little longer. The average mission was deep into Germany and ran somewhere between nine and ten hours on each mission, so they were deep missions to marshalling yards, oil fields, ball bearing plants, anything that would tend to halt the conduct of the war by Germany, to keep them from having good transportation. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have enough oil, after we raided oil fields, so that they couldn't fuel their airplanes and their tanks, etc.
Pep Petrocine's Diary
MG-R: So, did you have anything that happened on any of your missions that you’d like to tell me about?
PP: Well, our crew, as I recall was a wonderful crew, with very competent people. I don’t think we were competent as we became a crew and headed over, but I think we became competent with experience. One of the guys was our navigator, by the name of Charlie Letts. And, he kept pretty good records in a log book for a navigator, and somebody at headquarters would read those things, supposedly, and he got tapped to become a lead navigator. So he was plucked out of our crew. And, on the very first mission where he was like a trainee lead navigator, they had a lot of brass on that airplane, I remember being told that there were 16 people on that B-17 on that mission, because they were doing a lot of training for new lead crew members. Well, that airplane got a direct hit of flak, on the bomb run while the bomb bay doors were open, and we were flying in very close proximity in the formation, and we saw that airplane blow up. We lost the only member of our crew who we lost in the war. And it was the first time he had not flown with us. That was interesting enough to mention.
Editor's Note: Lt. Charles R. Letts was the "Mickey" Navigator (one of three navigators) on A/C 44-8244 N7-A on 398th Mission: 23 January 1945 - Neuss, Germany. This was the aircraft with Colonel Frank P. Hunter, Jr. 398th Group CO and Lt. Frederico Gonzales. Nine aboard with KIA and only one Lt. Frederico Gonzales survived.
MG-R: Right, yes. So did you ever have to bail out?
PP: Never had to bail out. Had some harrowing experiences, as many people did. One of them was after I became pilot of my own crew, and my guys did a process that I had no familiarity with. They 'wrote me up' for the Distinguished Flying Cross, because of getting them back when they felt that we were not going to get back. That was an interesting mission.
MG-R: Tell me about it.
PP: You had a flight suit on, and all the paraphernalia, and your garb, and you sweat hard enough to sweat through the whole thing. The kind of mechanical problem we had was where we lost a number three engine, and it started burning, a fire, which generally you can extinguish, and the propeller, which spins more or less horizontally as you go through, it’s a vertical/horizontal sort of thing, wouldn’t feather --- a thing called “feathering the prop”. It was a variable pitch propeller, which all of them were, and they were massive, and we would adjust the angle at which the prop was turned, according to amount of power and the climbing, etc. And during that emergency, you were supposed to immediately feather the prop so that the prop blades were slicing the air, or feathering through the air. Well, I couldn’t feather the prop, and consequently, the whole airplane vibrates, shakes, hard enough disable your instrument panel, from the standpoint of being able to read your instruments. There was a thing called the 'PIF' file, Pilot’s Information File, which was a loose leaf deal that was a pain in the neck. Every time you got one of those sheets of information, you were supposed to read it, commit it to memory, and put the thing in a three-ring notebook. And I don’t have much of a memory at the age of 86, but I had a pretty good memory back then, and I remembered all that stuff, which was supposed to prepare you for emergencies. And one of the things I remembered reading was that if you couldn’t feather the prop, and it was vibrating and causing you trouble, if you could spare the altitude you should dive your airplane and pick up excess speed and pull up sharply in the hope of throwing that prop off its, sort of an axel. And so I had plenty of altitude, and I kept trying to throw that prop, and I think I must have tried diving four times, which must have scared the hell out of the crew, because you’re diving quite a bit, and you keep using up all this altitude. Every time you dove and pulled up harder, the prop would go a little bit off the shaft. The shaft was fire red, and every time that prop went a little further, you could see more of the red-hot shaft. But, I was never able to throw the prop.
To make a long story short, we made it back to Nuthampstead, and did what was called a “grease job” landing. And without a lot of vibration hitting the ground, if you had a grease job landing, which might have only been in your imagination, it might not have really been a grease job. Well, the prop came off as we landed and as we were moving forward on the runway, and as it twisted, it went through the wing of the airplane, and chopped it up pretty good. And then, (Nuthampstead apparently used to be a farm, and the runway was concrete that was fine), when the prop hit the runway, there would be plenty of resistance and bouncing on the hard surface, the prop might bend a little, but when it left that area, after cutting through the wing, it hit farmland, and dug a hole in the ground almost big enough to bury a coffin. I got the airplane stopped, and thought immediately of my crew, and looked out the left window and yelled on my intercom, “All right guys, get the hell out of this airplane”. And I looked out and they were already, all of them out there, 50 or 100 yards out. So that was a pretty neat experience.
Well, the guys did write me up for a Distinguished Flying Cross. I didn’t know how that stuff happened. But I have in my stuff at my summer home, a set of orders awarding me the Distinguished Flying Cross, which I didn’t think too much of, and I never claimed it or went and received it. I just recently read through some of the paperwork and read some of the orders awarding the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is not just to one guy. There were a number of people on the sheet, included in the order, to get that particular award. Well, after coming to this reunion, and being infused with a bunch of spirit and emotion, I think I might go home to Colorado next June, and if I can remember, I’m going to pull those orders and make an application to receive the actual award. But in the meantime, I’ve always thought, “aw, so what? The war’s over, I don’t need to prove anything.”
MG-R: Well, it was not to prove, you won an award and you need to have it. That’s so wonderful!
PP: You don’t know how much you really deserve it, because the guys on your crew became authors and wrote up the story. Well, you don’t know how they told it, or how accurate it was. But I was grateful to them for their attitude --- they think you saved their lives.
MG-R: Well, and you did.
PP: In some cases you do. Many times, because of taking evasive action when you have close flak, and you weren’t supposed to take evasive action while in formation or on the bomb run, but you do a few things, mostly for preservation or safety. And so you might save guys’ lives and not have an award, but here’s one. Anyhow, that’s probably enough about that subject.
MG-R: No, that was great. So, when this happened, was this on the way back?
PP: No, it was on the way to the target. Before we ever got to the target and I had to abort. So we never got to the target, had plenty of altitude as a result of being in the formation and coped with the rest of it on the way back.
PP: Well, the food was not what you were used to. However, it wasn’t all UK food. You had your own guys at the mess hall preparing. We had powdered eggs, and we got used to them, to the point where you really liked them! So we were on an American base, but there were plenty of English people working on that base, and so you didn’t get out in the middle of the English people as much as one would think. But you did get a 24 hour pass every so often and you could go someplace. Like from where I was you could go to Cambridge. There was a USO there and you could get a cold Coca-Cola and sleep on a cot that had sheets on it. And so we got up to places like that and there were British people we could mix with. You took your 24-hour passes and headed into London, and it was all British people around you. My impression was that they sure do read a lot. Everybody had a book and they would be reading that book as they got on a public transportation unit, like a bus.
There were all those stories about how the girls liked nylon hose and you should acquire some nylon hose to make an impression on the girls. Or chocolate bars. The same old 'six and seven' stories that everybody told. And while at this conference, I heard one of the guys who got up at the microphone last night say, “Any gum, chum?” And that was an impressive thing to hear --- mostly children gathering in groups when they saw two or three of you. In essence, they were begging. And the phrase was, “any gum, chum?” So chewing gum, and nylon hose, and chocolate bars were all things that the British people had been deprived of for a long time. I didn’t get to know too many British people then. I’ve met many British people since then and gotten to know them fairly well. Even German people, which is of some little bit of novelty interest. I ran a retail store in my work life, and in the early days, closer to the time of World War II, I remember in a very small town, running my retail store, having a foreign customer, and I was the clerk. And the person had a foreign language with a deep accent. And she was German. And in the course of ringing up her sale, I asked, “where do you live in Germany?” (Having a little knowledge of the names of places in Germany). And she told me the town, and I said, “I b…” I almost said, “I bombed your town” and I caught myself just in time. I’ve never forgotten that experience.
Years later I went to Germany on a vacation, I and another pilot who was flying for a commercial airline, and we wanted to play some tennis. We asked our host, who rented us an apartment, if there were any tennis courts in this little town in Germany. And she said, “No there are no tennis courts. Oh, there is one. The Burgermeister, the mayor of this town has a tennis court. I will call him and see if you may go over there and play tennis on his tennis court.” This all came to pass, and we went there three times within a week. And we became acquainted with the German guy who owned this mobile home camp, which was what it was. But it was out of season, so he wasn’t very busy and he had time to come out and visit with us and watch us play tennis. And, we became friends. And he said, “What do you gentlemen do?” And my friend said, “I’m a pilot. I fly for a commercial airline.” And the guy showed some surprise, and my friend said, “Well, Pep’s a pilot too. He flew B-17’s in World War II.” The guy took off, ran back into his house, ran back out, with a military cap on, a white scarf around his neck and a leather flight-jacket. And he said, “I was a pilot! I was a fighter pilot!” We ended up being friendly enough that when we left we said, “If you ever come to America, here’s my name, address and phone number, Carl, call me.” And that was an emotional experience a number of years after the war. But still, when you were dropping bombs on a country, or having your guys shoot at attacking aircraft, you would never expect to have your arms around the guy and have your picture taken with him, because he would have shot you down, and you would have shot him down. I don’t know if that’s the kind of stuff you want to hear.
MG-R: I do, no, that was great! You don’t know who you’re going to meet and what’s going to happen, but you were doing your job and he was doing his…
PP: And, he was a nice guy.
MG-R: And you were a nice guy. So, how many missions did you fly?
PP: Thirty-five. The crew that I went over with became a lead crew. And consequently they flew thirty. And, they ended up with thirty, because if you were a lead crew you didn’t have to fly thirty-five at that point in the war. So I ended up flying thirty-five and the picture of our very last mission, which they always take --- two things that were interesting about it… Two of the guys in my crew were also on the Johnston crew originally, but for one reason or another, they didn’t get to finish up with that crew, and so there were three of us who started out on a different crew and ended up on my crew. The other thing that was notable in that picture of our very last mission, there was a whiskey bottle on the ground in front of our picture because one of the guys sneaked it onto the airplane. Since it was the thirty-fifth mission, if we made it back, we could celebrate. And, I didn’t know anything about that, of course, but that made for a little bit of interesting history for us.
MG-R: So, did you celebrate once you got back?
PP: Not very much that I recall. We probably did. Every mission, you were debriefed when you got back. The officers went to one place and the enlisted men to another. They gave the officers a shot of whiskey as you started every debriefing. I imagine they did that for the enlisted men also, but I never knew. And I never thought about it too much, we just got a shot of whiskey, and then we got to talk a little. Because they wanted to know what happened, if you saw any chutes go down when an airplane was shot out of the air, what crew was it, where did it happen. They collected lots of information. They wanted to know information about how much flak there was, whether or not we had fighters attack us. They collected that information, which they gathered during debriefings after a mission, to provide you with information to brief you when you were going on another mission, if you were going to that area.
MG-R: So your new crew, have you kept in touch with them, or any of them?
PP: I have kept in touch with every one of the original crew, at least once a year. Two or three times over the sixty-some years, we had our own little reunions. Not everyone could make every one of them, but I lived in a very beautiful place, Estes Park Colorado, mountain scenery and good temperatures, and so on, and very shortly after the war, maybe five or six years after the war, I invited the guys to come to my place, and we had a little reunion. So, there was some keeping in touch. But I kept in touch over these years, at least once a year, Christmas. And I still do. There are three of us who still survive. I, and Ted Johnston who is at this reunion, and one other member who was our radio operator. He didn't come to this reunion. He lives back-east in Marlboro, Massachusetts. But, yeah, we’re in touch, and we feel like we know what’s going on with the three of us.
MG-R: What’s the guy’s name in Massachusetts?
PP: Larry Miller. He’s like an historian. In the early years after the war, as well as some of the later years, Larry Miller became a self-appointed historian and author. He wrote a little book on the war. He wrote many papers on the war. And I would read them; he’d send me one each time. And I’d think, “Where was I when that happened?” It sounded a little bit like embellished stories. They might have been real. Supposedly they were real.
MG-R: Wow, that’s great. Can you describe your feelings during a mission?
PP: I would have to say good feelings of doing a job well. It’s satisfactory whether you are working a lathe in a carpenter shop or do good public relations for your company or business environment. It was that kind of feeling; that you were doing your job, and you never were really evaluated, but you had the feeling of having done a good job. You’re very involved and you didn’t think too much about it. People have asked, as they do, “How scared were you?” I don’t ever remember being scared. I certainly knew you could get shot down. The officers on a crew lived in Quonset huts, and four officers from a crew would share a Quonset hut with four officers from another crew, and you got to know those guys pretty well. And you got to know your own crew pretty well. But outside of that, you didn’t really know very many people. You were very busy with the people that you did work with, and I knew that you could get shot down, but I never felt scared about it, and I never really felt that it was going to happen to me. It’s like an automobile accident: it always happens to the other guy. We lost four guys who shared a Quonset hut with us, and so you knew from close by what could happen. And I remember the emotional feelings of helping to gather up their personal belongings in the Quonset hut, and putting them in a foot locker so that they could be collected.
So I had those feelings, which helped to round out and shape what your feelings were, because you had to go fly a mission maybe the next day. In fact, while I’m here at this reunion, I looked up the Erler crew in the history books that you have on display, and found the Erler crew picture, and I knew every one of those guys, because we were in close proximity to them. Well, they were shot down, so they didn’t get back.
Clarification Note from Pep Petrocine on the Erler crew:
I believe Erler's name may have been wrongly spelled [in the interview]. Also, I don't think Erler's crew was shot-down. And from my notes, it appears Erler's crew was in 602nd squadron (although they did live in quanset hut #13 with us 601 guys). The experience of gathering clothing and belongings from a crew shot-down --- (from our hut) was when Navigator Charles R. Letts was killed. He was on the plane along with Col Hunter.
The question is “Who do I know? Who fought the same war I fought?” People say, “Oh, you were a B-17 pilot? My ex-brother-in-law was a B-17 guy, George so-and-so. Do you know him?” My gosh, you only know the guys on your crew, and alphabetically you may know some of the guys on the next crew alphabetically. Like our crew was Johnston, and there was a crew Johnson. So the Johnston crew and the Johnson crew, when things were organized alphabetically, we were close and we knew those guys. But we didn’t know a guy whose name started with “Z,” or “A.” It was all where you were located.
MG-R: In the U.K.
PP: Well, recently on Public Television, there was a series called “The War.” And I watched some of it—very impressive. And most of what I watched was in the Pacific theatre of operations. And relating what I saw to my living conditions while in the U.K., I thought, “My gosh, those guys had it so rough.” I was in a country club environment. I got to sleep on my own cot at night when I got back from a mission. I got to take a shower. I got to go to the mess hall. I had country club conditions compared to what those guys on the Bataan march or on Guam where they had problems. And it brought home to me, “what was our condition while in the U.K.?” I think pretty good for a war-time condition. I remember the V-2’s that the Germans had and they sent over. The people who lived in London knew them very well. Well, I heard about them but didn’t know much about them. But you got exposed to that and you heard them. And you were told that that’s what you were hearing. And the guys in my Quonset hut, when we heard them, which we didn’t very often, we would run outside and look up at it. And the British people, who some referred to as the “Limeys“, the Limeys would go hide somewhere. We ran outside and looked up at it, so we were always making comparisons between the G.I.s and the British. And some of them became pretty humorous, like that. One of them was (it may be OK for this conversation)…
You got to go on a flak leave, and you had a variety of opportunities for what you would call “civilian experiences “. And we went to what was almost like a mansion on flak leave. So one of the stories that came out of that, which was not real, was that you got to go on a fox hunt. And what’s the difference between a G.I. and a Limey? The Limey says, “Tally-Ho, the fox!” And , the G.I., says, “There goes the son-of-a-bitch.” And it was things like that that showed, in some way, the difference between the two cultures. And they’re exaggerations mostly, but they say a lot.
MG-R: Do you remember, where did you go? When you say it was like a castle, where would you go on your flak leave?
PP: You know, I don’t remember where that building was? You weren’t there very long, but you were shocked by the experience that you were having. You got to sleep in a bed. And you got to put your shoes outside the door at night, and they’d be shined in the morning. It was, wow, you were the king for a few days. It was a flak leave. And the name of the place was Fursdown, and that was not the community, it was the name of the mansion or the building or the estate, I suppose. But I don’t remember what it was near.
MG-R: Was it in England or was it in Scotland?
PP: It was in England. Mentioning Scotland, one of the guys on my crew had an uncle who lived in Scotland. And when he got his first 24-hour pass, he and maybe one or two of the other enlisted men went over to Scotland and they were wined and dined, and they brought home some Scotch whiskey that his uncle made. And he’s the guy who snuck the bottle of booze on our 35th mission and had it placed in our picture.
MG-R: What was his name? Do you remember his name?
PP: Yeah. Red Hayworth. His real name was William “Bill” Hayworth. He was my flight engineer. He no longer survives but he did not die in the war. He died here in the states at some point.
MG-R: So what were your evenings like when you weren’t flying, in your down time?
PP: The evenings were free. Movies at the officers’ club, sometimes. We had one pool table and one ping-pong table at the officers’ club, and one crap table. The crap table would get used for three or four days after pay-day, but not much use of it after that. But the ping-pong table and the pool table were always in demand. And you sat along a wall waiting, “who’s next?” to get onto the ping-pong table or the pool table. And there was a British coin called a florin. It was worth forty cents at that time. If you got hold of a ping-pong table or a pool table, the bets were at forty cents a game (a florin a game). So there was a lot of that kind of activity in the evenings, that’s how you spent some of your time. You became a good ping-pong player or a good pool player. I would write my letters home and say, “pp and p again today,” for ping-pong and pool.
So the activity was not wartime, it wasn’t warlike or combative, it was, and this is that country club feeling that I [only] now feel. I didn’t feel that during the war, because the next morning, at three or four o’clock, that guy might shake you and say, “Sir, briefing is at 4:15,” and you felt sorry for yourself for having to get out of your sack. It was nothing by comparison to the guys fighting on the ground.
That brings me to mention the Battle of the Bulge. During the Battle of the Bulge, the weather was worse than usual over England. We were socked in and not able to get our aircraft into the air for what seemed like an eternity. Many days. And we knew our guys were on the ground struggling with this Battle of the Bulge effort. I can remember that feeling, how I felt, when you said, “How did you feel?” I felt great when we got to go fly again, because the weather cleared up and we got to go support those guys. So you had different kinds of feelings according to the circumstances.
MG-R: Were you there to fly D-Day?
MG-R: Did you ever go to the Woodman? The Woodman Pub?
PP: No, I don’t know what that that was.
MG-R: Have you been back to Nuthampstead?
PP: No, I have not. Well, I know now what it is. It’s part of the literature of the reunions. No, I never did. I was not a drinker, and there were pubs in Royston, outside of Nuthampstead, and guys would go to the pub. And I didn’t have much activity…And I don’t know what the Woodman was like, is it a pub?
PP: OK. Was it in Royston?
MG-R: It’s just right next to the airfield, where our memorial is. It’s just right there, the Woodman Pub.
PP: I probably went there, I just don’t remember the names of the different places.
MG-R: So, how many missions did you fly?
MG-R: Thirty-five, yes you told me that. And how old were you when you first went over?
PP: I was a couple of years older than the rest of the guys on my crew. After high school, I got to go for two years to a military prep school, and then I had a couple of years of college by the time I got in the air corps. And because of that timing, and that spacing out after high school, I was at least a couple of years older at twenty-two years. But, I was the “old man” on our original crew. I was even older than the pilot. And I can remember experiences where the age difference came into play. If you had a forced landing while you were in the states, in training, and there was an opportunity to spend some money, well, the guys on the crew, and the enlisted men in particular, never had any money. And they would go to “pop” to borrow some money because there was a PX on the base. And the first one of those I remember was a forced landing in Memphis, Tennessee. And there are two things of great interest to me in my memory about that. One was that there were WAACS, Women’s Army Air Corps, and we had never seen a WAAC. It was in the early part of the use of women in uniform. And here were gals in skirts running around the base and the crews were impressed! The gals were driving little Jeeps, and they would stop if you were walking and they would ask if they could give you a ride, wherever you wanted to go on the base. Well, the guys had to come to “pop” and borrow money because I was the old man on the crew. So I was twenty-two years of age, and therefore, the old man, because some of the guys were nineteen and twenty.
MG-R: Did they call you “pops?”
PP: No, that’s part of my imagination that’s a little weird.
MG-R: Did you write letters back and forth to your parents while you were apart?
PP: Oh my, yes. I was already married when I went overseas…
MG-R: Oh, you were?
PP: Yes. And there were many, many letters to my wife and many letters back. Sometimes in packets of eight or nine letters. It just piled up. But I wrote a lot of letters to my wife and to my mother. A few letters to other family members.
MG-R: So, what was it like when you got out? How did you come back to the states?
PP: We flew a new airplane over there, but came back on a troop ship. And there were about 2,000 people on that troop ship, and they all were tossing their guts over the side at the same time. It was a memorable experience. We were not sailors. Of course, it seemed rough to us, but it probably wasn’t any rougher than other guys who were on ships for a living.
MG-R: Did your whole crew come at the same time?
PP: No, our crew got split up when the original crew became a lead crew. They didn’t need me anymore, because the original pilot would fly that crew, and some pilot who represented the administrative staff, let’s say, on the base, some “Brass,” would sit in the seat that I used-to occupy. That’s how come I got my own crew, because I couldn’t fly with the original crew anymore. So we were not joined at the hip anymore, we were off on our own sort of.
MG-R: But your crew that you ended up with when you became a pilot, did you all come back at the same time?
PP: A few. My crew, when I flew, I was sort of excess baggage in the war. Here I am taking a crew when I used to be with a tight knit group on another crew. So my crew became sort of a “pick-up” crew. You were flying a mission and you had the usual number of guys, and you didn’t know who they were going to be. Now a few of them got to fly with you a number of times. But many of them were new every time. So, your husband (Geoff Rice) looked at the picture of my crew with me the other day, and asked me who certain persons were. And I said I don’t know who they were. They were pick-up guys on a crew. There were a few of them who I named for him, which was no big trick, because they were already named in the picture. They were members of the original Johnston crew who also somehow became displaced, and they ended up flying with me. So my story is not straightforward like some of the guys.
MG-R: So when you came back on the ship, where did you land, and what did you do after that?
PP: New York. And pretty quickly to California. The war was still going on when I left the base, and while we were on the ocean, the war with Germany ended. So that was late in May of 1945. And you had a particular piece of time where normally you would get some rest and some relaxation and reassignment. Well, the war was about to end in Japan as well, so there wasn’t much happening to reassign people. There was like a morning classroom type of thing that you went to, and some Staff Sergeant was talking to you about some subject, and he said, “How many guys want out?” [Pep raises his hand up high.] And that was in California, and the war was still warm, it was in May of 1945. And so I got out pretty early. Some guys didn’t get out until June, July, maybe August. And I ended-up going back, not to New York State where I was from, but to Colorado where my wife’s folks had a home. And I ended up going to college in Colorado for a year and a half to finish my degree. Upon graduating, I moved to Estes Park, Colorado. And the day I graduated, I skipped my graduation exercises and moved to Estes Park, where I participated with two other people to buy a business, and I’ve spent my entire…I’ve spent 60 years in business in Estes Park, Colorado. What else have I omitted?
MG-R: What college did you go to?
PP: Before the war, I went to colleges in Missouri and Kansas. After the war, I went to the University of Colorado. Originally I thought I was too poor to go to college and I didn’t really plan to go to college. I had a job as a lifeguard on a public beach and there were three lifeguards. And at the end of the summer, it was almost like when your crew was getting to go home, you got to know these guys pretty well. And one of them said, “Where are you going to go to college?” And I said, “I’m not going to college.” He said, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, I can’t afford to.” And he said, “You have the same job I have and I go to college.” So that influenced me, and first thing I knew I was on a bus to Missouri from New York State to go to a college, a very small college of which you have never heard, called Park College. It was right outside of Kansas City Missouri, 350 students on campus, a very small Presbyterian college. I was Italian Roman Catholic and had been raised that way -- been to Catholic school and so on. But I went to this Presbyterian college where every student worked a minimum of seventeen hours per week for the college. And you were credited, I think it was thirty-five cents an hour, for your work and you could work more than seventeen hours if you needed to. They had different kinds of jobs. The college campus was self-sustained. They had their own dining commons, their own little hospital on campus, their own stokers, you could shovel coal into a stoker to help generate the heat and the power for the campus. You could milk cows at the college farm. So everybody worked for the college. And my friend, who talked me into going there, said I’d borrow about $300.00 a year, other than that, I worked more than seventeen hours a week and I could go to college. He said I could grade papers as part of a job. There was a college print shop. And I had had a little experience, while I was in high school, printing, and I worked at the college print shop. And an interesting story about that was that you had to go to Chapel, required Chapel. And as a Catholic young man, I didn’t know what the hell Chapel was, and by God I wasn’t about to go there. I hitch-hiked to Kansas City, Missouri, which was nineteen miles away, because no cars were allowed on campus, it was one of those small school deals, to go to a Catholic Church rather than go to Chapel. “Chapel” was a fearful word to me. But one of the pieces of luck I had was that at my print shop job I was printing the Chapel excuses! And I got a good supply of them, so I didn’t have to go to Chapel.
You were going to ask me about my wife, well she was a student on that campus. And by God, if I went with a girl who was a Presbyterian, and she went to Chapel, I started going to Chapel, also. I ended up marrying this girl, despite the fact that I was Roman Catholic, I was Italian… and I’m at a Presbyterian college and my wife’s father would come to visit, and I met him. Read backwards towards that time, and realize that he would like to get that Italian, Catholic kid the hell off that campus, and he said to me one day, “How would you like a scholarship to Kansas University?” which wasn’t terribly far. “How could I get a scholarship?” He said, “Would you accept one if one was offered to you?” Well, it got to my ego. I was proud and I said, “Sure!” First thing you know, I had a scholarship to Kansas University and I was off that campus and away from his daughter. Well, I ended up marrying his daughter later anyhow. So that’s a little bit about what you were going to ask me about my wife. We had four children and were married for 40 or so years, and in 1981 I left home. In 1987 I met the wife whom you met at this conference, so this is a second marriage. So you probably don’t want too much more about the civilian part of my life.
MG-R: Oh, no, that’s fine. What did you do, run a retail store?
PP: I went into the retail business. In college I majored in marketing and business management, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed running a business, it happened to be outdoor clothing, and the kind of stuff that goes with it, like hiking shoes, ice axes, carabineers, climbing ropes, tents, sleeping bags…and I had such a good time that I started a second store, in the same town. I didn’t want a bunch of far-flung branches because I wanted to be where my kids were being raised. We still have two stores in Estes Park. I started a mail-order business and I printed a catalog, and that was done because Estes Park is a seasonal community, we only have retail customers in the summer. Most stores closed in the winter, but I was too young, and I wanted to work. So I started the mail-order business and we offered our products to people who were not in Estes Park and I got carried away, and nowadays we have a website on the internet --- so we take orders, and so it’s a full-blown kind of thing going. We’re a small business. I have a son, Ernie, who’s 56 years old. He is running that company. I’m still involved to some degree. That’s about it.
MG-R: So, you’ve never been back to Nuthampstead?
PP: No, I never have.
MG-R: Did anything happen during the war that you feel affected your life?
PP: Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say. I yearned for the wife I had at home when I was overseas, like everybody else. And I think, if I learned something from that, I learned a little bit about how to improve your love for another person that you couldn’t be with. Maybe I learned something of that. I learned to do a good job, by being a member of a crew. And, I learned that you could face some tough stuff and be sort of tough in response, without being too tough, if you know what I’m trying to say.
MG-R: Did you have any good luck charms during the war?
MG-R: Did you keep your uniforms, and do you have your medals?
PP: I think I do have the medals. I’m not much of an alumni person, so I haven’t been to the reunions. I kept what they call an A-2 jacket, which was a leather jacket with a ruptured duck on it, for the 600th Squadron, and with your rank on the shoulders. And I had it hanging in the garage for lots of years, and the moths or the mice ate the knit cuffs and band, but they didn’t ruin the leather. And probably six or eight or ten years ago, my wife saw that jacket, and had it sent somewhere to be refurbished, and it came back looking like new. And that’s something, you asked me what I had, and I’ve got that flight jacket that I could wear if it were here, but I live in Arizona part of the year, and Colorado part of the year. And I kept my diary and pictures of my crew. They’re all up in my summer home, so I have none of them to share at this point.
Pep Petrocine in A2 Jacket - circa 2007
MG-R: So is there anything else you want to tell us about your time in World War II?
PP: I think I’ve said most of it, you’ve heard all of it before from other people. I want to tell you what an impressive experience being at this reunion has been, partly because of some of the work you do, and that your husband, Geoff, does, and all the other people. It’s just amazing to me, the fact that there were 181 people at this reunion, and only 38 of them were veterans. The involvement of second and third generation people is terribly impressive. And I’ve talked to one or two other of the 38, and I’m not the only one impressed with how unusual that seems. It makes me raise the question about who knows about other bomb groups. Do other bomb groups have such things, such occasions and such devotion to historic…
MG-R: I don’t know. Mostly what we hear is “no.” A lot of the bomb groups are folding and are going back to where they just have reunions with the Eighth Air Force because they just didn’t get the second generation involved as much as our group has.
PP: Along those lines I have a quick story and it involves Ted Johnston. He lived up in Seattle all his life, or in that general area. When he was a kid he worked Saturdays and holidays for the Boeing Company. And we go off to war, and we fly Boeing B-17’s. And we come back and he spends his entire career working for Boeing. And about eighteen or twenty years ago, he contacted me, Boeing was going to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the design of the B-17. Well one bomb group, not the 398th, contacted Boeing and asked if Boeing would host them to a wine and cheese party or something, if they came to Seattle. Well, Boeing said yes, and they assigned Ted Johnston the job of PR and communication with this group. Well, how many people would come? It wasn’t today, so probably more than 38, but maybe a hundred from that bomb group. Well other bomb groups, it was in the future, two years from the time the request was made. Other bomb groups heard about it, and they said, “Hey, can we have our group come?” Well, where Ted had communicated that we will host a wine and cheese party for your group, what really happened --- the reunion took place, and Boeing fed 11,000 people! Instead of a wine and cheese party for one group, they fed 11,000 people a box lunch out on the ground at Boeing field. And I thought that was interesting.
MG-R: Did you go?
PP: Yes, my wife and I went to that. We had the opportunity at that occasion to talk to and be with four or five members of our original crew. So it was a partial reunion of a crew rather than just being at Boeing and Boeing field.
Incidentally, other people may have commented that the B-17 was a fabulous, safe airplane. From the pictures that you have downstairs in the memory room that attest to how some of the guys got back with airplanes that were damaged to the point that you’d think that they couldn’t get down the runway, no less fly back. So the Boeing B-17, it was a pleasure to fly. It was a safe, relatively easy job to fly a B-17.
MG-R: Have you been in one since?
PP: That’s another story if you’ve got time for one. Living in Arizona in the wintertime, we’re sort of on vacation all the time in one place or another. My wife came home one day, a year ago last April, and said, “You’ll never guess what I did today. I bought a ticket for you to take a ride on a B-17!” And it was four hundred and some dollars. And I said, “Well, I’m not going! Why would I go pay four hundred dollars to go ride on a B-17 when they used to pay me?” Well, I went. [Laughter] And two of my friends went with me. My wife happened to be with another wife the day she was sucked into buying a ticket. The other gal bought a ticket for her husband, and he flies airplanes in civilian life. And a fellow who has been a long time friend…one of the guys that was with me in Germany when I told you that story about the fighter pilot becoming a friend. He heard that we were going to ride on a B-17, and he lives in Green Valley which is close to where we live in Tucson, and he said, “I have an appointment that makes it convenient for me to stop by and watch you guys get on the B-17.” Well, while he was there to watch us get on the B-17, he was filled with the excitement and emotion of the moment, he put up four hundred-some bucks and was the ninth guy—they accepted nine people to take on those rides. So we did get to fly in a B-17. We didn’t fly, we rode as passengers, and not in a comfortable chair, on the floor in different parts of the B-17. I was very impressed with what I learned about the B-17 that day. There were three things. One, it’s a very small airplane --- I thought it was a big airplane. Two, it was a very loud airplane—I didn’t remember that. And, three, I don’t remember having any trouble moving around from one part of the airplane to another when I was twenty-one. But last year when I was eighty-five, I was impressed with how tough it was to get around in that airplane. So yes, I have ridden on a B-17.
MG-R: Which one was it, do you remember?
PP: Like a G, you mean?
MG-R: No, was it like the Aluminum Overcast, or was it the Seminal Journey?
PP: It was the Association…
MG-R: The Confederate?
PP: No, not the Confederate. Gosh, I have one of their publications with me. It’s an association that collects B-17’s, B-25’s, and B-24’s. And I really don’t remember the name of, what’s it called, the non-profit outfit, the society, or the outfit that raises money.
MG-R: Yes, I probably know which one it is.
PP: I probably know which one it is, but I can’t say their name right now.
MG-R: No, I can’t think of it.
PP: But I did have that experience and it was really fun, not to ride in it, but to see it. And to see it on the ground and in the air, and to see the B-25 also doing the same thing, and the B-24. It was a day of, it was kind of like this reunion, full of memories. And that was full of memories just to see those three aircraft. And it was amazing to me how excited the civilian group of people who were around, who had nothing to do with using one of those airplanes… They were second and third generation, lots of them. So that was kind of like the guys who are here, second and third generation people devoting a lot of attention and interest in the 398th Bomb Group.
MG-R: All right, anything else?
MG-R: Well, I want to thank you for your service to our country and the time that you’ve spent.
PP: Thank you for saying that. I don’t know what to say when people tell me that, and surprisingly a number of people do. They come up to you and offer their hand; young men particularly, and a few women. And I was…I don’t say, “It was nothing.” But I sure don’t say, “Well, yeah, we did a good job.” I don’t know what to say to those guys. And it comes out of the blue when it happens. “I want to thank you for what you did for our country.” Well, your husband said that to me. And he said, “We might be speaking German.” Now that “learns” me something! [Laughter] Especially in these days of the Iraq-type war, and the condemnation that some of the members of the media, and of our own population, shoot arrows at a President, who is doing a job. He tried to stop a guy who was like Hitler. And when young men say to me, “Thanks for doing it because we might be speaking German,” or they might have succeeded taking over the world, it brings a thought to my mind currently. You don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong in this current day history, but our President is trying to keep a guy like Hitler from having survived and done his thing. But he’s gone, and a lot of people are critical of how that effort is going on. And I don’t hear anybody being critical of World War II and the fact that we stopped Hitler. It’s a little bit confusing to think of those two circumstances and try to say, “Well, what’s the difference?”
MG-R: That’s true. Well, thank you for doing this interview.
PP: You are certainly welcome.
- Ted J. Johnston's Crew - 600th Squadron - August 1944
- Petrocine's Crew - 600th Squadron - 22 March 1945
- 398th Mission: 23 January 1945 - Neuss, Germany
- 398th Missing Air Crew Reports
- 398th Killed in Action - Combat
- 398th POWs
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. "Pep" Petrocine was initially the Co-pilot on the Ted J. Johnston's 600th Squadron Crew and later the Pilot of his own 600th Squadron crew.
- Transcription by Elaine Stahlman Jurs, daughter of Lt. Philip H. Stahlman, Co-Pilot, 601st Squadron in December 2009.
- 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 [ ].