World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Lt. Russell Reed, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Randy Stange
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
The Marriott Hotel, Overland Park, KS, September 7, 2005
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. Russell Reed, 398th Bomb Group Pilot
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
RS: Interviewer, Randy Stange
RR: 398th Pilot, Russell Reed
RS: This is Randy Stange and we are interviewing Russell Reed at the 398th Bomb Group Reunion. It is September 7, 2005 at the Marriot Hotel in Overland Park, Kansas. And, Russ will you state your name?
RR: It’s Russell F. Reed.
RS: And when did you, prior to going to the war, when did you first have an interest in aviation?
RR: Well, I started out interested in aviation building balsa models as a kid. Right after the war started, I started taking pilot lessons in Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania, which was the closest airport that was allowed to operate right after the war started.
RS: Where did you grow up?
RR: I was born in Lakewood, Ohio and we moved to northern New Jersey, Upper Montclair, New Jersey, in the late ‘20s. I went through schooling in the 1930s, graduated from high school in 1942, immediately went into college that was associated with the high school that I was in and managed to get a year of college in before actually being called to active duty in the winter of ’42, ’43.
RS: So, you were drafted?
RR: No, I enlisted.
RS: Oh, okay.
RR: I enlisted for Cadet Training but they called us all up, we were in the Army at the time. We all started out in the Army of the U.S. but then got classified. Well, first went to Basic Training as a Private and that was the only ranking that we had and then went through Classification to see whether or not we were material that they wanted to put through Cadet Training program. When we faced the Classification, those of us who showed promise were sent to Maxwell Field, Alabama for Pre-Flight Training.
RS: Where did you take your Basic?
RR: The Basic, the Army training itself was Atlantic City, New Jersey.
RS: And that?
RR: That was in the winter of 1943.
RS: Okay, to back up just a little bit, do you remember where you were when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
RR: Yes, I was home listening to the radio and they broke in whatever program we were listening to announce that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
RS: And prior to your enlistment, were there any feelings one way or another about the war?
RR: Yes, I think my parents worried about it more than I did because I was at the right age to be drafted and I didn’t want to be drafted. I thought that I could do a lot better by flying, getting into the flying program with the Air Corp at that time. I didn’t realize it until a later on that I would be walking, anyway.
RS: So, after your Basic Army, you went to the Classification Center, where did you go from that point?
RR: The Classification Center, from we went down to Maxwell Field, Alabama for Pre-Flight.
RR: And from Pre-Flight, I was sent to Camden, Arkansas for Primary Flight Training and then the PT17s for Stearman. After completing the Primary phase we were sent to Malden, Missouri for the Basic Flight Training that was in the BT13s and 15s. After finishing the Basic Flight Training, we were sent to Twin Engine Advanced at Stuttgart, Arkansas. After completing the Advanced Training in the AT10, that was the aircraft that we used, we graduated from there and we were sent to Hendricks Field in Sebring, Florida for transition to B17s.
RS: Where did you do the Officers – or did you have the Officers College basically train your Officers Training – that was in there somewhere in there?
RR: Well, we got a lot of that at Maxwell Field, Alabama.
RS: Maxwell Field. Okay.
RR: And some of us had college training. I had about a year of college training so I was a little bit ahead of the game. Before we got sent to the Classification Center in Nashville, Tennessee, they took all of us that graduated from Basic Army Training in Atlantic City, they scattered us around to various colleges for College Training Corp, College Training Program.
RR: Those of us that already had some college behind us, we were classified to the scores that we had managed to – on test that we took, I think in Atlantic City. But those of us who had college training were the first ones to leave. I left the College Training Unit in Penn State in Pennsylvania; I was the first group that was sent to Classification from there. Those who needed more College Training or were weak in some subject that they wanted us to know, they were kept there, I think, for some cases, maybe six months. I was there maybe five or six weeks, at the most.
RS: After your transition to B17s, I am assuming you met your crew there or formed up your crew there?
RR: No. From Sebring, Florida, which was just a transition school, I was sent to MacDill where that was headquarters for 3rd Air Force. The 3rd Air Force was for Operational Training Unit. We were sent to Plant Park, which is an area of Tampa, and the crews were made up there and published.
When the full crew was published, ours was published except for a navigator, we were then sent to Crew Training at MacDill Field. I was 3rd Air Force. We started our Flight Training there as a crew and also, the co-pilot [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski] came from out in Texas, he graduated from Twin Engine School in Texas, I think Lubbock, Texas. He had never been in a B17 before. The navigator [2nd Lt. Stan Mates] was in Navigation School in someplace, I don’t know where it was; he joined the crew later. The bombardier [2nd Lt. Chuck Proctor] joined the crew there in Tampa and continued his Bombardier Training. We also did, the pilots did, some Bombardier Training there at the Operational Training Unit in Tampa at MacDill Field, too. We also had our enlisted people, our radio operator [Sgt. Mike Barnes], ball turret gunner [Sgt. Darrell Thorpe], tail gunner [Sgt. George Barnum] , and waist gunners [Sgt. Paul Audet and Victor Krizek], they all continued their Gunnery Training and whatever and we flew as a crew most of the time.
Toward the end of our stay there at MacDill Field, in an Operational Training Unit, our crew made ‘Crew of the Month’.
RR: We were given the opportunity to lead a 17 ship formation down to Cuba and put on an air show in Cuba and we operated out of Batista Army Air Field [located in La Habana Province in Cuba].
Late in our training in MacDill Field, we finally had our navigator [2nd Lt. Stan Mates]; he joined the crew and then we started his work on navigating on board the B17, using the navigational equipment that we had on board and testing his ability for navigating at night and long distances, and whatever. So, he didn’t have as much training in the airplane as the rest of the crew did by the time we were ready to go overseas.
RS: On your long distance check out flights and that, did you fly over water or was it other specific areas?
RR: No, it was basically over land. They didn’t want us to go, even though we were in Florida. They didn’t want us get out over the water over there because there were submarines in the Atlantic and even in the Gulf of Mexico. They wanted us to stay out of that particular area.
So, on our long distance navigational flight, it was a triangular flight from the Tampa area to St. Louis or Kansas City from there up to New York and then back down the coast line, back down to MacDill Field. It was a 14 hour flight total.
RS: And when were you assigned to the 398th Bomb Group?
RR: Well, we finished our Operational Training in the early summer of 1944. We were given a leave and then reassigned, or assigned to, or given orders; I guess it’s the best thing to put it, to pick up an airplane in Savannah, Georgia. Then, in Savannah, Georgia, we tested the airplane, calibrated some of the instruments and whatever and were eventually given sealed overseas orders.
That took us up to Bangor, Maine. From Bangor, Maine, we were able to open the sealed orders to find out where our destination was. From there we went to Goose Bay, Labrador, waited for the weather to improve until we could do the Atlantic crossing to Reykjavik, Iceland.
Reykjavik, Iceland was the first place I really had to do an instrument approach. We’d been doing a lot of instrument approaches practice but I didn’t have to do one, a real one until we got up there. They said we were above clouds when we arrived. They said 1200 foot overcast, you should have no problem getting in. We crossed over the airport in Reykjavik and saw an under cast at that point, as far as we were concerned so we were given clearance to make it a descent on the southwest leg of the radio range that they had set up there. From when we started through the clouds, the tower asked us to report when we got below the overcast. They were timing our descent and at 1200 feet they asked us if we were below the clouds and we weren’t. We were out over water so we continued the descent and about 700 feet above the water, the co-pilot was able to see down through some broken clouds and see some water. We continued down to 500 feet so that we can make a procedure turn and start back inbound to Reykjavik and we were going inbound to Reykjavik at 500 feet. Well, the Reykjavik airport is up on a cliff and as we approached the cliff, I called the tower and said, “We are at 500 feet. Where are you? All we see is rock.” They kind of giggled and laughed, and they said, “When you get up a little closer, pull up over the rocks and we still have 1200 feet and you will find us as soon as you get over those rocks.” And sure enough, there was the airport.
RS: What was the elevation of the airport?
RR: Oh, I don’t know, just a few hundred feet. I don’t know, maybe it was four or five hundred feet. I was down below their altitude, coming in awful close to it, I will put it that way.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
RR: From there, after gassing up and everything, we flew down to Valley Wales in the U.K. We dropped the airplane at Valley and they trucked us over to the center where we received our orders to go to the 398th. That was in September. We started over ….
RS: In 1944?
RR: 1944, yeah.
RS: So, you were a replacement crew?
RR: Yeah, we were a replacement crew. We were not one of the originals.
RR: We were replacement training, replacement operational training.
RS: What were your first thoughts of the accommodations, on the base, when you arrived at Nuthampstead?
RR: Being the new guys on the blocks, we got the tents and that wasn’t very impressive at all. The permanent quarters were Nissen huts and the weather wasn’t all that great when we arrived anyway, so it was kind of a downer as far as a psychological introduction to the war zone was concerned.
But, we got settled and started doing some local training, flew the gunners [Sgt. Darrell Thorpe, Sgt. George Barnum, Sgt. Paul Audet, and Victor Krizek] up to the Wash so they can practice their gunnery at the Wash.
[The following event is thought to have taken place 21 October 1944]
They put me up with some other aircrafters to find out whether my co-pilot [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski] and I can fly formation and on one of the training flights around Nuthampstead and came back and saw my first B17 crash. I don’t think it was one of the airplanes that was in my formation but one of the airplanes came back and had a fire in the cockpit, around the base of the top turret and apparently had smoke in the cockpit. The co-pilot, who was the instructor pilot, got up out of his seat to fight the fire, and the pilot was trying to get the airplane back to the field on the ground. Well, he apparently couldn’t see the field and came in low, too low, and got a wing tip and then cartwheeled. The co-pilot, the instructor that had gotten up, was the only one who was badly hurt. He eventually died two or three days later in the hospital. But watching him go in, which I did, I was immediately above all the acts there in Nuthampstead, a thought ran through my mind, “Hey, you can get hurt in these things.”
RS: And this was prior to ever flying?
RR: That was prior to ever going up for a combat mission.
RS: What were your feelings on your first combat mission?
RR: Uh, I don’t remember them, really, except that I knew this was the first one and I had to pay attention to what I was doing because I was actually flying in a formation that was going to get shot at and we were going to drop live bombs and everything. I think I was too busy to think.
RS: Any thoughts on your first few combat missions? Did you settle down after that?
RR: Well, yes, settle down after there are no problems. There are things that turn out as far as I was concerned, fairly well. I never did have a check pilot with me on my first mission or somebody riding with the whole crew went out on our missions from the very beginning.
RS: How many hours of flying on the B17 did you have prior to the combat mission?
RS: Do you recall, offhand?
RR: It might have been 300 hours, 350 hours, something like that. I am not sure exactly what that was. But the Operations people there in the 603rd, after my fourth mission, called me in and asked me if my co-pilot, Dick Wanserski [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski], would be able to take a crew. I assured them that he was because he did half the flying whenever possible. I told them that I did not want to lose him, and the Operations Officer kind of smiled at me and said, “I don’t think you are going to lose him.”
I was off to London, had a couple of nights in London, and came back, not expecting to fly. But, they got the whole crew out of the sack the next morning after we got back from London, or from wherever we had been. We would go out on our fifth mission, except one of the gunners [Sgt. Paul Audet, waist gunner], who had been on our first four, decided that he’d swap with the other waist gunner [Sgt. Victor Krizek, waist gunner] who had been in the hospital for the first four missions and this was his first mission.
But, on this mission [2 Nov 1944 to Merseburg], we went to the Leuna Works [Leuna Oil Plant and Refinery, synthetic oil refineries] at Merseberg [Germany] near Leipzig We were actually at the tail-end Charlie that day of 8th Air Force. We did take some flak damage going over the target but as soon as we got off the target, the flak stopped and the German fighters came in.
Soon FW190s came up from the rear and, of course, we were the first one that they came too. We also took quite a bit of damage from the fighter and I think he may have had some incendiaries because he did set us on fire. We had the number one engine shut down because of damage.
I was flying on the right wing of Newman [1st Lt. Herbert H. Newman, Pilot] and after we got hit and feathered number one engine, we took another burst outside of number one engine, between us and Newman’s airplane. That folded one of the prop blades over the cowling and I think that damaged him because he was the next one that I guess went down. That second flak burst, or whatever it was, damaged number two engine and we are only running at partial power.
But, we stayed with the squadron as long as we could. We were with them, still with them on the way back when somebody broke radio silence and said, “N7 Mike, you’re on fire.” It dawned on me that we were N7 Mike and started looking around and sure enough, we had a fire on the left wing.
Prior to that, the co-pilot [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski] and I listened also to the interphone check after I knew that we had been hit and everybody answered the interphone check. But when I knew that we were on fire, I tried to do anything that I could to get the fire out. I had heard sometime along the way that you might be able to dive a fire; if you dive a plane fast enough, you might blow the fire out. That didn’t work; I kiddingly said that we had a nice fire, but no bonfire and but no marshmallows or hotdogs, so we’d decided to better leave to get some.
Anyway, I had Dick Wanserski [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski], the co-pilot, to tell the bombardier [2nd Lt. Chuck Proctor] to open the bomb bay doors and he gave the bailout bell. As far as I know, everybody was evacuating the airplane. It got down to the fact I thought that Dick [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski, co-pilot] and I were the only ones left but I couldn’t be sure because I did not have any interphone contact with the rest of the crew; I was on squadron frequency and I think it was one of the flak burst, my interphone was damaged too because I was not getting anything as far as information from any of the crew members.
I motioned for Dick [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski, co-pilot] to get out of the seat but he sat there and looked at me. Then, my only thought then was, “Okay, when I leave, you will.” In fact, I wanted to look up the tunnel to see if there was anyone in the nose and I couldn’t see anybody. I went back to the bomb bay and the ball turret gunner [Sgt. Darrell Thorpe] was just coming out of the radio room so I knew he’d been notified. He was probably one of the last ones getting out of there because getting out of that ball turret was a bigger job than any of the rest of them of getting out of the airplane.
I turned around to find out whether Dick [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski, co-pilot] was following me, and he was, and in the process, I hooked my parachute harness on the knob, on the bomb bay door knob. But, that didn’t stop Dick at all. He grabbed a hold of the area around the bomb bay door and gave me a boot in the ass and I went out through, onto actually the cat walk, and saw that he was following me. I got out of his way by jumping out the left side. There was fire in the bomb bay by time we had left. There was fire when I left and there had been fire when Dick left.
RS: What altitude were you at?
RR: I would say some place maybe around 24, 22, 24,000 because I had dived the airplane trying to get the fire out but I have no actual remembrance of the exact amount of altitude was.
RS: I am assuming the autopilot was working.
RR: I put it on autopilot so Dick [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski, co-pilot] and I could leave. After I got out of the airplane, I saw what was I think was the airplane, still flying level, but on fire, headed down.
I think most of the crew felt the same way when we got out; the intense silence was overwhelming. You go from all that combat noise, talking on the interphone, chattering your own guns, flak, the noise of the engines, and then all of a sudden get out and nothing. It was actually kind of overwhelming. It gave me a chance to kind of orient myself to what was happening next.
One of the things I discovered was that I could hear buzzing noises around me. I finally figured out that those noises sounded like rifle fire or something like that...
RS: What was it?
RR: …passing very close to me. I looked down on the ground, I saw two things. First, I saw a circle. I couldn’t figure out what the circle was. It turned out to be a bunch of civilians, mostly farmers, in a circle following my drift as I came down across plowed fields.
The other thing I saw was the flash of rifle fire from the ground; that’s where the bullets were coming from. It crossed my mind at that time I was one of those swinging target in a shooting gallery in a fair some place. The, the rifle fire finally stopped as I got closer to the ground. The people on the ground formed a beautiful bull’s eye for me to land in and I landed in a plowed field and tore up my left knee and ankle to some extent. I don’t know how badly it was torn up. I hobbled for days after that.
RS: Who met you on the ground?
RR: Civilians. Every time I tried to get up, they put me back on the ground again, rather deliberately. After about the second time, I decided that I was better off, not trying not to get up. They kept me on the ground; they wanted my gun which I didn’t have. We didn’t carry them. They wanted a knife, which I did not have.
They harassed me to some extent until the Luftwaffe enlisted men came over from one of the anti-aircraft batteries that may have damaged the aircraft as far as I know. But, he came over and took charge and allowed me to get up and pick up the parachute and put the parachute over some place, I don’t know where I left it now. Also, they captured my ball turret gunner [Sgt. Darrell Thorpe], and had him at this particular spot.
This Luftwaffe unteroffizer, probably a corporal or sergeant, I don’t know what he was. He started marching us as best as we could because I wasn’t doing very well walking at all. We hadn’t have gone very far until a farmer with a manure fork wanted to push that manure fork into either one of us or both of us. He had attempted to lash out with the manure fork and the Luftwaffe sergeant actually went after his sidearm to protect us. We were his prisoners and both of us owe our lives to that Luftwaffe guard that we had.
From there we were marched to an area in a small village, or edge of a town, I don’t know which it was now, where they had accumulated some other crews that had been shot down as the earlier airplanes in that bombing raid had bailed out. When they got, there may have been 8, 10, 12 of us, enough to put us into the back of the truck. We were taken to the local jails.
RS: Do you remember the town?
RR: No, I don’t remember the town. I wish I did. But, I don’t know where it was. It is someplace in the archives. They may give the town name, but I am not sure. I think it does but I don’t know where to look it up at this particular time.
RS: Did they interrogate you there or did they take you to one of the Luftwaffe interrogation….?
RR: No, they put us in regular jail cells that night. The next day, we were taken to a railroad station and put on a regular passenger car, going to Frankfurt. Outside of Frankfurt in the Taunus Mountains is where they had the interrogation center in Oberursel, which is when we got to the Bodmas in Frankfurt, we were harassed again by civilians because the trolley line to Oberursel did not operate until later that morning. We had to wait until the trolley line to open up so they could take us to the interrogation center. But, there were a half a dozen German women there who were doing the janitorial work in the bombed out railroad station, and, again, we had to be protected from them by our guards.
Once we got on the trolley line going to Oberursel, we were practically ignored by the other civilians because I guess they were pretty used to prisoners being taken up there for interrogation purposes. And, that’s where I spent my solitary time in interrogation.
RS: What happened when they took you to the interrogation, what type of questions did they ask you?
RR: Well, the first interrogator was a military interrogation. I don’t know his rank or anything like that. But he was asking normal questions about what kind of airplane we were flying and what the target was and everything like that. I pulled the old ‘name, rank, and serial number’ on him. He just shook his head and started all over again. I said my name, rank, and serial number again.
Finally, he stopped and he started reading off names of my crew members. They’d already captured most of them. They had already interviewed them and they wanted to know bits and pieces and I said, “I couldn’t, I really don’t know.” Then, they said, “Well, how are things over in the 398th in England?” At that point, I realized that he knew more than I did.
He did ask me if I knew anything – not that day but another interrogator a day or two later – wanted to know if I knew anything about a B17H, which I didn’t know and his remark was, “Well, you are a 2nd Lieutenant; you probably wouldn’t know about those things, anyway.”
So, I was put back into my cell, again. Next interviewer that I had, next interrogator was a political interrogator. The political interrogator welcomed me and I sat down and at the time, Frankfurt was under Air Raid alert. After it was obvious that Frankfurt and the city was not the target, they blew the ‘all clear’ signals and he was able to open the closed shutters on his interrogation office. I looked up and could see first combat wing, 1st Division, in their red, horizontal stabilizers, red wing tips and red tails in a beautiful, blue sky.
At that particular time, it dawned on me that now I was a statistic. That dawned on me because when I was in London, I had been into a BBC studio with a friend of mine from back in the States who was very proficient in German and he was making a BBC broadcast to Germany in German. Afterwards, I asked him what he was giving in his broadcast. He said, “Mainly statistics. The number of aircraft shot down, the number of not only our aircraft but the number of German aircraft that were claimed,” and he said, “basically statistics.”
That little word ‘statistics’ is the one that suddenly dawned on me that I was one of Jim’s statistics and he had probably already broadcast, “He is one of those statistics.” At that particular point, I was no longer Russ Reed, 2nd Lieutenant, pilot; I was a statistic as far as the Germans were concerned and as far as the 8th Air Force was concerned.
RS: When they got ….
RR: Also, there too, after seeing the airplanes, the German political interrogator made the comment, “No matter how many of you we shoot down and capture, the next day there is always more of you up there.” It was at that point that I knew that they could not keep up with up as far as, we had too many to send over for them to stop the raids. I think all those statistics were adding up and it wasn’t for their benefit.
RS: How long did they keep you there?
RR: In the interrogation center, I must have been there three or four days, five days at most, something like that. Then, they took us down to Dulag Luft [Prisoner of War (POW) transit camps for Air Force prisoners captured by Germany] in Wetzlar where there was an accumulation of those who were captured and interviewed and then set up to go to our regular, permanent camps. When they got a carload of ….
RS: So, was it at that point that they separated the enlisted and the officers?
RR: Yes, um-huh. The enlisted and the officers were separated at that point. The enlisted men went to Stalag Luft IV up at in Pomeranian. They had two camps. They had camps for the officers. One was at Barth, at Stalag Luft I and also at Stalag Luft III in Silesia [Sagan-Silesia, Bavaria]. Stalag Luft III is where I went, it is where they sent us and that is the same camp that The Great Escape took place at.
RS: How long did you spend in Silesia?
RR: Up until I think it was the 27th of January, a couple of nights before, we could hear Russian guns, we could assume that they were 25 kilometers east of the camp. We had been seeing quite a bit of aircraft, that activity also, east to the west at that point is fighters and airplanes were going west to the front and coming back again. We knew that the Russians were on the way and we were hoping that if we would stay there that the Russians would liberate the camp. But the Germans had other ideas.
So, the night of the 27th of January, in 1945, in the middle of the snowstorm, they decided to march us out of the camp. I was in South Compound and South Compound lead the march.
RS: What did you first got to the camp, what did you think of the camp and what did you do to occupy your time?
RR: Well, the camp was, one, it was already pretty well-established. Well, it was used to being counted every day and we fell into the camp routine which being counted in the morning, getting a little bit of bread or oatmeal and jam for ersatz coffee for breakfast in a bowl of whatever they could find on the cookhouse floor for my main meal and also getting into half parcels from the Red Cross. The Red Cross was actually that kept us alive in these camps. They were – I think I have something around my nose; it looks like more of a bug.
RS: Hang on, we’ll take a break
At this point, Russ and Randy took a short break. They then continued where they left off.
RS: Okay, we were discussing your arrival at Stalag Luft IV.
RR: No, Stalag Luft III.
RS: III, the saga in Silesia.
RR: Yeah, the saga in Silesia. When we got to the camp, one of the first things that we did, they made up our German identification cards and so they had record of who we were and all the information that we needed and that card was used to make sure we were there; it told me we were allowed into the camp that the Germans assigned us to. Well, to me anyway and most of my crew went to South Camp and when we went in there, the Americans also interviewed us to make sure that we were Americans that had been taken prisoners and not ringers that they sent in there for purposes of finding out what the prisoners were doing as far as escape was concerned. They weren’t doing anything as far as escape was concerned. Probably at the Sagan was, must have been at one time or another, close to a hundred tunnels, trying to get out of camp.
RS: What type of questions did the Americans try to ask? Just general questions or areas of where……?
RR: Well, they wanted to know where I was from. When they found out I was from northern New Jersey in Montclair, they happened to have another prisoner who was already there from Montclair. So he came and asked me specific questions about the town, whether I knew certain streets or whatever. He says I was what I was supposed to be. The others were interviewed by other people that probably came from the same area that I had come from.
Once we get in there, why then we found out that there was quite a structure going on with Americans. There were the Germans in charge of the camp, the Americans were in charge of those of us in the compound during the day and we were under their supervision or whatever; we were still military. It wasn’t a country club situation, at all.
We were eventually told that there were escape things going on. When there were certain things going on, at one time or another, we had something to do with it. I was put on a detail soon after I got there to watch certain German guards that were in the camp, they were referred to as ‘ferrets’ because they were looking around, seeing what was going on, trying to find out if anything was going on that they should know about or they … We had hand signals. We would not do or say anything that was obvious. We might just take a hand out of our right hand pocket and put our hand in our left hand pocket. Or, we might take a handkerchief out or something like that, and blow our nose. But nothing obvious. What was done one day might not be done the next day.
RS: Were there any major escapes why you were there?
RR: Uh, no, because things were somewhat quieted down because The Great Escape had taken place and that was out of the North Compound. I did meet some of the people, got to know them, but after The Great Escape took place, 50 of those 72 or 3 were captured and shot by the SS. That sort of put a damper on things.
But, things were still going on in camp. The camp had a clandestine radio, for one thing. We were still getting news from the BBC and, I think about once a day, we’d have somebody in the camp would get the information and it would be spread out in the camp into each individual barracks. Our knowledge of certain things that were going on was limited to those who were doing it for the most part.
RS: For security purposes?
RR: Very much for security purposes.
RS: How long did you stay in Stalag Luft III?
RR: We stayed in Stalag Luft III until the 27th of January when the Russians got to within 25 kilometers to the east of the camp. The word came on the night of the 27th that we were going to be marched out of the camp. There was a total of about 10,000 of us in the camp. There were five camps; there were 2,000 in each camp as part of Stalag Luft III.
South Compound led this march of 10,000 prisoners out of the camp there. It was snowing, it was cold, the wind was blowing, it was pretty close to being a blizzard. The temperature continued to drop along as we marched. We were marching through the southwest, basically. The snow kept falling and they said it got below 0 degrees. I have no way of confirming it. On several accounts that I have read, it said it had gotten down far below zero. Again, it was what I had read; I have no other way of knowing about it.
RS: Other than the cold, what were the conditions of the march? What did they feed you? Or….
RR: Conditions of the march, no they didn’t feed us very much for quite a while. We took some food out with us. They gave us a Red Cross parcel to take if we wanted to but those things weighed too much. For those who took them, they dumped them along the way; it’s just too much too carry because we weren’t in that great of shape, physically, anyway. We had been only on half parcels for months in the camp.
The main thing we wanted to get out was ourselves and, in some cases, a clandestine radio was taken out and some of us had took a journal that we had been keeping within the camp. That was taken out; I took mine out.
But, these were all things that we could – real light and that could be carried. Anything heavy was not carried. Things were dropped along the way including some of the people who weren’t physically fit as other, dropped along the way, too. The Germans….
RR: Go ahead.
RS: Do you recall what your weight was before you went into the camp and what weight you were roughly then or?
RR: Well, I don’t know. I was around, probably around 150 when I got shot down. I don’t know exactly what the weight was. It has been surmised that I got down to probably around 115, 120 something like that. Probably around 115. I still had my, the same belt that I was wearing, part of the same clothes that I wore when I had gone down to London because they were the handiest things for me to put on when I was rousted out of bed to go on this last mission. If you remember the brass buckle, the tip of the belt should be right up next to the buckle itself so no webbing showed through. Well, that tip was over on my side.
RR: So, I don’t know how far it was over, maybe four or five inches over to the left, in order to keep my pants up.
RS: And how long were you marching?
RR: We marched – we started out and we got a break after a couple of hours –we marched for almost 36 hours without a real stop. We eventually got into an area where there was a barn where they put some of us in a barn, or a couple of barns, and got into some hay or something like that. We got out of the weather at that particular time. They got us up and started us the next morning again.
The total time, I think we marched about four days, I think it was, to a place called Bad Muskau [Upper Lusatia region of Germany, near Poland’s border] , where there was a brick factory. Either a brick factory or a glass factory, maybe both, I don’t know. They had banked the oven but it was still warm. We were in there for maybe some 24 hours, something like that, able to get us some sort of rest or whatever.
They got us up again and marched us another day to a railhead in Spremburg [Germany], where they put us in boxcars, old 48s, only there were about 50 to 60 of us in the cars. They weren’t that clean. I don’t know how many horses or cows had been in there but they were pretty dirty. There was no room for anyone to sit down or anything like that. If you were going to sit down, somebody would step on you, that’s for sure.
We were locked in there for about three days and we continued in the boxcars until they broke the boxcars open once to give us a loaf of bread to pass through those of us in the car, I don’t remember how much or anything. After about two or three days, I guess two and a half days, the train stopped in northern Bavaria, after we crossed the Danube. The whole train stopped and they opened the boxcars and told us to get out. Most of us thought that was going to be the end of the line as far as our travels in Germany were concerned.
However, the reason for the stop was to get us out of the stop was to get us out of the boxcars to relieve ourselves. We hadn’t had a whole lot to eat or anything like that so it wasn’t, so if someone had problems with diarrhea, they had already taken care of it. But anyway, for those of us who wanted to get out and relieve ourselves, got out in the snow, there were still about four or five inches of snow on the ground, dropped our drawers and while in that position, I looked to left and right, here are military rows, lined up bare butts, all lined up over a small brown mound in the snow.
You stop to think of it, you have to smile. Not haphazardly, but in rows. [Russ chuckles]
RS: Nice, neat, and in formation.
RR: Right! Of course, they finally got us back in the box cars and took us on down to Moosburg [Bavaria] where Stalag VII was and we went into Stalag Luft VII. At first, we were just camped outside and had open slit trenches for lavatories.
RS: And, how many were in the camp when you got there?
RR: Well, when we got there, I don’t know how many were in the camp when we got there, it was overcrowded then, but it was designed for 14,000. There was probably more like about 30 or 40,000 in the camp and our 10,000 put us over 50,000. They kept bringing people from various camps and everything like that to the point by the end of April, when we were finally liberated, they were either in the camp or attached to the camp over 100,000 prisoners and conditions were such that there was a lot of diarrhea. Of course, we had a lot of fleas and lice and malnutrition problems. It was pretty much of a mess by the time [General George S.] Patton’s 3rd Army came through and liberated the camp.
RS: Now, were these the people inhabiting the camp were primarily officers or did they mix the….
RR: They were mixing them. We had all nations that were involved were there and there were some Polish and Russians in there. And, there were non-officers, too; they were just pooling everybody together.
RS: Did you reconnect with any of the – in Stalag Luft VII – did you reconnect with any of the other members of your crew or group?
RR: Ah, yeah. My co-pilot [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski] and I got together down there in VII. We were in the same compound at Stalag II but we continued to get together. The navigator [2nd Lt. Stan Mates] and bombardier [2nd Lt. Chuck Proctor] were there but I did not see them more than very quickly, maybe once or twice, in Moosburg, before we were liberated. I did see all the officers at Camp Luck Strike [outside the city of Le Havre, France], over in France, where we were taken after liberation. I did see them briefly before we were put on a troop transport to bring back to the States.
RS: [General George S.] Patton’s 3rd Army liberated you. What were the conditions, what were the feelings and what was happening when you were liberated? Were the guards still there or did they …..
RR: No, the guards – that’s an interesting story in itself. At one time, the SS were going to try to defend the camp and the Luftwaffe guards did not want to. They wanted to surrender the camp. Apparently, they talked the SS into saying that they would stay and defend the camp while the SS went further down into Bavaria.
The morning of liberation, I think it was the 27th of April , we finally heard half-tracks, Jeeps, and tanks of the 14th Armory Division of the 3rd Army out of the front gates of the camp. I happened to be out there at the time and there was some small arms fire and I think most of us tried to dig a hole and jump into it at that particular time. There was some sniper fire from the church tower at the town of Moosburg. Either one of the half-tracks or one of the tanks lumbered on down closer to that church at Moosburg and blew that particular part of the church tower off.
I will tell you one thing. When the American flag went up over the camp, there was not a dry eye in the place.
RS: How long did you stay at the camp prior to being moved to Camp Lucky Strike [outside the city of Le Havre, France]?
RR: Uh, oh it was several days. It might have been four or five days, eight days, ten days, something like that. The 3rd Army left a kitchen there to help us feed the camp but the biggest problem was to get transportation in there. The war was still going on.
RR: They almost had to wait until the war was practically over in May, the official end of the war over there, I think, is the 8th of May. I think it was early in May, the first week of May, the later part of that first week, before they got the C47s into, I think, it was the airfield in Landshut [Germany]. They took us then from the camp up there and flew us over to France, where all the POWs were brought for intero……
Mr. Reed is cut off at this point as the recording ended. The interview and recording begin again at a different point.
RS: So, after [General George S.]Patton blew up the tower in Moosburg [Bavaria], you guys stayed around camp and tried to get your health a little bit together?
RR: Well, they left a kitchen there to help feed us, for one thing. Some of the fellows would get out of the camp and do some scavenging around. I didn’t but my co-pilot [2nd Lt. Richard Wanserski] did. Came back with a bottle of wine that was in my bunk, the top of bunk of three. So, it was in the middle of the night and the bunk had started to shake and Dick climbed up and opened up a bottle of wine and came to share it with me. He stuck it in my mouth and I swallowed as hard as I could for an unknown length of time but he finally said, “You’ve had enough,” pulled the bottle out of my mouth and disappeared. I never did see him after that until we got to Lucky Strike [outside the city of Le Havre, France]. [Laughs]
Before we got to that, we were talking about Irv Baum. [General George S.] Patton wasn’t there, of course, by that time when General Patch wasn’t at Dachau [Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany], but the 7th Army was sent up there to get some vets that might be able to speak Yiddish and whatever. They sent two people down and this friend of mine, Irv, decided, and I don’t know about the other, but he wanted to be relieved of the duty because they weren’t doing very much interpreting. They were mainly sorting through what might have piles of bodies that some of them might be alive and if they could find an alive one, he could talk to it. But, he couldn’t stand it anymore, psychologically, and everything else. So, finally, he came back to camp.
Eventually, we were airvacced out of the camp, taken first up to the airfield where the C47s were, and flown over to [Le Havre,] France to Camp Lucky Strike where they gave us new uniforms and they gave us a lot better food, and whatever. Eventually, they took us up to Le Havre, by a 8 ball express trucks and put us on a troop transport to bring us back to the States. We arrived in the States, I think about the 6th of June, or something like that.
RS: Was it a troop transport ship that you rode on or …?
RR: Actually, it was a German ship called the Windhuk. It was captured the same time that the Graf Spee was sunk down in Rio de Janiero harbor.
RR: But, that ship was captured at the same time that the Graf Spee was sunk down there. It had been turned into a troop transport. It had originally been a cruise ship but it was turned into a troop transport and it was used to put the prisoners aboard and bring us back. We came back in New York Harbor.
RS: What was your reception in New York?
RR: I don’t know whether if anyone knew that we had come in or not because we came in late and the first thing they did was they took us off the ship, they put us in trucks and took us over to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey where they fed us. We were being fed in a regular mess hall and there were German prisoners who were the Mess KPs.
RS: Was this before or after VE Day? Do you recall?
RR: This was after VE Day.
RS: After VE Day. Where were you on VE Day? Were you….?
RR: We were still over in Europe.
RS: In Camp Lucky Strike [outside the city of Le Havre, France]?
RR: Well, it was either Lucky Strike or still down in Bavaria. I don’t remember now, I don’t remember the exact time.
RS: There were a lot of celebration going on or?
RS: Or, not in a condition to celebrate?
RR: Well, we really weren’t in that much of a condition to celebrate. We were glad it was over with. Our celebration happened the day we were liberated.
RS: Um hm.
RR: When we came back to the States, there was no parade or anything like that. We were trucked over to Camp Kilmer [New Jersey], given leave to head to home or wherever it happened to be. I was able to call my parents who had been there in northern New Jersey and I took a train, I guess, up to Newark. I think they met me in Newark. We had a 30 day leave and then we had to report to Atlantic City, those of us who were in the New York area for a debriefing by psychologists to find out whether our heads were still on straight or not.
I had about, I guess a twenty or thirty minute talk with a psychologist or whoever he was trying to candle my head. He abruptly stopped and said he’d be back and disappeared but in most cases a few are aware of the kind of cubicles they worked out of. They didn’t have walls. They had – it was a cubicle with an open bottom or open top. Well, I don’t know if I was the only one being interviewed that day, but probably not but he went down the hall and I heard him say, “I have another one here who seems to be normal.” There was some other talking going on that I could not hear by somebody else. He came back and said, “Okay, go back home. You’ll receive orders in the mail for your next assignment,” which turned out to be Lockbourne Air Force base out in [outside of Columbus,] Ohio.
RS: How long were you off and when were you told to report there?
RR: I was told to report there, I think that was in June when we got to leave, probably July when we out there.
RS: What did you do in Lockbourne?
RS: What did you do?
RR: Oh, what. We were there to get requalified in B17 with the idea to we’d probably transition to B29s and go to the Pacific.
RS: So, you were there when the atomic bomb was dropped?
RR: Yes. VJ Day, we were at Lockbourne and that was the end of our training or retraining, or anything like that.
RS: How did you feel about the atomic bomb being dropped?
RR: Ah, very relieved. I felt that something had to stop the war and that apparently did it, quickly.
After thinking about it many of these years, I think it was a very good idea because at the time, it was felt that with all of the resistance that the Japanese were making in the various islands out in the Pacific, that if we had to land troops on the home island of Japan, it would be many, many casualties, American casualties. In fact, I heard the War Department had ordered one million purple hearts... How true that is, I have no idea of confirming.
But those two bombs stopped the war right then and there and I think, for my point of view, it was a good thing.
RS: And, so what did you end up doing at that point?
RR: Well, I was still on active duty after that, they closed Lockbourne so they sent us down to Nashville to a little field down there just south of Nashville. I can’t think of the name of it. Then, they closed that base and they sent us down to Sebring, Florida again where I did my B17 transition. They were getting ready to close that base.
It was obvious that we’d probably wouldn’t be needed so they gave us an opportunity to get out, those of us that had so many points being overseas and whatever happened. So, I took the opportunity to get off active duty and go back to college and finish my degrees in college. Finish my Bachelor’s and also my Master’s degree. All the time I was in college, I was still an active reservist, an instructor in Newark Airport, New Jersey. I was an instructor of the T6; keeping reservists still qualified in airplanes by making sure they had four hours of flight time.
RS: Since you only had five missions, did they give you any additional points for having been a POW or anything?
RR: I don’t remember now whether they did or not. Maybe? I am not sure about that. But in addition to being an instructor down there, it seemed like anybody and everybody who had a picnic or some kind of celebration wanted a flyover. So, those of us who were instructors, there were about ten or twelve of us who instructed on a regular basis down there even though I was in college and some of the rest of them were too. We would spend Wednesday afternoons and weekends at Newark. But, someone would get a call for a flyover; it was the instructors who performed the flyovers. In fact, one time one flyover was Memorial Day. I don’t know what Memorial Day, what year but we took a formation right up Broadway. And, later in the 50s, I don’t remember exactly when it was right now, I think it was ’47, ’48, it turned into Air Force instead of Army Air Force.
RR: Also, the airlines wanted to use all the facilities at Newark Airport, so the Reserve Unit down there that we were instructing for, those of us that were, again, the instructors and check pilots were sent down to McGuire Air Force Base [located south of Trenton, New Jersey] and formed what they called a Corollary Unit with 1st Fighter Squadron. 1st Fighter Squadron was in Air Defense Command and they had F82s, twin Mustang with the radar dome slung in there between the two fuselages. So, we went down there and transition to the F82 and, when on weekends, or one weekend a month, when we would go down and stand the alerts and during our summer in Tampa, we’d be flying Air Defense Command in the F82.
RS: How did you like the F82?
RR: It was an interesting piece of equipment. It was the only airplane that I had flown that had three wheels on the ground, it had four; one on each corner. But, of course, when the Korean thing came along, instead of being attached to 1st Fighter, all of us were reassigned to either 1st Fighter or 5th Fighter. I was reassigned to 5th Fighter, which was down there. That gave them overage as far as pilots was concerned; we were farmed out to other units that had been activated. I went to 166th Fighter in Columbus, Ohio, back at Lockbourne Air Base. I flew F84s until on the 2nd of September of 1951; I caught fire on takeoff and never got over 500 feet and that is too low to bail out of one of those early airplanes. They didn’t have one of those ejection mechanisms to shoot you out. I got it back on the airdrome, crashed on the airdrome, and wound up 20% of me to be 2nd and 3rd degree burns, broken back and torn up leg, same one I had hurt over in Europe.
RS: Did you belly it in?
RR: Yeah, I bellied it in and the one thing I remember about the whole incident was I knew I was going to land gear up but to make the approach as if I had the gear down.
RS: Did you manage to get out yourself or did somebody ….?
RR: No, I got out myself, once I was one the ground, I got out, I got out myself. But they managed to get to the ground shortly thereafter and all the ammunition was going off so it was sort of a battlefield going off at the same time.
They got me out of there and into the hospital at Lockbourne. But, they got me in a cast there but they couldn’t do anything with the burns or anything like. So, they airlifted me eventually to Chanute in Illinois, Rantoul, Illinois, where at that time, a Colonel Don Wenger was doing new things as far as treating burns was concerned.
I got there in September and went through – I was still in a body cast for a my broken back, crushed vertebrae back there – but they managed to find a square foot of skin on my thighs. I went through two skin grafts while I was there. The procedures that he was doing got me out of the hospital in January of ’52, reassigned to Air Force Research and Development up in Rome, New York and back in airplanes within 10 months of the accident.
RS: Wow. Let’s take a break.
At this point, Russ and Randy took a break. They continued Russ’s interview three days later.
PART III - Interview Date September 10, 2005
RS: This is continuing Russell Reed’s interview. It is September 10th, 2005 and we are at the Marriot Hotel in Overland Park, Kansas.
When we left off, Russ, you had just crashed and gotten burned. What were the circumstances of your crash?
RR: Well, I was one of various things going on, I guess. I wasn’t on duty at the squadron that day. I was on duty at the Base Operations; I was a Base Operations Officer. But, they had a maximum effort come up; everybody that was at the squadron was in an airplane, getting ready to go. But, they had one airplane that had just come out of the hanger with a new engine, an engine overhaul, and they needed somebody for that so they came down to Base Operations and grabbed me. They had my parachute in the truck, my helmet they had taken out to the airplane, and I was just wearing the clothes that I had on at Base Operations.
When I got down to the airplane, I got out of the truck, got into the airplane, put my helmet on, didn’t put my gloves on because they didn’t have them there for me, and I didn’t have a flight suit on because, again, I came out of Base Operations. The Element Leader was waiting for me. Got cranked up and headed down the runway and sometime during the takeoff, got fire in the cockpit.
RS: And ….
RR: I don’t think I ever got over 500 feet but managed to do a 270 degree turn and got back to the airdrome. The only thing that I remember was that I knew that I was below the trees, the tree line, and thought fast on my mind that I wasn’t going to land on the runway but I was going to land on the dirt, but didn’t have my gear down, but to make the approach exactly the same as if I did have the gear down.
About the next thing I know as trying to get out of the airplane. I had finally come to a halt, but I had run into some construction and tore things up and it was pretty doggone hot there in the cockpit and I was trying to get out of it. I got out of it and I don’t remember much from thereon.
The next thing I really remember was being in a hospital there at the Base Hospital in Lockbourne Air Base in Columbus, Ohio. I was badly doped up that I didn’t know much at all. Some of the squadron came in to talk to me, wanting to know what happened and I don’t know what I said or anything else.
The next thing I remember was waking up when they were trying to put me in a body cast. They had discovered that I had crushed the first lumbar vertebra and they were trying to put me in a cast so that I wouldn’t have any additional damage. I woke up but the pain was so bad when they were trying to put me in a cast, that they gave me a shot of morphine to shut me up and quiet the pain.
The next thing that I really remember was being in an aerovac airplane someplace up in Michigan for an overnight because, I guess I was at that time – that was the first day – after the stop in Michigan, when they picked up some more passengers. People like myself injured.
The next day they took me to Chanute Air Base in Rantoul, Illinois. I thought I was going down to the Burn Center down in Texas, but they decided to send me to the care of Colonel Don Wenger, who later became Surgeon General of USAF. He was doing good things as far as burns were concerned. He was doing new procedures, a lot of it still in place today, but it was way back in the 50’s. It was 5o years ago that he was not bandaging burns, even 3rd degree burns. The only thing that they would do was put saline solution on them. But, did not wrap them or anything like that. Did not put bandages on them to cover it up. All the bacterial fighting that was done was through injections of thousands of units of penicillin.
RS: Repeat what aircraft you were flying.
RR: At that time, I was flying an F84, a single engine jet fighter. It was a B model. There was no ejection seat. I think of that nature that if I had bailed out at 300 feet, I would have never made it.
But, fortunately, I must have been thinking enough not to try that anyway.
RS: How long did you stay in Rantoul [Illinois]? How long was your ….
RR: Well, I stayed in Rantoul actually about five months.
RR: The crash occurred on September 2nd and they airlifted me sometime in early September to Rantoul. I stayed there for five months. I was in a cast for about six weeks to two months. After that, I was still having skin grafts and things of that nature.
They let me go home for Christmas and I had to go back in January of ’52; I had to go back to the hospital. I stayed there until early February of 1952 when they finally released me and by that time, I had new orders to report to the Air Force Restriction Development Unit in Rome, New York. I still had a lot of scars and burn scars, hands, arms, face, everything like that. I really wasn’t the poster boy for the Air Force at that particular time.
What the surgeon had done, what [Colonel] Don Wenger had done, was get me back to the point where within ten months after the crash and getting burned, I was back on flying status again. I was so badly beaten up with the burns and broken back and a torn up leg, I had to go through an outside evaluation by an orthopedic surgeon that was brought in from somewhere, I don’t know where. He was interested in not only my back, but also interested in the burned areas.
He concentrated about five to ten minutes on my back and determined it was as solid as can be and spent the next twenty-five, thirty minutes trying to find out what they had done to the burns to get me out of the hospital and back on active duty so quick.
He was more interested in that than the orthopedic part of it. Of course, many people had told me not only was I burned and broken, but I also had brain-damage because I was back flying airplanes again.
I spent almost a couple of years then with Research and Development. I was assigned to Research and Development as a fighter pilot because I had been flying fighters. I had flown the F82 for the 1st Fighter Squadron and I flew the F84 for the 166th Fighter Squadron.
So, when I was assigned, I was assigned there as a fighter pilot but they also discovered that I had had four-engine time. I was used as a co-pilot on prop airplanes, also checked out on prop airplanes. I have my Form 5 shows that I’ve flew perhaps an F80 in the morning and a B17 or 29 in the afternoon or might have flown an F94 in the afternoon, one day and flew an F86 the next day.
I was very useful as far as they were concerned because I had a lot of experience in props, multi-engines, and jets. I got involved in a lot of testing of not only aircraft, but systems. After being up there in Rome, New York, I spent quite a few TDY assignments with the unit up there.
Guess it won’t stay off, huh?
Well, anyway, I was assigned to various projects up there because I knew airplanes having flown several different types and also my college degrees. I have a degree in Physical Science, Chemistry, and Physics. I could talk to the engineers about – well, I understood what they were talking about. Some of the guys had no idea whatsoever and I did pretty well up there as far as projects were concerned. I would have a project with a B17 maybe one week, next week I would be flying F80s out of McGuire Air Force Base out of southern New Jersey. I went all the way up to Greenland to Raytheon Project. Also was flying up 1 of 3 pilots that was sent out on a C54 to do a lot of long range, low frequency investigation that eventually ended up in the Omega System of navigation. Omega has been, of course, by GPS.
There was a possibility that I might go to Edwards Air Force Base [California]. Edwards wanted some additional people but almost at the same time, they got a request for somebody to go out in the Pacific as Operations Officer on Johnston Island. So, being the junior individual on the seniority list, and more or less the new guy on the block and having come back from Europe in 1945 and this is 1952, 53, someplace in there, I got the assignment out to – not that I wanted it – but I was assigned to Johnston Island as Operations Officer out there.
Out there, I was not only Operations Officer, being a small unit; I was also the Officer overseer of the NCO’s Club, the postal people that were out there. Air and Sea Rescue, I was working with them. Also, if aircraft needed to be test up out there, I was the only one that was qualified in various airplanes to test up an airplane. We had a C47, which enabled us to go around to various places in the Pacific. I spent time down in Kwajalein. I could just about write the orders that I wanted. Every now and then, I had to go back up to Hickam AF Base and when they wanted to return the airplane to the States for an upgrade overhaul, I decided that I ought to do that, too. It was one of those assignment I didn’t in nowhere but I had pretty much control in what I did and how I did it.
I was also a Flight Instructor and an Instrument Instructor out there. I stayed out there doing that until it was time to rotate back to the States. My time out there had finally run out but in the meantime, I had decided to get off of active duty because of the Commanding Officer out there. Not that I couldn’t do what he wanted to but I just felt that I did not want to – if this was going to be the peacetime Air Force, I thought I could do better by getting off of active duty and going to an airline.
This part you can edit out if you want to. The reason for leaving was that the Commanding Officer was apprehended by the Shore Patrol in a restricted area in a military vehicle with the Wing Inspector’s wife. I thought that was not an appropriate thing for a Commanding Officer to be doing and I felt very strongly about changing careers at that point.
I did get off of active duty but I stayed in the Reserves. After I got with the airlines, I went to work for Eastern Airlines in January of 1955. I got off of Johnston Island in the fall of ’54 and immediately started looking for places to go fly and Eastern Airlines were hiring.
Also to interject here, I also interviewed with TWA but all the burns at that time were still very obvious and they thought as far as public relations were concerned, seeing one of their flight crew off guard and burned, wasn’t what they had in mind. So, they turned me down for that reason which is far as Eastern was concerned, it didn’t bother them a bit. I could fly the airplane and that’s what they wanted.
RS: And, what aircraft were you flying for Eastern? What did you start out with?
RR: I started out with a Martin 404, then went to the 749 Constellation, a smaller Constellation. Then we went to the “Stretched Connie” which was the 1049s. I flew the 1049Cs and I flew the G-Model. That was one of the latest ones. Also, I flew DC6s with them, DC7s, DC7Cs. Flew the Lockheed L188, which is the Lockheed Electra Turboprop. Also, flew the Boeing 727; I had close to, I suppose, 12,000 hours in that alone. From there I went to the Airbus and flew the Airbus, up until the last 5 years for the airline and retired at age 60 from the airline. Also, at that particular time, I took retirement for the Reserves.
But all the time I flew the airlines, I was involved in the Reserves in South Florida. I tried to get on with the Homestead Unit down there, but I had too much rank for them. They wanted pilots but they didn’t want anybody that had my rank at that time. I became instructor and also Commander of some school units down there.
Also in the early ‘50s, they had some units that we were in charge with maintaining and supplying the military presence on various of the airports that were in South Florida and was activated again during the Cuban Crisis.
One of the things that I was doing then was involved in getting radar set up in some of these installations. I stayed in Miami in the Reserves and also, under flew my airline seniority so I could keep active in the Reserves. But, it got too ridiculous as far as the airlines were concerned and I left Miami as a co-pilot and went to Atlanta as a fairly senior Captain with the Lockheed Electra. I say fairly senior because within six months, I upgraded then to a Captain then on a 727 and that’s when I started flying that airplane for quite a few years and a lot of hours.
RS: So, you jumped over the 707?
RR: Yup, didn’t have a 707. They had 720’s but I did not fly that. They had DC8s, I did not fly that. They had DC9s but I decided I did not want to fly those either. A lot of those was because I was still in Miami with those airplanes around. If I went to a higher paying airplane, I wouldn’t have any control of my time. I couldn’t do as well bidding trips to also keep my Reserve commitments up. The Reserves’ commitment got to the point by the time where I was the most senior rated Lieutenant Colonel in the Southeastern United States, but they wanted me to take a nine month leave from the airline and go to the Air War College. I made the decision that I was not going to give up nine months of airline pay to get one more jump in grade and retire pay with airlines and I haven’t regretted that one bit. But, if I had, there was a full Colonel’s position that was open to me up in Dobbins AF Base which I really wasn’t happy about because I discovered the people at Dobbins AF Base were some good ole boys who were already trying to figure out how to shoot me down if I decided to go up there as their commander.
RS: At one time in the past, you told me about an interesting incident that happened on the plane about meeting somebody who knew some of your, or was related to your wartime buddies in the POW camp. About the daughter of …..
RR: Oh, yeah. I was, of course, as a POW, I was in Stalag Luft III, Stalag Luft III was where The Great Escape took place. The Cooler King [Colonel Jerry Sage] was played in the movie by Steve McQueen. But the real Cooler King did not make the escape. He was not one of those who went out through the tunnels. I knew him and I got to know him fairly well.
One time sitting on the ground in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I believe, it was a beautiful day, we were in early and we were just waiting almost a half hour wait for the people to be brought out so we could leave, so we could depart. The 1st Officer and 2nd Officer were talking about seeing The Great Escape because about that time, they had edited The Great Escape for television. They were talking about The Great Escape and I suddenly decided that I needed to adjust their information on the thing. They didn’t understand a lot of it, and I said, “Well, let me interject something about The Great Escape. The Great Escape is almost a documentary except there were certain things that were Hollywood, like Steve McQueen with his ball glove, and baseball and his motorcycle after he supposedly got out of the tunnel and found a motorcycle. Also, some of the other escapades that they supposedly had. That was Hollywood.” And, my co-pilot and engineer said, “Well, how do you know that?” and I said, “Well, because I know the Cooler King.”
One of the flight attendants had been up there in the cockpit, listening to all this, and when I said I knew the Cooler King, she wanted to know who the Cooler King was, and I said, “His name was Jerry Sage. Why do you ask?” And she said, “Oh, he was my father.” And, that was a surprise to me and a surprise to her and this was one of those coincidences that you really wouldn’t expect to happen.
And, also one time, going into Chicago, I had a Lockheed Electra, I had an opportunity to again visit with one of the fellows that I had been with in the flight test. He and I had been together up in Greenland on PDY for Raytheon up there. He was now a civilian had not stayed in the Reserves or anything like that. But, he was very tall, he was about 6’4” or something like that tall, thin and when he found out my name from one of the flight attendants, he was the last one off the airplane. I was standing at the cockpit door, watching these people come off. Bob Gasser was a head and shoulder taller than anybody else left on the airplane and he waited until he was the last one and we spent maybe fifteen, twenty minutes reminiscing about our time in Research and Development.
Other incidences when I was out in the Pacific, when I was an Operations Officer out there, this one morning I had a C115; it was a twin engine, twin boom. I think it was a C115. The earlier things were C82s and this was not a C82 and was being flown by a full Colonel. At Operations, they gave me his flight plan, and when I looked to see his name on it, it was one of the officers I was with in South Compound in Stalag Luft III. It was at that time he was a Lieutenant Colonel McNichol at that time, a fighter pilot. Then at this point he was Brigadier General McNichol and he was on his way over to Korea with an airplane.
RS: Did you have a chance to talk to him or….?
RR: Not much because he had to get going.
Another incident that I don’t know why I didn’t mention it before, probably not. I flew in and out of Mitchell Field on Long Island. In and out of Mitchell Field, there was TDY over there, quite a bit. One day, walking into Operations, I saw a colonel and saluted and it turned out to be the surgeon [Colonel Don Wenger] that I had at Rantoul, Illinois. He was coming out of Operations and I was walking in when I saluted. He did not return my salute, he grabbed a hold of my right arm and started to roll my sleeve up to show a buddy of his, another surgeon, how he had treated me as one of his patients. I stood there, I suppose, maybe fifteen minutes while he described what he did, where he got the skin for grafting and the results of that and the fact that I was back on active duty.
RS: Could you think of anything else about your service?
RR: There are probably a lot of things that I could add but at two events with aircraft, well, thinking back when I first went into the Cadets, they had a saying the old Army Air Corp song, ‘Live in fame or go down in flame.’ You know, go off into the wild blue yonder. Well, all the time I was singing those verses ‘We came to live in fame or go down in flame,’ I knew that I wasn’t going to live in fame. That was the farthest thing from my mind but I didn’t know that I was going to go down in flame twice. Once getting shot down and catching fire in takeoff.
I don’t regret any of it and as far as I am concerned, my career with the military was pretty satisfactory because it was a good career as far as I was concerned it was a good place to get matured, and whatever, and learn a lot of things that I would have never have learned before and it has proved to be so ever since I have retired. And, I have used a lot of the experiences and things that I understood there, not only after I had retired but also with the airline. The airline wanted my experiences at first as an instructor in the Lockheed Electra but I had instructed in the military and had decided that I didn’t want to do anymore of that. They also wanted me to be an instructor in the 727 or a check airman in the 727 and, again, I had done that and decided that I was already retired, flying with a line with the airlines was as probably as close to retirement as I could get and I would stay there.
RS: How did you feel when you visited Moosburg [Bavaria – site of Stalag Luft VII]? I assume there is nothing left of Sagan [Silenia, Bavaria – site of Stalag Luft III]?
RR: No, there is not a whole lot left of Sagan. There is something left. At Sagan when I returned there in the 70s, the Russians had it as a tank training ground. There was also a museum that was built on the grounds of Sagan, showing pictures and relics and things like that of the prison camp that was there. Also, there was a monument there at Sagan where the fifty were shot after they were captured by the SS and shot by the SS. There is a monument there has been erected, was maintained years ago by Polish Girl Scouts, but it had all the names engraved on plaques, a memorial park right outside the former main gate of the camp. The museum is still there and it has artifacts.
In fact, I took back in the 70s, I had took back some of the things I had managed to keep with me, a spoon that I had where I etched my name in it and was given to us by the Germans, actually it might have been supplied by the Red Cross, I don’t know. Now, there is not much left except at Sagan that I can think of except that just the building and the monument, that’s probably all that’s left. From people who have been back, they say the camp area is all grown up again in trees.
I saw on PBS not long ago that they had actually dug down to find some of the tunnels that were used for escape and they showed that in TV that they had to dig down close to 20, 30 feet, something like that. But it had all gone back to trees.
Now, down at Moosburg [Bavaria – site of Stalag Luft VII] – you were at Moosburg?
RR: That was Stalag VIIA and Stalag VIIA, I think again as I remember, it was built for 14,000. By the time the war was over, there were over 100,000 there. When we went back the first time, we were able to find the camp. I don’t remember, it was back in the ‘70s. But, the last time, when the one I think you were with us, when we back there. I think you were on the bus and the bus driver asked where the old camp was and no one knew where it was. I finally went up and sat in the front seat and told the bus driver where to go and we managed to find the front gate, where the front gate was.
RS: And the locals said there wasn’t any …
RR: That’s right, they said that there wasn’t any camp there.
RS: Right, and it was a ….
RR: Resettlement …
RS: For a Silesium ….
RR: Yeah, of a Sudetenland.
RS: Sudeten, yeah ….
RR: Yeah, in fact, they renamed the main street in the camp as ‘Sudetenland Strasse’.
- Russ Reed's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 28 October 1944
- The Reed Crew was shot down on 2 November 1944.
- 398th Mission: 2 November 1944: Merseburg, Germany
- 398th Killed in Combat Missions
- 398th POWs
- 7053-M with Bomb Bays Open
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- Lt. Russell Reed was the Pilot of his own 603rd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Jan Silverstein, one of our 398th volunteers in February 2011.
- The transcription was obtained from a video file.
- Punctuation, grammar and minor word changes may have been made to improve readability.
- Additional information may be shown in brackets [ ].