Molly Graham: This begins an interview with Mr. Louis Lechner taking place on May 21 2014, on 22 Overlook Avenue in Little Falls, New Jersey with Molly Graham and Mohammad Athar. To begin, where and when were you born?
Louis Lechner: I was born in Jersey City, August 28th, 1921
MG: How old does that make you today?
LL: I'm in my ninety-third year.
MG: What was Jersey City like ninety three years ago?
LL: What was it like? You wouldn't recognize it today. It's completely turned. It was a city comprised of ethnic groups. You had the Irish, you had the Polish, you had the Italians, and you had them pretty well separated. [It was] a political town, very political.
MG: How so?
LL: Well we had the infamous Mayor Hague there at the time and let's see what else. I was born in '21 and we had the Great Depression for the next ten years.
MG: So how would you say it's different today?
LL: Say what?
MG: How is it different today?
LL: Let's see. It's been rebuilt actually. You've got such high rise apartments and you've got condos and you've got the whole waterfront has been rebuilt. Migration, people just moved out of the city. I'm a witness to that.
MG: Can you tell me about Mayor Hague?
LL: Yes. Well he did it his way, or no way.
MG: When was he in office?
LL: Too long. [laughter] Yes, it was a corrupt city. [Editor's Note: Mayor Hague served as the mayor of Jersey City from 1917 until he retired in 1947. He is an example of what was referred to as bossism in the early 20th century. It is generally accepted that his influence contributed to the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.]
MG: Well tell me about growing up in the 1920s and how the Great Depression affected you and your family.
LL: How it affected my family? Well in the first place you had with the Depression came the loss of jobs, loss of money, loss of homes. Let's see. It's a repeat of--the crisis we have now with housing is the same that happened back there in 1925, '29. People bought houses [and] they couldn't afford them and when they lost their jobs they just couldn't pay the house. The house went for mortgage. Living in the city at the time, if you didn't have the money you had to move to pay the rent. So you'd go to another place to live. My father worked for the central or New Jersey railroad and there was a crunch on that time. My dad used to work as a freight conductor from Jersey City out to the coal mines in Pennsylvania. He would haul one of those huge trains of coal and bring it back into New York. Anyway I had two sisters and I had a brother. My sisters were older than I was. My brother was younger than me by two years and it was a close knit family. We still are to this day. [laughter] What can I say about the family? Because of the Depression we lost the house, we lost the car. We were penniless actually. We were poor and we wouldn't go on so called relief of food stamps because that wasn't the thing to do. [There was] pride.
MG: So what did you have to do differently as a family because you were poor?
LL: What did we have to do as a family differently? Different than what?
MG: How did you have to get by?
LL: Well, let's see. My two sisters went to work, any work that could be gotten. It didn't last very long. My brother and I, we just went to school. That's all. We didn't do anything. We were too small to do anything.
MG: Did you have a question?
Mohammad Athar: Yes. What about your mother? Was she working also?
LL: What's that?
MG: Was your mother working?
LL: No she wasn't. She was a stay-at-home. She had my brother and myself to take care of and the house.
MG: But your older sisters were working. What did they do?
LL: One worked for the department store. The other one worked for the bank. When the banks closed she was let out and as far as department store was concerned, people just stopped buying [so] they just laid off the people. They just didn't have the need anymore. With the advent of the war coming on the defense factories started working and people got back to work. My father's need to work was of great value. They were hauling more trains so they needed more conductors. So he was there.
MG: Can you talk to me a little about your family history? Both your parents were from Jersey City. Where were they from before that?
LL: My mother's parents were from Ireland. My father's parents, we assume they came from Germany or possibly Austria. We're not sure about that though. One of my friends told me that the name Lechner pronounced in German is Leshner. It's a common name. It's like Smith here in the States.
MG: What do you know about their family backgrounds?
LL: Very little. Let's see. On my father's side he had two brothers and a sister. I know nothing about his father, none whatsoever. His grandfather was never known to me. Nor were there grandmothers or grandfathers known to me on my mother's side. We think, but we're not sure, that my mother's side, either her brother or father may have been working on the tugboats in the New York harbor as a cook. We're not sure about that though. That's something that's in the background. Somebody heard something. Growing up in those days you were told to sit still, keep your mouth shut, sit down in the corner. So a lot of this history is lost, believe me. The one person who really had good memory for all that, she's gone now. She's dead. That was Kate. That's my sister. Anyway what else could we talk about?
MG: How did your parents meet?
LL: How did my parents meet? I have no idea. Again it was a close knit neighborhood downtown in Jersey City. The Irish segregated here, the Germans here. I don't know how they [met]. It's not unusual.
MA: What was your neighborhood like when you were growing up?
MG: Your neighborhood.
LL: Which one?
MG: The one you lived in growing up. Can you describe it?
LL: I grew up in a neighborhood--you've heard of the expression lace curtain Irish? You have? Okay. I think we were part of that. We moved out of the, you could call it a ghetto if you want, but it was the Irish conclave downtown and we moved up to the Heights and that's where I grew up most of my life. It was a whole new neighborhood, whole new houses going up. So it was an all-new development. That's where I lived for about four years to about six or seven years, about five years.
MG: Were the communities sort of insulated where you were hanging out with the other Irish families, the other Irish kids?
LL: No. Like I said we moved out of that group, what we call the Heights. There was nothing exciting about it believe me. [laughter]
MG: Do you have any memories of growing up? What did you do for fun?
LL: What did we do for fun? I don't know. I guess we had fun, but I can't remember it. [laughter] There were other kids in the neighborhood. You get to meet some of them, you play with them, but there was nothing exceptional about it.
MG: What kind of kid were you? Were you shy? Were you outgoing?
LL: I don't think I was shy, no. Not the least. He's laughing. [laughter] Down the hill from where we were living they were building up new houses. They had just put the cinder blocks in the frame. I stood at one end and this other kid I knew stood at the other end and we just threw rocks at one another. He called me a goober. I bent down to pick up a rock, he hit me. That's what we did for fun.
MG: Talk to me about school and what kind of student you were and the things you'd do during school.
LL: Well, let's see. I started school when I was five. There was no pre-k there was no Kindergarten. It was first grade. I remember walking to that school too. That was the most dangerous place for that. [laughter] I went up all the way up to the boulevard, crossed the boulevard into Bergen Avenue, then Bergen Avenue all the way down the length of the boulevard to get to the school. I guess the only good protection we had then was the firehouse on the corner. The firemen used to watch out for us. We had no buses.
MG: What was dangerous about it? Was it the traffic?
LL: Well the little bit of traffic we had, yes. I mean it's not like the traffic you have today.
MG: Did your family keep any Irish traditions in the home?
LL: Not really. I can't recall any of them.
MA: Do you know why your family emigrated from Ireland?
LL: Did my mother come from Ireland?
MA: Why is what I'm asking.
LL: There was just no work over there for one thing. The streets were paved with gold over here. I guess it was from the aftermath of the potato famine. People just had to get out. Either they'd go from Ireland into England or else they went from Ireland to the States. [Editor's Note: The Irish Potato Famine was a catastrophic event in which a majority of potato crops, which were the country's main food source and economic threshold of agriculture at the time, were destroyed by pollution and drought. This led to mass immigration of the Irish people to various parts of the world, notably to the United States.
MG: What do you think it was like to get here and find out that the streets were not paved with gold?
LL: What was it like?
MG: Yes. Life still was tricky.
LL: Let me crawl in my mother's brain and see. No I can't do that. But it was hard. It was difficult.
MG: What about religion in your life growing up?
MG: Okay, what did that mean to you?
LL: What did it mean to mean to my life? It gave me a lot of meaning. [It gave me a little purpose. It was difficult for my mother being Catholic because in a few companies if you were Catholic you were not going to be hired. If you were a Mason, yes, but not a Catholic. That was reflected right in the Colgate people Jersey City Plant. They wouldn't hire you if you were Catholic. My mother worked as a seamstress I think over in New York City. She told us when the Hudson River froze in; she walked across the ice to get to work.
MG: That's incredible.
LL: [laughter] I have to believe that's a true story. It is. Both east and Hudson Rivers froze over in 1888. My mother would have been a teenager about then.
MG: When did she start working as a seamstress?
LL: I would suppose fifteen minutes after she got off the boat at Ellis Island she was looking for a job. [Editor's Note: Ellis Island was a port in New York in which most immigrants in the early 20th century entered the US by] I mean there was just no hanging out. You had to get out there and work. Let's see what years we talking about now. We're talking about--excuse me.
LL: Let's see
MG: What do you have there?
LL: Some dates. They wouldn't give me that. That's not the dates I want. This is the other side of the family.
MG: Let's hear what's on that piece of paper and then we can try to figure out the rest.
LL: We can't. You can't figure anything out of this. This is my wife's parents. Her father was born in '88 and died in 1936. Her mother was born in 1890 and died in '52. I thought I had my father's birth date but I don't.
MG: Well, we were trying to figure out when your mother was working as a seamstress.
LL: That's right. How old she would've been at the time. I'd say she was quite young.
MG: Did she have to take a break from that to raise her family?
LL: Oh no, we're talking about her being a teenager, or there about. She was just coming out of high school or whatever. Subsequent to that then she gets married. Then she has the family.
MG: Can you talk to me about how life transitioned from the 20s to the 30s? What was different during those years?
LL: The 20s and the 30s. We had nothing to begin with in the 20s and the 30s. I mean everything was rock bottom. If you had a good pair of shoes on your feet you were wealthy. If you had a hole in your shoes, you'd put cardboard in your shoes. You tried to make everything at home. Everything was homemade: bread, a meal. If you had a soup chicken, you'd make a soup chicken out of it and a (freezie?) and you would use that the second and third day.
MG: Did you have a sense of what was going on in the rest of the world?
LL: Absolutely not.
MG: What did you expect to do once you graduated?
LL: Just trying to get out. That was a fiasco.
LL: I didn't fit too well in high school.
MG: What were the things you enjoyed or liked doing while you were in high school?
LL: I think my science courses were the best. I took five years of them. [I took] chemistry, physics. I enjoyed that.
MG: What years were you in high school?
LL: '35 to '40. That's about five years.
MG: So were you aware of what was going on in Europe and the rest of the world?
LL: Vaguely because there was a big to do about one of the manufacturing plants in Jersey City. [It] was involved with the Spanish Insurrection, the revolution. [Editor's Note: The "Spanish Insurrection" spoken of is the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and the Spanish Civil War, in which the fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco staged a coup d'état, overthrowing the Spanish Republic. This is noted as one of the opening conflicts of World War II.] So that was the closest thing we'd come to European wars. Then with the advent of '41 and then we were very conscious of everything then.
MG: So there was manufacturing going on to supply the war in the factory in Jersey City?
LL: Oh, were we cognizant or aware of the stuff in Europe that was going on. That was the only connection we had actually. We saw this plant locally was involved with the Spanish Insurrection or whatever you want to call it.
MG: What was the involvement?
LL: I have no idea. [laughter] It was in the newspaper. The police went down there. That's about it. It didn't last long whatever it was.
MG: Did you have a sense in high school that America could get involved at some point in World War II?
LL: No, at that time, no. [I was] not [aware] during high school. After I came out of high school, yes [I was aware].
MG: So what were you hoping you'd do when you graduated?
LL: What I was hoping to do? Actually I was hoping to go to college. I was going to be a teacher. I wanted to be a teacher. My brother-in-law was a teacher. His whole family was teachers. I thought that was a great thing.
MG: So what happened instead?
LL: What happened instead? The war came on and that was that. When the war came on I was going to volunteer, go up into Canada, and join the Canadian Air Force. My mother got wind of that. She said "No." [laughter] It was six or eight months later [when] I was drafted anyway. I was drafted in July of '42.
MA: Did some of your friends from high school enlist before you were drafted or were they also drafted?
LL: Well the ones I did know that were close, they were all drafted. A few of them enlisted, but not many.
MG: How come you wanted to join the Canadian Air Force?
LL: I wanted to fly.
MG: You didn't think you could do that for the U.S?
LL: No, I didn't think so, but they were looking for volunteers anyway and it looked like the natural thing to do.
MG: Was your mother opposed to this because it was Canada or because she didn't want you entering the service?
LL: That's right. She didn't want me going into the service.
MG: What was going on in your life before you entered the service? Were you working? Were you dating?
LL: I had no trouble getting a job and one of the executives of the First National Bank in Jersey City was an alumnus of Lincoln High School which I graduated from. So if you're from out of Lincoln High School you got a job with him right away which was good. I worked as a messenger in the block department and use this huge machine and I'd process dividend checks, the dot between five cents and o' five to five dollars back and forth. I hypnotized myself. [laughter] It was a good experience and then I quit the bank. We went in for a raise, two of us. We told them we would work somewhere else that was double our salary. They said "Go ahead and take it." [laughter] They called our bluff. So I went down to the beach for a couple of weeks. [laughter] That was good. When I came back I had no job and I went to the State of New Jersey Employment Service and they wanted to know what I could do. I told them I couldn't do much of anything. I told them I had worked in the bank and they said, "Well, you've got some general office appeal." So they said, "Can you take shorthand?" I said "Yes." He said "You're kidding." I said "No." I took that as a fall course back in high school, that and typing. So he sent me down to this company, down in the harbor side terminal and they hired me right away. So that was good.
MG: When was this?
LL: When was that? That had to be 1940, '41. Yes.
MG: Did you work there for a while?
LL: Yes. For the next fifty years.
MG: What were you doing when you weren't working? What did you spend your paycheck on?
LL: I can't remember. It was nothing spectacular.
MG: Do you remember finding out about the attack on Pearl Harbor? [Editor's Note: The bombing of Pearl Harbor was an event in which Japanese planes attacked the U.S Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.]
LL: Oh yes.
MG: Tell me about that.
LL: Well let's see. We were sitting at home and we were listening to the radio. It came in over the wire with the attack. I called down to the pier where I was working. I worked for the superintendent. The superintendent was in charge of the terminal so therefore I was the only one available. So I called back down to the pier and I told them to lock up everything when they do go out. If I had to, I'd hire some extra [help], but that was it. Important to secure premises.
MG: There was a security concern?
LL: Yes, we had aircraft, military cargo there, and ships.
MG: Can you tell me about how your family reacted to that news of the bombing?
LL: I don't think they were too happy. That's for damned sure. They had two pretentious sons going to war. I don't think we had a box around the house with flags. This is it. It's a war.
MA: So after the Pearl Harbor attack was there any fear of a Japanese invasion?
MG: How do you think that news was different for your sisters than it was for you and your brother?
LL: How was different for my sisters? Well, they would not be considered part of the draft to begin with or part of the service. They were young enough to be thinking about get married and all that so that may have changed their attitude. I don't know.
MG: So you thought about enlisting in the Canadian air force.
MG: Instead you waited to be drafted.
MG: Tell me about that.
LL: Well, my mother locked me up and said, "You couldn't go anywhere, couldn't go the Canada." So we said, "Okay." So we sat home and twiddled our thumbs and waited for the draft. What are you going to do?
MG: I wanted to know what it meant to have a radio in the house.
LL: Well of course having the radio, that was our only line of communication anyway. We sat there and watched and listened to it.
MG: Do you remember any programs that you liked to tune into?
LL: Oh sure, Sunday night, The Shadow. There was another one. I don't think (Fulton Jay Sheen?) came on until later on. The Shadow was the big one. Walter Winchell was big too at the time. Do you remember this?
MG: No I wasn't around.
LL: You keep shaking your head as if you understand. Do you want something to drink? I got ginger ale, I got Pellegrino water. You want some Pellegrino?
MG: No we're okay. Would you like something? Would you like some water?
LL: Oh, I'll get some in a minute. Listen, I've got some cold cuts and I've got some rolls outside. There's some coleslaw and just help yourselves.
MG: So tell me about getting drafted. How does that work?
LL: How'd it work?
LL: They said everybody in a certain age bracket, you had to get downtown and register. So you had to go down and register and they'd send you a notice about X number of days or weeks to come down and [go] for a physical. Then you'd go down for a physical and they they'd give you a classification and then you would go home and wait. Then when your number came up you'd be drafted. Just pack a little bag and report to the station.
MG: Did you register in Jersey City?
LL: Oh yes. I bundled up, got out to a train, down at Newark Penn Station; get on the train at Newark. We went down to Camp Dix [Fort Dix]. I stayed there for thirty days. I stayed there for thirty days because they had said "What do you want to do?" [laughter] I want to go home. Anyway because I put in for the Air Force, they just let me sit there until they could get qualifications to move me to a certain point. When I said I wanted to join the Air Force, I wanted to fly, and they said "Okay fine, that's alright." They put me on the troop train all the way down to Florida. I went to St. Petersburg which was so called basic training they had with us which was nothing. [Editor's Note: The military camp in "St. Petersburg" mentioned by Mr. Lechner is the MacDill Air Force Base. This base served as a military staging area during the Spanish Civil War.] In St. Petersburg I did a series of tests. They pulled me out of the line. One out of every tenth men they took out to see what sort of an economic and mental level they were coming in [with]. So I must have scored kind of high. They thought I was a pretty good mechanic believe it or not. [laughter] Two weeks later they sent me over to Fort Myers, from St. Petersburg over to Fort Myers, and I went to gunnery school there. That lasted about six or eight weeks, nine weeks.
MG: I have a couple of questions, but keep going.
LL: Okay, let's see. At gunnery school--I graduated out of gunnery school. They sent us up to Oklahoma City. [Editor's Note: Mr. Lechner is probably referring to Tinker Air Force Base] In Oklahoma City I joined a group up there. There were low level attack bombers and I was a gunner and assigned a crew. Then when I heard they were taking applications for the cadet school, I put in for that and I qualified. The only thing they were concerned about was my weight. I was with a group, I mean this squadron that had what they called "garrison rations" so you weren't restricted to the minimum. Everything you wanted if they could get their hands on it and they did. I had six meals a day plus a couple extra bananas thrown in. They were trying to fatten me up for the qualifications. So then they sent me over to get a physical and had my teeth taken care of. Also, I had my tonsils taken out at the same time. [laughter] I won't forget that. [laughter] They said, "Open up." I said, "Ah" and they said "Okay".
MG: Just like that?
LL: Yes. I couldn't swallow, couldn't eat or anything; but the nurse, she was fantastic. She says "Don't tell anyone I told you to do this, but here, here's a piece of gum. Chew the gum", she says. "It will flex the muscles back there." She says "It'll ease your throat." It worked like a charm. [laughter]
MA: What was basic training like?
LL: Basic training where?
MA: At Fort Dix.
LL: Oh, yes. Basic training was like a work detail. If you were hanging around doing nothing, they were going to put you to work. They apparently looked at my rep and they said I could type. So they said "You want to do some typing?" I said, "Yes, sure." They sent me down to the medics. I was typing urine and blood samples. [laughter]
MG: What things were you doing before you left basic training, knowing you wouldn't be able to those things for a while?
LL: There were no preparations. You just take it one day at a time see what happens. That's all. I went down to the Jersey Shore as much as I could too. Where do we leave off now?
MG: I'm wondering what appealed to you about the Air Force, why you wanted to fly?
LL: I don't know. I always did. I used make these little kits. What do they call them? Airplane kits and I would build them in my yard. I still think it's the greatest sensation anyway. I still do to this day. I love it.
MG: You described yourself as needing to gain some weight.
MG: Can you describe the rest of yourself? What did you look like?
LL: What did I look like?
LL: I went in the service at 120 pounds. Three years later I came out I was 125, built like a rail. [laughter]
MG: That's about my size.
LL: Yes, that's right. It took them twice to make your shadow.
MG: What was a typical day like in basic training?
LL: [We were] learning nothing, absolutely nothing. They showed me the back of a forty foot trailer truck, opened up the door, and there was something like twenty tons of corn on the cob in sacks. [I] emptied the truck, that's it.
MG: So you got good at emptying trucks?
LL: Oh I was perfect. [laughter] I couldn't move my hand for a week. I was picking up these bags. Fiber bags, what the hell are they called? What do they call those bags?
MG: Burlap bags?
LL: Burlap bags, yes. There was corn in them. The corn was picked in Long Island. They brought it over in a trailer truck, but the doors were closed and that stuff generates heat. Thy said, "Empty it." I said, "Okay, fine." I picked those things up by the ears and dragged them. It took me like ten hours to get rid of that truck. Did I learn anything? No, not a thing. [laughing] I hated corn for a while.
MG: What about weapons training?
LL: Not at [Fort] Dix no. Weapons training I got down at Fort Myers at the Aerial Gunnery School. They had shotguns, they had pistols, they had carbines, machine gun. That's it.
MG: Can you talk to me about some of the other guys in basic training?
LL: I formed no relationships at [Fort] Dix, nothing much.
MG: What about along the way in Florida and then Oklahoma?
LL: In Florida, yes. In Oklahoma, yes too, but we had quite a group out in Oklahoma. We had one casualty, due to flying casualty.
MG: How did that happen? I know that sometimes the engines would get overheated.
LL: I don't know how it happened in this case. They just scratched him off the list. He's dead.
MG: Was that what it was like when something like that happened?
LL: Say what?
MG: Was that what it was like?
LL: First, I didn't know the person that well. It was just another name. You just went on the next day, you get up, you had breakfast, you got out and did some more work, went out flying yourself.
MG: Can you describe your first flight?
LL: No I can't because I don't remember the first flight.
MG: How about one you do?
LL: Oklahoma I remember better because Oklahoma was more of a combat nature. Fort Myers was training so you did things by the book. In Oklahoma you threw the book away and you try to put yourself into a combat position and the pilot would take you through these routines. We did a lot of low flying, very low flying. So and so used to come back with chicken feathers in their engine cowling. [laughter] That was low. That wasn't liked by the farmers in Oklahoma.
MA: So when you were at Oklahoma, is that when you were assigned to a flight crew?
LL: Yes I was assigned to a crew at the time, yes.
MG: For the record, can you say what that crew was?
LL: What the crew was? What do you mean?
MG: For the record, can say what crew you were assigned to?
LL: I was assigned to a pilot and another gunner. Every three of us would be in that. Every time the pilot went up I went up or he went up. Then they had a prescribed area to fly. They had to make these approaches on a low level basis, strafing and what not.
MG: What kind of planes were you on?
LL: That was known as an A-20. It was a light, attack bomber and it was specifically just for low level flying. It had bombs in it. It had a bomb bay, but it was more for a low level attack.
MG: How many people were on that plane with you?
MG: That would be the pilot?
LL: The pilot did the flying, we did gunnery.
MG: Did you have another question?
MA: So when you were training to be an aerial gunner, how did they train you for that?
LL: How did they train you? Well they had two planes. One plane towed a big target behind it and we would go parallel or come around the side, one way or another, and try to hit the target. This was a hand held gun by the way so it would shoot it all over the place. Not very accurate. That was where you got most of your training. The rest of its ground school, as far as target were concerned, handling weapons, and hone your ability to identify something, and then shoot it or shoot at it. We got recognition courses in silhouettes of planes: Japanese planes, German planes, whatever. Anything else?
MA: Did you develop a bond with your pilot?
LL: A bond?
MA: Kind of like shorthand together.
LL: Yes, yes. It was not the officer, enlisted man approach. It was more personal. You were up there. He didn't want to get killed; you didn't want to get killed so you damned well better take care of one another. It was a good buddy system.
MG: What was your relationship like with your superior officers?
LL: Oh, the training was good and the relationship was good. It got better after we were--after I joined that group up there.
MG: So for the people who can't see where you pointed, can you describe what you pointed at?
LL: Oh, okay. Well it wasn't until I went into combat with our crew in the Marianas that we got into a very first class personal relationship and I mean personal. [Editor's Note: "The Marianas" are a series of islands in the Pacific Ocean that were controlled by the Imperial Japanese Army.] It was--well we not only slept together, in fact we drank together, we ate together. It was--here she comes now.
MG: So we're just looking at some photographs and who are these guys up here?
LL: This is the crew. This is the whole crew here. This was taken before we went overseas. This is like an identification photo.
MG: Where are you?
LL: Where am I? [I am] right here. We were hoping to have this man on the Skype today, but we didn't get that far. That's J.R. Elliot. He's down in Alabama. He was the pilot. Here's the co-pilot. He was a young lad. This is Red Wilson, the bombardier. This is my friend Ed Allison. He's the navigator and this is Dave Leon the engineer, the flight engineer. This is Dub Hall the radio operator and this is GI Ahern. We called him GI, but actually it was George Irving so that's where you got the word GI. That's Ahern. He was the radar operator. This is Moe Martini. He was the CFC man which is the--back here there is a dome and he used to sit up in that dome. That's myself. This is Ed (Goldie?). (Goldie?) was the left gunner and this is Bud the tail gunner. So this is the whole group here, and same.
MG: How long did you stick together?
LL: Oh god. We were together through training down in New Mexico to flying out of Florida to India, then from India to the Marianas. We were one year together.
MG: So tell me about that dynamic. Just memories you have as a crew.
LL: Oh, the dynamics as a crew. I got to think of something that makes it pertinent. Well slightly crazy, all of us. We were that young to be crazy. The radio operator was a musician and he'd sit back there, play a trumpet into his earphone. Fantastic radio operator though. God he was fantastic. Allison, the navigator, was about the best around so far as navigation was concerned. He did--what's the word I'm looking for? Celestial, he did celestial navigation which is rather rare. The pilot JR, we called him JR. You've seen the picture. He's about six foot two, had hands on him like this, big hams. As a teenager he was breaking horses out in Colorado so he was right off the ranch. He was a big guy, wonderful person, real guy. The whole crew was good. We got along well together. [We] shared the food, shared the drinks, shared the tent.
MG: Where was everybody from?
LL: JR was from Colorado. I'm from Jersey City. (Goldie?) the left gunner was from Illinois. The copilot was from Mississippi I believe or Louisiana, one or the other. George Ahern was from Colorado and Moe was from New York City. He's the CFC man. Who else? Wilson was from Indiana and Bud the tail gunner was from Kentucky, crazy bunch. [laughter]
MA: So were there any experienced men in your crew or was everyone just a recruit?
LL: Was there any experience?
MA: In your crew.
LL: JR was experienced more than anybody else because prior to him being assigned a combat crew, which was us, he was flying bombardier students. So he was very, very familiar and knowledgeable about the relationship between the bombardier and the pilot. He was excellent. I can't think of anything else.
MG: What was your job?
LL: My job? I was a gunner on the right side. I was also supposed to be the assistant engineer, the flight engineer. So that if anything went wrong up front with Dave, I was supposed to jump in and take over. Never happened, which I'm very happy about. [laughter] Goes for the manual, find what's wrong. The plane's on fire. Well that's okay. [laughter]
MG: Before we talk about your first assignments, I want to make sure there's nothing we're missing from your training. Any stories or any experiences you want to include?
LL: Well after I left--when I went down for the cadet school in San Antonio, I washed out there. They said I didn't have enough talent. What happened to me after that is a fantasy really. They just took me over and shipped me out to Laredo, Texas. Why? I don't know. I got down there and just lived in Laredo, Texas for about maybe two months or something like that, didn't know why I was there. They finally got around to interviewing me one day and they said that they thought I was down there as an instructor. Instructor of what? In aerial gunnery? You're crazy. [laughter] So they decided to get rid of me from Laredo, Texas. They asked me if I wanted to go to a school. I said "Okay, fine what school?" "We're going to send you to mechanic school." I said "Okay, good." So they sent me up to Biloxi, Mississippi and I went to school there for about X number of months [Editor's Note: Mr. Lechner is referring to being sent to Kessler Air Force Base].
MG: What were you learning there?
LL: I was a student.
MG: Of what?
LL: Mechanics. So they'd teach me how to use tools. Teach me how to do this and this. So then I graduated from there and they sent me to another school. They sent me up to Rantoul, Illinois, and that was a real good school [Editor's Note: Mr. Lechner is referring to Chanute Air Force Base]. I went to--what do you call it, power plant specialist and we actually worked on the motor itself and you could work on propellers supposedly. It was a rather intensive course and then from there I went home for vacation. [laughter] Then I came back and I was sent out to Denver, Colorado, for another school. This was an armorer school. Now I was going to learn all about a fifty caliber machine guns which we hadn't seen before. We went out to Denver and spent about six or eight weeks there too. We used to take the machine gun apart blindfolded and put it back together again. Then from Denver, Colorado I was told to report to Clovis, New Mexico. That's where I was assigned to the crew and that's where I met these guys and we flew out of New Mexico for training. Training was a little difficult there because planes were hard to come by, parts were hard to come by. Instead of using a B-29, we used a B-17 or a B-24, but we made do with what we had and we did as much training as we could. We were pretty good. Then from there we were up to--after training we went home for about two weeks leave I think it was. We came back, we reported to Kansas. We picked up a new plane in Kansas and we got our orders right then and there. We were to fly down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and then through Fort. Lauderdale we were given our orders overseas.
MG: What were your orders?
LL: I was talking to JR about this because these are sealed orders and I said, "When did you open up the orders?" He said, "The orders said to fly two hours straight out east and then open up your orders and then from there on get a new heading. So the new heading was British Guiana from Fort Lauderdale. So we flew down to British Guiana. We got refueled and we got additional orders at that time to come on down to Brazil. We went down to--what was the name of the town in Brazil? It was a beautiful place. Then from Brazil we went over to Accra, West Africa, from West Africa we went to Sudan, and from the Sudan we went to Karachi, and from Karachi we went to Chakulia over in India. So we flew around the world. [laughter]
MG: Had you left Jersey City much before starting all of your training?
LL: No. We never went west of the Hudson River, believe me. [laughter]
MG: So what was it like to go all over?
LL: [It was] unbelievable. I was living--I'll give you some idea. When I was in Oklahoma City we had to fly to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for gunnery practice. [We were there] for strafing and low level bombing on the ocean. We got to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. There was a grove of pine trees. That's all it was. Today you look at it, you can't believe it. It all evolves around food, what I'm going talk about. In Myrtle Beach we had nothing but oysters. We had oysters for breakfast, we had oysters for lunch, we had oysters for dinner. We had boiled oysters, fried oysters, baked oysters. You name it; we had oysters. [laughter] We had a pot belly stove to keep it warm. When I was sent to Laredo, Texas, the only place to go in Laredo, Texas was Mexico. You could come back at night and there's this huge thing of Jell-O lying on the table at the mess hall. Jell-O, that's all. The food was horrible at Texas. There was a transportation problem. They couldn't get the food to the places where we needed it, actually they couldn't. But in comparison, up in Oklahoma City, we had steak, we had everything you wanted. People were dying waiting to get Spam and we were having steak. We went up to Rantoul, Illinois. It was fantastic for eating; food was unbelievable, good food again. They had baked pies, oh God they were good pies. [laughter] What's the other place? That's what we had oysters, good food, Jell-O, steaks. That was it.
MG: What about in New Mexico? How was the food there?
LL: Horrible, you wouldn't want a hamburger in New Mexico if you had to pay for it. [laughter] They had this meat hanging in the store. In Mexico, you had to chase the flies off it to get to the meat. [laughter]
MG: What were your impressions of all these places?
LL: What were my impressions?
MG: Yes, having come from Jersey City your whole life and then getting to travel around quite a bit.
LL: I liked Myrtle Beach for one thing and Florida. It was great. Oklahoma was good and I liked that. I didn't care for Illinois too much. I thought it was too cold, much too cold, Jesus. I froze my butt off out there. It was an eye opener too. We didn't go far growing up, grammar school, high school. We didn't go anywhere, but all of a sudden this thing is thrust upon you. You go from living in hotels at St. Petersburg--they had no camps. They had to use the hotels. What else should I say?
MG: Can you talk to me about your gear and your uniform?
MG: During training and then on assignment.
LL: Oh, you had two sets of uniforms. You had the summer and the winter. When we left Fort Myers, Florida we had summer gear. We got up to Oklahoma; it was like fourteen inches of snow. So we're standing around there with sun tan uniforms and the snow is up to our arms. We had about two or three cars, trains, day coaches, tacked onto our commercial train going west. I remember we were pulling through a town called Parsons, Kansas about one o'clock in the morning. I guess the whole town's turned out, men, women, children, making coffee and donuts to hand to us. What a beautiful thing.
MA: Out of all the places that you visited during training, which one would you say was the best time for you?
LL: The best time? You mean enjoying myself?
LL: Oh, that's got to be Oklahoma City. [laughter]
MG: How come?
LL: Well, personally doing the flying, I liked to fly. I had a good group and the food was good. I could go into town and enjoy myself. There were movies, entertainment. Let's see, what else? It was like another big city. It was enjoyable. The people were nice. Still laid back, they're all still cowboys. You appreciate the culture. Roy Acuff, I don't know if you know the name, but Roy Acuff who was featured out there for a three night's concert. [Editor's Note: Roy Acuff was a famous American country musician known as the "King of Country Music"] On the other side of town was I think Glenn Miller or the equivalent. [Editor's Note: Glenn Miller was a famous big band musician, whose plane went missing in 1944 while on route to play for soldiers in France] Roy Acuff sold out so much so they were waiting in the streets to get in. Poor Miller, he died. [laughter] I'm talking about the culture. These people were cowboys. They'd come in off the ranch on Saturday morning and they'd spend all weekend in Oklahoma City doing what they'd normally do.
MG: Did you go to that concert?
LL: No, neither of them. [laughter]
MG: So what did you do when you'd have leave, or were on vacation?
LL: Well, I came home on vacation. That was different depending on what time of the year it was. When we were down in Clovis, New Mexico, we used to get out as much together, the group, three or four of us would go. We'd end up going up to Albuquerque or there was another town called--we thought it was a big town, but actually it wasn't. It was just a bump on a road somewhere. It was named, oh God--can't think of the name of the town now. It was a junction on the railroads. I can't think of the name of the town, but we spent the night in Tucumcari laughing outside silly. There were posters on the telephone poles all around. There was going to be a violin recital and his name was Waldamir (Gelsch?). It's a peculiar name. Fast forward, we're now coming off of a mission one day, one night, and we're all tired. I think we had too many bennies or something like that? I piped into the intercom, I says, "Hey, I wonder what ever happened to Waldamir." [laughter] The name [of the small town] is Tucumcari. [laughter] In the middle of nowhere and everybody broke up. It relieved the tension, but it was funny. I wonder what ever happened to Waldamir. [laughter]
MG: Did that tension exist because you knew what you were getting into eventually?
LL: Yes, because flying these missions, they were long. They were twelve to thirteen hours, six hours up, maybe an hour over the target, and then six and a half hours back. You're never at ease. You were up to twelve, thirteen hours that way. You were also up prior to those six hours. You couldn't sleep, wondering what you're going to do, where you're going to go. It was a little tense. So it could be a little hairy at times. You get on one another's nerves at times. It doesn't take much to tick you off. Fortunately we got along pretty well.
MG: What kind of toll was it taking on you physically or mentally?
LL: Physically, I think we were smoking more. I used to time certain movements on the plane by the amount of cigarettes that I'd had.
MG: So how many cigarettes would you have?
LL: Well it all depended on what was going on at the time. I was judging myself by going from Point A to Point B. It took me three cigarettes.
MG: About how long was that?
LL: It would take ten minutes. [laughter] I can also remember timing myself with the Hail Mary. It'd take me three Hail Mary's to get off the ground. [laughter] JR used to shout back, "Everybody pick up your feet. No dragging your feet. We need everything we can get" and off we'd go. [laughter] These are the type of things.
MG: Can you talk about going home to Jersey City for a little bit before getting assigned?
MG: What did you do and who did you see?
LL: I haven't got a clue. [laughter] I really don't. Who did I see? As I said, it all depends on what time of the year it was. If it was spring time, I'd be down the shore with my cousin, after that, nothing. I'd stay home with mom or dad. We'd go to a movie or a show or something like this.
MG: Did you have a sense that you needed to soak this up because there was a chance you wouldn't come back or it would be a long time before you were home?
LL: I didn't worry about not coming back. I was an optimist. We all were. I mean take a look at those pictures there. We're all young. JR I think was two years older than I and I think I was two years older than the co-pilot.
MG: So how old were you?
LL: Let's see. I went was twenty one when I went in and I turned what? In 1945 I was twenty-four years old. I did that without a calculator. [laughter]
MG: I know that's amazing.
LL: You want to take a break, get something to eat?
MG: Alright, we'll pick up with that then.
MA: Before you went on your assignments, what were you told about the enemy you would face?
LL: What was I told about the enemy?
LL: Nothing. We were told what we could expect so far as fighters, enemy action. That's about it. I think we all--at that stage we had heard so much about what's going on in the Philippines with the death march and the Battle of Midway and what happened to those guys. [Editor's Note: Mr. Lechner is referring to the Bataan Death March in which American and Filipino POW's from the Philippines were forced to march 65 miles to prisoner camps in intense heat and maltreatment from Japanese guards. The Battle of Midway was a naval battle between American and Japanese navy. It was a decisive victory for the United States and considered a major turning point in war of the Pacific.] We couldn't care less about the Japanese. If you find them, kill them. That's all.
MG: Were you getting updates on the progress of the war while you were in training?
LL: I don't think so. I don't recall being brought into a room and being told "Here's the latest news" or something like that.
MG: Did you know where you were going or where you'd end up in Europe or the Pacific?
LL: No. We had no idea where we were going. We would go in stages, Fort Lauderdale, Florida to British Guiana, British Guiana to Brazil, Brazil to West Africa, West Africa to Sudan, then Sudan to Karachi. These were all the steps and they had our orders written ahead of time.
MG: Were you doing any more maneuvers or were you mostly transporting supplies?
LL: It was a straight flight. The bomb bay was filled with supplies that they needed over there. It was a new plane. They wanted us as quickly as possible. No delays because some of the transfers were delayed because of engine problems or they went a different route, but we were told to get going, don't lag behind. No excuses for not being there on time.
Graham Abbott: Do you think it was a test of you as a group flying together, to send you on this secure route? Did they want to test your navigational skills and the plane, being new?
LL: Yes. I have records of two planes leaving at the same time, ourselves and the other one, but I don't recall them being with us in British Guiana or Brazil or anything like that. In fact I can't remember them at all.
MG: So what were you doing at each stop of the way? What took place? How long were you there?
LL: In and out, as quickly as possible. They didn't need us. We'd refuel, check the plane out. If possible we'd go to the local town, see what's around. When we were going down to South America, we'd try to get as much fruit, pineapples, things like that and we'd load up. Then we'd fly out for twos and threes. [laughter] Then we'd have to throw them overboard. [laughter] We got pineapples from Brazil and they went to West Africa. [laughter]
MG: Can you kind of describe what was on your person. What weapons did you have? Did you have a parachute?
LL: Yes, we had the parachute. I had a backpack. What else did I have? In combat we had what we'd call a flak suit. It was like a mat, but it was supposedly bullet proof. You'd put that around you or else you'd put it on the floor. [It would] protect you from flak, anti-aircraft fire. We were told to make sure we had our combat boots on. Don't make the mistake of taking your shoes off because if you had to parachute and those boots are not laced up, they'll get jerked right off your feet. If you do land in one piece you wouldn't have something to walk on. You wouldn't have to walk far like that, take your shoes off, relax. Sit back, kick your feet off.
MG: How did you feel when you put your uniform on?
LL: How did I feel? Well, the same uniform I put on this morning at breakfast is the same uniform I wore when I got on the plane. It was the same uniform I got thirteen hours later when I got off the plane.
MG: So where did you go after Brazil?
LL: From Brazil we went to West Africa, Accra. After Accra we went to Kano. I think after Accra we went to Kano. From Kano we went to Sudan and after Sudan we went to Karachi, and then from Karachi we went to Chakulia.
MG: What were you doing there?
LL: We were doing nothing. We were just delivering the plane and our bodies. There was nothing to do.
MA: At this point you were in the B-24s?
LL: No, B-29s.
MG: Can you describe the B-29?
LL: A monster, she was big. She was big. She's [[got] four engines. She had two bomb bays, ten man crew, four powerful engines. I got the specs somewhere. It's in that little pile there.
MA: Where on the plane were you, if you could point to that plane up there? Where would you be?
LL: On the right side, right here. [Mr. Lechner points to a model of a B-29. He is pointing to the right side of the chassis of the plane.]
MG: Okay, you were towards the back.
LL: Right here.
MG: What kind of weapon were you in charge of?
LL: What kind of weapons did we have? We had .50 caliber machine guns and it was two mounted up here, two down here, two up here, and the tail gunner had one. [Mr. Lechner is pointing to various points on the model plane] So we had quite a few guns, two, four, six. At any given time I could control them myself or I'd turn the controls over to someone else depending on what the action was.
GA: So you could maneuver the guns from where you were?
LL: Oh yes.
GA: In all positions?
LL: From my position I could take control of these guns, these guns, and these guns depending on what was going on at the time. If I could see a target out here or out there, I know perfectly on that side. I could control these guns, these guns, and these guns. There's massive firepower from six .50 caliber machine guns. That's a lot of firepower.
MG: What were your targets? What were you shooting at?
LL: Enemies, Japanese fighter planes.
MG: Can you describe their tactics, what they were flying in?
LL: They were flying in to get as close as possible to us. That's all and in some cases they would ram you. In fact we had one or two crews get rammed in flight. [The] Japanese just came right at them, just dove right at the plane.
GA: It was Kamikazes.
LL: That's right. Kamikazes, yes.
GA: If you had, say two or three sets of the guns firing at the same time, what was the impact on the plane? Did the plane physically move or was the plane so big that it just absorbed that?
LL: It just absorbed the shots because the housing of the guns was independent of the structure of the plane itself really. There was a set framework because the whole thing was mobile. It could turn 360 degrees.
MA: So did you receive any fighter escorts on your runs?
LL: Excuse me?
MA: Did you receive any fighter escorts?
LL: Not many. We had escorts during the tail end of the war, yes. We had the P-51s out of the Iwo Jima and we used Iwo Jima as an emergency field coming back off the target just in case we needed. [Editor's Note: The P-51 was the American fighter plane used throughout World War II and the Korean War.] A lot of cases you were running short of fuel or you could be shot up. You could have damage.
MG: Where were you when you were encountering those Kamikaze pilots?
LL: In the plane.
MG: No, I mean geographically.
LL: Geographically--we'd get picked up about one hour before we got to Honshu and we'd pick up the fighter pilots over the target and on the way back from the target too. They could follow you right out.
MG: How did you feel after your first combat experience? Did it scare you? What were you going through?
LL: [laughter] I always thought the most dangerous part of the plane was taking off because we're loaded with bombs and anything could happen. These were known as cowl flaps up here and they were opened to vent the heat in the engine, but in doing so you also cut back in your airspeed. In hot weather, being out there, it didn't help.
MG: Yes, I know there were a lot of casualties due to the engines getting overheated.
MG: Did you witness any of that happening or hear about that?
LL: Well we heard about it, but it doesn't make a difference. So long as it didn't happen to you, you were all right. [laughter] You were lucky. We had a good crew. We had a good ground crew that took care of us.
MG: Can you describe what they would do when you would land?
LL: They'd go over the plane with a fine toothed comb, asking us what happened, why we got so many holes in it if we had any holes, were there any oil leaks. If they had done any repairs to one of the engines, how did it work out, was it sufficient. Then we'd clean up the inside of the plane, refuel, rearm, and then get back and get a couple of drinks and go to bed.
GA: Was it an assigned ground crew each time?
GA: Were they only assigned to your plane or a series of planes?
LL: No. We had the same ground crew.
GA: It was just one crew to one plane?
LL: It was one guy named Vic. He was good. Oh boy.
MG: That was in Karachi?
LL: This is in the Marianas now.
MG: So how did you get there? What was your assignment?
LL: Same assignment. In the Marianas?
LL: Okay, that's where we did most of our flying out of. I only did one flight out of Chakulia. That was to Rangoon and back. We went from Chakulia by train to Calcutta. [In] Calcutta we got on a ship and we sailed to Australia, all the way around the horn of Australia, back up into The Marianas, back through Guadalcanal and that area. Then we did most of our flying out of the Marianas. I did twenty-five missions out of the Marianas.
MG: Was that because it was too tricky to fly over the Himalayas?
LL: We didn't have enough planes to fly everybody. We had approximately twelve to fifteen planes per squadron, three squadrons to the group. So when you consider the ground crew, service personal, plus the air personal, plus all the equipment you had to take; there was just no way you could fly them over, all of us.
GA: So one plane had many different flight crews?
LL: Well they could be assigned. We were assigned to one plane.
GA: Were there any other flight crews assigned to that plane as well or was it just you exclusively?
LL: Just us, yes. We had exclusive use of that plane.
MG: This may sound like a silly question, but did you sort of develop a relationship with the plane?
LL: Did we like the plane that much? Yes. Did we talk to it? Yes. [laughter]
MG: Did you have any sort of rituals or things you'd do for good luck?
LL: Yes. I had one jacket I used to wear all the time. It's inside here.
MA: Did you paint decals on the plane?
MG: Something on the outside of the plane.
LL: Oh, did we have something on the nose? Yes, I think. It's here somewhere. [Mr. Lechner is pulling out a photograph of the plane.]
LL: No. It's here somewhere. Let me see this.
GA: Did you have a name for the plan?
LL: Yes, The Song of India was our plane.
GA: Song of India.
GA: Named after the tune?
MG: How did it get that name?
LL: Song of India? Well we couldn't think of anything else to call it.
GA: I'm sure you could.
LL: Yes, but we were a little reluctant to put anymore naked women on the nose. I think in a lot of places they thought it was bad luck.
MG: What, to put a woman on the plane?
MG: How come?
LL: I don't know. They just thought it was bad luck that's all.
MG: What kind of encounters were you having with the communities and the people in the places where you were?
LL: We had nothing, no communication. I'm talking about overseas.
LL: No, nothing.
MG: You didn't go into the villages?
LL: They didn't recommend it, especially in West Africa. We stopped and we went down to the beach. We spent the day at the beach. It was a beautiful day.
MA: What about in India? Were you in contact with the people there?
LL: I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you.
MA: Were you in contact with people in India.
LL: Did we contact people in India?
MA: Were there any other places where you had contact with the people?
LL: No. This is a side view of it.
MG: This is a picture of your plane.
MG: Now there is a picture, it looks like a snake charmer.
LL: That's right.
MG: Who put that on there?
LL: Oh one of the ground crew painted it on for us.
MG: What's the significance of that?
LL: I don't think anyone wanted to put some gals on there.
MG: Now let's talk about the trip down through Australia.
MG: What was it like to be on a ship now?
LL: There were two ships. We had another one, the same size, same speed. They were very fast. We had two escort destroyers. They weren't big destroyers. They were escorts. They maintained safety for u, and it was a long, long voyage. Oh God it was so long. With wars going on around us, we're here on this cruise. [laughter] Really, we were, just sit back. Dave Leon, our engineer, he loved to play bridge, but no one in the crew knew how to play bridge. So he decided to teach us. That's what we did. We learned to play bridge up on deck from seven o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock at night. That's where we spent our time.
MG: How long were you on that trip?
LL: Good question, for a long time. Let's see. We left there in about January. January in India and we got onto the Marianas in April or May.
MG: This is 1945?
MG: I meant to ask when you first went overseas, what the date was then?
LL: When we left Fort Lauderdale, Florida? I've got that here somewhere, the copy of the orders. That's what we looked like in October of '45 after we come home. That's me,\ and that's the tail gunner.
MG: Who are those girls?
LL: That's his wife and cousin. I forgot what the question was.
MG: When did you leave Fort Lauderdale?
LL: That's right. I thought that was in either late October or early November of '44.
MG: So just tell me some anecdotes or memories you have of what you call the cruise? Were you with anybody in the US Navy?
LL: Oh no. They had a gun crew on board. That's about all. The rest of them must have been a Marine battalion or a company, but that's about all. We didn't get to see them or talk to them.
MG: What were they taking you down there for? Where were you headed?
LL: Oh, we didn't know where we were going. That's a fact. We didn't. We had no clue where we were going. The people we left back in Chakulia, they knew where we were going. They were gone. We didn't [know]. They knew they were going to fly over the hump into the Philippines and then from the Philippines they were going to go to the Marianas. We didn't have a clue.
MG: So were you stationed in Melbourne for a while?
LL: Oh no. We just stopped in Melbourne to refuel and stretch our legs a little.
MG: I hear you have a Melbourne story to tell.
LL: Well just as we get of--the beer in Melbourne just comes in like that. You don't get a glass, you get a liter or two. [laughter] As we're going by the shops, I looked in the butcher window,0 and I see all these dressed--look like chickens. I said, "Gee, look at all the chickens they have here." He says, "That's not chicken, that's rabbit." [laughter] Oh, my God.
MG: Was it a little bit of a culture shock?
LL: No, not so much. After leaving India, it was a pleasure to see somebody else besides, as we used to say the natives.
MG: Were you keeping in touch with your family back home?
LL: I was writing, yes. The mail wasn't too bad out there in the Marianas. We were only about a four or five hour flight out of Hawaii. So they can get the mail from the West Coast to Hawaii, then from Hawaii out to us. It was very good.
MG: Then when did you head to the Marianas?
LL: Right after we left Melbourne.
LL: We went up through--I guess it was Guadalcanal. We just sailed right through Guadalcanal and I remember laying at anchor there that night. It was the most impressive sight I have ever seen. As far as the eye could see were ships, ships and more ships. I mean a flotilla that you couldn't believe. Everybody was practicing their stuff at night. We stopped off at one other point at Australia too. I can't think of the name of the point though now. They were moving a couple hundred Australian soldiers up the coast. They jumped on our shipped, we gave them a lift up, and from Guadalcanal we went straight up into the Marianas, to Tinian. Yes.
GA: How long of a cruise was that?
LL: Well, I'd say we left Calcutta in about late January of '45. We didn't get up to the Marianas until April.
LL: So January, February, March, April, we were going four and a half months.
MG: Were you mostly onboard ship?
MG: So what were you doing to pass the time?
LL: Play cards, KP [Kitchen Police], maintenance of the ship. There was chipping paint, keep you busy, oh yes.
MG: Did you learn to play bridge?
LL: Yes. Not too well though. [laughter]
MG: Were you still smoking?
LL: At that time, oh yes, like a chimney. [laughter]
MA: Did you ever get seasick on the boat?
LL: No I didn't. Actually I didn't. I don't know why I didn't, but I didn't.
GA: Was it a U.S boat? Was it an American boat?
LL: Oh yes. They were American.
MG: How big of a boat was it?
LL: Pretty big, she's about seven or eight hatches.
LL: She was pretty good size, about seven, eight hundred feet.
MG: Were you vulnerable to enemy attack being in this big flotilla?
LL: Oh sure.
MG: So were there any close calls?
LL: No, not that we know of. They wouldn't tell us anyway. What's the point?
GA: So no relevance.
MG: So talk to me about arriving in the Marianas and your duties there.
LL: We are arrived in the Marianas and the duty there that day was to get the land cleared of all the sugar cane and get some tents put up so we could get some sleep. That's what it was all about. Then find out what we're assigned to do. We had classes. Not that they were relevant, but we had them and just wait for the postings to see whether we're going up on a mission or not.
MG: What kind of classes were you taking?
LL: Gunnery classes, photo identification, and if need be, updates on maintenance.
MG: Did you discover that you had any life experiences prior to war that served you well in the war.
LL: I'm sorry say again.
MG: Did you have any life experiences that helped prepare you for your experience in World War II?
LL: No, absolutely nothing, wholly unprepared. [laughter] No, there was nothing to prepare you for the Army or the Air Force. Absolutely nothing, it's a whole new world.
MG: What do you wish you had known before going in?
LL: My senator or someone else to get me posted somewhere else. [laughter]
MG: Did you have a sense that the war was winding down at this point?
LL: Yes. In late July, July of '45 it was, yes definitely. When we joined it was to the point where--remember I told you about the lad that was killed down in Oklahoma?
LL: There's a name there too. This is the list of the people who graduated from the gunnery school.
MG: In Fort Myers.
LL: Yes. This one, see that young man? Well he was out in Oklahoma. He had an 8mm camera with him and he used to sit up on the nose of the plane and take some fantastic movies, oh God. But I lost touch with him after we left Oklahoma. I never did find him again. This is a picture of Tinian. I was looking for something else here for you.
GA: When you got to Tinian was the airstrip already commissioned?
LL: I think they may have had one or two. I think Saipan was, not Saipan.
LL: Saipan rather. Saipan was better equipped because the Japanese had an airstrip there.
GA: And they [the Allied soldiers] took that over.
LL: They took it right over.
MA: Towards the end of your bombing runs in '45, did you ever meet any resistance as you did before?
LL: I'm sorry, again?
MA: What was the resistance like in '45?
LL: The resistance?
LL: There was little to no resistance. In fact they were telling the Japanese what cities they were going to bomb twenty four hours ahead of time.
MG: You weren't finding that the Japanese were becoming more desperate in their attacks?
LL: Oh, yes.
MG: So what was happening?
LL: They were doing more ramming.
MG: More Kamikaze attacks?
LL: More Kamikaze attacks in flight.
MG: Would that make you nervous when you'd go out on missions?
LL: Sure it did. [laughter]
MG: So talk to us about some of the mission you went on out of the Marianas.
MG: What assignments did you have?
LL: What assignments did I have?
MG: Yes, what were your missions? What did they consist of?
LL: You mean individually?
MG: Individually or as a group, what were you doing there?
LL: Well, as a gunner we're just there to protect the ship.
GA: Where were your bombing runs to?
LL: Oh, of course they were various, you know that. What I'm looking for is the list of targets for Molly.
MG: Do you want this other one?
LL: Yes, please.
MG: The first one or one of these other ones from the pile?
LL: The other ones. Thank you.
MG: Do you want me to take anything from you?
LL: Not right now, no. [laughter]
MG: What are you reading?
LL: This is from the pilot, just to me.
LL: Yes JR.
MG: Do you want me to read it?
LL: You can read it if you want.
MG: So this is an email that was sent in 2003 from JR, your pilot. He says "Hi Lou, got your message and have been meaning to answer, but just seemed to fall short until now. You ask about the last mission. Do you mean the mission which we flew as show of strength, the day before the armistice was signed by the Japanese aboard the battleship Missouri in the Tokyo Bay? Or are you referring to the last true bombing mission which we flew? I can tell something about the former, but I have very little about the last true combat mission, except the place which was bombed. I do remember that on the last bombing mission we flew as deputy lead to Major McGregor's crew. I do not remember anything about the mission which was canceled at the last minute. I suppose that I could write something about one mission which stands out it in my memory. Hey, it sounds as though you are going to do a short biography of your life the easy way."
MG: "That is by having others to write portions of it for you. However, I will be happy to accommodate you to the best of my ability. Please let me know the answers to my questions. I am going to the Czech Republic in Europe next week to attend the Annual Reunion of the Czech Pilots of World War II" or WW eleven.
MG: "When we were in that country in 2000, I met the people who honcho this reunion and I was invited to attend that year. However, we had come home the first of July and the reunion was held late in August. I've been invited to attend each year since so I am taking advantage of the opportunity this year. These pilots are those men who were able to get out of what was then Czechoslovakia and went to the United Kingdom and flew for the Royal Air Force. I am looking forward to meeting these men and hearing some of their war stories. My maternal grandmother came from the southern portion of what is now the Czech Republic where the reunion is held. I assume that I'll have answers to my questions by the time that I return and will attempt to respond without too much delay. You folks stay well. Best regards, John R. Elliot."
LL: This is the flight record as an individual. It shows you the target, the plane, and how many hours [in the air].
MG: So give me some examples.
LL: Okay. Here we go.
MG: Yes, you're welcome to come around.
LL: There's something else that's even better than that. Okay, this is June of '45. First flight was fourteen hours and fifty five minutes. That's seven hours up, seven hours back; say fifty five minutes over the target.
GA: Right and where was the target?
LL: I got to go to another book. [laughter] I've got them all listed.
MG: Can you remember some of the targets?
LL: Vaguely. I remember Osaka particularly because we did such a bad approach to it that we turned around and went back, did it a second time. It was on the tenth of the month, we did fifteen hours. Nineteenth of the month we did a training flight. Twentieth of the month we did another fourteen hours, fourteen fifty-five.
MG: If I was on that plane, I'd have to take several bathroom breaks. I would need lots of snacks. So how are you kind of getting through those fundamentals?
LL: You hope you had a large bladder. Essentially you'd stay awake. We'd take Benadryl, bennies, and we'd pop those once in a while. You eat anything that you could take with you. We had food with us.
GA: They gave you supplies before you took off?
LL: They gave us supplies. They used to make chicken sandwiches for us. The bread was that thick.
MG: Are you sure they weren't rabbit sandwiches?
LL: Oh jeez. [laughter] I'm telling you, it'd take you all day just to chew one sandwich. I'm looking for the other one. Let's see.
GA: The plane has an ID number. What was your plane ID?
LL: Oh, well we had number fifty on the side, number five zero and the marking on the tail showed the squadron of the group. That varied from month to month it seems. I lost track of it after a while.
MG: So did JR get back to you about the last couple missions you were on?
LL: Oh, yes. We talked about it quite a bit. There was such a thing called honor flights. Have you heard about them? [Editor's Note: Honor flights refer to flights given to veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War so that these veterans can visit memorials built in their honor.]
LL: Oh, you do? JR took one of those honor flights down in Washington and my son; we went down and meet him. We had quite a day there. They had us on television for about two or three minutes. [laughter] It was an interesting day and we talked about a couple of things. He talked to me about being "take it down Lou", and I said, "What the hell is that, take it down Lou?" "You don't remember that?" I said "Vaguely, why?" He says, "You don't remember shouting into your microphone 'Take it down, take it down.'" I said "No."
MG: So that was your nickname.
LL: Yes, take it down Lou. Apparently there was a plane coming down on our right side, right over us. I looked out and I could see this damn thing coming down the side. I said, "We're going to have a crash." That's what I screamed in the mic. "Take it down, take it down" and he took it down, dropped it down just like that. This is an example of what I said about Allison being the best navigator. This is his log for a flight to Nagoya.
MG: How would you describe it for those who can't see this?
LL: He'd tell you the time he left Westfield, at this position and then he has these notes on the side, the remarks. He's talking about here a flak burst over the engine. "Search lights left of the approach, search lights right of the approach to the coast. Twin engine fighter in target area." Fires burning in target area intensely. Circling ground storms, we had some bad weather. There's another book I want to get to.
MG: The one on the bottom here?
LL: I think so. Let me try that one.
MG: Do you want me to take these off your lap? You've got a lot going on there.
MG: You've got some other things.
LL: I can identify the target and the date and the amount of time.
GA: Where did you get these records from? Did you copy them when you were there in Tinian?
GA: Okay and you carried those with you.
LL: Yes. I've got mine somewhere, but this is JR's. It's basically the same as mine.
MG: So we have the date. We have the ship number.
LL: Right and the target.
MG: So what are some of your examples of targets here? Can you read some of those?
LL: Oshima, Nagoya, Hamamatsu, Tokyo--JR made two Tokyo runs back to back believe it or not.
LL: We didn't even know he had gone until he came back. Then he says, "We're going to Tokyo." I said, "Is that right?" He said, "I know how it is, I've been there before." He was smart.
MG: And you have your flying hours.
LL: That's combined. So they tack his on so I could do the same thing by going back to the other book.
MG: Now what's this column here?
LL: It says months on duty. Oh, that's meaningless. What's more important is the N and D, nighttime and daytime. I'm surprised my records aren't here somewhere. Maybe I put it in another book.
MG: When you went on your last mission, did you know it was your last mission?
LL: Yes. We thought that mission might have been called off because they were waiting for Japan to sign the
MG: Peace treaty?
LL: Yes, the peace treaties. But we never got the signal so we dropped the bombs and turned and came back. We come back to the Tinian and everybody was drunk. [laughter] They never told us.
MG: Where were you during the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima?
LL: That was August the 6th. [Editor's Note: The bombing of Hiroshima was on August 6 and the bombing of Nagasaki was on August 9, 1945.]
MG: So that took place after your last mission?
MG: But you had a feeling something was coming? Why were you celebrating?
LL: Because we took on our last mission. They told us that they may send us a signal, a coded signal telling us, "Don't bomb it, the war's over and then come on back." We never got that. See, 26 of May. We got back that August. August the ninth we flew to Fukuyama and on the fourteenth five days later--it was in between those.
MG: You were still doing bombing missions?
MA: I don't know if you could remember this off the top of your head, but how many missions did you and your crew complete.
LL: How many missions we finished?
MG: How many missions?
MG: What were some memorable ones out of those twenty-five?
LL: Oh, Tokyo would be the biggest one I think because it was just one big firestorm. That was sixteen hours. That was a long one.
GA: Did you know how many other planes were flying with you during these missions? Did you have any idea of that?
LL: I wouldn't know, no.
GA: You just had your orders and that was it.
LL: That's it, yes. I'm trying to figure out something. Something's bothering me here. Oh, here it is, right here. Oh, that was back in May he [JR Eliot] did that.
MG: What are you referring to?
LL: I'm referring to the one [where] he had gone to Tokyo back to back. On May the 24th and he went back again on the 26th and we went out on the 26th with him.
MG: Yes. This is JR?
LL: JR, yes.
GA: So he flew sixteen hours, had a day's break, and then flew another sixteen hours?
LL: Just about. That's right, exactly right.
MG: He flew with a different crew the first time?
GA: Why would that have been?
LL: I think they were just getting him acclimated. This was May. We just got there in April.
GA: Could that have been a crew that had flown there before, the actual crew?
LL: Yes, that's right.
GA: So they're just training the pilots?
LL: Yes. He wasn't too happy with it. I can tell you that. He was used to his own crew.
MG: What kind of qualities do you have to have to be a good gunner on board?
LL: Stupid. Just no brains up here at all. [laughter]
MG: Why do you say that?
LL: Well they didn't think we were necessary after a while.
MG: I sort of thought you were the unsung heroes of World War II.
LL: Yes somewhat. LeMay didn't think we were important. He decided to take the guns and the men away.
MG: For the record could you explain who that is?
LL: General LeMay was the commanding general of the 21st Air Force. We were the 20th, then when we went to the Tinian and became the 21st. That's when they brought LeMay over from Europe and brought him into the Far East and he decided they were going to do things differently. He did. He decided he could put more bombs on the plane, get rid of the men and the guns.
GA: It leaves the plane unprotected.
LL: That's right, but it didn't make any difference. It's the percentages all over again. They did stupid things over with the 8th Air Force in England, same thing. They sent out forty planes, all lost. They lost 400 men.
MG: What was that feeling when you came back on the ground from your last mission?
MG: How did that feel?
LL: Great. Then we decided how can we get out of her in a hurry? We put up with this nonsense long enough. We were flying quite a bit. It was just flying, come back, take a shower, take a drink, go to sleep, get up again, eat, go break out the line, get on the plane, go fly again. It gets you. I'm serious.
GA: What were you sleeping on physically?
LL: Oh, we had a cot and an air mattress.
GA: Under canvas?
MG: Maybe describe the conditions, sleeping, eating?
LL: [It was] cramped and the worst part is the tent leaks and you get wet and your clothes get wet and the bedding gets wet. You know that. [laughter]
GA: I do know that.
MG: Can you talk about the war ending and when you got the news and how you got the news and how that happened?
LL: Like I said, on that final mission we came back and they said, "The war's over. Park your plane" and that's it. You get back in your tent and get a drink if you had it. That's it. Pick up your things the next day and that's all. A lot of celebrating was going on, but what the hell. It's all personal. Just question then how many points did you have to get home and how soon could you get there.
MG: So how many points did you have? Were you close?
LL: Oh, I had the points. We loaded up the plane, most of our crew, and then we had about ten or twelve other guys that got on the plane with us. They had points so we'd fly them back. We stopped at Eniwetok to refuel. Then from Eniwetok we flew to Hawaii and from Hawaii to California. Eniwetok was halfway between Tinian and Hawaii. We needed to refuel and to top off our gas tanks for flight to Hawaii.
MG: Do you remember when the atom bombs were dropped?
LL: Do I remember? No.
MG: Were you told that had happened?
LL: I don't recall.
MG: Do you have any questions?
MG: Thank you.
--------------------------------------------END OF INTERVIEW--------------------------------------------
Reviewed by Mohammad Athar 2/4/2014
Reviewed by Molly Graham 3/6/2015