Kurt Piehler: This begins an interview with Mr. Robert W. Billian on February 2, 1995 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick with Kurt Piehler and...
Kelly Martin: Kelly Martin.
KP: I guess, I'd like to begin by asking a few questions about your parents and the community you grew up in, Bound Brook. Your father was born in Bound Brook.
Robert Billian: That's right.
KP: And, were his parents also born in Bound Brook, or, how strong are your roots in Bound Brook?
RB: Well, my grandfather came to Bound Brook from (Baden-Baden?) Germany with a brief period up in Doylestown PA. Then, they moved to Bound Brook, somewhere around 1880, and they got established in Bound Brook, and passed away in Bound Brook. ... My father was born in Bound Brook and he passed away in Bound Brook.
KP: And, you continue to live in Bound Brook?
RB: Right, I'm in the old family mansion now.
KP: Your father was an electrician?
RB: That's right, an electrical contractor.
KP: How did he choose that occupation?
RB: I don't really know how he, or why he chose it, but, I guess, after he got out of high school, ... I would think, he ... had a curious brain, and, you know, electricity in those early, at the turn of the century, ... it was like we're going into the computer age today. So, I think he kind of took up the challenge of electricity and that's how he ended up being an electrical contractor.
KP: How big was his business?
RB: Oh, it was just, he had several, I would think probably at the top, he maybe had five people working for him, wiring houses.
KP: So, he would wire houses for the first people to get electricity on a block?
RB: That's right.
KP: Did he have any regrets about not going to college, or pursuing a career in electrical engineering, or was he very happy with his decision?
RB: I don't really know because he ended up in the research lab at Deal Manufacturing. ... At the time of his death, the people at ... Deal who attended the funeral, said they considered him to be a rare find because he had the practical aspect of it, and he also had the curiousness of the way things were developing up there. So, it was kind of a balance, which I think he fit it pretty well with.
KP: So, your father moved from electrical contracting to ...
RB: Working at Deal Manufacturing.
KP: Working for a research laboratory?
RB: Well, he was in the research section of Deal Manufacturing. They were the electrical branch of Singer Manufacturing.
KP: Why did your father make that transition from being his own boss to working for Deal?
RB: Well, the war came on and, I guess, he wanted to get into defense works, since, well, he ended up with three sons in the military at that time...
KP: So, he wanted to contribute?
RB: I think so, yes.
KP: How did the Great Depression affect your father's business?
RB: ... Actually, he had sold the business before the Depression, but then, started up again on his own. And, things were pretty slow and it came down to when housing came to a halt, so to speak, he ended up doing appliance repair and things like that. So, it was pretty slow.
KP: Did you feel the effects of the Depression?
RB: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. In fact, even though we owned a fair amount of real estate in Bound Brook, the house that we were actually living in, we lost. And, we had to move into one of our rental buildings for a period of time. And then, we made the transition back into one of the houses he owned. ... Yes, we caught the...
KP: Your father didn't serve in World War I. Was he too old, too young?
RB: I think it was a case of being towards the top bracket of the draft and then, the fact that he was married with children. I believe he said ... he was coming up to a point where his category would be the next to get called up.
KP: Your father was second generation German. How did he feel about Germany, German society, and culture during the Twenties and Thirties? Do you have any memories?
RB: Yes, when I was a kid, he would, not a lot, ... but, he would go with some German friends, go to a German restaurant called (Scwabeschall?), which is up in the Martinsville area in Bridgewater. ... Naturally, I was too young to go out with him, but, they seemed to always enjoy themselves in the German environment.
KP: Would he speak German?
RB: No, he didn't.
KP: So, you never spoke German in the household?
KP: Did your father ever talk about World War I?
RB: Well, actually, no, because ... he was not directly involved with the military.
KP: He met your mother, in fact, married your mother, just shortly before the war broke out. Do you know how they met?
RB: I don't know how the thing started but, I know that she was living in New York, in the Bronx, which was farmland at the time. ... They used to kid about how he was competing with this fellow from New York City and ... how he ... was dating my mother and there was some kind of a falling out. ... I think it was because of the competition. Then, my aunt, who had met her, invited her out for dinner and had a friend that they wanted to introduce her to. And, of course, it was the patch-up situation ... between my mother and my father. [laughter] So, that's how they got going, that's how they eventually ended up getting engaged and married.
KP: Do you know how they met for the first time, because it is some distance from Bound Brook to the Bronx?
RB: I have no idea. ...
KP: Your mother was a secretary. Was that before she was married?
RB: Yes, and it was in Wurlitzer, ... eventually turned into Wurlitzer, but, I think it was Baldwin Pianos and that's where she worked.
KP: When she got married, did she continue to work?
RB: No, she moved to Jersey ... and had a family.
KP: You've lived in Bound Brook a long time. How has Bound Brook changed since the days when you were growing up, when you were in your twenties and thirties? What sticks out in your mind about the changes, and what has stayed the same?
RB: New Jersey, at that time, was a bunch of small communities separated by open land, and now, ... one town runs right into the next. And, the biggest thing which I see, and, of course, I feel it's unfortunate, ... all the mountains or the hills, whatever you want to call them, behind Bound Brook, where they had an occasional house here and there. And so, it gave us a great opportunity as Boy Scouts, or kids, to go up and hike and camp up there. It was like being out it the middle of nowhere. And, today, if you did that, you'd be camping on somebody's front lawn, you know. [laughter] So, ... it's really ... wall to wall houses up there now.
KP: So, you remember growing up in Bound Brook as a very distinct community, because there was this sprawl you sort of knew everyone in the community?
RB: Oh yes. Especially since my dad was in business there, we knew a lot of people.
KP: You went to Bound Brook schools. Did you know you were going to college? At what point, did you know you were going to college?
RB: It was interesting, because I had always been interested in flying and this rubbed off. I had an older brother who use to make model airplanes. When I saw those airplanes, I said, "Hey, I want to fly them." From so high, you know. ... So, when I got out of high school, I did apply for the academies. Of course, about that time, the war broke out. So, I figured this would be a shortcut to learn to fly. And so, I just enlisted in the Aviation Cadet flying program. ...
KP: You wanted to be a pilot more than you wanted to go to college?
RB: Yes, well, that was the idea, and then, when the war was over, I was an officer, I had my wings, ... you know. The Air Force looked very glamorous ... to me, but, I was told, in so many words, "You better go to college and, if after college you want to go back to flying, you can." So, my parents came down on me, ... at that time, I was still, what, twenty-one, or two. And, ... it sounds old today, to be having your parents telling you what to do, but, you listened. [laughter]
KP: So, you were glad you followed their advice?
RB: Oh, absolutely, because it gave me ... one of the requirements T.W.A. required, to have a college degree.
KP: Were you old enough to remember Lindbergh's solo flight?
RB: No, not really, because I think he went across in '27, which would've made me three years old.
KP: Where did you get your inspiration to fly? Did you read magazines and books on flight or did you go to Newark Airport at all?
RB: Not Newark, we had an airport called Hadley Airport, which is where the South Plainfield shopping mall is. ... As a matter of fact, I had a good buddy, and, of course, again, with the Depression being what it was, my friend had a bicycle and we use to pump down to Hadley Airport from Bound Brook, which is about five or six miles, on one bicycle. I'd be on the bar and when he got tired of pumping, I'd cross the bar and pump for a while and we'd go down and watch the airplanes. ... Of course, the more we watched them, the more interesting they got. ... He, eventually, joined the Navy Air Force and, of course, I joined the Army Air Force. But, Hadley Airport, which holds its place in history as one of the early air mail airports. I love history as well.
KP: The people you grew up with, your classmates, what did most of their fathers and mothers do in Bound Brook, growing up?
RB: ... The town definitely was kind of divided. We had a large Italian element on the west end of town and on the ... northern section, if I'm ... allowed to say the term, WASP. Where we lived was kind of an in between, and so, the western part of the town, they were blue collar workers, worked in the Willow Mill, American Cyanimite, Bakelite, as Union Carbite was called at that time. ... The people, as we use to kid about, they lived on the hill, a lot of those were commuters to New York, for the banking and the Wall Street area.
KP: The division in the community, how would that be reflected in, say, the high school. With the sons and daughters of the bankers, was there an expectation that they would go to college?
RB: Oh yes, in fact, at that time, in high school you had the college prep courses, the scientific courses, and the commercial. There was basically three categories, and most of the people, ... the sons and daughters of the west end, ... took commercial courses. ... Even though I had no idea and didn't even think I could afford it, in fact, I couldn't have, prior to the war, I took college prep anyway, because I did have an older brother who was going to the University of Pennsylvania. There was always that hope that I would go to college.
KP: Your older brother went to the University of Pennsylvania. How was he able to do that? Did he win a scholarship, or did your parents have savings?
RB: No, my dad borrowed some money and that got him going. ... Then, when he did go, he worked ... different jobs on campus and they also had, I believe it was the Tribune or The Times newspaper concession, and he would go around early in the morning delivering newspapers to the ... different sororities and fraternities.
KP: So, your brother literally worked his way through college?
RB: Exactly, yes.
KP: Did your family go to church in Bound Brook, when you were growing up?
RB: Oh, yes.
KP: Which denomination did you follow?
RB: ... When I was very young, ... I would think up to about the age of eight or nine, we went to the Presbyterian church and we were baptized there. Somewhere along the line, my older brothers got involved in singing in the choir in the Episcopal church. ... I don't recall how we made the transition from Presbyterians to Episcopals but, we did. [laughter] And, it's funny, I still am a member of the Episcopal church, whereas my older brother has gone back to Presbyterian, or one of the other denominations. He lives out in Fort Wayne, so I can't tell you exactly what denomination he is.
KP: You mentioned that you used to go camping, that, in fact, you were a Boy Scout.
RB: Oh yes.
KP: What rank did you finally achieve?
RB: Eagle, which, incidentally, became very helpful in my flight training, because I learned code, both visually and orally, which we needed in the Army Air Force and survival at the time. You know, we had to go through all these, what do you call it, oh I've forgotten the name, some Oriental route that was a survival type thing in basic ... all the things we learned in Boy Scouts surely helped.
KP: Did you realize, when you were in Boy Scouts, that this would be so useful?
RB: Well, when I got the oral and visual code, ... I knew a little about flying at that time. I knew they were following the light lines and, of course, you had to have code on the radio, because it wasn't all voice transmission at that time. So, it sparked an interest in those things.
KP: Did you go to any of the jamborees, the Washington Jamboree, the National Jamboree?
RB: Yes, I went to one Washington Jamboree with my Sunday School teacher. He took me down. ... I think it was somewhere around the mid-Thirties.
KM: You had mentioned your one friend, he did not enlist in the Army Air Force, he enlisted in the other branch. Did you have any friends that did enlist with you?
RB: No, in fact, this fellow who did enlist in the Navy, we both went down and started the papers in the Navy Air Force, and we were both eighteen at the time. ... His dad had been a Marine, so he really shoved him into the Navy aspect of it, [laughter] where as, when I came home, I said to my dad, "I need your signature to get in the military." He said, "Well, I'll give it to you. ... [Do you] really want to do this?" So, the more I thought of it, and about that time, believe it or not, I was out of high school now, I saw this ad for Pre-Aviation training at Rutgers University. ... I signed up for it and came down here. I don't know how many months I spent taking courses preparing you so that when you did go to flight school, you'd be better equipped and, of course, also better equipped to get accepted. So, my friend went off and got called up in the Navy and then, about that time, after I completed these things, I finished up enlisting in the Army Cadet program.
KP: So, this program that was offered at Rutgers, was this offered by the university or was it offered by the Army Air Force?
RB: I think it was a joint effort.
KP: A joint effort.
KP: In the program, were you treated as a civilian?
RB: No, it was strictly volunteer. You walked off the street and signed up for it.
KP: And, you didn't wear a uniform?
RB: Oh no, ... it was kind of like a familiarization course.
KP: And, it focused on aviation?
RB: Oh yes.
KP: Was it all classroom instruction?
KP: You indicate that it was very helpful to you.
RB: Oh, well, it was. I had taken college prep physics and chemistry in high school and we did get a fair amount of physics ... all through our flight training, for navigation purposes, and understanding the theory of flight, and all things along the airplanes. So, yes, it was ... like another layer on your technical training in high school.
KP: I didn't mean to cut you off. You enlisted, you were looking to enlist, you and your friend, when you were eighteen. How common was that? Did a lot of people in your high school just wait, in a sense, for their number to be called?
RB: I think a fair percentage waited to be drafted. Even though I did enlist, I think it was December 2 of '42, I got out of high school in June of 42, I took the course. ... In the meantime, I went to work doing defense work, waiting, because there was a delay in the call up. And, I, too, worked at Deal for a while. But, they put me on a night shift, which was six to six, and I could feel myself, even at that age, falling apart, you know. ... So, I left there and I went to work across the street, here at Johnson and Johnson. ... Again, with the imagination of youth, I was going to be Jack Armstrong, building up my muscles for the Army. So, I got a job in the shipping department and, unfortunately, somewhere along the line, I was working and a skid let go. I ruptured myself. And so, ... J&J sent me up to be examined by the doctor, they said, "Oh, you don't have to go to the Army." I said, "I'm already in. I'm sorry." [laughter] They looked at me, "What are you doing at J&J?" you know. And so, they immediately operated on me. ... Like these things happen, the minute I went into the hospital, the report orders came in. So, my dad had to call the Army and tell them what was going on. ... I was operated [on] in what's now Robert Wood, but, it was Middlesex Hospital at the time. And, they even came up, ... much to my surprise, this Major came in and kind of read the Riot Act to me. ... Walked over to the bed and pulled the blankets down, to see whether I actually had the operation.
KP: So, they thought that you might be pulling a fast one over on the Army?
RB: Yes, exactly, and after he left I, you know, even at that age, I was kind of a little upset. You know, here I enlisted, and they come up and treat me like I'm trying to get away from the whole thing. But then, the next go around, it was in April. They called me up and I was still hurting, but I'm dragging barracks bags around anyway...
KP: In growing up in the late Thirties, how much would you keep track of world events? Did you read the newspaper regularly, growing up?
RB: No, WOR which is still around, we used to listen to the news on WOR, pretty much. And, it was a family thing, we'd all listen to Lowell Thomas, as a matter a fact, on WOR. Every night, I believe it was a quarter to seven, he was on for fifteen minutes. And so, that's basically where we got the news from.
KP: From Lowell Thomas?
KP: I remember listening, in fact, in the Seventies, to Lowell Thomas on WOR. My father use to listen to it regularly. When did you think the United States would get into war, in the Thirties and early Forties, or did you even give it much thought?
RB: I'll tell you what, at the time, Roosevelt kept saying, "I'm not going to take you into the war," you know, "We're not going to take you into the war." And, depending on who you're going to believe, all this time, Roosevelt was maneuvering to get us into the war. ... So, when the Japanese attacked, there was no doubt as to what was going to happen. In fact, my mother tells a story that we had good neighbors on the other end of the block, who also had three sons, and, the mothers met out behind the house and said, "You realize what this is going to do. Our sons are going to go to war." So, it was an upsetting deal for parents.
KP: So, your parents were upset?
RB: Oh yes.
KP: They would have probably preferred if you could've avoided serving?
RB: Oh, ... well, my dad, even though he hadn't serve in the military, he knew ... what was in store for us.
KP: What did your father and mother think of Roosevelt, ... I see a smile. [laughter]
RB: Well, being the fact that my father was always an entrepreneur in his own business and so forth, some of these, I don't know if it would be fair to say socialistic programs that he came in with, they didn't sit well, with him. They figured, you ought to go out and work eight hours and get eight hours pay and not have somebody hand things to you. So, they were not too impressed with him.
KP: What did you think of him? Did you share your parents attitude?
RB: Well, you can't help but have some of these things rub off. ... I remember, right after the war, my uncle, who had to leave high school because his family got hit hard in the Depression, too. He ended up going out of high school and ended up being the president of Wurlitzer Corporation. And so, I came back from World War II, ... about two years ... no, not even about six months after I came home and, my dad died of a heart attack. My uncle invited us ... my mother and me, in for a party in his home out on Long Island. ... Needless to say, as president of Wurlitzer, he had done very well for himself. He had a nice home and a big party room. It was funny, ... after being in the war and so forth, we went down there and, of course, I was one of the youngest men. He goes, "What are you drinking?" I said, "Well, I'll have a Manhattan." ... I guess I was about twenty-three now. So, he turns to my mother, "Is it O.K. for him to have a drink?" [laughter] But, the point of the story is, on his wall, he had a picture of Roosevelt. Framed with a toilet seat. So, needless to say, he didn't have good things to say about the gentleman. [laughter]
KP: You worked for a time in a defense factory, before going to J&J. What was is like working at Deal, and on the graveyard shift? Your father also worked there.
RB: Well, my dad was not on that shift.
KP: Right, but you were?
RB: Oh yes.
KP: Were people leaving constantly to go off to war at that point?
RB: No, because, by that time, most of the men had gone to war. As a recent graduate out of high school. The whole work force consisted of mostly women, with a few married, you know, older married men around.
KP: The women who worked there, were mostly young or did they range in ages?
RB: They were ... I would say, middle age on down, and a tough bunch of cookies. [laughter]
KP: When you say tough, in what way?
RB: They spoke with a ... language, and, of course, as a naive young kid right out of high school, there were words, there were words if I hear today, I've never heard before.
KP: Was it even more surprising that they were women, using this language?
RB: Oh yes, well, ... we were raised to think, well, men are gentlemen and women are ladies. And, to hear these ladies using this language, it was eye opening to say the least.
KP: Most of the women who were there, were their husbands in the service?
RB: I think most of them were, and, of course, I worked days for about three months, until I learned, we were winding coils for electric motors, and then we went to this graveyard shift. So, after that, there was only a handful of us that worked the all night shift. And, there were, in our immediate section, maybe five young fellows. So, we didn't see the women that much.
KP: In the evening?
KP: Your career took you way out of the factory, especially as a pilot, but, do you have any memories of working in a factory that stick in your mind?
RB: Well, just that, I think the biggest thing, in Deal anyway, was the crude language. [laughter] That just shook the devil out of me. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
KP: Where were most of the women from?
RB: I'll tell you, it was from Bound Brook East, I think, to Elizabeth, because Deal had opened up as an outshoot of Singer Manufacturing. And so, a lot of them came in by train from Elizabeth and that area.
KP: After you repaired your rupture, did you suffer any complications from the injury?
RB: No, which amazed me, because when the Army doctors examined me, they couldn't believe that I was on active duty that quickly after having been operated on. And, as I say, I was smart enough, you know, we had two big barracks bags to drag, supposedly carry 'em around. I didn't even attempt to carry them. I dragged them around because I had been warned, after the operation, "You can easily pull this again." And, of course, dreaming about flying, that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, was to get in trouble, physically, so that I couldn't go to flight school.
KP: Were you worried at all, that the rupture might preclude you from flight school?
RB: No, because the doctor, after he operated, he said, "You're probably going to be physically in better shape now, than you were before, because one side had actually been torn and the other had potential." So, they figured, since they were going in, they were going to fix both sides. So, they gave me all the encouragement in the world.
KP: You had been a Boy Scout which you said had prepared you for part of your Air Force career. What was it like to report for basic? You enlisted in...
RB: December 2nd of '42.
KP: '42, in Newark.
RB: And, I didn't get called up till April of '43. And, it really wasn't that much different than what I anticipated. You know, you're in with a bunch of men, and you marched, and you did calisthenics, and the whole smear. ... And then, actually, after the basic training, they shipped us up to Syracuse University for five months, again giving me a lot of the courses I had here at Rutgers. And so, we did get five months of college at Syracuse.
KP: So, large parts of your training were repeated. First you went to Rutgers, then to Syracuse?
RB: Yes, then back through the normal flight training.
KP: At Syracuse, were you in the A.S.T.P. program, or was it more specialized flight training?
RB: It was flight training. Pre-Aviation School, I think they called it. Because, a lot of the fellows who had joined the cadet program had not had scientific courses in high school. They were able to pass the entrance exams, but, they knew they wanted to get us better qualified. So, it was easy to get some good grades, because it was the second time around for me. And, of course, ... when you go through a second time, more and more rubs off on you. So, I appreciated it.
KP: At Syracuse, how many people were with you, in your training classes there? How big was the contingence?
RB: We practically dominated Syracuse University, except for the women that were on campus. We had taken over a lot of the dormitories and the individual cottages. Every Saturday, we would have a parade formation in their parade ground. I think there were twelve hundred of us.
KP: Do you have any memories of the people in your particular section, and your roommates?
RB: Oh yes, we had, it just so happened, ... in our college room, it was about the size of this, and we had about four people, stacked bunk beds. One was from Iowa, and two from New York City, and, ... it was interesting ... we had a little non-com, and, of course, we had the inspections. And, this little sergeant that used to come around, you'd GI that room, eager to make everything just spotless. And, he'd come in with his white gloves on and darned if he didn't reach up over the molding on the door or something. He'd always find something, but, it kept you on your toes.
KP: How did you take the military discipline?
RB: Oh, I enjoyed it.
KP: That wasn't a problem, the marching and all that?
RB: No, I sometimes look back and say its probably some of the German blood in you. [laughter]
KP: How many people made it through pre-flight school at Syracuse, what was the completion rate?
RB: That was pretty high. I mean, there was not problem there.
KP: Most people made it?
RB: Yes, because it was kind of an indoctrination course. It was when you actually got into Cadets that they started to wash out, at flight school.
KP: Do you have any other memories of Syracuse? Was this the first time you'd really traveled, been away from home at a great distance?
RB: Oh yes. Oh, I was in awe. You know, ... I hadn't reached my nineteenth birthday, just about that time I was called in. So, everything was going on, I was just wide-eyed.
KP: And, the fact that you were on a college campus, did that make it more exciting?
KP: You'd mentioned earlier that you had traveled to Washington when you were a Boy Scout. Had you traveled much before that?
RB: No, nowhere.
KP: After pre-flight training, you were sent to Cadet School, where?
RB: We were sent to Nashville, Tennessee. For classification center, where you can figure out whether the left hand threads and all these things, and you went through all the ... line tests and then, you were rated. ... Fortunately, I came out with three high grades for bombardier, navigator, and pilot. So, they classified me as a pilot. Some of the fellows got classified as navigator or bombardier, which, of course, everybody wanted to be the pilot. So, they weren't too happy about that. But, somebody had to be bombardiers and somebody had to be navigators. So, from there, we went to pre-flight school. We went to Maxwell Field, Alabama, which was one of the biggest Army Air Force pre-flight centers, and that's where things started to get strict.
KP: So, there was a clear difference from Syracuse to Maxwell Field?
RB: Oh, yes.
KP: People I've talked to said flight school, cadet training, was very rigorous, and they had a high washout rate.
RB: Yes, yes. In fact, ... in pre-flight, down at Maxwell, the outstanding thing, in my mind, even though, when you went in the dining room, you sat, you know, off the back of your chair and you did the square meal bit and all that, the thing that impressed me most was, shortly after we got there, three o'clock in the morning, over the P.A. system, it said, "Everybody fall out in dress uniforms with your white gloves and your rifles." And, we all lined up in front of the barracks and, of course, it's a huge base and ... [the only way] you could tell what was going on was over the P.A., but, everyone was at strict attention in front of their barracks, and they proceeded to wash a fellow out, or two of them, I think, that night. Drum out they used to call it, because they caught them cheating. I'll tell you, that impressed you.
KP: Caught them cheating for...
RB: In exams.
KP: Oh, in exams.
RB: Yes, threw them out.
KP: Oh, and they embarrassed them, by making everyone get up in the morning.
RB: Yes, drums are rolling, you know, and it was a pretty impressive scene.
KP: And, the two that were washed out for cheating, where did they end up going?
RB: I never even saw them. Again, Maxwell is such a big base. All you knew what was going on through the amplifying system. But, it impressed you. You didn't dare ever get caught cheating. [laughter]
KP: Were most people washed out because they couldn't do the academic work?
RB: At that point, yes, and then from pre-flight, we went to primary school and you had a certain percentage wash out because they just couldn't fly. And, of course, they kept getting tougher and tougher on you. After you left primary, which is where you first really soloed, even though we had had ten hours of Piper Cubs in Syracuse, but, you never soloed, it was strictly to get your ... but, in primary, we had these open cockpit, bi-planes which were great airplanes. I mean, this was like what you dreamed about, you know, goggles and the scarf flying, like Snoopy, you know. [laughter] It was interesting.
KP: It sounds like your experience of flying, even in the piper airplane was really thrilling for you. Was that your first time you had been in an airplane?
RB: Yes, yes.
KP: Did it live up to your expectations?
RB: Well, I went back to do it as a living so you can imagine. [laughter]
KP: At Maxwell Field and in Nashville, you were now living in a different part of the country, on military bases. What did you think of the south?
RB: You know, I really never left the base very much. I was so interested in the program that on my time off, ... as an example, all through the training, the different phases of flight training, in the ground school part of it, you were given these tests where they would flash an enemy airplane on the wall and in microseconds you were supposed to be able to identify them. And so, ... a handful of us, who were, I guess you'd call eager beavers, we'd go over there on our days off and flash through the airplanes. And then, when we got to flight school, of course, ... at that time it was very primitive, you had to learn how to fly on instruments. And so, on the days off, I'd go over and sit in the link trainer. At that time it was pretty basic, it was like a little wooden airplane with yellow wings and it would flop around as you flew the thing, can't compare it to today's sophisticated trainer. But, ... I think at Maxwell, I probably went off the base, maybe once or twice the whole time I was there. And, there was a big Polish fellow, not to be unkind to him, but, he was ahead of us, growing up wise. And, we went into town, I don't remember how we got into a place that had liquor, 'cause we wanted to eat. He said, "You've never had hard alcohol?" And, he was having a whiskey and something, he said "Taste this," and, of course, I almost died. [laughter] But, that was my one experience of being off the base in Maxwell at Montgomery, Alabama, and then, in primary, I remember going to a cadet dance and that was about my memories of being off base in primary and pre-flight.
KP: So, you really stayed at Maxwell for your entire training?
RB: Just the pre-flight. Primary was in Albany, Georgia. It was a civilian field under contract. That was with the open cockpit. And then, after we graduated from there, we went to first Army School, flight school, really. This was run by the Army and it was in basic, and of course they put us in heavier airplanes and we really felt like big deals now, with the cockpit you know, and the canopy in the back. And, of course, the flying got tougher and tougher and this is where guys started to fall. They were starting to kill themselves too. So, not only were they washing out because not having the ability but, they were killing themselves. ...
KP: How many people in your group were killed in training?
RB: The casualty rate really went up in ... advanced. We were flying ... at the end of the basic training, we were classified as either single engine or multiple engine and I went to multi-engine. And, we were flying ... actually it was a wooden airplane called an AT-10 and we had thirteen accidents in thirteen days, where the planes would just drift off and crash. And, they grounded us all, they didn't know what was going on. Well, it turned out the gas heaters, that heat the cockpit, were leaking. The guys were just passing out and crashing. But, in basic, the guys would, it was a tricky airplane for spins and spins were one of the maneuvers you had to do. In fact, after a while they came out and said, "Don't do anymore three turns," with a spin, because it was difficult to recover. We had guys bail out but, several of them went down with the airplanes because they couldn't get out.
KP: Did anyone you know, crash, of the pilots?
RB: Not at that point. Later on, we had guys lost.
KP: I mean, thirteen accidents in thirteen days, how sobering was that for you?
RB: Oh, we were wondering ... of course at that age, "Well, it can't happen to me," you know. But, still, it ... grabbed your attention.
KP: Yes, but, you still had that notion you weren't going to be the exception?
KP: Your first advanced was in Georgia at a civilian field under contract
RB: Yes, that was primary.
KP: Your primary. Where did you live on that base?
RB: The airport proper was, like, across the road...
-----------------------END SIDE ONE, TAPE ONE----------------------
KP: You mentioned that you were living across the road from the Army barracks.
RB: Right, it was ... that would be unkind. They were better than Army barracks, civilian run. The ground school was run by the civilians, but supervised by the military.
KP: So, you had civilian instructors at that point?
RB: Yes, we had some. ... We had mostly civilian instructors. Flight instructors were ... almost all civilian, with Army check-pilots, to check up on what the civilian people were doing. And, even when we had check rides, every, I think it was, twenty hours, the military would give us the check ride, to see that we were doing O.K.
KP: And, how many would, in this phase of the training, your primary, be washed out in Georgia?
RB: We lost about twenty-five percent, ... pretty good. The PT 17 was not known to be a good airplane for beginning pilots, because the landing gear was so narrow that if you were landing in a cross wind, it would get away from you and you'd ground loop. Drag a wing, and, of course, that would immediately put you up for a check ride. Then, your trouble started, because they're watching you, which I can understand.
KP: Did you have any fears that you might not make it through training?
RB: Oh, yes, because, in my third check ride in primary, you had an Army check pilot somewhere along, and I hit this one. ... I went up and my instructor was teaching me spin recoveries with his own technique. So, I went up with the Army check pilot. I used the instructor's technique and he [check pilot] turned around in that front cockpit and looked at me and said, "I got it." "I wanna show you," he says, "... [How] to recover this airplane." And, of course, that shook me up, already broke my confidence, you know. So, then, he said, "Now, do it that way." So, I tried to do it the way he said, but, still not a real good job at it. And so, shortly thereafter, he pulled the engine on me and said, "Now, land." And, of course, you knew it was coming, but, when it all is thrown at you real quick, you're looking out for an emergency field. ... There probably were a million pastures around, but, of course, I couldn't see one of them. And, I tried, they always told you, if you couldn't spot a field, land on the railroad tracks, come along, bump along. So, I started going down the railroad tracks and he pulled up. He wasn't too happy with that. And then, when I came back, the airport was like in a big triangle and we never used the runways in primary, we used the grass in between and we were, you know, all these crazy kids coming and landing side by side and everything. And, apparently, I got too close to somebody else, in the mind of this instructor, and he grabbed it and landed it. ... I thought, "Oh boy, that's it," and when we got out of the cockpit, he started to chew me out and I thought, for sure, I'd had it. But, I think the thing that saved me was I had very high grades in ground school. So, he said, "Well, I'm gonna let you go this time," you know, but, he said, "You got to get sharper on the flying." I really think the high academic grades that I had in ground school is what saved me.
KP: So, flying was tough for you?
RB: Oh, yes.
KP: Were there natural born flyers? You said some people just couldn't get the hang of it.
RB: Example, we had, in the primary, ... this fellow from Brooklyn. Word had it that he had been a chem major ... on a scholarship at Brooklyn Polytech. The very fact he went to Brooklyn Polytech, we were impressed, we thought he was a genius, you know. And, apparently, ... he had a very high IQ. ... One of the maneuvers that we had to do in primary was, to go out, they called them, forced landing stages. And so, what you would do is, go out to these cow pastures, which were set up as designated fields, and at a certain place in the traffic pattern, you would cut your power. ... Using your judgment and not being able to advance the throttle again, unless you really got into difficulty, ... you were supposed to land on a spot on the airport ... the pasture, if you will. And, ... this field was right next to a bunch of trees, there was a stream, and then trees. I remember sitting down around the gab sessions, in the barracks, saying, "You cannot stretch a glide because you're going to stall out and crash." And, the guy, who, academically, was a genius, apparently, from what we understood, ... we couldn't convince him that you couldn't stretch a glide, and, by God, one of those days, we heard the ambulance go chasing out. And, what he did was, on his base leg, before turning onto the final approach, he cut his throttle, he got down about ready to go into the trees, on the far side of the brook. So, he did give it the gun, and he pulled out below treetop level and onto the river there, or stream, he pulled up over the trees again, and cut his throttle prematurely, and he was trying to stretch the glide. So, about three hundred feet in the air, he stalled and, of course, the airplane just fell and he hit with the nose and the main landing gear and the airplane flipped upside down. And, he's hanging there, unharmed, on the seat belt. He reaches over and unhooks his seat belt, falls out, and breaks his arm. And, I guess, this was more than the instructors could take and ... so they washed him out. So, ... book learning-wise, he was a genius, but, he just didn't have the common sense to save his butt when he needed to put that throttle on. And so, this was the kind of thing, that the book learning and the common sense had to meet somewhere, and he never met the common sense part of it.
KP: You mentioned that moving up to bigger aircraft was even harder.
RB: It was, actually, ... a little different type of flying because, when we went to basic, we did the acrobatics in a heavier airplane, which was kind of a sorting out, because the fellows ... went to fighter school, you had to have some background on that if you were selected to go to fighter school. So, these fellows were gonna go to bombers. It was kind of a background, but, when we went, I was classified as multi-engine. So, now the type of flying we did was different. It was formation flying, a lot of formation flying, night formation, precision landings, instrument flying, a lot of instrument flying. So, the type of flying we did, ... got away from the goggles and scarf and open cockpit type thing.
KP: Did you miss that? Would you have liked to have done that?
RB: Not really. I'll tell you, I think that I ended up where I belonged. I was never really a reckless, wild kid, even though I liked flying. And so, being more serious minded, the heavier equipment was where I belonged.
KP: Are there any other memories you have of advanced training? Was it a harder type of flying as you got bigger aircraft or was it just different?
RB: It was different. But, again, the traps were always there. Years later, I ran into this fellow that was with me, down in Bermuda, who ended up flying B-29s, incidentally. We were almost at the end of the training and we're coming in on precision landing thing. Of course, I happened to be flying at the time, and, of course, you go through the checklist on final. And, I don't know, this fellow was a pretty sharp cookie, and I don't know how either one of us had overlooked it, but, you know, we were coming down on our final approach and, on the radio, it says, "Check your landing gear." We had failed to put the landing gear down. That ... gets any kind cobwebs off your brain in a hurry, ... but, we [were] never called on it...
KP: But, you almost landed without...
RB: We almost landed without the wheels. That would have been the end of the flying.
RB: Yes. But, you know, you never knew when something like that ... if your brain goes into pause for a minute, you can get yourself into trouble.
KP: I don't know that much about flying, but, it sounds like flying was very hard, in the Forties and Fifties, much more than it is now?
RB: Its become more of a science today. Before, you still had that, goggles and helmet-type approach.
KP: Even for a big aircraft...
RB: The instruments were not sophisticated in the bombers, and I went into B-17s right after Cadets. ... Well, we were young and dumb to be handling, I think at that time, they were about a half a million dollars each. And, we only had, at the most, three hundred hours of training. And, it was a big transition. It was kids running [around] doing a man's job and a lot of us were lucky, a lot of fellows rammed into each other in formation, particularly, when I went to England and flew with the Eighth Air Force. We had fellows ... thousands of airplanes up there.
KP: Normally, you wouldn't put that many airplanes together in a civilian action.
RB: No, and ... the accident rate in the Eighth Air Force was as high as the combat losses. So, ... I was fortunate. When we got over there, the war was winding down, and I did have a bombardier on my crew, and, for whatever reason, we were selected to go to lead crew school. And, I can remember going out, with the bomb groups, trainers. We had something like six or nine airplanes going out and it was the first time they lead us into weather, in formation, and, I'll tell you, you really had to discipline yourself not to run into the guy next to you. ... You don't see him, but, you know he's there. And, you're just hoping you're not going to bang into him. And so, as my bombardier use to tell me, ... "I've never seen anybody sweat when it's seventy degrees below zero outside the airplane." So, ... it got nerve wracking.
KP: After you finished your training, you must of been very proud of your achievement of just getting through training.
RB: We were sitting on top of the world.
KP: Which theater did you want to go to? Did you have a preference at the time, when you finally finished, got your wings?
RB: Yes, ... I hadn't even given it a thought. I thought I'd go where they wanted me, which is what happened. I got assigned to the heavy bombers, picked up a crew, went through crew training, and went to England, via Camp Kilmer out here...
KP: So, you had a lot of dealings with this area in your life, before you even entered Rutgers, because you worked for J&J and then you left from Camp Kilmer.
KP: The crew you picked up, where did you meet?
RB: ... After we completed the B-17 Pilot Training, we were all shipped to Drew Air Force Base, in Tampa. And, I don't know how they did it, they probably just said "You, you, and you." ... They put nine of us together.
KP: Were you the crew commander?
KP: Had your training prepared you to become an officer, leading a group of men?
KP: How much of it was learning on the job?
RB: Oh, it was that, too.
KP: What was your crew like? Your first impressions, and then, how did it pan out over your time with them?
RB: Well, we had one fellow, we finally had to get rid of. ... In my mind, I had branded him as a trouble maker, okay. But, for the rest of them, everybody worked out fine and we got a replacement and, unfortunately, he wasn't much better than the guy before, because he didn't get along with the other enlisted men. But, all the officers were good people.
KP: And, your co-pilot, where was he from and what was his background?
RB: He was from ... up in New York state, and I felt sorry for him, because here I was twenty years old, and ... he was an old man, he was twenty-five. [laughter] And, here, this young kid was commanding a crew and ... another thing there was, towards the end of the war, the Army realized, we were getting too many officers around. So, they created something equivalent of a warrant officer, and they called them flight officers. So, ... part of us graduated as second lieutenants and part of the fellows graduated as flight officers and, of course, the only thing different was their bar had a blue coloring to it, with a couple of gold stripes across it, whereas we had the gold bars. And, ... I guess, in power, it was the same rank, but, still, they were going to have to go through flight officer, through second lieutenant, then on to first, where as...
KP: You were already a second lieutenant.
RB: Yes, second lieutenant. ... So, poor Pete ... even though he was older, and I did have more training than he did on the B-17 ... that's probably why I was in the left seat and he was in the right. But, I think he always resented me as a young kid, being in charge.
KM: Was he the oldest member of the crew?
RB: Yes, we had a bombardier, who was, I think, twenty-three. He was from the Bronx and he was a New York City street kid, very interesting guy.
KP: Well, were you the only one who had gone to college?
RB: Well, actually, I hadn't been to college, yet.
KP: You hadn't been to college, yet, either. Your "old man" of the crew, had he gone to college, or anyone else?
RB: Well, we all went through that pre-aviation. Nobody had gone to college, prior to the war. We were all...
KP: High school graduates.
KP: And, very bright. Would you say your crew was very bright?
RB: Well, these guys were. They were sharp. The bombardier was exceedingly sharp. As a matter of fact, he's a retired doctor now, in Miami. [laughter]
KP: Your bombardier, you said he had a lot of street smarts. Did your crew play cards at all?
RB: Oh yes. I didn't personally, nor did the co-pilot. But, the navigator and the bombardier, I can remember, in England, two, three o'clock in the morning, "I raise you this," you know, and I could hear it off from a distance, and the light over their bunk. But, they use to ... play a lot of cards.
RB: And, your navigator, what was his background?
RB: He was from the middle-west and kind of laid back and very personable guy. I don't think he anticipated being on the lead crew, because he had to work hard at doing a good job up there. But, he did. And, he ended up in a very sad way. He found out he had cancer and he shot himself.
KP: When you were in England?
RB: No, this was after the war.
KP: After the war.
RB: ... As a matter of fact, he was a brilliant artist, he went to Pratt Commercial School in Brooklyn and was a tremendous artist.
KP: How old was he when he developed the cancer? Do you remember, was this shortly after the war?
RB: No, no, he had gone through Pratt and worked for Up-John, for a good while in their commercial art department. I would think he was about forty.
KP: And, your enlisted men on the crew, what do you remember about them. You mentioned you had one trouble maker. Why was he such a trouble maker?
RB: Well, as a matter a fact, he was in pilot training with me, I didn't know him personally, but, he got washed out in advanced school. And, of course, he resented it. So, he kind of had a chip on his shoulder that he never made it through flight school. And, he gave all the enlisted men a bad time. And, in fact, then, a flight engineer, who actually is from New Brunswick, he started coming to me and said, "You know, he's not ... creating any atmosphere of confidence on the crew," because he would always second guess me as a pilot, with his limited pilot experience. And, of course, I didn't have an awful lot more at that point either. But, it was not a good situation, so I decided it would be best to get rid of him.
KP: Where did he go?
RB: He went to another crew and, unfortunately, what they used to do, is trade the misfits. So, you just got another one on the crew... [laughter]
KP: And, the person replacing him, you said he didn't work out much better.
RB: No, he was suspected of stealing from the other fellows ... you know, because we were now getting ready to go into combat.
And, that's not a good thing either, when you can't trust the people your sleeping with or flying with.
KM: Well, you just said, he was thought to have stolen from the other people. What kind of living quarters were there?
RB: ... It was typical barracks where you had bunk after bunk after bunk and all your goodies were in a barracks bag. So, security was at a minimum.
KP: And, you were separated, the officers and the enlisted men, you lived in separate quarters?
RB: Yes ... we were in barracks over there, too. ... Actually the living conditions weren't any better, but, for obvious reasons, they had to keep the officers separate from the rest of the men, so that you had to keep that power thing separate.
KP: One of the things I've been struck with, I've interviewed several people who have been on air crews in various capacities, the division between officer and enlisted men is a little less sharp on an air crew than, say, on a ship or in the Army. Did you find that the case?
RB: Absolutely. In fact, we violated, and I don't know whether it was good or bad, but, it was a friendly operation, enlisted men or officers, we called everybody by first name. Not sir, not lieutenant. It was, "Hey Bob," or "Hi Mike," you know, and so, we were like a bunch of Boy Scouts flying together, you know. And, ... the enlisted men knew that when we were, if we were being checked, or if other commissioned officers were around, they would say lieutenant. They would fall back into the realm of respects, okay. But, when we were all by ourselves, we were all just a bunch of kids.
KP: When you were waiting for missions, what would you do? When you had time off, but, you couldn't wander off base.
RB: Well, ... actually, ... that brings up the final thing. We flew, probably, three or four hundred hours in the Eighth Air Force. Never got credit for a mission, because it was never a qualified combat mission, because we had gotten over there so late, but, ... we'd fly out over Europe ... or practice bombing Paris, and of course, like I say, for whatever reason, I was selected to be lead crew, so that took us off of combat status and, in the meantime, the war ended. So, even though we did a lot of flying around, and flying over Dunkirk, which was pretty hot, you know, with the ack-ack and everything, we never got any credit for any combat time. And so, we were kept busy. At least, the basics, the bombardier, the navigator, the two pilots and the flight engineer. We didn't take our gunners out on most of these, we called them training missions. So ... we really didn't have much, ... we had days off, we went to London, because, naturally, we were overseas, we wanted to see what overseas was all about. But, other than that, we were kept very busy, even though we didn't get out on any actual classified combat missions.
KP: I want to ask you more about getting into London and so forth. But first, the training missions sounded like they could be fairly hazardous. The rest of your crew, your other enlisted men, and other members of the crew, what else do you remember about them?
RB: Everybody was so young. I was twenty, just going on twenty one. The flight engineer, who was from New Brunswick, he was nineteen. The tail gunner was eighteen, who's a minister, incidentally, in Ohio today. The engineer came back after the war and went to air conditioning school and worked for J&J. The radio operator was a mechanic of sorts and I'm not quite sure
what kind of work he did. He was a radio operator, gunner. The waist gunner was a salesman for U.S. Steel. So, they all did well. Some blue collar, some white collar, but, they all were successful in whatever they took on. The ball gunner, which is the one that we didn't ... keep in touch with ...
KP: The trouble maker?
RB: Yes, he went back to California, southern California, and we never did hear from him.
KP: So, your crew, you stayed in touch for quite a while after the war?
RB: And, we had a reunion about three years ago.
KP: What was that like?
RB: Well, it was interesting, the navigator had committed suicide, and the bombardier came up from Florida. The co-pilot, for whatever reason, he came over to my house for dinner after the war. I had already started at Rutgers, in the fall of '45, midterm. Pete came over and had dinner at our home in Bound Brook. And, I said, "Now, Pete don't get lost, let's keep in touch." He disappeared off this side of the earth. And, only many years later, the flight engineer had the idea to contact the Veterans Administration. And, he ran him down through his insurance. And so, we got in touch with him again, but, Pete had never attended any of our functions. Like I say, he was an older guy at that time, and we're all pushing seventy now, and Pete's up in his mid-seventies, and I think he's feeling it, so we don't see him much.
KP: Much of the crew sounds like they were very successful. Did you think this at the time, that most of them would be successful?
RB: Oh yes, they were reliable people. I had no doubts, you know. When I said do something, they filled their niche. That was the only way you were going to survive out there.
KP: You had mentioned that you never officially got credit for combat, but you flew five hundred hours, roughly, you and your crew.
RB: Yes, probably closer to three over there, because ... the crew went over on the Queen Elizabeth, ... we went from Kilmer by train into New York, where the Queen Elizabeth, and there was something like ten thousand troops on board. ... Oh, incidentally, at that point, the co-pilot's mother had died, so he was held back, but, we went on. And, when we hit England, we were flying for a while with a fill-in co-pilot. ... I think that was another thing that slowed us down, otherwise we would have gotten ... when the war was still active, because we waited for him for a while, in a personnel center in England. And then, when he didn't show, after a reasonable time, they assigned us to a bomb group.
KP: When did you arrive in England?
RB: It was the middle of March of '45.
KP: And, you went with the crew on the Queen Elizabeth?
KP: And, what was the ocean voyage like?
RB: They had taken the gyros out ... to conserve weight. ... March is not the best time to cross the Atlantic and the Queen Elizabeth rolled, rolled badly. ... As we approached Scotland, its main defense from the submarines was its speed. And, about a day or two out of Scotland, in the middle of the night, we heard depth charges going off. Needless to say, that got our attention, and the ship turned around, and ran, and out ran a sub-pack. But, as it increased its speed, of course, the rolling got worse and worse and the seas were pretty heavy at that time of the year, in the Atlantic. And, thank God that was why it went by unescorted, because of its speed. And so, we did, you know, eventually get to Scotland, and then, we went by trains down to our bomber base.
KP: The crew and the troops aboard must have been a little tense, over the submarine threat.
RB: Yes, as a matter of fact, the officers had duties in the gangways and they had troubles, with the troops. They wanted to get out of the bottom of the ship when they heard the depth charges going off.
KP: Were you on duty at the time?
KP: And, how did they restrain the men?
RB: Well, I'm not sure, to be honest with you, because I was sitting in my bunk with my hair standing up, I guess. [laughter]
KM: So, you didn't have any duties on the Queen Elizabeth?
RB: Well, we had ... a rotating tour with the enlisted men, you know, ... safety officers, what have you. But, nothing really.
KM: How long were you at sea for?
RB: Five days.
KM: Five days.
RB: It was interesting, too, you know. The British are very, very officer-enlisted men conscience. And, the way they served the enlisted men, they were in bunks, which were probably five or six high, and you need a ladder practically to get up into your bunk. And, they fed the enlisted men family style. And, ... people being what they are, when the family style bowl went down the table, the guy on the end of the table wasn't really getting fed. And so, we ended up making sandwiches and things. We had, it wasn't the Queen Elizabeth deluxe crew, but, it was not bad for officers. And, we had maybe twelve guys to a ... cabin. But, ... in the mess hall, or dining room, we'd make sandwiches and give them to our enlisted men ...
KP: You made sure your crew ate because you wanted them to be healthy.
RB: Yes, well, we knew it was a dilemma. And so, of course, they were appreciative, and, of course, ... it all made for a closer knit group, too, because they appreciated it.
KP: The people aboard, going over, were they Air Force, or were they regular Army?
RB: Oh, they were almost all ... Army Air Force.
KP: Army Air Force.
KP: Do you have any other memories of your ocean voyage? Did you get seasick at all?
RB: I had the dry heaves one night. I said, "This can't be, I'm a pilot, I don't get airsick." But, it was dry heaves one night.
KP: And, you had a British crew. Was that your first contact with the British military?
RB: But, you know, I can't remember. ... Yes, ... actually, the operating crew of the Queen Elizabeth is very faint in my mind.
KP: Your landing in Scotland, that must of been, especially, given the U-boats, a very pleasing sight.
RB: Well, ... again, you know, as a kid like that, you're always looking for, what's going to happen tomorrow. And we got off in Scotland, of course, we had never been, most of us, not too far from New Jersey. ... When we got off the ship in Scotland, ... we looked around, then we got on the troop trains and went down to the personnel center. We stayed there for a couple days, until we got classified or assigned to a bomb group.
KP: And, this was in March of '45?
KP: By that point, you must have thought the war was coming to an end.
RB: Well, we got [an] indication things were slowing down, because even in our B-17 training, which was in September of '44, not only did they give us the B-17 training, but, the losses were slowing down, and so, what they did was, add another six weeks of celestial navigation, which was unheard of, for pilots to get celestial navigation training. But, what they did was keep us busy, ... so that the pipeline was kept filled, but, the flow was slowing down.
KP: You mentioned that you had an opportunity to go out into London and to other parts of England. What did you think of London, wartime London?
RB: Well, ... again, we were wide-eyed, and it was another big city, as far as I was concerned. But, the British people were very, very friendly to us. They couldn't do enough for us. And, of course, at eight o'clock, you had the blackouts in London. So, you kind of groped around. Of course, we didn't know the city, so most of us ... had gone back to whatever Red Cross places where we were staying, or whatever. By ten o'clock, we were in bed. And, again, our group was not particularly the party group.
KP: Except, you did have a bombardier and navigator who liked cards.
RB: Yes, yes. ... And, we were still trying to catch up with the co-pilot at that point, too. So, then, we went into London. Like I said, the few times I went off base, it was interesting but, I found even a local town, which I've since been back to, it was a big farm town. So, not really an awful lot. The pubs were there, you know. The British couldn't do enough for us. Farmers came around, of course, at that time, the strawberries, or whatever, was in season. I think it was strawberries, I don't remember. ... Fresh eggs were unheard of. It was all powder eggs we were eating on base and they came around and said, "I got some fresh eggs, if you're interested." The prices, in those days, like a peach was fifty cents each. Well, today, that's not even bad in a supermarket, but, at that time, fifty cents, when you're making two hundred dollars a month, that was a lot of money.
KP: I just have to pause. ... In resuming, you knew that the war was winding down. Was there any concern among you and the crew that you might be sent to the Pacific Theater in March, April, May?
RB: As a matter of fact, that was the thinking of our officers. That's where they threw the youngest crew through crew lead training, because they felt that the bomb group would be transferred to the Pacific. And so, then, they would have, you know, no new crew to go. And, we did come back to the States, we ferried the airplanes back through Iceland and ... the group had broken up though, and ... by the time we got to Tampa, the Japanese had capitulated.
KP: So, you were already back in the United States?
KP: You were ferrying these planes back with the notion that you'd be ferrying out to the Pacific.
RB: Out to the Pacific.
KP: The air crews who came earlier into the war, there was a very high mortality rate. Did you have any fears because of this? There was a high mortality rate in training itself, also.
RB: I've since read statistics on it, and I didn't know it at the time or I'd probably been petrified. But, you had one chance in four that you'd make it through your missions.
KP: And, you didn't know this at the time?
RB: No. As a matter of fact, again, you don't even think about things like that. I was one, or our crew, was one of twelve that were replacements in our bomb group. Near the end of the war, ... we were very lucky because the Germans had the jets operational, on a limited basis. The ME-262 was so fast that our gun sights couldn't even track them. ... When they came through a formation, they would just knock you down. And, twelve crews were knocked down in our bomb group and we were one of the twelve replacements for these ... losses. And, the lucky thing was, ... we were bombing the ball bearing plants and these plants making the ME-262. Otherwise, they would have just blown every one of the Allied planes out of the sky. Our fighters couldn't deal with them and, needless to say, our guns on the bombers couldn't deal with them. And, to this day, they rate the airplane way ahead of its time. It's still an excellent airplane.
KP: When did you first learn about the ME 262?
RB: Again, we had to go to aircraft identification class, and we didn't know that they were that operational, but, ... they also had a ME-163, I believe it was. It was a rocket airplane. It would blast off like a rocket and it had maybe two minutes of flying time. But, again, it was so fast, and then, when it ran out of rocket fuel, they'd come in and land on skids. They didn't even use landing gears. So, they were trying all kinds of things. And, like I say, we were very lucky that we were in the stage of the war where we were knocking their fuel out, knocking their ball bearings out, with the jet engines.
KP: So, looking back, you feel in many ways fortunate. If you had just come, even a few months earlier, things might have been different. We often think, in retrospect, about January of 1945, the war was....
RB: On the way down.
KP: On the way down. But, for air crews, facing the jet, did that seem to be the case?
RB: In fact, I think the turning point of the war ... the Battle of the Bulge, if ... we had not had air superiority, this was one of the things that broke the German Army, even in the Battle of the Bulge. And, if they were able to control the skies, our armies could never have gotten any help and the Germans were still on the Eastern, or on the Western Front, anyway. They were still somebody to be dealing with.
KP: You were in the Army Air Force. Historians have probably questioned this more than people at the time, but, how effective did you, as part of a bomb group, think air power was?
RB: Oh, well, ... we knew that supplies were a big part of the war. And, if you wiped out their ammunition plants and their oil plants, ... again, they were a very foxy bunch. They were making oil out of coal. In fact, the process, I think, is still used down in South Africa. And, there was also a psychological effect. I mean, it just so happens I've dated a German girl who was over there during the war. And, she said, every night, it was into the cellar, or into a bomb shelter of some sort. She said it was really wearing on her. And, of course, the RAF would bomb at night. She said the fires were so intense, ... you could see like daylight. And, of course, then we were bombing during the daylight, and so, it was getting to them psychologically.
KM: What was your relationship with the RAF?
RB: We actually ... coordinated the effort. But, we were independent. We had ... RAF liaison officers on the base, but, it was strictly a liaison, because their mission was nighttime bombing, and ours was daylight bombing. And so, ... it was sort of like the Navy and the Army. You both were trying to get the job done, but, you were kind of independent.
KM: Off duty, did you see them?
RB: Didn't see an awful lot of them.
KP: You mentioned that you dated someone who lived in Germany during the war. As a bomber, death is very present because there is a high rate of accidents but, you don't see your enemy directly. Did you ever think of it much during the war?
RB: No. In fact, ... I just thank the Lord that I was in that kind of combat mission, because I can't imagine walking through the mud with a rifle, and, of course, that was more incentive not to wash out of pilot training, because that's where you end up, in the infantry.
KP: How did you know the infantry would be so bad?
RB: Well, you know, you see the movies, you see the guys with the bayonets and all this business. I just couldn't picture myself doing that.
KP: So, you remembered watching movies on World War I growing up. Had you seen something like, "All Quiet in the Western Front?"
RB: No, not at that point.
KP: But, you remembered these films in general.
RB: Yes, and even before I went in, ... you know, Saturdays you'd go to the movie house and they'd have Fox Movietone, and they'd show you clips from the war. And, you know, '42, we were a year into the war, and ... I was still around until '43, so I saw the movies and I was not to impressed.
KP: So, you knew that the Air Force was a much better choice?
RB: Yes, and ... I remember when we came back from Camp Miles Standish, yes, I think it was Miles Standish, up here in Boston, where we finally gave up our bomber. We were waiting around, doing nothing, and we went to the movies one night with a bunch of Army infantry people. And, of course, we were always razzed about the good housing we had and the good food. Well, the food was better than the poor infantry guys. I remember one night, we were in there and they showed a B-24 bombing raid, and this plane, ... about three of them, just all blew up into a million pieces. And, these combat infantry guys went "Oh-hhh" you know. You could just feel the impression that they got. Well, ... we lived well and we died in a hurry, which was a nice feature of the Air Force. And, those poor devils, they're walking around ... having shells from artillery and everything after them ... my heart goes out to these guys.
KP: Although you didn't get any official credit, you mentioned that, in many of your training missions, you were by no means safe. In fact, you experienced anti-aircraft fire, you said, over Dunkirk, which was still German held. What was it like to be under fire, where someone was really trying to kill you?
RB: Well, again, we were ... out there on what we call a celestial mission. And, they would get the navigator up to speed for the Pacific, even though the German war was still going on. And, you know, we were ignorant of what was going on, really ... "Oh what's that?" We really didn't even realize ...
KP: You didn't realize you were under fire until...
RB: We got back and we realized Dunkirk was live. ... There were pockets and ... we lived a gifted life out there.
KP: In terms of your training, in these missions you would do, did any of the planes crash?
RB: Not in our bomb group.
KP: Not in your group. So, your group went through training successfully?
KP: Were there any close calls in the training, either in your particular plane, but also in the other planes in your group?
RB: Again, having a limited amount of experience in this airplane, like I say, thank God I did go and sit in the link trainer and learned as much as I could about instrument training, because, as you know, the weather in Europe is horrible. And, particularly, England. ...
-----------------------END TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO----------------------
KP: This continues an interview with Mr. Robert W. Billian, on February 2, 1995, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, with Kurt Piehler and ...
KM: Kelly Martin.
KP: And, the tape had interrupted us, you were talking about the difficulties of flying in England.
RB: We came back with a fairly large formation ... to a very low ceiling, which ... at that time, we considered three or four hundred feet pretty low, with the equipment we had on the bombers of that day, and the airports were spaced, I would say, maybe thirty miles apart. Well, in flying time, that's not very fast, or far apart. So, each field had a radio, non-directional radio beacon. And, ... you'd come in and you'd make your approach on this non-directional radio beacon. And, the approaches were not very scientifically. You'd come over the beacon somewhere around twenty-five thousand feet and you'd peel off, as you came around, one plane in the formation would peel off, then the next guy would come around, he would peel off. ... Now, this was [dependent] on the weather. On clear days, you'd just peel right after, chase each other around the airport, and land. Well, this day, we peeled off somewhere around twenty-five thousand feet and we circled around this beacon coming down, and, of course, we knew what the fuel elevation was, so we weren't gonna drive it right to the ground. And, the last thousand feet ... the anxiety starts building up. So, somewhere around four hundred feet, we broke out of the clouds and around three hundred feet, we could start seeing what was going underneath, and we looked down, and there was another B-17 coming in the opposite direction. And, I just pushed the airplane over so we were scooting along the ground and he went over us and we went under, he went over us and we went under him. But, ... that is filed in the book of memories as close calls in England, for us, weather-wise. ... Weather took a large amount of casualties over there.
KP: How many bomb crews did you know that didn't make it because of weather and training accidents?
RB: I would say about ten, and for that stage of the game, that was high. This was basically non-combatant losses.
KM: I just have a question about your training missions. What was the morale like, and the attitude of the crew before you were getting ready to go up on one of these missions? Was it kind of relaxed?
RB: Well, in as much as that, you know, we weren't gonna be going to Berlin, or anything like that. It wasn't too tense and, of course, there's always a certain amount of anxiety, because you knew that there's other things that ... you get in an airplane today and you say, well, you're gonna get there. We're on the old bombers, where the pistons are slapping up and down, and maintenance was as good as the Army mechanics could give you ... still, you had your share of engine failures and collisions.
KP: I don't know if I figured this out or other people have, you were very dependent on your enlisted men, more so than the Navy. Actually, it ... probably was equally, but they didn't quite realize it in the same way as the Army Air Force. The people who serviced your plane, really, given the nature of technology ... you could be down in a matter of minutes.
RB: Very important.
KP: What was the relationship between the ground crew and your crew?
RB: Excellent. We knew that our lives depended on their ability to keep the airplane humming.
KP: You and your crew put your lives in danger by going into the air while the ground crews had a relatively safe job. Did that ever create tension, or was it mitigated by the fact that you were so dependent on these people for your lives?
RB: They kind of adopted us as part of their family, because they knew that our lives depended on their work. And, for the most part, I had nothing but excellent relationships with the mechanics.
KP: And, you think that was standard?
RB: I think more so than not. You know, considering the number of personalities, [we] probably had some crews that irritated the crew chiefs, but our mechanic, who was in charge of our plane, all I can tell you is his nickname was Mac and I can't even remember his ... you know, whole name. It was Mac this or Mac that and he'd say, "Yes, we did that, we did this." And, I remember one day, we went out to shoot landings and we had the long range fuel tanks and the wings tips filled, and it was a tricky situation. Really, we shouldn't have done it, because of the weight, you know. You touch down and the wings would spring. ... After we had made about three of four landings and taxied back in, Mac said, "Hey!" ... and I felt so sorry, because he made me feel like we hurt the bird, you know. [laughter] But, it was a close relationship.
KP: Your other pilots, your comrades, what did you think of them as a group? Were you able to evaluate their ability, on the way they handled their crews? Were there any problems with pilots and crews, looking back, or any crews that you admired and other pilots you thought were really far better pilots, a far better pilot than you?
RB: Naturally, the ones with more experience, we looked up to. And, of course, if you ... saw somebody coming off his twentieth mission, you had to, because you knew the casualty rate was pretty high, but you didn't know what. So, you had to respect them. You knew they were doing something right, and, of course, you felt good when they finished up. ... I believe at that time it was twenty five missions and you went home.
KP: So, you met pilots who did finish their tour?
RB: Oh, yes.
KP: And, were they glad to make it?
RB: Absolutely. Yep. Oh, ... in fact, they gave the crews on the last mission, and, of course, I had the pleasure, when I finished up my missions in Korea, to do this, they allowed you to buzz the airport. You came across, just about dragging your wheels on the ground, then zoom up, you know, ... around the tower. It was a good feeling to complete and, of course, the guys always came in and partied ... until you left, practically. [laughter]
KP: Do you have any other memories of England and of your group and of your commanders? What did you think of the leadership you encountered when you were in England, in terms of the Eighth Air Force?
RB: We had good officers. Our replacement group was probably one of the younger, age wise. They were starting to tap on the younger kids coming over. And, these guys were, let's say, twenty-eight to thirty-two and they were good. They knew how to handle us, they knew how to train us, and we respected ... them. The father image type thing. So, we had a unique thing. I don't know how the infantry respected their [officers], but, we were really were like a close knit family.
KP: In terms of how you viewed other crews and your leadership?
RB: Yes. Yes.
KP: Earlier, we talked a little about how you kept in touch with your actual crew. What about other people that you encountered over there, any life-long friends?
RB: Uh, for a long time, I kept in touch with one of the other fellows who went through flight training with me, out in Anderson, Indiana. And, eventually, the Christmas cards stopped, and ... I lost track of him. But, I can't think of anybody else, except the crew members that I've been keeping in touch with.
KP: You mentioned you went back to the village that you were based at. Where were you and what village was it?
RB: It was Rattleson.
KP: In what part of England?
KP: How had the village changed, in your memory, and in actuality, from the war. You remember farmers used to sell you fresh eggs and other things?
RB: Well, one of the pilots who stayed in the military after the war, has since retired, he and I went over for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Eight Air Force, when they first got to England. And so, we went to my bomber base and that particular airport is now used as a glider field. And so, ... naturally, we rented a car over there, and we drove out into the middle of the airport, by the old tower, and ... they've got these huts with the gliders in there. And, while we're standing there taking pictures, this gal came up, by horseback, and, you know, the riding hat and all the paraphernalia, and so, she said, "Ah, it's getting this time of the year, you birds are all coming back to roost." [laughter] And, she said, as a kid, a young lady, she said, "I worked at the base." And, she said, "I had numerous proposals from you Yanks," you know. And so, she was telling us, reminiscing with us, you know, but, it was kind of interesting.
KM: Did you date any women while you were over in England?
RB: No, I tell you, ... when I first got there, in the personnel center, kidding around, this gal walked by, she turned around and came back, and she ... made some kind of excuse to get talking and, of course, I swallowed my tongue. I didn't know what to say to this stranger, you know. And, she said, "Well, I'm going to be back in town," I think this must have been a Wednesday, and she said, "on Friday night." And she said, "If your gonna be in town," she had hiked five miles to walk into town, she said, "If you're gonna be in town, I'd like to meet you here." I thought, "Jeez, that's kind of nice." [laughter] Well, on Thursday, we shipped out. And so, ... probably to this day, she's cussing out that young Yank pilot who stood her up after walking five miles into town. And, after that, as I say, ... it was more trouble, I think, to get involved. At least, ... we had the British girls come on bases for dances and things like that. But, ... I guess, I was more interested in flying, at that point, than I was in girls. But, they certainly came on base, danced with them and so forth. But, I didn't get into any lasting relationships with them.
KP: Was there anyone back in Bound Brook that you had looked forward to seeing when you got home or was it that you were just wrapped up prior to leaving?
RB: There was a high school girlfriend, but, it was kind of a loose relationship and I wrote to her for a while, but, then again, got too busy. So, when I came home, I think I took her out a couple a times. But, I'll tell you, when I came to Rutgers, I started in mid-fall term, and we were trying to catch up. And, we played catch-up the whole next three and a half years. And, social life at Rutgers was ... on nil. I think I went out with a couple of, at that time, NJC girls. And, I said, "My God, how do the guys get time to go out? I'm working all night long trying to get reports ... written up or figuring out math problems." I [will be] the first to admit that I had my hands full getting through the engineering school.
KP: Despite your background as a pilot?
RB: Oh, yes. Some of the things, it was difficult.
KM: Was there a particular reason that you commuted and did not live down on campus?
RB: Yes, I guess I was tired of living out of a suitcase. ...
KM: You were happy living at home?
RB: Yes, I had to weigh the pros and cons, ... the easiest thing to say is it just was more convenient, easier to commute.
KP: You didn't mind not sleeping in a dormitory?
RB: No, not really. I guess I had lived around men long enough. [laughter]
KP: Did you write to your parents during the war?
RB: Oh yes.
KP: Did your parents save any of that correspondence?
RB: Yes, well, ... I didn't save it, but, my mother had saved the letters, yes. And, I did come across some of these, I forget what they call it, the V, VE mail or V something. You folded the thing up and glued it, to, I guess, keep the weight down. But, I think I have one or two of those at home somewhere, too.
KP: You were in Florida when the war ended?
RB: Actually, I was home on leave. When we came back in, when the German war was over, we ferried the airplanes home and it was somewhere around the June or July area, and, of course, they gave you thirty days off. And, during the thirty days, I hitchhiked rides around the country to [visit] my older brother. My oldest brother was over in the Pacific with the Navy. They were getting ready to invade Japan. And, the next oldest, he had been, for the most part, had been a mechanic on a P-51, and he decided he wanted ... he was going to B-29 Flight Engineer School. And so, what I did was, I hopped a plane to go see my brother down in Maxwell, Alabama, where they were having the B-29 school. I thought it would be great to see the school which I had been at, and where he was still at. Then, I went back to Syracuse to reminisce a little bit. So, most of the thirty days, I kind of jumped around the country, and report back to Fort Dix. And, by mistake, we almost got into a lot of trouble over this. We checked in and we were the 447th Bomb Group. So, after our thirty days, we checked into Fort Dix and we were to be shipped to Tampa for processing to go to the Pacific, you see. Except, now, while we were on the thirty day leave, the Japanese surrender[ed]. So, ... the 447 Group [was] given a three day extension, leave. So, I say, "Hey guys, look at this. We have another three days off." So, we all jumped on a train, went to New York City. Now, this was V-J Day and, of course, New York was crazy. ... So, ... after the weekend, we came home, to Fort Dix, only to find out that we were all A.W.O.L. ... You know, here was a bunch of officers, "How dare you go, you know, go off without permission." So, we explained to him there, the notice ... he said, "That wasn't bomb group, that was traveling group." He said, "But, I can understand it," so, he said, "You guys are all gonna go on the first train to Tampa." So, down we went.
KP: But, you got to go, by this accident, to see New York on V-J Day.
RB: Yes, yes.
KP: Where were you?
RB: Well, we were just kind of walking around and it was funny. ... Being in uniform, it got you a little bit of privileges, let's say. But, I think the funniest thing that happened to us, of course, again, we were only, what, twenty-one and a half, some twenty-two. And, the street smart girls in New York, ... I remember this navigator and I were walking around. Not one of mine, but, another crew, and, of course, the thing where the girls grabbing the service men and kissing them, you know, and all this business. And, we were kind of standoffish on this, to be honest with you. And so, I guess, this group saw us and they thought, well, they'd have some fun with us. So, a couple of good looking gals came up to us, and they said, "Now close your eyes we want to give you something that...," you know. ... So, we closed them, expecting to be kissed, and with this, they grabbed our hand and stuck some screws in our hand and closed our hand around and ran. [laughter] So, of course, we appreciated the sense of humor and, of course, the last we saw them, they were giggling and carrying on. But, it was ... just one of those experiences that happened on V-J Day in New York. [laughter]
KP: Did you go to any of the bars?
RB: Not really, we weren't big drinkers.
KP: Were you in Times Square at all?
RB: Oh, yes. Yes, it was crazy times.
KP: You did go to Tampa, but, you didn't make it to the Pacific?
RB: No, we got down there and, of course, the war ... in Japan, the military started phasing down and that was in...
KP: August of '45.
RB: Yes, and, of course, to maintain your qualifications, you had to ... put in four hours and, of course, ... everything else was tightened up, the war was over, saving money. So, all we got, we had to put in four hours of flying to get our flight pay. So, we went up and did four hours of flying down there in Tampa. That was the only flying we did, and then, I think October, I ... had run into another guy at the bulletin board. We'd meet at the bulletin board every morning to see what they wanted us to do and every day, it was nothing. And, this guy had one of the last Ford convertibles that were made, you know, during the war. And, we would jump in his convertible and go out, chasing around, you know. And so, after a while on one of these trips, I ran into somebody from New York who was with American Airlines. She said, "Well, if you want to get with the airlines, I know people in personnel." She said, "I'm going up on the Silver Meteor on such and such a day. I'm in seat such and such." And I thought, "Hey, that'd be great, to get to fly with the airline." So, I went into personnel and I said, "Hey, look I've been here for three or four months, I never do anything." I said, "When am I gonna get out?" Well, I was there talking to these people and one of the fellows I went to high school [with] came by. He said, "Hey, Bob, how are you?" He said, "What do you want?" So, I said, "Well, I'd like to get out, 'cause I have a chance maybe to interview with American Airlines." He said, "I'll call you. Go back to your BOQ and I'll call you." Well, I went back to BOQ, he said, "You were discharged two months ago." I said, "What, I'm still here!" [laughter] So, apparently, through some kind of paper work SNAFU, they had sent my records all up to Fort Dix. I had to get them back and within a week I was out and on the Silver Meteor sitting next to this gal, coming to New York. And the closer I got to New York, I said "Well, I better get off in New Brunswick and go home and find out what I'm really gonna do." And so, I got off and, of course, that's when I got the "your gonna go to college" bit. So, I never did call the gal, ... she was from Brooklyn, that was with American Airlines. And, I saw this ad where Rutgers was starting a mid-term semester for all the veterans. So, I came down, took the entrance exams, and ended up going to Rutgers.
KP: So, if your parents hadn't encouraged to go to college, you may well have tried to get this job, become a pilot with American Airlines?
KP: You knew, then, that you wanted to become a pilot for your career after the war?
RB: Yes, I had pretty strong feeling.
KP: The military, your experience of flying in the war hadn't soured you?
KP: In fact, it sounds like you still wanted to be one.
RB: Well, ... it was a lot of juggling to find out whether I wanted to stay on ... active duty in the military. But, I did realize, that in peacetime, they did require college for even the Army pilots. And, I didn't have it, so I knew that whatever progress I could make was going to be limited.
KP: Had you thought of staying in the Army Air Force?
RB: Yes, but, as I say, since I had no higher education, I knew that was gonna handicap me.
KP: And, your coming to Rutgers, you were on the GI Bill, had you thought of going to other places, other schools?
RB: Yes, I've forgotten when it dawned on me, but, when I was in high school, I did a lot of baton twirling. I was the drum major of the band and I had won a lot of competitions. And, I thought, "Well, I knew that bands offered scholarships." And so, I did write to a couple of schools. At that point, it was too early in the stage of baton twirling or mid-game show, shall we say, so that they weren't offering scholarships for this type of thing. So, that fell and I thought "Well, this is convenient. Rutgers is close." It was a good engineering school, so I said, "I'll go."
KP: And so, Rutgers was really the only school you ended up applying to?
KP: And, what was it like to come back to school after seeing the world and being an officer?
RB: Well, ... again, it was kind of an extension of the Army, because we were all vets and it was like going back to school in the military, except, now we were civilian and we were taking a course we wanted to learn about.
KP: And, what was it like to live at home again?
RB: ... Things changed so drastically. I started down here in November of '45 and my dad died the following June. We had a fair amount of real estate, so I ended up handling a good bit of real estate while I was going through school. I just had a lot of responsibility at home, on the home front, so it became a pretty big load to be handling. It might have been part of the reason why I had ... so many problems, you know, getting good grades. In any case, my mother was very appreciative and took good care of her little boy. [laughter]
KP: Did she realize you were an adult who had been in the military, or did she want to treat you still as a seventeen year old who didn't know how to live on his own?
RB: No. I was telling Kelly, while you were out before, even though neither of my parents had a lot of formal education, somewhere along the line, they learned a lot of common sense psychology. And, they were always encouraging us to do better, without pushing us. And, like with the flying, I knew that she worried every time I went out on a flight, but, ... and I never knew it until after she died, [quoted from a friend] "Well, you know, your mother use to worry about you every time you took a flight, even on the airline," you know. But, she never showed ...
KP: You had no idea of it?
RB: No, no.
KP: Were you the only son then living at the house at that time?
RB: Yes. Yes, I took on the responsibility.
KP: Your other brothers who were in the military, what were their experiences like? Were you the lucky brother, in terms of being out of harm's way?
RB: We were all lucky. The oldest brother, as I say, was trained to be on an invasion. He was an officer in the Navy, on a invasion barge, and it was just a matter of time, if they went into Japan. The invasion barges didn't survive any more than bomber crews. And so, when anybody says, "Well, you shouldn't have dropped the bombs," I say, "Whoa, ... that probably saved my brother's life." And, the other one, he was in Florida most of the war ... being a crew chief on the P-51s. Like I say, towards the end, he went to B-29 Flight School, or Flight Engineer School. And, the youngest one, he was too young to get into that. But, it wasn't long till the Korean thing broke out, and ... he went to Northwestern, through a ROTC program, and he got a regular commission ... when he graduated out there. And so, he was out on a destroyer. So, my poor mother, she had everyone of us, at some time or another, in the military.
KP: I guess, on Rutgers, you mentioned in many ways you didn't feel alone because there was a lot of ex-service people on campus. You also mentioned you were very busy. That seems to be the norm among engineers.
RB: Yes, particularly as a commuter. I can understand the philosophy of some of these professors. But, they weren't dealing with eighteen year olds, again. We wanted to learn. We wanted to get a degree and get out working. I can remember one thermodynamic instructor. I loved the course, ... really, and to this day, I still tinker with gasoline engines. He would lecture all day, all during the course, and then, give us an assignment to go home. And, the assignment didn't even resemble what he had lectured on, and then, we'd come in the next day and get a quiz the first thing in the morning. And, wow, the grades were horrible. And, you'd spend half the night trying to figure out ... like I say, we wanted to do the work, it wasn't that we weren't trying. And, we'd work half the night trying to figure out the solutions to some of these things. And, when we confronted him, he said, "Well, I was trying to get you to figure these things out." That's fine, and ... in fact, in one of my notes, I mentioned another professor, Slade, who ... I think it was analytic geometry. Now, in thermodynamics, we came in and we got flunking grades. It was the only course I flunked when I was down here and had to repeat. Professor Slade, who apparently was a genius during the war for the military, designing these ballistic curves for the artillery. We'd go in there and for the whole class period, he'd start at one end of the ... blackboard and go all the way around the four walls with derivations of formulas, and so forth. And, he'd give an assignment, we'd go home, we'd come in, and we'd get these quizzes, and we'd all get twenty, twenty-five on the quizzes. So, somewhere around the semester, we'd say, "Professor," the smarter ones who were getting twenty, twenty-five, would say, "Professor Slade," they said, "We're in trouble, you know, our grades are low. We're afraid we're gonna flunk the course." He said, "I'm teaching to try to make you reach up the ladder." He said, "So long as everybody works hard and tries, you're all gonna pass," which was fantastic and we worked harder for him, you know. Whereas, this guy in thermodynamics, ... he flunked something like forty-six percent of the class. Now, you know, that's too high.
KP: Yes, that's more an indication of the professor than the students. [laughter]
RB: So, I've always resented this guy, even though I loved the course...
KP: How common was that inability to relate to older students? Was that more the exception to the rule or the norm?
RB: In these particular classes, they were highly technical and ... most of the guys were good. We had a lot of junior professors, who were vets themselves and there were assistant professors working their way on, you know, to Masters, or whatever. Most of them were excellent. If we needed help, we could get it.
KP: So, the younger professors, especially if they were veterans, you could often relate to them very well.
RB: Yes, they were older veterans though. Again, ... they wanted to help us. But, in the case of Professor Slade, he was ... an older man, fifty, but debonair. He had a handle-bar mustache, sport jackets, and he'd come in and, I'll tell you, he was interesting, really interesting guy. One of the guys ..., you know, we walked away from college remembering.
KP: One of the common experiences for classes before World War II was chapel. Did you go to chapel when you were here at all?
RB: No, because I was off campus, ... and I went to church at home ...
KP: Yes, but, you have no memories of chapel during the week?
KM: What was the route that you took over to New Brunswick, coming from Bound Brook? And, about how long did it take you?
RB: Well, when we first came back, there were no clothes available, civilian clothes. So, you'd see a piece of an Army uniform, and we hitchhiked ... if you had a piece of veteran's uniform, you'd get down to hitchhiking and you'd be picked up.
KM: To class?
RB: Yes, so, we'd hitchhike down and then, after a while, there was a fellow from Somerville who came through Bound Brook. ... He had a car, I don't know where he got it from, but, we would pay him to drive us.
KM: So, basically, you kind of came in the morning and left as a group in the evening? You were here all day?
RB: Yes, yes.
KP: Did you do this the whole three and a half years?
KP: So, when did you have your first car?
RB: My own car ... I did use my dad's car and he was kind enough to take the bus to work, that first year when I was home. And, occasionally, I used the family car and supplement this other guy. But, when I graduated, I rewarded myself with a new Chevrolet. [laughter]
KP: How many returning veterans couldn't make it through college, couldn't make the transition back to college? Did you know of any who couldn't make it?
RB: We had a very unfortunate situation. When we first came back, Rutgers was bend over backwards to get us in. Unfortunately, they accepted too many engineering students. And, somewhere around the third year, and you have to keep in mind, a lot of these guys were married with children now, a mortgage, they couldn't live on the GI Bill. And, about the third year, the national crediting people came around and, apparently, they needed so many square feet of laboratory space per student and Rutgers didn't have it. And, I guess, they felt the easiest way out was to flunk people out. So, we lost about a third of our engineering class. They just cracked down on us. And, we did go to the Dean of Engineering, and that was the year when I flunked the thermodynamics. Like I said, I was lucky, I held on, but, a lot of these guys went out. And, as a group, we went to the Dean of Engineering and said, "You know, this is going on and we're only here for one thing and that's to work hard and get a degree and get out." Well, there was some unkind words said to us, so we went to the VA instructor and, ... this is very limited, unbitter, unkind, or unhappy part of my college career. We went to the Veterans Administration representative on campus and he said, "Well, the last representative complained about Rutgers, what they're doing to you guys, and he got fired," which is not a pretty story. And, the other side of the coin was that Rutgers ended up getting some kind of an agreement with the federal government where they'd charge us out-of-state fees, which chewed up our GI Bill. So, here we are, native New Jerseyans, but, they're charging us out-of-state fees, which, you know, used our GI credits. Fortunately, I had enough that I could, ... when I was working at J.M., I came back for some night school, working for my Masters. I knew I'd never get there, but it was helpful in the work I was doing to have some more training. So, there were a couple of unkind things that Rutgers did to the vets. We did lose about thirty percent of the class.
KP: The people you lost, did any of them transfer into the Liberal Arts area, or did they just drop out of Rutgers all together?
RB: I'll tell you, I don't know what happened to them. I know they disappeared from the engineering field. I think that they just felt like they were out because they ...
KP: They failed out.
RB: Yes, failed out.
KP: It sounds like the engineering was very separate, that you didn't have much contact with other academic fields, except for maybe introductory English courses. How many electives did you take outside of engineering?
RB: That's right. We got a lot of credit, particularly officers. We got credit for ROTC because we were officers. So, that covered a lot of the electives for us. There was an English Lit course that I ... (Marlowe?), I remember (Marlowe?) in this English. And so, ... where along the line I was having such trouble with the engineering courses ... I dropped that. And, I think, that's probably ... two non-technical courses that I took down here. And, yet, we knew that this was bad. In fact, later on, I think they even ran a five year engineering course, trying to get you to get non-technical subjects. Report writing, more English, things to supplement you being a better engineer, the non-technical things, broaden your base.
KP: Did you find that the fact that you had had so few non-technical courses hindered you? Did the fact that you had all these experiences as an officer make up for that?
RB: I think ... my background made up for it. Well, to this day, ... I wished I had more of the arts-type thing, so I could appreciate opera, or whatever.
KP: Were you active in any campus groups at all?
RB: Just the band.
KP: Just the band. So, you would go to all the games?
RB: Yep, get on the bus and go to away games. Crosby, Dean of ... Personnel, I guess, at the time, and I can remember sitting next to [him]. But, again, having been a successful baton twirler, at that time, what I did was I use to twirl the two batons, and it was different at the time. And, I kind of got noted on campus as the guy down there in the band that used two batons, with the high throws and so forth. And, in fact, I think ... [it was] surprising [to think] ... "Hey, they're cheering for me." And, I didn't even know it at the time. We're out there, one of the first times I marched with the band, during the half, ... one of the moves that I made was, I threw one baton up and as that was coming down, I threw the other baton up. And, Jeez, there was a roar up in the stadium, and I just thought it was the football team coming out again, you know. [laughter] Oh, they start clapping and said, "That's for you." ... Good for me, I didn't even realize what was going on.
KM: You learned the baton twirling at Bound Brook High School?
KM: What about the ROTC, did that take up a lot of your time your first couple years?
RB: I didn't need it because I went in as an officer.
KM: Oh, O.K.
KP: So, you were exempt?
RB: They gave us credit for it.
KP: You went in with a bunch of veterans, but there were some regular nineteen year olds in college. What was the relationship between the vets and the kids?
RB: Not many.
KP: Not many?
RB: It was almost, I would say, ninety-nine percent of us were all vets. Of course, as we moved along, the class behind us was vets also, and then, after that, the non-vets started coming in. But, everybody just gelled, like upper class and lower class. No big difference.
KP: For people who graduated in '42 and earlier years, before the war, there were a number of campus rituals, for example, that freshman had to wear beanies and do other things. Did you have any of those?
RB: It all went out the window when we came back.
KP: So, you missed, for better or for worse those rituals?
RB: We had that hazing in the flight school. We were at Syracuse. When we stand out front, the upperclassmen would say, "Now make like an airplane," then you'd go "Zoom," you know, up and down. [laughter] ... But, and even that they did away with in the Air Force. So, when we came here, I guess, they figured that twenty-one, twenty-two, we weren't gonna be really too receptive to that. [laughter]
KP: Are there any other memories you have of your days at Rutgers? It sounds like you were very busy.
RB: I was. It was a job for me. Unfortunately, that's one of the regrets, by commuting, you miss out on a lot of activities on campus. And, that was just one of those things. I had obligations at home and I knew that my mother needed help at home, managing property, and so, after my dad died, I really didn't have a choice of moving on campus, even if I wanted to.
KP: Would the fraternities have had any appeal to you, or had you thought of, the first year, of joining a fraternity?
RB: Well, at first, as a veteran, a lot of us looked at it as kind of a lot of snobbery. And so, ... we really didn't look into the frat thing. Little by little, some of the guys joined and, as a commuter, again, I didn't. Commuters kind of stuck with themselves, so you really never got to the point where you weren't even invited to join. And then, when I mentioned Scotty (Bulist?), there was two other fellows that we worked together with, and one of these guys, I've since visited him in Delray Beach, and this guy probably was as instrumental as me getting through ... college as anybody. ... I had a memory, I could remember things, and he was able to work out the derivations on these things, so that between the two of us, we kind of worked some of the problems out with whatever we could supplement. I'd always say, "Leon, if it weren't for you I'd never gotten through college," you know. And, he ended up being a pretty, a fairly well respected engineer, working for, I think it was, Pratt and Whitney, down in Florida, working on missiles and this kind of thing.
KP: You loved flying. What type of engineer did you think you'd be when you started and as your studies were progressing?
RB: When I went to work for J.M., I worked for the summer at first, ... part time. And then, when I graduated, like I say, my grades were not the greatest, and J.M. Researchers used to hire the top, not five percent, but, top five students, grade-wise. In '49, jobs were kind of hard to get, so I went in and I told them, ... "My grades are not that great," and they said, "You know, we've watched you work over the summer months and we've since changed our philosophy." And, they're the ones who pointed it out to me, they said, "We used to hire the top five in a class." He said, "By the end of the first five years, when these people worked for us, frequently, they would commit suicide. They couldn't handle non-book problems." They said, "We've noticed that you apply a lot of common sense, are able to cope. You get along with the factory workers when you go down to work things out," and so forth, "... We want you in the respect because you have a fair amount of common sense." On that basis, I think, I got hired ... [not] because of my academic grades. ...
KP: In a sense, working that summer was really crucial to your future.
RB: Yes, yes. And, I guess, you'd have to say that I was more of a practical engineer than a theoretical. ... I found it strange that I was doing research work at that point, except that I was good handling the ...
----------------------END TAPE TWO, SIDE ONE-----------------------
KP: You mentioned you were good at handling the factory workers.
RB: I rubbed shoulders with them, you know. ... A lot the guys went down there with their nose in the air and, of course, as we all know, you learn more from the people doing the process.
KP: A lot of the managers wouldn't get that?
RB: No, no. That's why they changed their hiring philosophy, actually, at J.M.
KP: Do you think a lot of them didn't get it because they hadn't had your experiences in the war or was it more your personal philosophy, the way you were raised?
RB: Well, ... you know, you had ... a crew concept. You had to learn to work with fellow workers, be it a private, or whatever. And, I think that's the feeling I felt when I went down to the factory. And, I know these older guys were more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the production than I was. Wet-behind-the-ears-type thing, coming out of college, and I had always heard that as a researcher, you got to work with the people who knew what was going on. And, as a matter of fact, later on, with T.W.A., I got a lot of letters of thank you ... even got a job offer from Bendix, because I went over to Bendix. One of my fellow pilots ended up crashing into the side of a mountain out of Albuquerque, and they found it was compass failure. At that time, we had no compass failure indicators and, by going and talking to the Union, they said, "You've got an engineering degree. Do you think you can work out some kind of warning system that we can present to Bendix?" ... Again, I went out into the hanger and talked to the mechanics and put this piece with that piece. And, I went up to Bendix, and I said, "This is what I think would work." At first, they said, "No." The next thing they said was, "You want to come work for us?" [laughter] And so, about a year later, when the jets came out, I saw this concept on the jet. So, I felt pretty good about that, but, again, this was the engineering.
KP: Engineering, but also the fact that you talked to the foreman ...
RB: Yep, got their ideas on it.
KP: You worked for a while for Johns Manville, until the Korean War. What else do you remember about your experiences? You mentioned you were a practical engineer who did research.
RB: Every junior engineer got the assignment of developing a strength test for concrete. And, to this day, I don't think there has been one perfected. They had what they called the slump test, which was where they put the cement in a cone, and you take the cone off, and, depending on how much it falls, that's going to have certain strength characteristics. Well, unfortunately, ... the section I was in made translite pipe. And, they'd have a run on translite pipe which was worth thousands and ... thousands of dollars, only to find out the stuff was sagging off the molds. So, they had to have some quick test, so every new engineer was assigned this impossible task, to figure out a test form. And, they had parts of this, and so, that was basically my project ... the short time I was there.
KP: Which couldn't really be solved.
RB: No. We refined the test that they had, eliminated a lot of the variables, but we never did narrow it down.
KP: Were you happy working at Johns Manville?
RB: Well, it was a challenge, and, of course, I guess, that's my middle name. I like challenges. ... I enjoyed it, but, while I did that, needless to say, as soon as the Air Force Reserves opened up, where we could fly, and as a reservist I was flying out of Newark on my days off, and so, I was enjoying that, too.
KP: When did you join the Reserves?
RB: Well, when I was separated from the active duty, I went right into the Reserve, except the Army Air Force had no program of ... such. They were setting it up after the war. So, as soon as they got it set up, guess who was knocking at their door to be one of the first?
KP: And, you did this as part of your love of flying?
KP: Did you ever have any regrets at John's Manville that you didn't stay in the Air Force as a career or you were happy with that sort of work?
RB: I needed the college education.
KP: And so, you were happy?
RB: I gave up things, but, overall, it was the best move to go.
KP: Were you surprised that you were called up in the Reserves? Did you join the Reserves with the notion that you might be called up?
RB: Yes, to be honest with you, yes. In '49, the Air Force had a big upheaval. They eliminated a lot of us from flying. There was only a select few that were given flying slots. So, we were transferred to non-flying jobs and the small amount of flying slots was at ... the Air Force ... over there. I tried to get in. I didn't have the right connections, to be honest with you. And so, then, the Korean War broke out, and guys who were not that dedicated dropped out of the Reserves, even though they were taking the flying. So, the slots opened up, and I moved in. And, I know, or I knew, that, eventually, they would need some more. So, by God, it was about six months later that they called up this unit.
KP: So, you had really looked at the Reserves as an opportunity to serve?
RB: To get back to flying.
KP: Yes, because a number of people have said that they joined the Reserves more for the pension, and benefits. Did you really join with the notion of service and flying?
RB: Well, let me put it this way. I was still fairly young, and knew I'd be put back in the draft-type category, and I didn't want to take that chance, so I just felt ... and what you mentioned, retired benefits, and so forth, were not something that you overlooked. Even though twenty years seemed like a lifetime at the moment, ... it went very quickly. And, I ended up with twenty-seven years in the Reserves and, you know, active duty.
KP: Did the Korean War come as a surprise to you?
RB: Being called up?
KP: Yes, or even just the war breaking out?
RB: Oh, yes, I mean, this was a UN action, and it was never a war. It was a police action ... I mean, we had our head in the sand by calling it that. ... Unfortunately, we had an obligation over there. We signed treaties with Korea and, even though it was an unpopular war, I'm glad to see that we fulfill our treaties.
KP: As you said, you were called up for Korea. What types of missions did you fly?
RB: Re-supply the troops. ... We were based on the island of Kyushu, just south of the Korean peninsula. And, we were flying these twin-engine cargo planes, airborne and cargo. And, what we would do is, fly up, ... at that time, the jet technology was pretty poor, and so, that, maybe, they got six hours of flying time out of a fighter engine, particularly in combat. And so, we were constantly flying up new engines to them from Japan. And then, as the troops needed us, we would go up and drop ammunition, or re-supplies, you know, on the front lines.
KP: So, you were in harm's way on air drops to troops?
RB: Yes, but, again, comparing it to the Eighth Air Force during World War II, ... we had small arms, holes in the airplanes, but nothing like the anti-aircraft in Europe. ... So, ... again, the accident rate got more guys than combat.
RB: Even at this stage.
RB: Yes, flying is a funny game. And, even today, if you see an airline that expands in a hurry, you're gonna see accidents associated with that airline, because the crews are not experienced. ... You can teach them book-learning all day long, but, you can't substitute experience in the flying game. And so, when you got new pilots, some of ... [them] got in trouble over there. All of us were experienced, we were called up after World War II. So, ... we were an asset to the Air Force, because of the experience we had. And, ... we also had a problem with the particular airplane we were flying. They had all ... steel blades and, going in on these dirt runways, a lot of rocks, and so, when you'd check your mags before take off ... it got to a point where the engineers said, "Don't do it." And, of course, a lot of guys didn't want to go that route and, I'll tell you a story later, one time I didn't and it was a problem. But, ... instead of running the engines up on a parking stand, checking the mags and picking up all those stones that would bang the propellers, ... you'd get airborne. And, the term "lose an engine" in flying games meant it went bad and you feathered the engine. You stopped it and you flew on the other engine. In these airplanes, more often than not, when you lost the engine, the engine fell off, because the blades would rip off from the damage of the rocks. And, of course, we had a four-bladed prop. The airplane engine was unbalanced, and it would just tear the engine right off the airplane. In fact, one of our chief pilots, they were flying across to Korea. Most people wouldn't believe this story, but, on the twin engine airplane, the engines are lined up on either side. The blade flew off of this engine, went through the fuselage, hit the blade on the other side, and both engines ripped off. And, now, here they are, a glider, and when you have two great big fire walls out there, where the engine was, it doesn't fly very well. ... The two fellows that tried to ditch it were killed, and two or three guys had bailed out, one guy got hit by the rudder, and he never pulled his chute, but the other two guys made it down. And thank God for the UN, I guess, in this case, the British had destroyers out to pick these guys up out of the water. But, the airplane was designed and taken right into combat. So, there were some shortcomings that they were finding out about while I was over there. The year I was over there, they grounded the whole fleet twice and they changed all the propellers, different types. And, the last batch was good ...
KP: Did you have any regrets that you weren't able to fly a jet at that point in time?
RB: Not really, because, at that time, there were no heavy jets flying around. The B-47 was coming down the pike and B-52s were coming down the drawing board. So, ... even ... flying jets on the airlines, I liked to fly by the seat of my pants. And, it's the old pilot talking. ...
KP: You didn't mind being stuck in a propeller?
RB: Yes, because you felt like you were part of the airplane. Of course, I couldn't see that jet zooming around. You had the oxygen, all that, then, of course, on the B-17s, which I flew in the Eighth Air Force, we always had oxygen masks on and freezing our butts off. ... So, I didn't look forward to getting into a military jet with an oxygen mask again. Whereas when you're flying around ten thousand feet all the time, it was more pleasant.
KP: You were based on this island just south of the Korean Peninsula. How big was the island?
RB: The island was Kyushu and we were on the northern tip. Just off the top of my head, I would say it's probably as big as New Jersey.
KP: And, you were on a base. Did you have any contact with the inhabitants of the island?
RB: Yes, again, like in England, a lot of the help were natives. And, the Japanese women all worked in the BOQs as maids for us, keeping our uniforms clean and pressed. And, they worked in the Officer Club and they worked in the mess hall. So, ... it was fun and we learned pidgin Japanese, so to speak. And, ... to be honest with you, we probably got to know the female Japanese personality more than the men, because the men were out helping the mechanics on the line, or cleaning the base in the streets, or whatever. But, it was an interesting year.
KP: When you were in Japan, did it ever strike you that we had been fierce enemies of Japan? You were here when Pearl Harbor was attacked. This connection with Japan, living in Japan and the Japanese civilians working on American military bases, did it ever strike you as not what you had expected?
RB: No, because, even though it was, let's see, '51, 1951, the war was over in '45. The time span seemed longer than it actually was, and no matter what philosophy one wants to have, General MacArthur did a good job of occupation. And, the Japanese men respected us than were antagonistic with us. And, when he left, things changed. The attitude of the Japanese people changed.
KP: In what way?
RB: They got antagonistic. In fact, in 1959, ... I had since come home, gone to work for T.W.A., and I went, as I had done in England, gone back to the old air base, I went back to Japan in '59. I went back to the old air base. In Tokyo, especially, the Japanese men would run into you, kind of knock you off into the curb as you were walking down the sidewalk. A whole different attitude and now the resent[ment] seemed to be coming out. As a matter of fact, a funny story happened. When I went to my base, I took the train from Fukuoka, which was one of the airports in Kyushu. I took the train up to where I was based. I got off at the station, and, of course, all the Japanese spoke English, or large amount of English, anyway. I got off at the train station and I saw the military base with the split beacon that runs at the base at night time. And so, I knew the base was still operational. It never dawned on me it might be a Japanese Air Force base now. ... It was beyond walking distance, so I called for a taxi, and, I had trouble with my limited amount of Japanese, which I could get along with before, to get a taxi out there. So, finally, a taxi came. I jumped in it and I said, "To the base." And, we went over there and I got out at the main gate, and, as a reservist, I could stay on military bases. And so, I got out and I walked into the M.P. officer at the gate. There were five Japanese guys, no U.S. military, and I said, "Ah, so, something is changed here." So, with this guy's pidgin English and my pidgin Japanese, I finally conveyed to him what was going on, that I just wanted to visit the old base. So, he went back to the taxi and he jumped in the front seat. And, now it was getting dark. So, he blah, blah, blah, to the Japanese taxi and we started going through all these back streets in Japan. I thought, "Ah, so, he's gonna get even with me." And so, we stop on a dead end street. I kind of swallowed hard and out of this house I hear, "I say there dear, come this way." It was a British couple who was a jet engine specialist from England. So this sergeant, Japanese sergeant, got out of the taxi and went over to him and spoke in Japanese. He came over to the taxi and said, "Oh, I understand you were based here during the Korean War." And, he said, "Well, I'll tell you Yank," he said, "Let's go get a bottle of scotch and get drunk." [laughter] And so, we took the Japanese sergeant back and he said, "First, we've got to get a hotel room for you." I'll tell you, at that point, before I heard the English, I was a little concerned about, you know, what was going on there. But, ... we didn't get drunk, we had a pleasant evening that night. And, they found a hotel room.
KP: And, did you get to see the base in the end?
RB: No, we went back the next day and it was Sunday. And, the base was closed. The gates were closed on Sunday. "I can get you in through a back, you know, through the woods" and so forth, he said. But, there's no sense playing games here. So, I really never got on the base. And so, he drove me down to ... Fukuoka. I took a plane up to Osaka, then I went out to Kyoto and preceded with my sight-seeing.
KP: Living in Japan at that time, did you have any sense that Japan would become the economic powerhouse it did? Or did that sort of surprise you?
RB: We had a fellow that was in the reserve ... he was one of the group that would get shipped over on the U.S.S. Jefferson, troop transport from San Francisco to Tokyo. And, incidentally, coming in from Tokyo Bay, I can fully understand why the flag is what it is. It was a hazy, foggy morning and this brilliant orange ball of fire came up and it looked just like the Japanese flag. So, anyway, this fellow was with us, and he was a banker, with First National Bank of New York, at the time. He was recalled and, while we were over there, in the middle of the year, he said, "I've got to visit one of my colleges who's based in Tokyo." He said, "This fellow is saying buy all the stock you can, buy all the Japanese stock you can get you hands on." Of course, at that stage in my life, I wasn't worried about stock, but I should've. So, that was the only time I looked back and there was a red light ringing...
KP: You look back and remember this guy?
RB: Yes, that they were on their way to being very successful business-wise.
KP: Did you ever make it onto the Korean Peninsula at all, during the war?
RB: Well, we landed there regularly, yes.
KP: You frequently landed?
RB: Yes, in fact, one time, ... the American military was trying to keep the North Koreans and these Chinese off balance. And so, we would go through ... and, of course, we had our regular drops, combat drops, other times, we would take the airborne and we'd take them up into Korea and drop them, all these paratroopers, making them think that we were gonna set up another front to go around, maybe an end run ... in North Korea. So, we were always landing up there, and waiting to get the paratroopers back together and take them back to Japan. So, we did spend some time in Korea, and it was interesting. You know, we'd get these guys on the airplane to unload the jet engines, and so forth. You couldn't practically stand in the fuselage. They reeked of garlic. And, it seemed like they were always gonna be a very non-technical nation. And, here, they copied Japan almost to the letter.
KP: So, when you landed in Korea, how long would you be in Korea for?
RB: The longest was probably overnight.
KP: And, how close were you to the combat zone?
RB: Well, we use to drop on the combat zone.
KP: Yes, you would drop but...
RB: But, we wouldn't stay on the ground, no.
KP: How far would you be back from the front?
RB: No, we would be back. In fact, one day, on a mission up there, after landing, we're taxiing in and, of course, on occasion it would get pretty hot in the airplane, so we would open the windows. And so, as we taxied in, I heard this thing, like we had a bird out in the engine, whistling. So, when we parked it, I had the crew chief go out and take a look at the engine, and we had blown part of the ignition harness off. And, it was a thirty-six cylinder engine, and so, I got the radio operator ... radio back to the home base that we needed some spare parts. So, we spent the next night or two there while we waited for the parts and then, got the engine fixed and got out of there. They always wanted us to get out of Korea just as fast as we could, because, ... the MiGs from China were flying around, and, they also had somebody they called, Bed-Checked Charley, ... open cockpit plane, they'd come down in the middle of the night and drop these small bombs out of the airplanes, nuisance-type thing.
KP: So, what I've seen in movies, the guy dropping a little bomb out of his plane.
RB: I don't know what type of bomb rack they had, but ... the cartoons where they ...
KP: Did you ever encounter any MiGs or any other enemy aircraft in Korea?
RB: No, we were not in that kind of combat. We were strictly ...
KP: Even with paratrooping drops, you never encountered enemy fire?
RB: No, because we always had, our own fighters intercepted anything. Our troop carrier unit ... you heard about the napalm in Vietnam, twern't nothing to what we did in Korea, and I don't think they even heard about it. ... We perfected the technique. We used these transports, which normally, when we had a re-supply drop, you'd have these things on plywood pallets on conveyer rollers. And, when you hit your drop zone, you'd pull the nose up, and you released the cable, and all the stuff would roll down the rollers and out the back end of the airplane. And then, the parachutes would open up and the stuff would descend to where you were trying to drop it. We perfected the deal where they put four fifty gallon drums on each plywood palette and we had thirty-six planes in our troop carrier wing and we would go out and, on test flights, we'd drop four fifty gallon napalm barrels, and, we ... obliterated one of the small Japanese islands. We perfected a thing that we could drop the napalm, because the fighters at that time, the F-80s, ... the range was so limited that they couldn't carry much napalm, to speak of. So, ... they put ... fifty gallons of napalm on our planes. Then what they did is, they flew in large formations, each plane carrying fifty gallons, fifty ... gallon drums and we used B-29 call signs, the bomber call signs, so that the enemy would think that it was bomber group coming in. They went after personnel centers, where they congregated the troops in North Korea. When they came over ... they would let go with thirty-six times fifty, fifty gallon drums. And, they figured they killed thousands of North Koreans. Not burning them, they suffocated them, because it burned all the oxygen up in the immediate area. So, there was ... a lot of napalm dropped. It was supposed to be top secret. ... I think people were getting letters back from home saying, "We saw on television where you guys are experimenting with Operation Snowball." And, we'd shake our head, we thought it was top secret and here it was being shown on the TV back here.
KP: But, you were told at the time it was top secret?
RB: Oh yes. We didn't talk about it in front of the Japanese people or anything, and yet the Japanese men were out there loading the napalm cans, so, you know, they knew something was going on. But, they were good. I think the Japanese were loyal to us, but, after all, we were fighting one of their enemies, Korea.
KP: Did you ever have any discussions with any of the Japanese about the Korean War?
RB: Not about the Korean War, but, we talked to some of the women about the World War II. And, I came away from a conversation a little bit upset and confused. We had one of the Japanese maids that worked ... in fact, for one of the guys in the room where I lived. She was not a thorough-bred Japanese. Her facial features were different, or more like ours. And, we had this one fellow, ... he would never win any prizes so far as diplomacy goes. One day, he turned to her, we called them mamma-sans, he turned to this women and said, "Well, look at what your men did during World War II. They threw babies up and caught them on bayonets in China." And, I remember the news broadcast, and she looked at him and she said, "Pappa-san," (Shillings was this guy's name), "You're married, aren't you?" He said, "Yes." "Do you have baby-sans?" "Yes." "Would you do that in combat, go throw baby-san up and catch them on bayonet?" He said, "Of course not." She said, "Do you think our husbands and fathers of our children would do the same thing?" And, all of a sudden, it dawned on me. I think we were part of a propaganda blast from our own government to get us fired up. Kill all those Japs that are killing the babies, you know. Like I said, I came away from that conversation confused. I really came to the conclusion, I think, that it was just propaganda. And, maybe it happened, but, ... we were fed that during the war.
KP: It sounds like your experience in Japan made you think a lot about how wars are fought?
RB: Oh, yes ... even though I was in two and I flew ... in a third one as a civilian. They're not the answer.
KP: When you say you flew in a third as a civilian, you flew for T.W.A.?
RB: We were flying troops to Saigon. And, again, ... we ended up with a few holes in the airplanes, but, minimal. It was probably accidental, because of the guerrillas around the airport. You know, they'd shoot at anything that came over.
KP: You were on active duty for Korea. You mentioned earlier it was an unpopular war. Did you sense that at the time, in Japan and in Korea, among you fellow pilots?
RB: No, no. We had a ...
KP: That, in a sense, is your commitment to the Air Force, to the cause, or to the country?
RB: No, no, I'm very strong. In fact, felt this way about Vietnam. If a country is to commit themselves to a treaty to jointly protect each other, then you should fulfill it. And, I just felt we were doing a UN assignment over in Korea.
KP: You mentioned that you were more on the side of the Republicans in the New Deal era. There were Republicans who thought that we shouldn't make these commitments, people like Taft. Where did you come down on that issue? Were you an internationalist Republican?
RB: I was probably somewhere in-between. I still feel that we can't be everybody's keeper. The world order, I just don't think it's a practical solution.
KP: But, none the less, you think there are commitments we should make and keep?
RB: Yes, there's certain things that, if you're gonna be the top dog in the power struggle in the world, sometimes you have to extend a helping hand. But, ... I think we should look at some of these situations two and three times before we get involved. I talked to my German friend who said, "Oh, yes," she said, ... "When we were kids growing up, the Ukraine was always in trouble with the Serbs and Bosnians," she said, "they were always at each others throat and nobody's been able to solve this thing." And, in so many words, it would be money down the drain to try and stop it now. And so, you know, I don't have the solution, but there's certain things that, if they're gonna go after each other, no matter how many nations have tried to stop them in the past, are we just gonna be another failure? I don't know.
KP: It's a little bit out of order, but you mentioned you flew to Vietnam. You flew as a civilian pilot. What was that like, to be in a third war, a civilian, but still flying?
RB: ... I didn't have any different feelings than I had. I felt that, as a civilian, they trained me to fly. I felt, in a way, I was still paying them back. And, naturally, the airline personnel were treated differently than military pilots. We were much more experienced, we were older. We were much more respected. We had good equipment and the airlines were the main funnel of getting personnel over there, right or wrong.
KP: You would fly a conventional airplane?
RB: We were flying the 707. It was the early jet that the airlines were using. Excellent airplane.
KP: You had gone over on troop ships for the two wars that you were in uniform. What did you think of flying men into war in a 707?
RB: Well, ... cost wise, I didn't think it was realistic. Second point, ... they were trying to develop a concept that you land and let the fellows off and they were going right into combat. Being very experienced with the jet lag, I knew that this was not going to work. And, the Army eventually found this out, too. The guys were too groggy. I mean, ... the body just is not gonna accept that. And, I realized that I was older now, experienced the jet lag. Maybe when I was twenty, it wouldn't have bothered me that much. But, apparently, the military found out, even the young
people, that jet lag is a problem, too.
KP: Where would a trip begin when you'd ferry troops in?
RB: We would start sometimes from McGuire, here in Jersey. And, those poor devils would go all the way through, whereas, we would get off in San Francisco, catch the next flight that was coming from McGuire the next night. Then we would fly to Honolulu and we'd get off there, and then, again, wait for the next shift to come through. Then, We would take the flight to Okinawa, and we would get off again. And then, the next day, we would shuttle up to Saigon and back. But, these poor devils, squirmed into a coach seat, and these charters were all coach seats ... less leg room than in a regular coach seat ... and I just couldn't believe that they were gonna send these guys right into combat, which is what they did in some cases.
KP: They'd get off the plane and go?
RB: Right into combat and, fortunately, they realized the error in that kind of philosophy.
KP: Did you see any of wartime Saigon when you were there? How many years did you fly into Saigon?
RB: I flew six months.
KP: In what phase of the war? Was it in '65?
RB: It was going full-speed.
KP: The years you flew, what exact year did you fly?
RB: I flew there ... September of '66 to April of '67.
KP: So, you were there when the build-up was on.
RB: Yep. It was interesting. ... After saying that I think that we should fulfill our commitments on treaties, naturally, we would have generals, we would have privates on the airplane, and frequently, we were curious what was going on in Vietnam. We'd open up the cockpit door and invite the generals up to talk to us, (non-coms, too, on occasion), but we were interested in talking to the officers, top officers. I remember some top brass saying, "If Washington would leave us alone, we could have that war over in six months." There was a lot of political interference. This is where I sour on the war. They should've left the guys alone.
KP: And, you got that sense when you were flying these missions with these generals?
RB: Yes, from the comments I got from the officers.
KP: What about the men? What sense did you have of them?
RB: I felt sorry for them. They were like kid brothers, you know. ... I went through it.
KP: You had a sense of what they were going through.
RB: ... It was interesting.
KP: You were a pilot after the Korean War. You decided to become a pilot and not go back to Johns Manville.
RB: The flying on ... our type of work, we did a lot of instrument flying in Korea, which is exactly what the airlines wanted. And so, when I came back ... the airlines were hiring, they walked me through the door and said, "You flew in the Korean Airlift?" Man, they had your signature on the application right now. So, I hired on with T.W.A. in the fall of '52 and it turned out to be ... very enjoyable ... enjoyed every second of it.
KP: And, you mentioned that much of your career you flew internationally?
RB: Twenty-one years out of thirty-two with T.W.A.
KP: How many years?
KP: And, how exotic would your destinations be?
RB: Well, T.W.A. was the orphan brother of Pan Am, if you will. Pan Am had the statement of being the U.S. carrier overseas, but, we went to Paris, Frankfurt, London, Milan, Rome, Athens, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Bombay and, at one point, they did fly around the world. I've been into Bangkok. ... They also flew to South Africa, which I never did. I could have flown it, but I didn't want to. So, I've gotten in most of the east-west routes that we flew. In fact, I was on the last trip to Manila when we decided not to fly down there anymore, but all the cities were very interesting. I loved Italy for the food. I think they're still the best chefs and I think Germany comes close, certain types of food. I'm not a wine sauce person, so France didn't ...
KP: Didn't do anything.
RB: But, Italy, I went bananas down there with the pasta, really great.
KP: Were there destinations you did not like flying into, for various reasons?
RB: I guess, the two Middle East countries I didn't particularly enjoy flying into ... Tel Aviv, and I didn't particularly like flying into Egypt. They were just different. Even though Tel Aviv is a mishmash of every nationality in the world, they didn't seem to be as friendly as some other places, and, in Egypt, there was still that mystique, where you didn't know whether you were welcome or not. Those were the only two places. We went to Zurich and to Geneva, the countries of our own type of society, it was interesting.
KP: What about flying into Asia? Now you had been based in Japan and flew missions into Korea, but what about the other parts of Asia that you got to see.
RB: Manila, as a matter of fact, ... [I was] set ... up on a blind date with the Ambassador's daughter to France. My last night in Manila, a group of us went out and my, quote, "date" was the Ambassador's daughter, which was kind of interesting. The evening ended up with me saying, "No, we can't give you anymore foreign aid, because, you know, we're just breaking our backs now." "Something you people should think about," I said, you know, "Our people work from eight to five, with no three-hour breaks in the afternoon." "We may be very unionistic, but, they put in a day's work." A lot of these countries, they want to have these three-hour siestas and still get all the goodies that our people earn. I didn't convince her of anything and she didn't convince me of anything. [laughter] But, it was an interesting evening.
KP: Your career, in some way, spans the history of modern aviation. To me, it seems the shift in technology is not as great from World War I to World War II as from the World War II era to now. What were the key changes and how were you able to adapt so successfully? One thing you credited was engineering.
RB: Yep, but, really the change was, ... when I first got with the airline industry, the electronic advances. When I first went with T.W.A., they were still flying the range, where you would listen on a headset and if you moved to one side you'd get a "a" or if you moved to the other side. ... And then, depending on how the range legs ... were set up, intersected, was what they called the code of silence, and when you went over, ... that's how you knew you were over the station. Then, you did a procedure turn to come in at a lower level, now that you were orientated. And then, you'd drop down to the airport. Unfortunately, even with that, they mislead the fellows. Sometimes, you had a false cone of silence, the technical aspects of it still lacked a lot. Then, they came along with the V.O.R.s which are high frequency, and you did it visually. And then, they developed your I.L.S. systems, which were, again, your visual beams and paths to come into the airport, which was a lot more reliable than the old radio beams. And, that's when we came out of the woods. We were able to find the airports a lot safer, and without equipment misleading you. In fact, I would say, in the first ten years I was with the airline, there were some airlines ... up in New England, ... NorthEast Airlines, they flew a lot of DC-3s all through New England, Maine, using the ranges; yet. Many of them were crashing into the mountains, because they were led incorrectly. When you got the V.O.R.s and the I.L.S.s, ... it was much more reliable.
KP: Well, my impression also of World War II navigation is that you literally had to navigate.
RB: Oh yes. We had navigators on board who shot the sun and the stars. In fact, my early part of T.W.A., on the Constellations, we carried a navigator who did celestial navigation. And, it was only into the early jet age that we got rid of that and got ...
---------------------END TAPE TWO, SIDE TWO------------------------
KP: This continues an interview with Mr. Robert W. Billian on February 2, 1995, with Kurt Piehler and...
KM: Kelly Martin
KP: And, you were saying about the Doppler effect.
RB: You know the old story about the train coming with the whistle blowing. They measured the movement over the ground the same way, electronically. So, they could tell when you were drifting off to one side or another and this information was all fed into a computer and you fed in distances and compass settings. You ended up with a position. ... You could leave New York and end up ... within [a] few miles of destination without touching it. So, it was a big step forward, particularly ... 12,000 feet in the clouds. For a navigator, there is no way of knowing, can't shoot the stars, can't shoot the sun, because you're in the clouds. That was the advancement that really helped aviation, when you had the precise navigation equipment.
KP: And, it seems much more predictable than even twenty-five years ago.
RB: Oh, yes, and they have back-up systems, which is so much safer than what they use to have. In a DC-3, ... particularly, if you lost the hydraulic system and, you probably heard this, read about it, where they dump coffee in the system to keep the
different controls functioning, you know. And, whereas now, on the 747, you have four different hydraulic systems, so if you lose one, you got the other three working, or you can cross over, they're all backups. ... It's come a long way, engineering-wise, toward making it operational and safe.
KP: When the airline industry was rather fragile, even in the early Fifties, with the regulation and deregulation, how did those patterns affect your career at T.W.A.? Pan Am is the big airline and you are this sort of try harder airline.
RB: Actually, I didn't feel the blow of deregulation. I was getting out about that time and it ... still very controversial. Many airlines had gone under as a result of deregulation. On the other side of the coin ... they should've become more efficient. So, I don't know whether you have a finger to point at deregulation or not. However, there is an area which I feel that, a service that the airlines provide and that's ... Joe Podunkville, somewhere down the road, where nobody can make money in it, but, they kept flying in there, as a service, because they made twice as much money over here. Unfortunately, the people flying over here were ... subsidizing for flying into that little town where you couldn't make money. Now, if you want to call that balance ... a deal, fine. But, when you come to deregulation, the airline said, "Well, we can't make money there, we're gonna drop out." So, the poor people in that little Podunk town, ... no longer has the airline service. Then, after saying that, now, we do have the regional carriers with the smaller planes, which are starting to take up the slack. So, things are coming around, but, again you've been reading about the small airlines these days, and the icing problems, ... nothing is trouble free.
KP: Did you, as a pilot, when you saw deregulation coming, expect it to have the impact that it did, in terms of shaking up Pan Am, which in your career had been this major airline, go out of existence?
RB: Back twenty-some years, that was a rumor, that the airline industry would end up with five major carriers. For a long time, that almost happened. American has taken over a lot of routes, Delta, United, Northwest, there's four of the five that they said would survive, and if you want to go farther, maybe Southwest. It's a new airline, but there's your five carriers. U.S. Air is in trouble. T.W.A. has just come out of bankruptcy, whether they're gonna make it or not is another point. So, in a nutshell, the predictions that there would be five major carriers after deregulation, they didn't miss it by much.
KP: So, the Nineties have been a big surprise to you?
RB: Well, I didn't welcome them, but the word was this is what was going to happen, ... two years ago when ... Delta went international ... went overseas with American, and, ... the last few years, they lost billions of dollars.
KP: You had flown in the military for two wars. How did that make you a better pilot? And, was there a division in the airlines between those who had been military pilots, in terms of how they were viewed by the airline, and by their fellow pilots, those who hadn't been military?
RB: Yes, we in the military were very fortunate that we had a lot of experience in heavy equipment. Most of the fellows who were not military pilots had most of their training in small planes. I can't really say that the causality rate was higher among them, but it was difficult for them to make the transition, whereas, with us, in some cases, we flew smaller planes in the airlines than we did flying in the military. ... But, we were lucky in the military. We had gotten all that experience and I was very grateful for getting it.
KP: To get the flying.
KM: Was there any kind of training that T.W.A. gave you?
RB: Oh yes. I started in the end of September and I didn't go out flying flights till middle of December. And then, every time another airplane came out, you went back to, our home office at that time was Kansas City, our big, small campus, if you will. We all went back there and we went through new plane school and sometimes it would be three or four months at a time. ... On the bigger airplanes, we were almost a power plant engineer, because we had to learn all the hydraulic systems, we had to learn the electrical systems. When you got quizzed by the government, they were just as concerned that you knew the systems, in case of an emergency as being able to kick the airplane around. That's why I say we were, ... power plant engineers too.
KM: You'd fly out of Newark?
RB: I did for a while, but our bigger equipment I usually flew ... out of Kennedy. So, a lot of my time was out of Kennedy.
KP: Kennedy, at one point, had a very glamorous reputation in the early Sixties. I remember going as a small child, they had a rose garden and people who flew generally wore ties.
RB: Oh, we always did.
KP: Yes, I mean, that the passengers used to, also.
RB: Oh yes. This German girl I'm telling you about...
KP: Yes, the crews remained well-dressed.
RB: Well, we had to. But, I think they're getting a little flabby these days. When I look at terminals, they don't seem to be as ... the pilots seemed to be getting fatter, not as well conditioned and the girls don't look as well-groomed. We used to have inspections for the girls when they went out on flights. They had to pass a grooming test. [If] their hair wasn't such, their makeup wasn't such, they said, "Go home, get fixed-up." Of course we got it on the physicals every six months. If you were over-weight you were taken off of flight status.
KP: As a pilot?
RB: Yes, ... then, this friend of mine, who flew for many years, as many as I did with T.W.A., said, "You can tell how the attitude of the passenger changed. You don't get the classy people, per se, anymore." She said, "It used to be a privilege to talk with a lot of the movie stars or the executives from the industry." And, now, ... well, T.W.A. had to make a rule. No cutoff blue jeans, no tank tops, [or] they wouldn't let you sit in first class. You know, the people come on board looking like slobs. T.W.A. is not alone in this. You think people would know better, but, I guess, it's the way of life.
KP: Yes, I just remember how different it was, flying in the Sixties, even into the early Seventies, compared to now, where you have business people in suits but, often that's more the exception, on flights, than the rule.
RB: Well, the cost was pretty steep in the olden days. The price is pretty cheap today. It's probably one of the better bargains kicking around. It's become the way to travel. You don't take a train anywhere, very seldom do you take a train. Everybody wants to go somewhere, you jump on an airplane like a local bus.
KP: Is there anything we've forgotten to ask?
RB: I've touched on things that I had forgotten about, so that there are probably things that, when I walk out of here, I'll say, "I should've told them about that." [laughter]
KP: If there are, you should let us know when we give you the transcript. If there's something you want to add to the transcript, please do.
RB: One thing, ... I found what I wanted to do early in life and it means such a great thing to know where you want to go.
KP: It sounds like you've been very happy in that sense. That you knew what you wanted to do and were able to do it.
RB: I was blessed in my career. I enjoyed every second of it and I'm just so delighted that I was given an indication early in life to know where I wanted to go. And, I have to thank Rutgers for helping me with the engineering. [laughter]
KP: Well, it sounds like you survived a pretty tough curriculum, I mean, especially in that third year.
RB: Yes, to be honest with you. I might have stayed in engineering if I hadn't had so many hard bruises when I came through school. I knew there were a lot of things I didn't know as much as I wanted to.
KP: You also sound like you don't have any regrets.
KP: Do you ever regret that you never married?
RB: Not really.
KM: Your female German friend, was there any romance with her?
RB: Yes, we have actually dated for more years than you're alive. [laughter] ...
KM: Did I understand that, was she a stewardess on a plane, for T.W.A. as well, so she's over here in the States?
RB: Yes. She came over in, I believe it was 1949. Of course, I didn't start flying T.W.A. until '51, so, I didn't meet her right away. She's held various managerial positions in the hostess department. She's a sharp cookie. You know, driving up here, WOR had a conference between Joan Hamburg, Dr. Joy Brown and Lisa something, she's a weather reporter. Lisa's in the marrying age, I think Joy Brown is in the divorced category, and Hamburg is, well, married. They were talking about how the women seem to be shooting too high in what they want in men and the men shooting too high for what they want in women and all this problem of trying to get people married off. I thought that was kind of an interesting thing, and the more I thought about all the things they were talking about, I said, "I'm very lucky in that respect," too. This gal whose been a long, longtime friend of mine, we speak the same language. We can discuss foreign policy, we can discuss almost anything, and it's like talking to a good friend, which I think in courtships, friendship is numero uno. You can go through all the sexual things, or what have you, but if you're not good friends, I think you're shorted out. That is my word of wisdom. [laughter]
KP: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. We have enjoyed the interview and this is Kelly's first interview.
KM: Yes, it is.
---------------------------END OF INTERVIEW------------------------
Reviewed by Shaun Illingworth 2/16/99
Edited by Sandra Stewart Holyoak 3/10/99
Edited by Robert Billian 5/28/99