“I enlisted when I was 21, the week before the draft office would have grabbed me. I became a bomber pilot and had never seen a plane. My brother was drafted and with drafting they dropped requirements way down. He wore glasses so the put him in the tank corps. He couldn’t drive a car. They drafted people who came through hard times.
When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had no Air Force. We went from nothing to being able to put 1,000 planes in the air at one time. They started shipping the planes to England. To fill those airplanes, they had to recruit people and train them how to how to fly. They recruited us off the street. I had never seen a plane except in the air. The commanders did a fantastic job training us. They trained pilots in four phases. They washed out about 30 percent of the recruits. Those who couldn’t cut it were gone. We trained on the old, retired planes. The planes were called ‘war-weary.’ I lost two engines on takeoff during a training mission. We crash-landed in the desert. I thought this was going to be bad overseas. I enjoyed flight training. There were goals to reach, then they sent you to war.
I was in the 15th Army Air Corps based in southern Italy. The German Army was getting out of Italy because they had been mostly defeated. All they had left was guns, but they had a lot of guns. I flew in southern Germany on a mission and caught a shell in the wing. The shell didn’t explode. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here having this conversation. I flew the last of the airplanes that weren’t pressurized. That makes a big difference. You are flying for eight hours in minus forty and minus thirty. You have to fly with an oxygen mask, but it would freezes up. It took hours to get up to 15-20,000 feet. You drop your bombs and come back down. After a successful mission, all members of the flight crew got a shot of booze. Some of my crew didn’t drink, so I traded with them.
They assigned bomber pilots 35 missions. After that, you went home. The limit was increased from 25 missions because they were losing so many pilots. In ’45, they considered stopping daylight because the losses were too great. The accuracy of the bombs wasn’t good. Today with the smart bombs, they hit exactly what you were aiming at. Sometimes the Soviets moved into our target areas and took our targets out. We were thankful for that. We flew 10 missions, spent a week on the Isle of Capri for rest & relaxation to calm the nerves and stop our hands from shaking. We were based in a village area with nothing to do. On the days we didn’t fly, we went to the local seaport to drink wine and take a shower. They don’t talk about this much, but we also lost a lot of men to venereal diseases. They were getting gonorrhea and syphilis. I replaced a pilot who was hospitalized for it.
Serving in the war gave me confidence in myself. I got lucky and lived a long life. There is a lot of truth to calling us the greatest generation. We lived through the ‘30s, in my case the ‘20s. My father went to World War 1 and came home shell-shocked. He didn’t know what was happening. I don’t think the generations today could handle war. You are fat and happy and have everything. World War 2 was the last war we should have fought. Going to war in Korea and Vietnam were terrible mistakes. The politicians who run our country can’t do it right.
People question dropping the atomic bombs. Those bombs ended the war and allowed us to come home and live tremendous lives. You are living a good life. We had to kill people to end the war or we would be speaking Japanese today. If a world war happens again, would we be able to fight and win?
You asked good questions. I gave you more than I remembered.”
Champ Vinet, New Orleans
(This is the ninth story in “The Souls of World War 2” series)