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It’s hard to believe that it is already summer break! I feel like May went by in less than a wink! We spent a lot of our time in May working on Landry’s 5th Grade Passion Project. His incredible Humanities teacher allowed the students to pick a topic from anything they had studied during the year for their final project. Landry’s choice was WWII and specifically focused on the Air Force’s involvement in the war.
Last year, Landry began to develop a real interest in WWII so we started to share with him the stories of his Great-Grandpa’s service to our country, growing his interest even more. My grandfather (aka “Pops”) flew with the 8th Air Force Bomb Group beginning in 1942, just after the US officially entered the war. Pops (Harry Ackerman) passed away a few years ago, at the age of 95, but Landry was able to know him and have a relationship with him. Landry has loved learning about him so much that the last two years we have taken Pops’ story to the school to share with his classmates.
The more we prepared for it this year, the more I knew I needed to write about it and share it with you! We have several records where he was interviewed on his account of the war that we’re able to now pull from for details. I was hoping to have it done before Memorial Day, but life happened! With it being the anniversary of D-Day this week, it’s still appropriate to share, I think! Pops would understand!
Before I share his events in WWII, I should share a little bit about my grandfather, Major Harry Ackerman. His parents were Jewish immigrants to America, arriving some years before he was born, from Germany by way of Russia then England. He had two older brother who were 10 and 5 years older than him, one passing away as a young boy. Shortly after Pops was was born, his mother was taken to an impatient facility, probably for postpartum depression, and he and his older brother John were left by their father, who could not care for them, to be raised in a Jewish boys home. Pops father spoke several languages, but Pops only spoke English.
Pops entered the service in 1942. He had just finished up college and had studied Engineering. “The Air Corps was looking for people with an engineering background to join the Air Force because…they didn’t have enough aerial navigators but engineers could be flipped over in a very short time.”
He began his training and actually became an instructor for a brief period of time, teaching guys how to work the radios and navigation equipment. He was sent, briefly, from California to Texas to train men down South. He recalled one day, where he was supposed to be showing the men how to operate the equipment, he and his buddy decided to show them how to make a proper martini instead. On his lunch break, he purchased all of his supplies and was ready to go for class! He was from Reno, so he did not take into account that alcohol was illegal on base in Texas! The commanding officer was “so mad he was about as red in the face as my hair was back then!”
Pops was sent to his barracks to wait on a court-martial, and remembered praying “Good Lord, if you let me out of Texas tomorrow morning I promise you I will never set foot in Texas again!” He was allowed to leave but the funny part was that he ended up coming back to Texas after retirement to live by us, and stayed here for well over 30 years!
He was sent back to California, where he assisted Jimmy Doolittle and his group in their training before they embarked on their famous air raid over Japan. Pops was then asked to join the 91st Bomb Group and was ordered to go to England in October of 1942.
He began flying as Lead Navigator on a B-17 called The Careful Virgin. He served in the same bomb group at the famous Memphis Belle and flew with them on many of the same missions. The requirement was to fly 25 missions. To put it into perspective, the 8th Air Force lost more men during WW2 than the entire Marine Corp, and the chances of making it back on a mission were 1 in 10.
On his 22nd mission with the B-17s, on May 22 1943, he was wounded by a German fighter jet. He was on a mission he wasn’t actually supposed to be on and was standing behind the pilots when they came under enemy fire. Shrapnel hit the cockpit and he was wounded in his eye, causing issues with it for the rest of his life, as well as in the leg. Several other members of the crew were wounded, and a shell was lodged in the bomb bay making it imperative that they turn around and return to base safely!
Luckily the pilot was able to return the Careful Virgin to base, and Pops and the other wounded crew were hospitalized. Pops remained in the hospital until June 9th, earning his first Purple Heart. Once healed, he returned to his unit and flew his 25th mission on June 29th. This was a HUGE deal! July 1st he was given his orders to head home to the US.
Most guys would have been thrilled to go home, and would have stayed put… not Pops!
Most guys would have returned to their sweethearts, their farms, or wherever instead of tempting fate and going back, but Pops threw caution to the wind and reenlisted! By this time, the B-24 Liberators had begun to replace the B-17 so this became his new aircraft.
On August 7, 1944 he was serving as the Group Navigation Officer on the Lead Aircraft, the Sunshine Rose, when he embarked on what would be his final mission. This mission was to serve as a diversionary effort to draw German fire away from another effort which was headed to Germany. On this particular mission, Pops was serving as Command Pilot and the Group Navigator, overseeing the 26 planes in their group.
Can you imagine knowing your mission was to serve as bait so another mission could successfully make it to their target?!?!?
Their group was targeting some oil reserves in Remilly, France, but they came under enemy fire near the German-Belgium border. The Bombay area was on fire, with a full load of bombs! The pilot, Capt. Eldon E. Erwin, gave the order to bail out. Five men made it out of the Sunshine Rose before it exploded in air at 13,000 feet.
The crew who did not survive included: Capt. Eldon E. Erwin (pilot), Lt. Colonel Joseph J. Eaton Jr (Group Operations Officer), 2 Lt. Herbert G. Alder (Navigator), Sargent James T. O’Leary (Radio Operator), Sargent Lloyd D. Warner (Nose Gunner). Four members were recorded as successfully bailing out and being taken as Prisoners of War: 2 Lt. John R. Scholle (Co-Pilot), 2 Lt. Roy O. Jones (Bombardier), Sargent Horace B. Lamar (Wasit Gunner), and Sargent Hubert L. Blagrave (Waist Gunner).
Pops watched as the bombardier, who bailed out prior to him, deployed his parachute and drifted into Germany. He knew German fighters were in the area, and would target the parachutes if they were in range, so he made the snap decision to delay opening his own chute and free fall through the fighter screen! He was twisted around, had his chute on upside down, and ended up falling upside down when the parachute opened. He was whipped sharply up, and a bit disoriented but managed to land in a farm field in Belgium that had just been freshly fertilized with manure.
As an American Airman who was as Jewish, it was imperative that he get his bearings quickly and find friendly help, ASAP! If the Germans captured him, as they did several other crew members, he would be in real trouble! He noted two other chutes had landed on the same side of the river has he had, so buried his in some bushes and started towards them. As he came down the hill, two boys were making their way towards him, and told him, in English, to follow them and do whatever they told him to do.
At the bottom of the hill, they came down an area with a lot of commotion, and he heard a woman singing “Its a Long Way to Tipperary,” in English, over and over. “And I figured she sang it in English and I figured that was good enough for me!”
The boys led him to a nearby farm, which had a hidden shelter under a haystack. He was told to wait in the hidden shack and not make a sound, and was left there for several hours.
Late in the afternoon the boys returned and told him to follow them to town without drawing any attention to himself. They went to a store, got Pops a bicycle, told him to follow an older gentleman on that bicycle and not to talk to anybody! Pops got on his bike and rode several yards behind the older gentleman until they got to a hill and suddenly his bike wouldn’t go any further. The chain had fallen off, and he watched as the gentleman disappeared over the hill. Pops thought “I guess I’ll just sit here, and somebody will help me out or they won’t!” Sometime later the gentleman realized that he was missing his shadow and came back for Pops, gave him a stern lecture in Belgian, slapped his hands and said: “don’t touch those chains again!”
The older gentleman took him to a house in Vervie, Belgium where Pops would discover was part of the Belgium underground. They were also housing a member of the British Royal Airforce, Dick Taylor, whom had escaped German troops. They had already received word of Pops’ arrival and had made sure his story had checked out, contacting someone in England who verified that he had been shot down and was considered Missing in Action.
The two remained in hiding in the British Underground for quite some time. Pops was issued a Belgium Identification Card, and was dressed in plain farm clothes whenever he would need to go out. They were hidden in a farmhouse by a lady they called Madam Lou. One evening, Madam Lou came to Pops and Dick and took them down to the basement and showed them a coal shoot. She handed Pops an ax and Dick a gun, and told them if any Germans came to visit they were to hide with their weapons, and if anyone came in without saying their names first that they were on their own!
They essentially had to hide out and wait to see if the American or British troops would be able to liberate the area. Luckily for them, the liberation operations began in September and completed in December so it wasn’t long too long! By late November, the Americans had made it into their area, and they found some troops at a bar in town one evening, shared their story and the men agreed to help get them to commanding officers. Pops and Mr. Taylor were headed back to London.
He was returned to his unit at the end of November 1944 to complete his tour. Above, are some pictures from his unit, and I couldn’t resist including their mascot, the goat, lol! Pops was commissioned to Major on December 16th, 1944 and finally finished up his tour of duty on April 26th, 1946 and returned to his home in Reno, NV. He wasn’t met with the hero’s welcome that he deserved, but years later was able to fly with my mom and the Honor Guard to see the WWII memorial in Washington DC.
Did did have a wartime sweet heart, Bette, who (we think) didn’t wait for him while he was captured. He held on to pictures and letters from her all his life and she was quite the beauty, but he met the greatest love, and possibly greatest challenge of his life, my grandmother June, after the war! The married and adopted my mom. He had a full career, traveled the world, and finally retired to be near us in Texas! He, of course, knew that he was a hero to our family and always will be!
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