Written by Phil Cerroni
By Jess Paniszczyn
As teenage boys, they left farms and ranches journeying to far flung regions of the world they never before knew existed and never again visited. World War II did not merely disrupt their lives, it completely remolded them.
Now in the winter of their lives, they find camaraderie in remembering those exciting and terrifying days when they were young, everything was new and the world was theirs.
Sitting at a line of tables pushed together in PJ’s Café, a small group of veterans whose lives once revolved around the defense, flying or maintenance of B-24 Liberators tell stories over breakfast as their children and grandchildren listen.
“My first mission was in August ’44, and I stayed there until ’45,” Don McClelland, a tail gunner for the 389th Bomb Group, said. “I flew 31 missions for sure, but I think I flew 35, really. I flew other missions for other crews. If they thought they were going to have a bad time that day and weren’t going to get to come home… If they had families and I was just single, I said, ‘I’ll go fly your trip.’ And the next day they flew, and they didn’t come back. That’s the way it works.
“Mostly from that time, I remember the cold. But the fear of the flight didn’t seem to enter my mind. It was kind of exciting to fly those missions. There was a lot of fun involved. But I never really thought about how I could get killed doing these things. I could have been killed doing the things I did, and I don’t know why I did some of them.
“I was 18 and a half years old. I enjoyed flying and the excitement. But I was too dumb to think of the consequences of what I was getting into. I’d just go ahead and do it, and not even think about it. That is how wars are won, by the young people who don’t have good brains, who just kind of do things and don’t think about consequences.
“I’ve been extremely lucky. I’m a God fearing person, and God’s in control. He was with me all the time I was over there.”
“You had an angel flying with you, too,” Raymond Landtroop, a pilot for the 389th Bomb Group, added, laughing.
“On my fourth mission we went to Saarbrücken,” Raymond said. “That was the largest railroad marshalling yard in Germany. We had a shell that went through our left wing and didn’t explode. If it had of, I wouldn’t be here. Normally, they did explode.
“Anyway, I bombed that place five times. About every two weeks we’d go hit it. They’d rebuild it, we’d go over and tear it out. They’d rebuild it, we’d tear it out. Any time a train wanted to go from one side of Germany to the other, they had to go through Saarbrücken. So if we kept it tore up, they couldn’t go.”
“Our other targets were ball bearing factories and machinery factories,” J.D. Morrison, an aircraft mechanic with the 492nd Bomb Group, said.
“We bombed a synthetic oil refinery in Poland,” Raymond said. “That was a long way over there. We clobbered it good. Smoke came up to 20,000 feet then leveled off, because the wind was blowing. I guess. That’s the only time I ever went to Poland.”
Little did I know I had met a real life celebrity. Don McClelland served during the war with actor Jimmy Stewart.
“I flew tail gunner for Jimmy Stewart, he was the pilot,” Don said. “I was part of his crew. He was 34 years old when he was flying. I was only 18. One time I said, ‘What’s an old man like you doing flying these missions?’ He said, ‘You watch your mouth, boy. Don’t be talking to me like that. You don’t treat me like an old man. I can do just as good as you can.’
“He was very friendly and very intelligent. He was in the Chief of Staff Division, so he helped plan the missions the night before. Everyone liked him. If you got in trouble and you had to tell him your story, you’d better be truthful. If he caught you lying, he had no use for you.
“After the war, he went back to movies. You’ve probably seen It’s a Wonderful Life. That was one of the best ones he made.
“He lived in a neighborhood with Doris Day on one side and Lucille Ball on the other side. But when [his wife] Gloria died, he said his life was over. He went into hibernation. So he just lived upstairs in his big house. He was very reluctant to allow people to come pay him visits. But I was one he’d allow to come visit. We were good friends.
“I had a lot of respect for Jimmy Stewart, because he wanted to do his part during the war.”
Sitting further down the table, the sons of the World War II veterans, pilots and veterans themselves, discuss their fathers.
“I worry about their stories being lost,” Larry Landtroop said. “Dad has kind of kept a record of his missions. We are putting together a ‘diary’ if you will, so hopefully we will have a whole diary of what he did.”
“Just listening to them talk is so amazing,” Billy Jack Davis, a friend and Army veteran, said.
“When they did all this, about half of them were teenagers, and the rest were in their 20s,” Wally Gray said. His father, Col. Howard W. Gray joined the Army Air Corps in 1935 and was assigned to the Training Command 2nd Air Force during WWII. Col. Gray is a deceased member of the group. “They were just young guys.”
“You couldn’t get a guy today to go on that many missions that dangerous,” Billy Jack said. “He wouldn’t do it.”
“Twenty five percent of those in the 8th Air Force who flew missions came back,” Larry said. “Seventy-five percent of them were either shot down and captured or killed.”
“It was more dangerous to be in the 8th Air Force than it was to be a Marine on Iwo Jima,” Billy Jack said. “They would go out on a 1000 plane mission and lose 10 percent. That is 100 airplanes with 10 men on an airplane - that is 1000 guys gone in one day.”
“There were over 250,000 lost in the 8th Air Force,” Larry said.
“Just letting them talk about this, you see smiles all around. We are glad we were able to make these guys’ Christmas. They may not get a chance to do this again,” he added.
“We want everyone to know how proud we are of them, of what they did and the risks they took,” Billy Jack said.
“If it wasn’t for them, we might be speaking German now,” Larry said.