Flying a B-17 Flying Fortress with the Fifteenth Air Force out of Foggia, Italy, Lt. George H. Neilson describes the harrowing experiences of his twenty-eight combat missions as well as the ups and downs of life in the US Army Air Corps from enlistment to discharge (1943–45).
Blending selections of his father’s letters to home and memoirs he recorded a half century later with documented background history, the younger Neilson tells the saga of the son of a Boston widow as he confronts the rigors of pilot-officer training and combat service in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations during the final six months of World War II in Europe.
George depicts the humorous and mundane sides of army life as well as the terror-filled moments during bomb runs over targets in Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Austria as antiaircraft flak bursts battered the aircraft. Neilson’s daily chronicles juxtapose moments when life and death hung in the balance, such as when he landed his crippled Fort in the Adriatic Sea, with the unexpected moments of splendor, such as when he dined in luxury on the Isle of Capri at a castle owned by the royal family of Italy. Flying in formation through clouds so thick that the plane thirty feet off his wing was invisible, George received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his ability as a skilled instrument pilot. He recounts youthful escapades on duty-free hours and the tales of life in Foggia’s mud-bound tent city in the spur of Italy. It includes the stirring story of his visit to a field hospital where his brother, a captain in the infantry, was recovering from a bullet wound incurred in the fighting in the Apennine Mountain campaign. Finally, the story tells of World War II’s fiery end and how he unknowingly worked on the secret research project to develop the atomic bomb in a lab at MIT before enlistment. For the student of history and aviation and its role in the Allied victory over Hitler’s nefarious Reich, this microhistory will not disappoint.
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A Bomber Pilot's Story
The George H. Neilson World War II Memoirs
By Robert P. Neilson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2016 Robert P. Neilson
All rights reserved.
A World Broken: World War II Overview
World War I and Versailles
The history of the Second World War has been chronicled in countless pages of books, documents, journals, and letters, as well as films and pictures. The greatest conflagration known to man changed so profoundly the course of modern history that it will never be totally forgotten. Yet some treatment of the historical context in which George Neilson served his country will be of benefit to those generations hence who live in a time when these tumultuous events are relegated to the dusty attic of the past.
Some historians have suggested that World Wars I and II were effectively one war with a twenty-year truce between them. This is so not only because of the brevity of the interwar period but because it is almost universally accepted that World War II occurred because the issues exposed by the first war were not resolved by it. Furthermore, the seeds of a future conflict were sown in the Treaty of Versailles, the formal document ending World War I. The peace treaty concluding the so-called war to end all wars imposed such punitive measures on the vanquished German empire of Kaiser Wilhelm I that it gave birth to a virulent discontent that was to erupt within five years after the guns fell silent.
Versailles had the objective of rendering Germany a pariah state, an affront to the German pride that was a legacy as old as the Teutonic tribes that had been subsumed into the Holy Roman Empire dating back to the tenth century. The reparations costs alone imposed on Germany by the Allied powers ravaged its economy, sending the Deutschmark into a state of hyperbolic inflation. In the ruins of the fledgling Weimar state established following a brief revolution at the end of the war, the disgruntled Prussian masses sought a voice of hope for a resurgent German nationalism. In the dangerous political and economic vacuum created by Versailles' crushing oppression, that voice came forth from an obscure World War I army corporal, the son of a part-Jewish Austrian laborer. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Hitler and the Nazi Party
Hitler, a psychopathic genius, rose from humble beginnings to the threshold of conquering the world and destroying Western civilization. This brutal dictator's name is synonymous with despotism. Though in sheer numbers of victims he is not without peers in the wide scope of history, he was the architect of one of the most fearful regimes the world has known. Founded by a group of disenchanted thugs hell-bent on revenging the wrongs wrought upon the fatherland by Versailles, the National Socialist German Workers Party was first established in Bavaria. The name of the party was abbreviated in German as the NSDAP and commonly known as the Nazi Party from the German pronunciation of the word national: nah-tsi-oh-nahl. Hatched in the noisy beer cellars of Munich, the rise of this nefarious band incubated in the poverty, chaos, and humiliation of postwar Germany.
The field was fertile for the growth of the malignancy that manifested itself in the perverted nationalism and ethnic hatreds of this fascist gang. Its adherents were mostly uneducated, unprincipled, and unscrupulous. They pushed their way to notoriety by the knife, the fist, and the revolver on the streets of Munich in the 1920s. For over a decade, the embryonic worm of National Socialism incubated among the disenfranchised masses of Germany. The political ascendancy of the NSDAP was astoundingly fast. It happened that through a complex process of political scheming, the National Socialists gained enough votes to win the Reichstag (parliament) in the 1933 elections. Thus their leader, Adolf Hitler, became chancellor of Germany through a paradoxically legitimate constitutional process. In so doing, that constitution became a worthless scrap. It was the end of Germany's brief foray into democracy.
Hitler's gift of charisma enabled his rhetoric to catch the imagination of the German people. Within a short few months after the Nazis' ascent to power, the swastika was flying from almost every building in the German Reich from the Black Forest to East Prussia. The infamous swastika was a pagan symbol derived from a broken cross, having its roots in the Holy Roman Empire that once ruled the Germanic peoples in north-central Europe. Indeed the Nazi regime drew its spiritual power from the medieval domains of darkness. Their platform was based on Hitler's notion of the superiority of the hypothetical Aryan race, which was allegedly epitomized in the Germanic peoples. According to this racist theory, this "master race" was destined to rule the world and subjugate all other people to it. The party drew its perverse strength as well from its appealing message of revived German nationalism as from its overarching hatreds: Judaism, Bolshevism, and less overtly proclaimed, Slavic civilization. So, as America slipped into a new isolationism born of the tragedies of The Great War and the Great Depression, the next global conflict was fomenting among the people of the former Central Powers.
In addition to the rise of the empires of Germany and Japan in the decades after World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution held an ever-tighter grip on the vast Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which stretched from Poland to the Pacific Ocean. Under the ruthless and tyrannical rule of Josef Stalin (a name taken on by the peasant's son, meaning man of steel), some twenty million Soviet citizens were shot or worked to death in the gulag labor camps in order to discipline the Eurasian super state as a true and monolithic embodiment of Marxism-Leninism. The result was a nation under the dark cloud of a godless slavery, mortally loyal to its leader who molded and shaped the Soviet Union with an iron fist to fit his designs to Sovietize the rest of the world by persuasion if possible, and by armed compulsion if not. From the perhaps well-intentioned nineteenth-century wealth-equalization theories of Marx and Engels arose the cancer of Communism, which for much of the twentieth century engulfed large portions of the Eastern Hemisphere and had footholds in the West.
The Axis of Despotism
The inevitable clash of socialistic totalitarianism and constitutional democracy rendered 1930s Europe a powder keg. With two powerful dictators converging in Eastern Europe, and another expanding in the Far East, it was only a matter of time before the territorial ambitions of these vast amoebas of power collided in a monstrous cauldron of war. The political situation, along with an explosive growth in military technology fueled largely by World War I, cast the fate of nations in a gargantuan conflict of unprecedented magnitude.
Germany, Italy, and Japan of the 1930s shared at least one thing in common. The national leadership took on a demagogic character, and demanded the same devotion and servitude of the masses as had Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great. In both Germany and Japan, nationalism virtually became god. This Fascism was the disease, and Nazism and Imperialism were its strains. Leader adulation, racism, the cult of infallibility, and fear of the long arm of a police state extinguished any and all open dissent. Nations became mere tools in the hands of ruthless demagogues who used them to attempt to satiate their inexhaustible appetites for power. The leading Axis tyrants would not hesitate to sacrifice millions of their own people for purposes ranging from military strategy to ethnic genocide, to ultimately punitive national suicide.
Persecution of Jews was an age-old scourge, particularly in Eastern Europe. In that sense, Hitler was not unique. But none had carried it to the extent of the Nazi's Final Solution, the term for the plan to kill and dispose of millions of European Jews using a system of industrialized murder.
Immediately after coming to power, the Nazis began a massive program of rearmament in violation of the Versailles Treaty. During the late thirties, the German Reich (also called the Third Reich, the first two being the Holy Roman Empire and the Kaiser Reich from 1871 to 1918) began a diplomatic offensive to gain hegemony in Europe. With one hand, Hitler offered his neighbors an olive branch, while the other lured states into his lethal grasp. Also in violation of Versailles, the German Wehrmacht (army) occupied the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936. Two years later, the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia with a large German-speaking population, was devoured into the Reich. Within a few months, Germany occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia. The same year, Hitler's legions marched unopposed into Vienna, seizing Austria through what is known in history as the Anschluss (annexation). Hitler's aims of territorial expansionism should have been clear to world leaders, who were instead duped into believing the Nazi dictator's deceptions of peace.
The Western Democracies Bow
With memories of the bloodbaths at the Somme, Verdun, and Ypres in the first war, few in the West had any stomach for a new war, so instead the Western democracies capitulated to Hitler's peaceful aggressions. The most notable of such was at the Munich Conference when Britain's Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain accepted the annexation of the Sudetenland in exchange for what he billed to the British as "peace in our time." The naivety of Munich and similar stand-downs had dire consequences for the Western democracies. Only after the blitzkrieg (lightning war) swept through Poland in September 1939, crushing the weak nation with devastating speed, did they wake up to the intentions of the German fuehrer. By then, it was too late. World War II, a conflict that was to result in the deaths of more than sixty million people and unfathomable suffering, had begun. It would be six long years before the Third Reich was vanquished.
Entering World War I, the United States made a major break from the isolationism that had long governed the nation's foreign policy. It was only with great reluctance, shattered by the sinking of the Lusitania, that the Wilson administration sent troops to fight in France. Following the armistice on November 11, 1918, America retreated back into its historical reclusiveness. The outbreak of another war in Europe tested the US neutrality resolve. For twenty-eight months after Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the isolationist policy held.
During 1940, the Wehrmacht swept the Western European countries of France, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg with its notorious blitzkrieg, advancing rapidly with overwhelming forces of air and land power. The first phase of blitzkrieg was to soften up the front with aerial bombing, followed by an artillery barrage, and finally land troops supported heavily by tank units. Indeed Hitler terrorized his neighbors with his Panzer divisions. The result was horrifically successful. The Western powers fell like dominoes in a few months. By December 1940, the war was lapping at England's shores. But Hitler had not counted on the resolve of the British to defend their island homeland. The Luftwaffe left London in ashes but curtailed the bombing siege after fifty-seven continuous days, with the Royal Air Force still in control of the skies over the British Isles.
On June 22, 1941, the German Wehrmacht poured millions of troops across the Soviet frontier, engrossing the army in its most ambitious yet reckless front. The fateful invasion of Russia and its satellite states would, in a matter of months, become bogged down in a war of attrition that would ultimately bring the Nazi behemoth to its knees, leaving twenty million Soviet dead in its murderous wake. As with Great Britain, Hitler had not reckoned with the tenacity of Russia's massive proletarian army. Nonetheless, it took four bloody years of fighting before the malignancy of Nazism was expelled from Europe.
On the Other Side of the World
At the same time that Europe began its descent into the dark night of barbarism, the ancient tradition of the samurai (noble warrior) was resurrected in the Empire of Japan. For some time, Japan dominated the Western Pacific and parts of East Asia in trade and military power. Its influence proliferated through what was known as the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Company, a pseudo name for Japanese hegemony in the region. Since the early twenties, the military elite in Tokyo was consolidating its power across the most populous region of the world. Although the chief Japanese warlord, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, was not as well-known historically as Hitler, he presided over a similar development in the so-called oriental world, a region little known and understood in the West. Indeed, Japan had been a reclusive nation until July 1853 when Commodore Robert Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay as an emissary from the United States to open the doors of Japan to Western trade and influence. The eventual result was industrialization on a scale that by the 1930s permitted the building of a modern army, navy, and air force that rivaled any in the West.
As the war in Europe raged, Japanese forces were fanned out on land and sea over vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean. War in the Asia-Pacific region had been going on long before Hitler invaded Poland. In 1931, the Japanese occupied Manchuria and in 1937 attacked Eastern China. Poignant are the atrocities of the Japanese army in ruthlessly subduing the Chinese, including the Rape of Nanking, the murderous rampage of Chiang-Kai-Shek's Nationalist Chinese capitol, where 300,000 civilians were killed. The march of conquest engulfed wide tracts of the Western Pacific, the Dutch East Indies, and parts of Southeast Asia.
On December 7, 1941, an armada of carrier-based Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the US Pacific Fleet in dock at Oahu. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the death knell of American isolationism. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany declared war on the United States, and the United States entered the global conflict on two fronts.
Among the myriad people swept into the global tempest were the three sons of a Boston merchant and his widow. The youngest of these was a twenty-year-old college student named George Neilson. In the dark days of 1942, when the Allies were getting beaten on the land, in the air, and at sea, George enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps. That is when this story begins. It is largely through the eyes of this young man that we will take a deeply personal look into the greatest war in earth's history. In the vast backdrop of the tragedy that left sixty million people dead, untold millions injured and homeless, and nations across the globe groping to find a new world order, George Neilson's story is but a splinter in a barn. And yet epochal world events are made up of the individual stories of those who were touched by them, in this case the fighting soldiers, the civilian populations that were ravaged, and the loved ones who sent servicemen off to war, many never to see them again. Though George did not lose his life in the conflict, he, like millions of his compatriots, placed himself in a situation where he readily could have. Though their reasons for stepping forth were not purely altruistic, their doing so made it possible for those who followed to live in a world not dominated by tyranny and oppression. This story is a tribute not only to my father, George Hutchinson Neilson, but to all who placed duty and hope over fear and despair that liberty might live. Neither George nor most of the millions who were part of "democracy's swift sword" in defeating the Axis considered themselves heroes. Yet we who are the heirs of the great peace they bought at so dear a price know otherwise.CHAPTER 2
A Boy from Boston: George H. Neilson, Early Years
On February 25, 1943, George Neilson left the Boston South Station on a train bound for Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the US Army Air Corps reception station was located. It was a scene repeated all over the world in countless places. Young men, boys really, saying good-bye to mothers, fathers, wives, sweethearts, and friends as they headed off into an uncertain future in the armed forces of their nations. For George, like many of his compatriots, this was going to be his first trip away from home at any significant distance.
In his letters home, George referred to himself and his fellow cadets as "boys." Though he was twenty-one years old, the term boys was fitting. He had completed a college degree but lived at home and was quite green as to the ways of men and the world. Yet before the journey that began that day was over, this "boy" would fly a massive four-engine bomber aircraft into withering enemy fire in heavily fortified Nazi-occupied Europe. Not once but twenty-eight times. He would do and see things that he never could have imagined on that nervous train ride to New Jersey, seventy-two years ago at this writing. He would become part of what became known as "The Greatest Generation" in news anchor Tom Brokaw's book by the same name, his chronicle of the US role in World War II. George would survive and return home. Many of his cohorts would not. The psychological trauma experienced on those deadly combat missions, however, would affect George for the rest of his life. The experience described here defined and shaped my father, like so many others, for his later life after the war.
Excerpted from A Bomber Pilot's Story by Robert P. Neilson. Copyright © 2016 Robert P. Neilson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: A World Broken: World War II Overview, 1,
Chapter 2: A Boy from Boston: George H. Neilson, Early Years, 9,
Chapter 3: Enlistment and the Manhattan Project, 22,
Chapter 4: Induction into the Army, 32,
Chapter 5: College Training Detachment, 53,
Chapter 6: USAAF Classification Center, 105,
Chapter 7: Preflight Training, 135,
Chapter 8: Primary Flight Training, 181,
Chapter 9: Basic Flight Training, 227,
Chapter 10: Advanced Flight Training, 277,
Chapter 11: Transition Flight Training, 329,
Chapter 12: Combat Crew Assembly, 358,
Chapter 13: Combat Crew Training, 366,
Chapter 14: Shipment Overseas, 399,
Chapter 15: Field Combat Readiness, November 1944, 426,
Chapter 16: Combat Missions, December 1944, 452,
Chapter 17: Combat Missions and Rest Camp, January 1945, 516,
Chapter 18: Combat Missions, February 1945, 554,
Chapter 19: Combat Missions and Meeting at Army Field Hospital, March 1945, 610,
Chapter 20: Combat Missions, April 1945, 672,
Chapter 21: End of the War and Return Home, 702,
Chapter 22: Conclusion—Looking Back, Moving Forward, 736,
Appendix 1, 773,
About the Author, 813,