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Robert Flischel (1918–2011)

Navigator, U.S. Army Air Corps

Bob Flischel lived in Ohio.

War memoirs of Bob Flischel

© Copyright 2010 CatholicHistory.net

The following is an edited transcript of an oral interview with Bob Flischel conducted by Ken Stewart, February 2009. It is edited for readability and length.

KS:  You were born and raised where?

I was born in Clermont County, raised for the first seven years close to Owensville, Ohio, in Clermont.  And then we moved to Germantown, and I went to school in Germantown High School.  We went to church in Miamisburg at Our Lady of Good Hope from 1931 to 1941 then they built the Church in Germantown in 1941 and we started going to Church here in Germantown

KS:  So you were a cradle Catholic then?

Yes

KS:  You said you attended Germantown High School, so I guess you didn’t attend Catholic high school?

No. We had catechism over in Miamisburg with the sisters ... I went after I was able to drive, and we could get our driver's license a little bit before we were 16 at the time, so I was at least a freshman or sophomore and still went to catechism on a Saturday afternoon. I had my first Communion and Confirmation down in Owensville, so there were no sacraments that we had up here. That we had up here, and we had some CCD in Owensville, but most of it, the later years up here in Miamisburg.

KS:  So then after high school is that when you joined the military or did you go to school or college after that?

No, I worked and helped my dad for about 18 months before my number came up before being drafted, so I graduated in 1941 and went into the service in 1943, in February, when I reported to the military.

KS:  What branch of service were you in?

I was in the Air Force. I went to mechanics school, went to basic, then mechanics school, and developed an interest to see whether I could fly and so I was able to take tests and pass the physical, so they took the cadets and we went to the training, which lasted from July to the following August—about 13 months of training before I started flying combat.

KS:  So you began as a mechanic then you received training to become a pilot?

Navigator.

KS:  OK. Where all did you serve?

Oh, I think about 20 different locations; I’ll give you a few of them.

KS:  Where were your favorites, how about we shorten to that?

The first one was the worst one I had—down in Florida close to St. Petersburg. Then the mechanics school was in North Carolina. We joined the cadets and I went to a couple other stations. They had us go to college for five months up in Wisconsin and that was the best location. There was only about 300 of us, grandmas fixed our meals and you go down and they’d say, "How would like your eggs this morning?," which is not normal for an Army and I described it as heaven on earth. I was down in Texas a couple of times and out in California a couple times. And when I went overseas I went over to Guam and we flew our missions from Guam to Japan and back

KS:  That’s pretty interesting I spent a little time in Guam myself

I was out in Okinawa...

KS:  I was in Okinawa, too; I lived at Kadena Air Force Base.

That was nonexistent at that time

KS:  You’d be amazed at what it looks like now. Sometimes in the service you find yourself cut off from things that when you are in the United States are readily at your hands. With that in mind, were you always able to attend Mass? Were you ever stationed at such a remote location where you couldn’t attend Mass?

No, I was always able to attend Mass when I was in the basic training down in Florida the first time. And it may have been Easter Sunday, I can remember the priest came to an open field and all of us went to this open field. He drove up in a jeep and got out and the hood of the jeep was the altar and everybody congregated around the jeep. It is very clear in my mind. All the locations I was able to go to church. I, surprisingly, in our missions I don’t remember ever taking off on a Sunday other than a Sunday evening. I don’t think I ever missed going to Mass even when we were flying. They did not schedule their missions around Sunday; it just happened that’s how they fell. I didn’t miss many Sundays I’ll say that. I clearly don’t remember missing any. I could have sometimes with work detail, I may have missed a Mass. Of course we didn’t have a Saturday Mass. I don’t think we had an evening Mass at the one location I was at. I didn’t miss Mass very many times.

KS:  Would you say that there was a big difference—say like a forward area and a rear are—in the way Mass was conducted ... because of the different environments?

Yeah, the churches at the bases over here were very traditional in that they had the pews, kneeling benches areas.  When we first got overseas we had a Mass I remember was just in a tent and I think we had chairs but we had no kneeling benches or anything and we knelt down and I can remember the gravel that we knelt on was very painful, I’ll say that. The stones were not soft at all. And they finally built the church over there and it was more traditiona—had the altar and the pews—and I’m sure we had the kneeling benches; if they didn’t have it, I would have remembered.  The bases usually had one or two priests. Sometimes would have several locations of a Catholic church on the bigger bases that you could go to. Overseas they just had the one Catholic church and one Protestant church you could go to.

KS:  One of my favorite movies is called “Band of Brothers” and it’s basically about the 101st Airborne, when they were besieged at Bastogne. One of the parts of the movies which I really appreciated was when you see this jeep coming up through the snow ... at first you just hear it then it just appears through the fog and the snow and then you see this priest get out and unfolds this linen on top of the jeep just like you mentioned down in Florida.

I’ve met three priests in my life who just really stand out as superior people in my mind, and one of them was in the service and one of them was Father Clasby in California, was just a dynamic individual. When we first arrived and they separated and the Catholic and the Protestant and the corresponding ministers would speak to us and I still remember him saying how long has it been since you’ve been to Confession, and there’s several hundred of us in the group there. And he says, "Never mind. They gave me the powers of a bishop when they commissioned me." He says, "All your sins are forgiven." And I never forget that he said, "They gave me the powers of a bishop and I'm going to use them."

There were two priests out there at the tim—Father Clasby and Father Muldoon—and they both Irishers and they kind of bantered about back and forth. And they would have Tuesday and Thursday services in the evening, plus the Sundays. And they also had evening Mass there, and Father Clasby would say in 15 minutes—no one can say that he doesn’t have time to go to Mass. The cadets would fill, overfill each one of the chapels on the Tuesday and Thursday. And Father Clasby would appreciate all of us but he would say Father Muldoon would be unhappy if you don’t go to see him, too. They kind of bnttered back and forth. He was an unbelievable individual, I thought. You just felt real close to him, I'll say.

They and he gave us a prayer that we could say—like an Act of Contrition before each flight. I wish I could remember all the worlds; I only know the opening. I know I said it each mission I took off: "Oh Queen of the Heavens, please protect me tonight," and the rest of it I don’t remember.

KS:  So would you describe going to Mass with Father Muldoon and Father Clasby that would be the best environment, because I'm trying to get the worst environment and the best environment?

Bob:  That’s the best. I really don’t remember the worst, they just weren’t quite as good as those. I don’t think I ever went to Church where I came away negative or was disappointed. Some of the priests were not as personal as the others, but I would not classify it with bad.

KS:  I always thought that was kind of interesting, if you had maybe a bad environment [when] the services weren’t quite as good ... you know, it’s hard to be happy when you’re standing outside in six inches of snow and it's ten degrees

Bob:  I don’t recall that happening. There’s a few times we went to Church that stand out in memory, but none of them was for a bad situation, I’ll say that. I still got my bible that they gave me, when I first went in the service—about 3 by 5—they gave everybody in the Army.

KS:  The Air Force wasn’t there

Bob:  Yes, it was the Army Air Force.

KS:  The first time I went overseas, which was my very first duty station, I got a bible, too. Anytime I went overseas, it went with me.

Bob:  I had a prayer book. I went to Mass in the mornings. It was in Guam. Quite a number of times the Mass was like at seven in the morning; it was rather early.  I’m an early riser and I’d get up and go to Mass then go over and eat breakfast, then finish the day.

One of the guys called me a few years ago. I hadn’t seen him since we were in cadets. [He said,] "What I remember about you so much is when you got on your knees every night and prayed." And I don’t even remember doing it because it didn’t stand out to me, I guess. Churches and religion have meant a lot to me. I had some near misses. When you come close, you take inventory of your life real quick.

KS:  Did you ever have a time when your Catholic faith seemed to be in conflict with your military experience?

Bob:  No. It’s interesting: the pilot of our crew claimed to be an atheist. I’m not sure whether he said it and really believed, I’m not sure. He’d come to me when we were training—'cause we trained on Sundays—and he’d say, "Did you get to go to Church today?" And he was interested in my going to Church even though he claimed that he didn’t believe. I hope he believed before… It ended up he committed suicide. I just hope that he believed. I still remember, he said, "Did you get to church today?" I usually had some way I would get to Church and then tell him.

KS:  Was there ever a time that you can remember when your Catholic faith sustained you through a particularly tough time, probably many of those when you’re flying on a bomber?

Bob:  Yeah, there are a couple of times I remember. We were going out on a really bad mission. We had gotten an advance alert that we were going out on a daylight run, which is worse than a night run. We had to pick you up with search light at night time, and in daylight you are wide open, then everybody could see you… And I really thought it could be my last one, and any of them could have been my last one but this one was even more so. I can remember going down to Church that morning and I was saying my prayers. I went up to breakfast and somebody said to me, "You aren’t flying today," and I said, "Far as I know we were flying." He said, "No, you're not flying today. Somebody was racing with a bomb carrier and ran under the wing of your bomb carrier and cut the wing off." We didn’t go up that night. I don’t know if that was an omen; I believe that it was. The non-believer wouldn’t believe but that’s their choosing.

We got shot up real bad on another one. And we did some praying to get home on that one. And when we landed we were running out of gas and we knew we were short. And the indicators were long past the empty side and when we touched down two more engines quit. We were very marginal that time. That night we had no justified reason for getting home, but we did. I will never forget the day either—May 24—that memorable day is as clear as my birthday or Christmas or an anniversary day.

KS:  Saying it’s a good feeling is a bad [way of putting] an experience like that.

Bob:  I kissed the ground that time. I kissed the ground when I got out of the airplane.

KS:  So during those times you were flying missions, since you were from Guam, you were flying towards Japan?

Bob:  Our targets were in Japan. We hit Tokyo three times. Angoras, Osaka, Kobe, and then we started on the smaller towns that are not quite as familiar with the common people. Tokyo was hot. They did not like us very well.  The first mission was in daylight and when you see the flash of the gun on the ground and you know that a projectile is coming and it takes 20 or so seconds to get to your height... You know it's coming... It gives you a different feeling. It’s like, hey, they're trying to kill you. I’m not really mad at you. At least I found that eventually you became hardened or used to it.

I always respected the possibility of not coming back. but I could sleep at night. I didn’t anguish, dreading, but it was a necessary step we had to go through, I guess, to get home. We had to complete so many missions to get to come home and each one was one step closer to that goal of completing thirty-five to be able to get home. That’s the real motivation, staying alive.

And you had your principles. Some of the guys could offer money to take their ride. There was no amount of money in this world to take somebody else’s ride nor did it enter my mind to ask somebody else to take my place. That’s what I was trained to do and I felt an obligation to hold up my end of it.

Another thing that happened while I was overseas: I was so discouraged with the distribution of the Purple Heart that, in my mind, if I would have been wounded and earned the Purple Heart, I would have refused it.  One of our Squadron Commanders scratched his back with a parachute one night putting it on and he got the Purple Heart. It disgusted me so much. And I truly respect the Purple Heart, the people who earned them legitimately, but I can remember how disgusted I was with this man that accepted it.... He was taken off the flight status. Fortunately, he wasn’t our Squadron Commander very long. I was blessed with his replacement, a man that I admired.

KS:  That’s kind of important because I feel the same way you do. I wouldn’t volunteer to take anybody else’s place. I wouldn’t ask anybody to take my place and when you see somebody earn something that people who really deserve it and then somebody who doesn’t get it kind of…

Bob:  One of the men—they got a phosphorus bomb inside the airplane, you got to package it in glass because it will eat right through the metal—he picked up this phosphorus bomb with his hands and went to the window and pitched it out the window. The burn really deformed his hands, the pain that he suffered. He got the Purple Heart and he earned it. He also got the Congressional Medal of Honor, too. It’s like picking up something hotter than red hot coals and spending time to get up to the pilot’s window. In extreme conditions, you are surprised what you can do.

KS:  Those guys were really, truly heroes.

Bob:  One man claimed he broke a quarter inch nylon rope with his hands. I don’t know whether he did or not.  They had ditched the airplane and the dinghy was inflated, tied to the plane. The plane was sinking and he claimed he broke the quarter inch rope. I can’t even break a window shade. He didn’t know how he did it either. Some of the stories when we get together... Whoo-ee!

KS:  In all your travels, were you able to attend Mass at a church in a foreign country, or did you always attend a church on base?

Bob:  I went to a local Spanish Mass down in Texas one time, although the sequence and everything was the same I understood nothing of the verbal, but that was the only time. See, Guam was still an American island that was strictly English and we never went to any of the natives' locations when we were overseas, so I didn’t have an opportunity to go to any [other] church. But in the United States, when we were in college up in Wisconsin, I went to their local church['s] Mass. I always would sit in the back so ... nobody would ask me to Sunday dinner, because the grandmas could cook better: they had access to food that the local residents didn’t have—to meat and sugar. We ate better on the base at the school, so I would always sit way in the back and as soon as the Mass was over I'd get outta there. As I look back, something I wish I would have done differently there was to meet the people, to get to know them, because they were nice. They received us very well.

KS:  You still remain in contact with a lot of the guy you served with—you serve on some reunion boards?

Bob:  We started to get tighter after 40 years. Our group had about 2200 men in it at the time and we started trying to find different ones, and we probably found about 1400 to 1500. Some of them were not interested; others had passed away, things such as that. We had nineteen reunions from 1985 till 2004. I got to know more of the people. When I was overseas, you stayed pretty well within your crew. You didn’t branch out to meet other ones. Your time there was survival. After getting together at the reunions, I learned to know so many and it has been a wonderful experience to get to know them and their families. It's one of the higher points in my life, particularly in my later years, that I treasure. I’ll get one or two phone calls every week. Of course, the crew, we get together. There were eleven of us, and there are five of us still living. And the oldest one is ninety, and the youngest is probably eighty-three or eighty-four. There is a bond that you built up as a crew and in our group that, to me, is very, very strong. It’s different than brothers; some of them are closer than my brothers. When my pilot died, I cried.

KS:  I bet I understand how you form that bond.

Bob: You trust your life with them. One particular story: We were in training down in Texas and the co-pilot and I—we were both single and not married—and we chummed together a great deal. His bed was the adjoining cot. We knew each other very well. He had a brother in Oklahoma whom he hadn’t seen for three years. As soon as we finished training, we were going overseas and he wanted see his brother before he went. We were restricted to base overnight: you could go to town anytime you wanted to, but you had to be back on base at night. We were not scheduled for any flying training for three or four days. He said, "I’m going to go to see my brother in Oklahoma."  This is a bus ride from the Midland area, west Texas, all the way over to Enon, Oklahoma, which is more than a day or more with a bus ride because they stop in every little town.

Lo and behold, when he was on his way and gone, there was a notice on the bulletin board that the Commanding Training Officer wanted to see the co-pilot. And he was on the bus. So I took my Navigator wings off and put on his Pilot’s wings and so I went down. And we had no nametags, so I went in and said I was Livingston van Rensselaer Crowe. And ... I was able to answer the question and they never knew he was gone. And he had forgotten about it until the first reunion, and after I went through it he remembered. The old adage, "nobody knows the guns empty except you"—and they never did know.

KS: I appreciate you taking your time to talk with me and to tell me about what you did. ... I’ve always looked up to my military brothers and sisters so I want to tell you I appreciate how much you’ve done and I really appreciate you taking your time with me today.