Interviewee: Robert Walker
Interviewer: Natalie Bokman
Place of Birth: Lockport, New York
Date of Interview: June 21, 2004
Date of Birth: February 13, 1922
Place of Residence: Medina, New York
War(s) in which Interviewee Served: World War II
Branch of Service or Wartime Activity: Army Air Force
Battalion, Regiment, Division, Unit, Ship, etc.:
Method of Induction: Enlistment
Service Dates: 1942-1945
Location of Military or civilian service: Italy, Africa, United States
TRANSCRIBER’S NOTE: Occasionally, poor sound quality made transcription difficult. In some parts, names may be misspelled. Words that were most likely to have been transcribed incorrectly are denoted by a question mark in brackets: [?].
Walker: Okay, this is the interview of Robert Walker, born February 13th, 1922 in the city of Lockport and I was an apprentice tool-and-dye maker at Harrison Radiator General Motors in 1942. And in that year, which was a couple months after Pearl Harbor, I entered the old Army Air Corps. It was the First of March, 1942, as a private. And immediately they put me on furlough because they didn’t have any aeroplanes at that time to fly, relatively, and they didn’t even have any uniforms. So I was on furlough for about three or four months as a private, then I was called up to Kelly Field, Texas as a cadet, an Army Air Corps cadet….Aviation Cadet they called it…in August, 1945. And the first six weeks I was down there, we were still in civilian clothes. We were sleeping in tents and we wore out the shoes we brought with us. We had one pair of shoes to march in and we were taking two or three cross country runs every week and a lot of workouts and we started with Ground School. The whole class was known as 1943 D. “D” stood for April of the year 1943 and that’s when we were supposed to graduate. So the whole class was probably one of the shortest in history and lasted for about seven and a half months from start to finish. During that time, I was stationed in Kelly Field for pre-flight training and basic training. Then I took Primary in Coleman, Texas, which is a small town out in the panhandle of Texas. We were very pleasantly surprised when we got to Coleman because it was a… we had civilian instructors for our first plane instruction and the field was owned by a fella from England, very wealthy guy, and he operated the field and paid premium for the food we had and everything. We really ate first class and had good conditions.
This kind of brings to mind the first flight that I took in an Army Aircraft. And here again I had a civilian instructor. He was a crackerjack of a pilot, he had been flying since World War I and…
Woman [Dorothy Bokman?]: Do you remember his name, Bob?
Walker: Yeah, his name was Norman. That was his last name. But I can’t recall his first name. He was from someplace in Oklahoma. Anyway, Mr. Norman was our instructor and we were flying the open-cockpit planes. They were model planes, single-wing model planes, Fairchilds and had inverted pancake-type 175 horsepower engines in them. They were capable of doing a lot of acrobatics and they were pretty sturdy planes. The very first flight that I made, I was sitting in the front cockpit and Mr. Norman was sitting directly behind me and I had what they called gas ports attached to my ears, which was a tube and he could talk into that and I could hear him but I could not talk back. So I was sitting ahead of him and I had to signal my response by nodding my head up or down or sideways or, you know, yes or no. And so we taxied out to the runway and he said, “Walker,” he said, “do you have your seatbelt fastened?” I nod my head yes and he was busy checking the migs [?]. A minute or so later he repeated the same question and I nodded in the affirmative again and I thought, “we’re never going to take off” and he was checking the engine pretty closely. And then he asked me the third time and I thought, “oh my gosh, I have an instructor who has no memory.”
Walker: So anyway, I nodded again; I did have my belt fastened. So we started down the runway and he opened the throttle up and got it going at a pretty good clip and lifted it off the ground and we no sooner got up off the ground then we were up on our backs. My head felt like it was flying about ten feet above the concrete. So he proceeded all the way down the runway at that rate. Built up speed and then pulled it up into Chandelle so we reverted back to normal flight. Then he asked me another question. He said, “Now do you know why I asked you three times if you had your seat belt fastened?” And he said, “I don’t want you ever to forget to do that no matter where you’re at.”
Bokman: So now you’ll never forget that.
Walker: “…what kind of plane you’re in or anything else, have that seatbelt fastened.” He was a very kind man, he wasn’t gruff or anything. He had a lot of patience with me and all the students, I think.
Bokman: That’s good.
Walker: So after about seven or eight hours I got to solo and I can remember that. Unexpectedly, we were taking regular lessons and we were shooting landings that day and I guess I must have been halfway decent because after about the third one he pulled the plane off the runway and he jumped out and said, “Now you take it around.” So I did and I landed all in one piece. So I felt…that made me feel pretty good and gave me a lot of confidence. Because I hadn’t flown much at all before that. And he did another thing that instilled confidence in me. He would take that plane up and put it into a spin and he’d tell me to keep our hands off the controls…and that plane would actually recover itself before it would hit the ground, it would pull out of that and come into a gradual spiral. He instilled in me the belief that if you handled the plane correctly you didn’t have to worry about anything.
So anyway, I went on from Primary to another course in Basic, which was a heavier plane, 450 horsepower, which was also good for acrobatics and we got into formation flying, night formation flying without lights on. And then proceeded into Advanced, where we got into multi-engine planes and did quite a few cross-countries and the basic parts of instrument flying and so forth.
I graduated in April, 1943 and was assigned to Columbia, South Carolina for transitional flight in a B-25. Spent about four months there, approximately. We didn’t do an awful lot of flying because gasoline was very short. So we were shipped overseas, we were crewed up and I was put on a crew as a co-pilot with another fella, his last name was House, Bob House. And he was older than I was and he was the first pilot on that crew. We shipped over on the Liberty Ships in convoy and it took 30 days to get from Norfolk to Algiers. Outside of Gibraltar, near to west of Gibraltar, the convoys put up…half of the convoy, which was the part I was in proceeded through the Straits of Gibraltar at night and consisted of 48 ships. The remained left us and headed north for England. And we got into the Mediterranean and headed for Algiers….we didn’t know where we were going actually…but there would only allow so many ships in the port of Algiers at that time because it was still being bombed by the German Air Force out of France. So we made a big circle in the Mediterranean and we got bombed ourselves in the convoy. Four ships were sunk, two of them were tankers and two were freighters. After that, we arrived in Algiers, spent a couple days in Africa, a few days in Africa, and then were transferred promptly up to Italy. The day after we got to a place called Lataglia I found myself flying my first combat mission as a co-pilot. We split the crew up and House was also flying as a …all the first pilots had to also fly as co-pilots before we got used to combat flight conditions. Our first target was a German airfield just north of Athens, Greece. We got over the target and I had never heard of radar before actually. All of a sudden, one plane blew up and was hit by AK-AK guided by radar right through the undercast. So we had to pick an alternate target and we did that and I think the rest of us all got back safely. But that was the first combat mission. I went on to fly my own ship after about 15 or 20 missions…I forgot exactly how many I flew before I got a ship of my own. I had a composite crew.
So we had gone overseas thinking that possibly we would return after 25 missions, you know, if we were able to make those, as they were doing in England at that time. But then we found out that they had extended it to 35 and later on they had extended the missions to 50 and this was at a time prior to the invasion of Normandy. And so then we got word that we were going to keep on flying after 50 missions. I wound up flying 54 missions, at which time I was grounded for what they called “combat fatigue.” I had a resting pulse of about 120 as I recall and so I was still able to fly and did some instruction but I was restrained from flying any more combat at that time. When, soon after the invasion of Normandy, I had a chance to fly back what they called a “war weary” plane because they wanted that plane back in the United States. So I was able to fly it back and I was assigned another pilot and a celestial navigator and then I think I had three or four more enlisted people on the crew. Unfortunately, I had to come back the southern route because…and it was a bad time of year to do that, it was about in the middle or last part of June in 1944. And I wasn’t able to take the northern route because it was all jammed up with the logistics of supplying the Normandy invasion. So we had to fly through some bad weather down through Africa. We had to go down to almost mid-Africa to Dakar [?], cross to such an island, and were down below …, I think it was below the equator during the rainy season. There was all kinds of line squalls. And so this particular plane was redlined at 200 miles per hour, normally it would have been about 330. And there was a warning on the log---each plane carried a log book---every time you made a flight, you had to make certain entries in that log book. The caution redlined in the book, in this particular log book, was to not exceed 200 miles per hour, avoid all turbulence. So I had to take my time coming back and watch the weather very closely and try and avoid turbulence. So we took a couple weeks coming back and it wasn’t all that bad because every place we hit, the food and conditions got a little bit better. So finally, we touched down at Homestead, Florida, and I was about ready to kiss the ground. Anyway, we delivered the plane to Brooksfield, Texas successfully. Then I got about a month off for what they call R&R. I was sent to Atlantic City for rest and rehabilitation. After that, I proceeded for assignment to Louisiana, where I flew in a reconnaissance outfit, mapping southeastern United States for a few months. And then they made me an instrument instructor and I was re-assigned to Kansas to Independence…I was living in Independence, Kansas but I was flying out of Coffeeville [?]. Then I was separated from the service in June of 1945.
Bokman: And what did you do after you left the service? What did you start doing?
Walker: After I got out of the service, I went back to work for Harrison’s and became a journeyman machinist and experimental machinist. Then later on I became a foreman and was foreman of a machine shop there.
In 1955, we took a vacation to California and we went on the train and we had three children by then. I dropped the three children off with my brother in Chicago and my wife and I, Monica, we proceeded to the west coast, spent a week in L.A.-Los Angeles-got back on the train and did the same thing in San Francisco and Seattle and then came back the northern route, the Great Northern. Picked up the family in Chicago, back to Lockport. We found things so good in California, I gave Harrison’s a couple month’s notice and we moved out there in 1955 around November. When I was out in California lived in… we decided to move to Los Angeles. I worked for a company called Air Research for a while, then proceeded to accept a better job at Northrop, which is known now as Northrop-Grumman. They were the first ones to develop a flying wing and also the Stealth Bomber fighter.
After working at Northrop, I went to work for Hughes Aircraft, which is kind of a misnomer, because Hughes Aircraft is actually an electronics corporation and was owned by Howard Hughes. He also had another company called Hughes Helicopters. I worked both for Hughes Helicopters and Hughes Aircraft. In the interval in between those two jobs, I was in another company called Worchester Transistor, which is in electronics, they manufactured electronics. That went pretty well for a couple of years but we were squeezed by big companies like Ratheon and Hughes…they had a lot more financial backing than we did. We got kind of priced out of the market. So I wound up working at Hughes Helicopters and I left there in 195..when I was 55 years old to work in real estate. So for the next 12, 13 years, I was selling real estate in western Los Angeles. Then, after my wife died, I decided it was time to get out of L.A. and moved to Wisconsin, where I lived for about 4 or 5 years where my eldest daughter resided. I graduated in the Class of 1939 of Lockport, so I came back for my reunion…that was about 1994, and I met Dorothy Bokman, which I was very thankful for, and she’s been the light of my life ever since.
Bokman: Okay, I’m just going to ask you some questions about your involvement in the war and what you did…what was one of your most memorable experiences in the war?
Walker: I think one of them was when I was flying as co-pilot. We were flying a mission, the target was in Yugoslavia. And we used to customarily fly right on the deck, which means real low, about 20-30 foot high off the water, in formation, over the Adriatic. A purpose that was to remain below the enemy’s radar until we got close to the target. We were heavily loaded with bombs and gasoline and we lost an engine at that low altitude. The engine overheated and we had to feather a prop. We had difficulty holding our altitude on one engine with that heavy load on. So we were watching the temperature gauge and as soon as the temperature gauge on the cylinder heads cooled off to a certain point we were able to get the engine started and we were barely, almost hitting the waves by then. We got it up to about 16-1800 feet and then it would be safe to open the bomb bay doors and release our bombs and lighten the ship. Of course, we had to feather the prop again---the right engine---and we didn’t know exactly where we were at, because we were flying wingman on the element leader and we weren’t doing any navigating, we were just following the formation. So we made a procedure turn-around and proceeded back to our air field on one engine. We were coming down the coast and unbeknownst to us, that some of these fields in the distance, we determined later by time and speed, they were German fields. We were staggering along on one engine not too far off the coast of Italy…we never got intercepted or challenged…it was just dumb luck.
Bokman, Woman: Wow, that was lucky.
Walker: So I was very thankful for things like that.
I think another one was coming off from Anzio beachhead in the early part of 1944. They had a tremendous amount of flak there---we lost most all of our planes to flak. We didn’t lose as many of them to fighters, but we lost quite a few to flak. I don’t know the exact number…tried not even to keep track of them. I was flying Tail-End Charlie, which meant that as you came in, the guns would all track the lead element as they approached the target. Coming off, all the guns would be trained on the trailing planes as they left the target. The three planes ahead of me just literally disappeared. I could sneak a glance at them out of the corner of my eye, you know, flying a tight formation. They just literally were obliterated. So then all the guns were right on us. And we came off that target on a screaming dive and I remember seeing the air speed get up to 440 and I was afraid of losing a wing. But I guess God was with me and we got back all right. And we had quite a few holes in the plane, but nobody injured.
Another thing that is still vivid in my memory drum is…we got attacked by a Spitfire over Sofia, Bulgaria. Of course, I knew it was being flown by an enemy pilot because we were way out of range for any Spitfires. He attacked us three times and he got so close we could see the pilot. He was shooting right straight for the cockpit, 20mm shells were exploding as they came in. He missed us all three times. I had some green gunners and they were opening fire while he was well out of range. It was causing the tracers to corkscrew in the sky. Every fifth bullet was a tracer so you could have an idea the trajectory of your guns. By the time he got in close, the barrels were red-hot.
Bokman: Thank you very much for interviewing with me.
Walker: It’s been a pleasure being interviewed by you, Natalie.
Bokman (for the record): My name is Natalie Bokman, the interviewer and it is June 21st at 12:00, interviewing World War II veteran Robert Walker.
Bokman: There’s a couple more questions for Bob about his living conditions during the war.
Walker: Okay, we lived in tents when we first got there…well, we always lived in tents in Italy and Corsica. Food was pretty grim at times…we were on what they called British Iron Rations for a while. It consisted of tea, we’d have oatmeal for breakfast, no milk…I think we did have sugar, maybe. And a lot of canned beef and kidney stew and corned beef. Hardtack biscuits, things like that. So we were real glad to get back on C-rations and K-rations, which was American rations. We had a lot of spare time, actually, between flying and we tried to see the country a little bit. So we had to do that with motorcycles and jeeps, mostly. Italy was kind of grim, southern Italy, in those days, because it was pretty much bombed out until you got up in the mountains, which was untouched. They had small villages up there, so we used to visit up there. And in Corsica, the same thing. It was kind of a pleasure to get to Corsica because that had been literally untouched by the war at the time. I did have three different motorcycles while I was over there. One of them was a German BMW with a drive shaft, which I had purchased for $25. One time when I borrowed a weapons carrier and went up to the front and I bought it off of an infantry man up there. I had a lot of fun with that. If we got a little ahead on our missions…by that I mean, you know, we got ahead of the other guys…we got a chance to go down to Cairo for a little R&R, but also pick up some liquor to bring back to the squadron. So I did that 2 or 3 times. It was really great to get down there and get into civilization again.
Woman: Sounds to me like America needs to be very grateful to the World War II vets…what do you think, Natalie?
Bokman: Yes, most definitely.
Woman: Thank you, Bob.
Walker: I’d like to say one thing in parting…I was never a hero, myself. But, I can still remember this vividly and I did fly with some of them. The heroes are they guys that did not come back.
Woman: We all remember them. They were the greatest generation. Thank you, Bob, we’re glad you came back.
Walker: Our own generation, you know the present generation, is doing very good, I think.