Albion Central Schools Veterans History Project
Bob Walker (4th from left, co-pilot, age 21) and the crew of the Idaho Lassie, the first B-25 to fly 200 missions in World War II, at Grattaglia, Italy, in the fall of 1943.
Other identifiable crewmen are: Bob House (fifth from the right, shaking hands), B.G. Herrman (second from left), and Jim Dillon (fifth from the left).
ROBERT WALKER: BIOGRAPHICAL & MILITARY SERVICE INFORMATION
- Birthplace: Lockport, New York
- Place of Residence*: Medina, New York
*at time of interview
- Wars of Service: World War II
- Branch of Service: Army Air Corps
- Date of Birth: Feb. 13, 1922
- Method of Induction: Enlisted
- Service Dates: 1942-1945
- Place of Service: Italy, Africa, US
Mr. Walker joined the Army Air Corps shortly after the Japanese bombed the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. So many people joined the military so quickly after this attack that the Army wasn’t prepared for them and it struggled to provide supplies and training for all the new volunteers. (They even ran out of uniforms!) Mr. Walker had to be put on furlough for a few months until a plane was available for his training.
Mr. Walker began his flight training in Texas, under the instruction of Mr. Norman, a civilian pilot who had been flying since World War I. In their first flight together, Mr. Norman taught Mr. Walker a very powerful lesson. They were getting set to fly in an open-cockpit plane (one that didn’t have a dome/roof over the pilots’ heads). Mr. Norman, who sat behind Mr. Walker, could talk to him through a set of tubes attached to earpieces Mr. Walker wore---but Mr. Walker didn’t have anything to speak into and couldn’t say anything back…he could only reply by nodding or shaking his head. Mr. Norman started checking the plane and asked Mr. Walker if he had fastened his seatbelt. Mr. Walker nodded that “yes, he had fastened it,” and Mr. Norman continued checking the engine. Then, Mr. Norman asked the same question (whether Mr. Walker had his seatbelt on) two more times…making Mr. Walker worried that his instructor was going crazy. Each time, Mr. Walker nodded that he did have his seatbelt fastened. When the plane finally took off, Mr. Norman immediately turned the plane upside down, so that Mr. Walker felt as if his head were only about ten feet above the concrete landing strip. The only thing holding Mr. Walker in the plane was his seat belt, and from that point on he never forgot to fasten it whenever he flew.
Mr. Norman also taught Mr. Walker not to panic in emergency situations. One day while flying, Mr. Norman put the plane into an uncontrolled spin and told Mr. Walker not to touch the controls. Although the plane was spinning wildly and would certainly crash, Mr. Walker did as he was told and eventually the plane went into a more gradual, slower spin all on its own, which would be easier to pull out of. Mr. Norman had proven to his students that, if you know what you’re doing and handle the situation calmly, you don’t need to panic.
Mr. Walker’s training continued and he moved on to different types of aircraft and different situations. He learned to fly in formation, as part of a “team” of planes, and how to fly at night without lights. After he graduated from flight school, Mr. Walker was put on a crew and sent by ship to Europe. The boat he traveled on was part of a convoy, a line of ships that were better protected from German attack. When they reached the Strait of Gibraltar (the start of the Mediterranean Sea, near Spain), the convoy split---half of the ships went north to England and the other half (Mr. Walker’s group) continued into the Mediterranean Sea to Algiers, in northern Africa. (SEE MAP BELOW) Before they got to Algiers, however, the convoy was attacked by the German Air Force and four ships were sunk. Mr. Walker’s ship was not hit, although bombs exploded just off the sides of his boat. The group later continued to Italy, where the pilots got their first experience at flying in combat situations.
Mr. Walker began as a co-pilot and was sent on his first mission, to bomb a German airfield just north of Athens, Greece. Before they could attack the airfield, however, one of the Allied planes was shot down by German guns guided by radar, a device Mr. Walker had never heard of before. Radar allowed the Germans to “see” the coming planes, even through the clouds, and the Allied planes had to find a new, safer target to bomb.
One of Mr. Walker’s most memorable experience in World War II was when he had to fly on a bombing mission to Yugoslavia and one of his engines overheated and shut down. The planes in the group were flying low, about 20-30 feet above the Adriatic Sea, so they wouldn’t be seen by the German enemy’s radar. When the engine went out, Mr. Walker had to keep the plane in the air long enough for the engine to cool so they could restart it…he thinks they were probably only a few feet above the water when the engine finally came back on. Then, after the mission was over, they slowly headed back to their own airfield on only one engine…and later figured out that they had been WITHIN SIGHT of several German airfields…they didn’t realize it at the time, but they had been in great danger, since they could have easily been attacked from any of these German bases. Mr. Walker and his crew had been incredibly lucky that these Germans hadn’t tried to attack their damaged plane as they returned home.
Another frightening mission Mr. Walker remembers was to Anzio, where his group was sent to bomb the German supply lines and storage areas. Destroying German supplies would help weaken German troops and “soften them up” for a ground attack by the U.S./Allied Army. The area was well protected by anti-aircraft guns, however, and Mr. Walker’s plane was flying “Tail-End Charlie,” meaning he was the last plane in the attack. Usually, the worst places to fly in a group were in the very front (because these would be the first planes the enemy on the ground fired on) and in the very back (because these would be the planes the enemy shot at after the mission was over and the planes were on their way back home). After they dropped their bombs, Mr. Walker saw three planes near him completely disappear, having been totally destroyed by enemy shells. To get away quickly, the planes dove towards the ground to pick up speed…Mr. Walker remembers reaching speeds of 440 miles per hour and fearing that the plane’s wings would be torn off…luckily, he and his crew returned safely (although there were several holes in the plane!).
Mr. Walker also learned the importance of patience during World War II---once, while flying a mission to Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, his bomber was attacked by an enemy Spitfire plane. The attacking pilot flew at Mr. Walker’s plane three times, shooting right at the cockpit each time and even getting close enough for Mr. Walker to see him. The problem was that the gunners on Mr. Walker’s plane were “green” (new, inexperienced) and started shooting at the enemy before he was close enough to hit. By the time his plane was close enough, the gunners had to stop firing because their guns were too hot to fire. If they had been patient and waited for the enemy to get closer, they could have better protected themselves.
At first, Mr. Walker thought he would only have to fly 25 missions before returning home, since that’s what American pilots stationed in England had been doing at the time, but as World War II expanded, pilots were asked to fly more and more missions for their country. The required number of missions increased to 35 and then to 50. Mr. Walker did more than his fair share, flying a total of 54 missions before having to stop due to a condition called “combat fatigue.” His flights in the war had taken a lot out of him and made him so tense that his resting pulse rate was 120 beats per minute!
Eventually, Mr. Walker was sent back to the United States. He was given an crew and they were asked to fly an older plane back to the U.S. Along the way, they flew through several storms and high winds, which worried Mr. Walker because the plane’s log book said to avoid high speeds and turbulence (rough wind/weather). When they finally arrived in Florida, Mr. Walker was about ready to kiss the ground! After this, Mr. Walker was sent on map-making flights over the American southwest before he became a flight instructor himself in Kansas. Even after getting out of the Army Air Corps, Mr. Walker’s life with planes didn’t end…he went to work for several companies, including one known as Northrop, which today is part of a company that helped make modern planes like the flying wing and the Stealth Bomber.