Archive for August, 2017


My third book is now available as an ebook. The paperback should be out by first week of September.

It is the story of eight airmen as they grew up during the Great Depression and then joined the US Army Air Forces and took to the skies over Europe. Each man held a different crew position on the ‘heavies’, the B-24 Liberator or the B-17 Flying Fortress. Most had a connection to ‘Hometown USA’, a name coined during WWII for Glens Falls, NY and the surrounding environs and small communities that lined the Hudson River 200 miles north of New York City.

Here is a story from Chapter Five.

The Navigator

Kenneth R. Carlson was born in 1921 in New York City. As a boy in the Great Depression, he spent his summers at Glenburnie at the Lake George Camp, the northern fringe of the communities surrounding ‘Hometown USA’. He called me at home one evening, shortly after I had returned from swimming near there.

‘Tell me about yourself, your family. I myself was from a middle-class family, but we were lucky in that I was able to attend what was probably the best private school in New York City. Incidentally, my tuition in grade school in the ‘20s was $250 a year; today a kindergarten slot is $45,000. I had a terrific education, even though I had to fight my way through the Irish gangs on 69th Street when I came back home from school.’

He tells me that the man who cuts his hair was an 8-year old boy in occupied France. He would look up, see the twin tails of the B-24 Liberators  coming or going to attack Germany, and wish them a silent prayer, hopeful that one day he would indeed be free.

‘I think what you are doing is very important. I still go to speak to the students here a few times a year; when we got out of the service, I joined the 8th Air Force Historical Society here in New York and vowed to speak to kids. At 96, I’m still keeping that commitment. Years ago the Smithsonian put out a book, High Honor, of inspirational stories with World War II veterans, myself and twenty-nine other fellows. Get the book, but I wouldn’t try to contact any of the other fellows. I’m the last one left.’


I won’t bore you with other missions, but we were on the first three raids on Berlin. March 6, 1944, was referred to as ‘Bloody Monday’ because we sent 600 airplanes up and 69 did not come back. That was not the worst experience I had because our group was not damaged. A lot of groups were, so we were very fortunate. But on our eighth mission we were sent to Freiburg in southern Germany, near the Swiss border. And it was there, just as we were going over the target…


Let me tell you a little about flak. I have carried this with me ever since, because this is what flak looks like [digs into jacket pocket, pulls out a jagged flak fragment about the size of two fingers].

carlson flak

This is a piece of flak from a German 88mm artillery shell, which is fired from the ground and explodes at 25,000 feet, which is where we were flying. It is designed to destroy the plane or the engines or blow up the gas tank. And on my eighth mission, just as we were flying over the target, through these black clouds of exploding shells that you had to fly though, and just as the bombardier released our bombs I hit the salvo handle, a handle right next to the instrument on the navigation table. That would release the bombs in the event that the bombsight did not release the bombs. The second the bombardier says, ‘Bombs are away’, the navigator hits the salvo handle so if any bombs did get hung up, they would automatically go when you hit the salvo handle. So as I hit that handle this piece of flak nearly took my right arm off. And all I felt was no pain, just the feeling that someone had hit me with a sledgehammer. I felt total peace. It was the most unbelievable experience I’d ever had in my life. I didn’t talk to God or see God, but I had absolutely no fear.

I looked down and there wasn’t much left of my right arm; I saw it hanging there. I called the pilot and asked him to send somebody down to put a tourniquet on. Meanwhile I was checking instruments, because now we were on our way back and navigating was part of what I had to do, and I was still capable of doing it; I had no problem with it. The radio operator came down, took one look at it, and fainted. So I called again and the engineer came down. He revived the radio operator and sent him back with his portable oxygen mask. He then put the tourniquet on and stayed with me for the three or four hours it took to get back to base. An engine was on fire. Joe put the fire out and we lost a second engine. He brought it back, we landed, and I was brought to the hospital. They repaired my arm. I was on the operating table for eight hours. I didn’t wake up for 72 hours due to an overdose of pentothal, which was the drug they used in those days.

While I was in the hospital, our plane had 150 holes in it [to be patched up], and the crew was given a leave to go to London and relax. Joe came in and brought this piece of flak to me. [It had been lodged] in the instrument panel and it had a piece of my wire suit and my blood on it. So it took part of my arm and then went on to demolish part of the instrument panel. Joe said to me, ‘Sorry you are so unlucky, Navigator. We’re going to miss you’, because there was no way I was going to fly again.

They came back from leave to fly the repaired airplane on the next mission, and they flew and they never came back. The crew next to them saw them explode, just like the Space Shuttle did on my 65th birthday. They were officially declared missing; [only] one parachute was seen coming out. For years I assumed they were missing rather than the fact that they were killed. About two years later, the government declared them killed in action. But up until about four or five years ago, [it was assumed that] there were no bodies ever recovered, because there was no indication otherwise. Then, through a German internet source, I discovered that they had been found by the Germans and were buried in a small German-occupied cemetery just north of Paris, but there were only body parts and one piece of wing that had a star on it. That was their identification. So they [turned out to be] in a cemetery in a little town northwest of Paris.

That was the end of my combat career. My arm was repaired by a doctor who, by fate, I met thirty years later. When my hand began to contract again I was sent to an orthopedic man. As I was sitting across from him he was questioning me about where this had happened, and he was the doctor who originally had put my hand back together again. He was the only doctor in that hospital which had just opened the week before I was shot.


[After the war, I did not go to reunions.] I had lost my crew and it was something I didn’t talk about for many years. I had no desire to go back and share memories with crews that had survived. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to do this book for reasons that it would be helpful to young people in understanding what World War II was like. Not so much understanding it in its entirety, but how it affected individual people’s lives. It wasn’t until then that I had any real reason to try and recapture people who had been there. Then I joined what is called the 8th Air Force Historical Society. And through that I have maintained contacts at both the national level and at the local level in New York City. I found that very rewarding.

[I think my time in the military affected me] in a very dominant way. People talk about religion and believing in something; the moment of truth comes to you. I was raised and schooled in the Christian church. I don’t go to church anymore, but I do have the faith that came to me when this piece of flak hit me. There was just no question in my mind that I was coming home, and that I was going to be safe and go to work and just do the job that I had to do. It is a feeling that has stayed with me all my life. So, from that standpoint, there is no fear. So many people today seem to be afraid of so many things. The fear of doing things or fear of failing has never been with me since I left the service. I have continued to look at my own life as one of missions, a series of missions and not just adventures, and it has worked for me.



Ken Carlson, first row second from right, and the crew of ‘Myrtle the Flying Turtle’. Credit: Ken Carlson.

There is a photo of me and my crew taken in 1943. [Pointing out crew]—Frank Caldwell was the bombardier, from Anderson, IN; ‘Johnny’ Johnson, the co-pilot, from Houston, TX; Joe Roznos, the pilot, my greatest friend, from Hollywood, CA; ‘Wally’ Waldmann, waist gunner, from Houston, TX; Hal McNew, waist gunner, from Montana; Ed Miller, tail gunner, from Wyoming; Frank Dinkins, the engineer; John Rose, ‘Rosie’, our ball turret gunner—he could shoot a squirrel, or a German fighter pilot, from his shoulder or his waist, it didn’t make any difference; and Cleo Pursifull, our radioman. He is the one that came to help me and fainted. And he failed to go on that last mission. He had just had enough.

The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who replaced him. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. And when you think about it, an 18-year old boy was put as a replacement in a crew that he did not know; we were an all Christian crew. We all had our little New Testament that the Air Force gave us and he would have been given an Old Testament. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers. Now that’s bravery!

We all want to be free, but very few of us want to be brave. For all of us to be free, a few of us must be brave, and that is the history of America.


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real history from real people.

My third book is now available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and other outlets. The paperback should be out by first week of September.

It is the story of eight airmen as they grew up during the Great Depression and then joined the US Army Air Forces and took to the skies over Europe. Each man held a different crew position on the ‘heavies’, the B-24 Liberator or the B-17 Flying Fortress. Most had a connection to ‘Hometown USA’, a name coined during WWII for Glens Falls NY and the surrounding environs and small communities that lined the Hudson River 200 miles north of New York City.

I’ll leave you with the teaser for now. The book is all in their own words, like they are speaking to us across the kitchen table (and that is exactly where some of them were seated when they told their stories…) It’s intimate, it’s heart wrenching at times, and it’s bust-out-loud-laughing funny at others. And it’s real history from real people, something a lot of Americans seem to have forgotten these days. We need these guys now as much as we did during the war.

Click here to see the book in the stores. Click here for a book preview. 

Earl Morrow, B-17 pilot and POW in my classroom , May, 2011. Credit. Robert H Miller.

Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen. Being forgotten is.

— ‘You flew with what I would call ‘controlled fear’. You were scared stiff, but it was controlled. My ball turret gunner—he couldn’t take it anymore… I guess he was right. He’s dead now. But he had lost control of the fear. He never got out of that ball turret; he died in that ball turret.’ —B-24 bombardier


How soon we forget. Or perhaps, we were never told. That is understandable, given what they saw.

— ‘I spent a lot of time in hospitals. I had a lot of trouble reconciling how my mother died [of a cerebral hemorrhage] from the telegram she opened, saying I was [shot down and] “missing in action”. I didn’t explain to her the fact that ‘missing in action’ is not necessarily ‘killed in action’. You know? I didn’t even think about that. How do you think you feel when you find out you killed your mother?’ —B-24 bombardier

At the height of World War II, LOOK Magazine profiled a small upstate New York community for a series of articles portraying it as the wholesome, patriotic model of life on the home front. Seventy years later, a history teacher tracks down the veterans with a connection to “Hometown, USA” who fought the war in the air over Europe, men who were tempered in the tough times of the Great Depression and forged in battle. He rescues and resurrects firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no American community unscathed.
Here are the stories that the magazine could not tell, from a vanishing generation speaking to America today.

— ‘I was in the hospital with a flak wound. The next mission, the entire crew was killed. The thing that haunts me is that I can’t put a face to the guy who was a replacement. He was an 18-year old Jewish kid named Henry Vogelstein from Brooklyn. It was his first and last mission. He made his only mission with a crew of strangers.’ —B-24 navigator

By the end of 2018, fewer than 400,000 WW II veterans will still be with us, out of the over 16 million who put on a uniform. But why is it that today, nobody seems to know these stories?
Maybe our veterans did not volunteer to tell us; maybe we were too busy with our own lives to ask. But they opened up to the younger generation, when a history teacher told their grandchildren to ask.

— ‘The German fighters picked us. I told the guys, ‘Keep your eyes open, we are about to be hit!’ I saw about six or eight feet go off my left wing. I rang the ‘bail-out’ signal, and I reached out and grabbed the co-pilot out of his seat. I felt the airplane climbing, and I thought to myself, ‘If this thing stalls out, and starts falling down backwards, no one is going to get out…’ —B-17 pilot

This book brings you the previously untold firsthand accounts of combat and brotherhood, of captivity and redemption, and the aftermath of a war that left no American community unscathed.
As we forge ahead as a nation, we owe it to ourselves to become reacquainted with a generation that is fast leaving us, who asked for nothing but gave everything, to attune ourselves as Americans to a broader appreciation of what we stand for.

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I’m putting together the final edits for my new book, The Things Our Fathers Saw—The Untold Stories of the World War II Generation-Volume II. The subtitle is War in the Air—From the Great Depression to Combat. In it, I track the wartime experiences of seven or eight veterans of the air war over Europe. I also make some surprising discoveries regarding a family cousin who was killed at age 20. I’ll be posting some excerpts over the next few days.

I know that some folks subscribed to this site for the Holocaust educational material. While this may not be directly related to the Holocaust, understand that it is all about keeping the memory alive. And I have to tell you that some of my biggest cheerleaders for these stories about our World War II veterans come from the Holocaust survivor community.

Maybe I’ll start with the guy who lived on the corner for most of my life. In 1969, he also became my younger brother’s godfather. Thirty-four years later he ran into some of my students at a garage sale. They found out he was in World War II, and asked him for an interview for my class.

I had no idea that Dick was even in World War II. Here’s just an excerpt. You can order the full book here; the paperback edition will be out Sept. 1, 2017.


War in the Air-Flight Engineer Dick Varney

Richard Varney

I grew up during the Depression. I remember that day in 1929 [when the stock market crashed] very well. I was about 17 or 18. I had been working for two years; I went to work at 15 years old with working papers. My parents, God bless them, they grew up in an era when school was not that important. You went to work as soon as you were able to help the family. I don’t think you people understand what I am saying or what that means, but it meant a lot. But I wish that I had gone to school. I did later on, but I made it in life without [a formal education]. I had to do it my way. I worked at the sawmill on Haskell Avenue in Glens Falls; it’s not there now. I also started playing at dances in a band when I was 17 and did it for a long, long time; it was a lot of fun. It was quite necessary then because the wages then weren’t what they are now. I took lessons for a little while on the violin, but I played by ear from then on. I also taught myself to play the alto and tenor saxophone, which I still have, incidentally.

You have to realize that when I went to work at the Imperial factory, later, if you weren’t late or forgot to ring in and out, you got 40 cents an hour. Can you imagine that? You worked 40 hours; you got sixteen dollars a week! Now on this, you had a family to support—it isn’t like what it’s like today. In the Depression era you could buy a home for 1,500 dollars. You couldn’t hang a door for that now! Money was something you didn’t have, but you didn’t feel deprived in those days because nobody else had any money. No, you probably had one change of clothes, maybe one pair of shoes if you were lucky. You didn’t wear them in the summer because you didn’t want to wear them out. I’m not exaggerating, because you just didn’t have the money. You made do. You didn’t eat a lot of prepared food, you [improvised and] cooked your own. You ate a lot of things… [Have you ever had] dandelions? We used to go and pick them. Clean them, cook them, you make do. You just didn’t always have money with those kinds of wages.


On December 7, 1941, I was working at the Imperial Color paint factory in Glens Falls. It was a shock— I was outraged naturally, because it was a sneak attack.  But it was not unexpected; believe me, we had been heading towards it. In fact, in my opinion we were already in an undeclared war; we were actually in it because we were supporting England. We had been giving them everything they needed; from then on it was just a matter of time before we all got into it.  But Germany and Japan declared war on us first.

I was not a kid; I was 30 years old at the time. I was married and I had no idea what the future was going to bring for us, because I did not know what they wanted to do. I don’t think anybody relished the idea of going to war; nobody does. But nevertheless, I think we had a level of patriotism at that time that we won’t ever see again; certainly we don’t have it now. Everybody was behind it, the whole situation, at that time. I don’t think you heard anybody wondering whether we should go in or not, because we were in. In retrospect it was so long ago now, a lot of the details are not as sharp as they should be maybe, but I can remember most of it.

Richard ‘Dick’ Varney, flight engineer, first row second from right, and the crew of his B-24 Liberator Source: Richard Varney, Sr..

I was drafted in April of 1943, I think. Then we went through God knows how many schools, how much training, to prepare us for it.

I took my army basic training in Miami Beach. It was tough duty in Miami Beach. [Laughs] After that we were assigned to air mechanic school, and there I was trained for the B-24 Liberator. I was being trained as the aircraft flight engineer, and my job at that time was everything mechanical on the plane. It was the flight engineer’s responsibility, so you were taught everything about the airplane. Then after we graduated from there, they sent us to Panama City for air gunnery. After that we went to various places and to Westover, and from there our crew was formed. Now this crew, when it was put together, was the first time that I had met most of these people, the enlisted men I met. Then we went to Walker Air Base in South Carolina, and there we met our pilot, copilot, navigator, and bombardier; from then on, we were a unit—we stayed together, we trained together, all our practice missions and everything. Then we went to Langley, Virginia, and from there we took radar training. And that was the last duty in this part of the world—from there we flew to Goose Bay, Labrador and then to Iceland and from there to Wales. We flew all the way over. Now as a unit we stayed that way. And then when we got there, we were assigned to our bomb group. And there we went through even more training—that’s all you ever did, you train, train, train, and train.

‘There Are No Heroes’

The B-17 crews were the glory boys. The B-24 flew faster, carried more bombs, and flew higher, but the B-17s were the glory boys. We didn’t name our planes like they did. We had ten to a crew in the 24s, yes. Originally they had a ball turret on the bottom but when we got over across the ocean they took that out and they put the radar transmitter in the bottom, where the belly turret was. That left the engineer free to do everything mechanical and the assistant engineer flew the top turret [gun] in my plane.

Finally we were scheduled for our first mission, to Hamburg. It was a vital mission, in the sense that Hamburg had all their oil refineries. And without that, they couldn’t fly, they couldn’t have gasoline, they couldn’t have anything, so you could destroy it because it would certainly limit their supplies. It was a very important mission. And because of that they concentrated their [fighter] aircraft and anti-aircraft guns to protect it. So that’s a target I really remember, believe me.

I’ve seen planes go down, naturally. And the only things you’d look for were how many ‘chutes came out of it because when an airplane gets spinning, you couldn’t get out. Sometimes because of centrifugal force, the spinning of the plane would kill you, because you couldn’t get out. As I said before, I never got hurt. It was always the other guy. And the frame of mind that you have is something that most people can’t understand—you can see this happening, but it’s not you. It becomes an impersonal thing; it has to be, because you would go crazy if it wasn’t. Not that you didn’t have sympathy for the people but still, it wasn’t you. I don’t know how to explain it. But there are no heroes, contrary to what people may think. It’s like a job. I don’t think there are any heroes up there because you’re just doing your job, you have to—you either did, or you didn’t come back. You don’t have time enough really to be scared a lot.


Our missions were all over. They were over the Rhineland, yes sure. And Cologne, Dusseldorf, whatever you can think of. And we hit them wherever they were—we bombed as far as Austria and Czechoslovakia; in fact we even hit Berchtesgaden, which was Hitler’s retreat.

Most of the missions we flew were around 20,000 feet and believe me, in the winter time at that altitude, it’s about minus 70 degrees. That’s cold. But we did have heated suits, heated clothes. And of course under those circumstances we still had our job to do. As an engineer, I had duties at the time. I had to check to make sure the generators were synchronized, I opened the bomb bay doors, and I transferred fuel. All of these things were part of my job. I won’t speak for the other people; they had their own jobs. But that is what I did.


‘Something Always Goes Wrong’

Did anything ever go wrong during your job?


Did anything ever go wrong? [Chuckles] Oh, something always goes wrong. Yes, I remember one time when we got ready on the ‘IP’, which is the Initial Point, where we start the bomb run to the target—I forget where the mission was to—well, they loaded the bombs all right. But there’s a propeller on the back of it, and when you drop them, the wind screws the propeller off. When that propeller comes off, that bomb is armed; it won’t go off otherwise. But when the group crews load them, they’re supposed to put a safety wire through it, in each thing. Well, somebody on that mission [laughs], they didn’t put the safety wires in. So when I opened the bomb bay doors, the wind hit them and I called the pilot on the intercom and I said, ‘I got news for you, we got 10 thousand pound bombs here that are now armed. The propellers are all off.’ Any piece of flak coming through would hit the nose of them and… [Makes the sound of an explosion] that would be all she wrote, you wouldn’t find anything! It didn’t though. But that’s one time I sweated a little bit, I can tell you. [Chuckles]  You couldn’t fix anything. We were on the ‘IP’. You couldn’t take evasive action, you couldn’t do anything and we’re flying right through that flak. But when they dropped the bombs, it was fine.


I learned more about the German anti-aircraft than I did about anything else because that was the only way you could defend yourself against anti-aircraft; oh yes, we picked up holes, sure. Flak holes. And they generally fired in bursts of three. They used their 88s, they called them, and at different levels. The first one would be 18,500 feet, and another one would be at 18,700 and so on; three. They’re like steps. And they would try to bracket you with the target. And each battery they had of anti-aircraft was three guns, usually. But they so had many of those batteries at some of our targets! When they started firing, you would have thought there was a thunderstorm up there, you know what I mean? But I never lost it, I never lost an engine. I did lose the oil out of one when we landed because there was a hole in the oil reservoir, but the pump in it was strong enough so I didn’t lose the engine in the air. No, I made sure the engines were alright before we went up. As I said before, I don’t make that much of that because there’s not many heroes up there. You’re doing your job, that’s all. But for flying personnel, we had the highest rate of causalities than any branch of the service, because there’s no foxholes up there either, no place to hide, but [we were lucky.] Out of our original crew of ten, we only lost two. There was a bomb group that was short a co-pilot and a tail gunner. And we weren’t scheduled to fly that day, so they assigned them to that other aircraft, from the other group. And they got shot down. They didn’t come back.

You didn’t do too much worrying because it’s something that you were trained to do, and you had to do it and you’re busy and taking care of the duties of the job. You didn’t have much time to think about anything else. No, I don’t think we always wondered—of course, it crosses your mind naturally, why wouldn’t it? When you look out the side window and see a plane going down, it isn’t you, but naturally you’re going to wonder about it, you know… But as far as that, that’s all there’s to it. I mean, the way the job was—what in retrospect, what I did like about the air corps was that despite the hazards, if you went over and came back, you did have a place to sleep. You weren’t like an infantryman sleeping in a foxhole! You ate in the mess halls; you did get your hot food. But outside of that, as I said, I don’t think there were many heroes flying up there—I can’t say I worried too much—because what are you going to do? If you don’t like it, are you going to get out and walk? You’re going where the plane goes, that’s all there is to it. And that’s it. But I can’t say I got to take much credit for that. The only thing you can take credit for is being able to function under those conditions. You take 70 degrees below zero and you’ve got murderous work, and if you take your gloves off, it wouldn’t be for two minutes and your hands would be frozen. Outside of that, that’s the part of it.


I’m just telling you that I don’t feel that air combat was such a personal thing. It only gets personal when you’re flying through flak or got another plane coming at you or something—then it gets a little bit personal. So, like I say—what are you going to do? So I don’t pretend to be a hero; I just did my job, and I was good at my job, too. I made it a point to be, because I wanted to learn everything about that plane that I could. [When I entered the service] I never expected to fly. I thought I’d be a mechanic at my age. Instead of that, I wound up over places, I’ll never know how, but I did. I was in pretty good condition physically I guess. Not very exciting, but that’s the way it is.

This interview took place in 2003. Dick Varney passed away on April 28th, 2008, just shy of his 97th birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Varney and my kid brother, 1969.

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