Before the U.S. Air Force was created in 1947, there was the Army Air Corps (World War II), renamed from the Air Service (World War I).
The role of the Army Air Corps was to provide air support to the ground operations below during WWII.
A Beloit resident who was part of the Army Air Corps told of his experiences recently as the guest speaker at the Older Wiser Lutherans (OWLS) lunch meeting at St. Paul Lutheran Church.
Bill Rodermel, 88, enlisted in the military and began his service at the age of 18, barely out of high school in 1943.
At Fort Sheridan, Ill., he exchanged civilian clothes for a uniform and began his 22-month stint. At Miami Beach, he gained his basic training. Then it was on to Loredo, Texas.
There was much to learn in a short time — from firing a variety of carbines and other weapons to experiencing decompression chambers and becoming familiar with all the turrets (movable gun positions) of the planes in which they would be flying. Rodermel scored high in target practice.
Practice does make for perfect, but sometimes that meant just meeting basic human needs.
Hungry soldiers also have to eat, for example, and that meant somebody has to peel the potatoes. Rodermel said he remembers peeling potatoes down so small they ended up looking like marbles. His superior officer was not impressed.
Then it was on to Boise, Idaho.
“In Boise, we were flying day and night,” Rodermel recalled of 70 years ago.
Finally, the young GIs were ready to ship out from Boston to Liverpool, England.
“If you’ve ever seen fog, you ought to see the fog in England — they have great fog there,” he said.
The fog was so thick it took much longer than expected to reach their base in London. By the time they arrived, early in the morning, the base was shut down for the night so the men just slept on the floor of the base office until the next morning.
One of the first things on base that happened is that they took the pistols away from the soldiers who would be carrying them on the planes.
“They didn’t want us to pull them out if we got shot down,” he recalled.
Sometimes the Army does things a little backwards.
“We flew two combat missions before they said we were supposed to have two practice missions. So they also flew a couple just for practice, just to get it on the record, he said.
Rodermel flew as a passenger in the big B-24 bomber planes.
The temperature at such high altitudes would range from -2 to -60 degrees.
“We had electric suits,” he said.
Even so, they always added layers of clothing to stay warm. Each man also had an escape kit attached to him which included a parachute, maps and more.
“I made sure the ammunition was up to the gun and I would set the bomb release. I went through the bomb bays and removed the safety pins,” Rodermel said. “To get to the turrets, I would crawl under the pilot’s chamber.”
The lead bomber would shoot off flares to show the others proximity to their targets.
About every 30 seconds, an allied plane would take off and head out over the North Sea, he said. They would fly behind allied lines and then come out near Switzerland.
A mission lasted anywhere from five to 10 hours.
Rodermel flew on 21 missions.
Not all were without incident.
On one mission, the plane to the right of the one Rodermel was in was hit. It fell out of formation and later exploded.
Many years later, while on the Internet, Rodermel came across someone searching for information on her great uncle who served in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He connected with the woman and explained to her that her great uncle had been the man who was in the plane next to him that went down during one of the missions.
Near the end of the war, the Germans were preventing supplies from getting to Bordeaux, France.
“We dropped napalm,” he said.
Napalm is a mixture of petroleum or a similar fuel for use in an incendiary device.
England remained foggy much of the time.
“The weather was something else — we would take off in the fog and return in the fog.”
After returning from a mission, “We were given a shot of Scotch — that was the good part. And debriefed.”
Even so, decorum is always in style in the Army.
Towards the end of the war, “A gunner and I were going past a major and didn’t salute.”
They were sent to a military courtesy class. The guy teaching the class had been in a dispute with the Military Police, apparently his punishment was to teach the class.
Finally, Rodermel returned home to Polo, Illinois and his high school sweetheart who he married. He retired from Fairbanks several years ago. He and his wife, Beth, of 65 years, live in Beloit and have two grown daughters.