|From “A Time To Speak”|
(Pages 7 - 17)
Bob Brodersen, Tekamah
I’ve known of Bob Brodersen for a long time. His children attended high school with me nearly 30 years ago, and his family has lived and farmed in both Burt and Washington counties for longer than that.
In 1992, I got my hands on a diary he’d kept while serving as a B-17 bomber pilot during World War II. A three-ring notebook full of handwritten pages, it changed forever he way I thought of Bob and of war.
I read his accounts of bombing missions, crew members, and furloughs in the English countryside. He wrote of finding a brother and losing friends, and of a horse named “Queenie”. He wrote about the war in a way that made me live it, as much as I could, without suffering the anguish and uncertainty that he experienced.
I realized that if one man had such a story, so must other men.
These are the stories of such men. I owe my inspiration to Bob, who, in writing his diary, led me to gather these accounts. Many of the men I’ve interviewed have been pilots. Inevitably, during our visits, they use the term, “the left sear”, which refers to the pilot’s position in the airplane. To be in the left seat is to be in command of the aircraft. And so it seems fitting to begin this book with Bob Brodersen in “the left seat”. I’m honored to be his co-pilot.—B.J.L.
“The first week of January, 1944, our crew was sent to Kearney, Nebraska to fly a new B-17 bomber to England and be assigned to a Bomber group for combat duty. We had just completed two months of training as a crew, and we were ready for action.”
From Kearney the crew flew to Vermont and Presque Isle, Maine, landing at Goose Bay, Labrador.
“It was a very rugged outpost. After we parked the plane, a truck came out to pick us up to take us to the barracks, and the truck driver was an Eskimo. It would have been better if he had some dogs and a sled, but he did manage to herd us over to the barracks; I don’t know what language he spoke, but it sure wasn’t English.”
The B-17 flew unescorted the entire distance to England. From 12,000 feet, the North Atlantic sprawled below, dotted with enormous icebergs. Suddenly a red distress flare shot up through the clouds.
“This meant, of course, that an airplane was down in the ocean and was pleading for help. It would be similar to the Roman candles we had for the Fourth of July celebrations, only many times more powerful.
“We were told at our briefing at Goose Bay to ignore this because it could be a surfaced German sub trying to lure us down below the clouds and then they would try to shoot us down. We followed instructions and stayed straight on our course, but in our minds it was very distressing not to know but that it could very well have been a plane like ours…down in the North Atlantic with survival chances of zero. We couldn’t have helped them. We were never able to find out if this was a decoy by the Germans or a genuine distress”.
After delivering their plane to the 8th Air Force in England, the crew rode a train to Northern Ireland for assignment to a bomb group.
“We stayed there several days being processed and while there we were approached by some Irish civilians, wanting to know if we would like to attend their church on Sunday. I don’t remember the denomination of the church, and I really didn’t care because I thought basically they all had the right idea.
“We were all settled in the church and the preacher started the sermon, doing real well, and all of a sudden, an Irishman right behind us jumped up and said ‘Praise the Special Name’. We all raised up out of the pew lie we had been shot. We got settled back for a few minutes and another jumped up and said ‘Amen’. This kept up during the sermon and we sat there waiting for the next blast. I don’t mean to be making fun of those people, but we weren’t accustomed to this. It did have its good point though…nobody went to sleep.”
Horham, Suffolk, England became home when the crew was sent to the 95th Bomb Group, 336 Bomb Squadron. The countryside was dotted with small farms and numerous pubs. Dart boards hung in every establishment and the Yanks were always invited to play.
“It soon developed into a gambling game, the loser buying the beer.
“The English liked their beer, and in the evening there would be farmers, the local blacksmith, store keepers and of course, some American Air Force men. Needless to say, the English bought very little beer, because they were really good at darts. They would bring their set of darts, which they carried in their pocket in a small case.
“Their beer was rationed out to the pubs, and would last about four days, so they would be out for the rest of the week. If it hadn’t been for the Yanks, they wouldn’t be out, and this upset the local people.”
Life at the base was all business. Brodersen was assigned a Boeing B-17 heavy bomber, a four-engine aircraft armed with 10.50 caliber machine guns and capable of hauling three tons of bombs and 1,500 gallons of gasoline. It could climb to 30,000 feet and cruse at 180 mph.
The crew, now on a list for combat duty, was told that after 25 bombing missions, it would be sent back to the States.
“Mission No. : Berlin
“On the evening of March 9, 1944, I checked the flight board for the next day and my name was on it. Not the crew, but just me. I was listed as ‘tail gunner’. I was certainly confused but the next morning straightened it all out. Our commander was to lead the raid on Berlin and he wanted a pilot for a tail gunner, thinking a pilot would be better qualified to tell him how the formations behind us were doing. The tail gunner has two .50 caliber guns in his position and a large man wouldn’t fit in the tail gun position.
“I met the Commander and he told me what he wanted from me. He is not able to see to the rear and he wanted me to be his eyes. He wanted to know if any of our planes were shot down, if there were enemy fighters and if it looked like they were going to attack my formation.
“A ‘squadron’ was made up of six bombers. A ‘Group’ was made up of three squadrons totaling 18 planes. A “Wing” consisted of three groups totaling 54. We were the lead plane of this wing. This wing flew in a very tight formation for defensive power.
“Behind us several miles was another wing and several miles behind that was another and behind were more, how many I do not know. It was not unusual to send 300 to 500 bombers to target the size of Berlin.
“So sitting in the lead plane, this 23-year-old Nebraska farm boy had some view. In my wildest dreams never did I think of seeing a thing like this. Only four years ago I was working for my Uncle Frank Brodersen on a hill farm in Nebraska for 30 dollars a month. I had only been out of Nebraska twice in my life and that was to follow the harvest north to Minnesota with my best friend, Sonny Rogert, and the other time was to just cross the Blair bridge into Iowa.
“Considering the deep penetration, it was an easy mission. No fighters were encountered, but the flak was quite nasty. Three bursts came close enough to hear. What a sound—sort of chills your insides—sounds like the woof of a big dog. And the tinkle of pieces of metal could be heard against the airplane. I amused myself by shaking my fists at nasty flak puffs, and cursed it under my breath. I defied the stuff to come any closer, what a laugh. It was really a milk run, no holes in the plane—only 24 more to go, I hope.
“The losses of eight bombers that I mentioned in my notes were planes from the wings that were behind us. They had a very rough mission. A plane smoking and in flames going down from 25,000 feet can be seen from many miles away, and gives one a very sick feeling, because you know all the boys didn’t have a chance to bail out.
“Eight hours and 15 minutes after take-off, we landed back at our base. Trucks met us at our planes and took us to what was called a debriefing room.
There was an ‘Intelligence Officer’ assigned to debrief each crew. We were each served a shot of whiskey to relax us, and then he wanted to know everything we saw. How many enemy aircraft, accuracy and intensity of the anti-aircraft guns, how many planes we saw go down, both friendly and enemy and on and on. The above procedure was repeated after every mission.
“Raid 3, Thursday, March 16, 1944 Augsburg, Germany
“We are missing six B-17s from our group including our squadron commander. Some of the planes in the 95th group were in bad shape. We were damn lucky to be flying with another outfit. Our crew got out without a scratch.
“I saw some ME 110s blasting hell out of a poor straggler – the last I saw of him he was going straight down, and not because he wanted to.
“The guy that said the Luftwaffe is beaten is a damn liar.
“I find out now that we have to do 30 missions now instead of 25, which leaves me 27 to go.
“Raid No. 4 Sat. Mar. 18, 1944 Munich, Germany. Losses 43 bombers.
“This was another of those trips deep into the heart of Germany. We thought it might be cancelled due to bad weather, but no such luck. These long hauls are really trying on a guy. You sweat, your back aches, ears hurt and your eyes look like a couple of blood spots. What a way to earn a dollar.
“Something happened to our fighter escort as we had none for two hours while in Germany. The Germans had their fighters and rocket ships up and gave some of the boys a bad time. McCall threw the ship up and down in taking evasive action and I guess that’s the reason they didn’t shoot us down. The windshield in front of me shattered, but the bullet did not knock the window out. I checked my body over, just knowing I had been hit, but no blood. The bomber flying on our left wing went down.
“Lee, our radio-gunner shot the aerial off of our own airplane and he took a lot of kidding over that. His full name is Hon Quan Lee, and he lived in China until he was 12 years old. When getting excited, he would mix some Chinese in with his English and it was a riot.
“This kind of a mission makes a believer out of a guy. The flak over the target wasn’t bad – only 26 more to go.
“Shortly before going overseas, I was home for several days, and my mother gave me a pocket-sized Bible which had a metal back on it. When preparing for a mission I always carried it in my left shirt pocket, over my heart. This was a very special part of preparing myself for a mission, and it grew on me more and more as I progressed to the next mission.”
Brodersen’s crew received a three-day pass in mid-March and headed for London, taking in the sights of Big Ben and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Ducking into a subway station during a nighttime air raid, Brodersen saw firsthand the suffering of England’s civilians.
“There were thousands of English civilians there and most of them asleep. Every night many of these people came here bringing a bed roll with them and spent the night. Some of these people had been doing this for years. I didn’t realize until then how much these people had suffered. In the morning they would go home and to their jobs.
“On March 26, the crew was awarded the Air Medal for completing five missions.
“Raid No. 11 Thursday, April 13, 1944 Target: Augsburg, South Germany Losses: 33 bombers
“McCall and I aged plenty on this mission, as the flak had done some damage to the engines, but not fatal. We fell back from the formation but not too far, and we were barely able to keep up. We were afraid we might become a straggler, and then German fighters would all attack us like a bunch of vultures. A straggler would never make it back home from this distance.
“We did manage to stay reasonable close to our formation and made it back. We lost one airplane from our squadron, a new crew. I might add, if we had decided we couldn’t make it back, we could try to make it to Switzerland. Switzerland was neutral and if we had gone thee we would have been interned for the rest of the war. Quite a temptation.
“Raid No. 12 Tuesday, April 18, 1944 Berlin
“We went to the big “ B” today. The thought of big “B” makes the best crews shudder, for she is known for her flak and fighter protection.
“We were right at the target when enemy fighters were spotted. The crew saw about 50, all single engine jobs. That was indeed a tense moment. Attacks were made on the groups ahead and behind us, but I guess we had the old horse shoe along as our group received no attacks. I’m afraid the 8th Air Force lost plenty of aircraft, but our group came out okay…only 18 to go.”
Returning from Friedrichshafen, Germany after a nine-hour mission, Brodersen relished the coffee, doughnuts, smiles from the Red Cross girls and shot of Scotch waiting at the base. It was April 24, and he’d passed the halfway mark with Raid 16.
On May 2, the crew was awarded on Oak Leaf Cluster and a week’s stay at the “Flak Shack”. Designed to boost morale and calm nerves, the resort area on the west coast of England beckoned to Brodersen.
“I had a big decision to make and it was a very difficult one. I knew my brother Chuck was somewhere in southern England, along with about a million other Americans, waiting for D-Day. My C.O. gave me permission to go if I wanted to instead of going to the ‘flak shack’, but he didn’t think I would be ab le to find him. Everything was so secretive that no American servicemen was allowed to tell anyone his outfit, where they were located or any information, for fear that he might be a German spy. It was a court martial offense.
“I hopped on a train for southern England and all I knew was that he was in a ‘tank destroyer’ outfit. When I got to Southern England I started asking questions, but none of the Yanks would tell me anything. So I dropped into a pub to have a beer and it was full of Yanks. I could tell by their emblems if they were with a tank outfit, and these are the boys I zeroed in on. I sat down at their table and insisted on buying nearly every round and soon had made some friends. I finally got one of them to confide in me, and he told me where he thought Chuck might be and where I could catch a ride on a truck to that general area. It was more luck than sense because the truck took me right to his outfit. I checked at the ‘orderly room’ and his C.O. sent a man to find him. I stood back out of sight when I saw him coming, and when he was very close I stepped out in front of him. It was a very happy re-union. With only about half of my missions completed and ‘D-Day’ coming up for Check, life was very uncertain for the both of us. I stayed several days and then had to head back to my base, but I know this did me more good than the flak shack.”
The month of May found the crew flying into Belgium and Czechoslovakia, bombing marshalling yards and synthetic oil plants. A new bombardier named Hall joined the crew. On night, he and Brodersen found themselves in a different kind of confrontation – a high stakes poker game at the club house.
“We both were really lucky and were winning more than our share of pots. After several hours I was ahead and I knew Hall was, too, so I told the other players that Hall and I had an appointment. On the way back to the barracks we counted up our winnings and he had made 500 dollars and I was 250 to the good. So needless to say, we were on cloud nine.
“As we walked down the road the next morning, we could see an Englishman coming towards us, driving a fine looking horse on a nice carriage. Hall says ‘Let’s buy that outfit.’ We hailed him down and told him what we wanted. He said, “I’m sorry lads, but this horse and buggy is not for sale, but I do have one back at the farm that I will part with.” We made an appointment with him for the next morning.
“He showed us a much older horse and buggy and I was disappointed. Hall was from the city and the only horse he had ever seen was from a distance. I checked her teeth and they were smooth so I knew she had seen better days. I told Hall her teeth were smooth, but that didn’t mean a thing to him, he thought she had pretty teeth. The Englishman wanted 65 pounds, which figured out to about 250 dollars. I didn’t have any luck jawing him down, cause Hall wouldn’t keep his money in his pocket. We bought the outfit and proceeded to harness her up and hitch to a two-wheeled cart. It was a real riot as Hall didn’t know the horse collar from a bridle. Off we went, leaving a smiling and very happy Englishman.
“A dance like this was somewhat one-sided as the fellows would out-number the girls, about three or four to one. The girls were instructed by the organizers that they were to dance with any fellow who asked, and not to team up with one guy.
“The air force had quite a few fellows who considered themselves Romeos, had a line of baloney, did seem to have a way with some women, and usually successful. I am not really a shy fellow, but I just didn’t try that hard and more often than not, I didn’t end up with a girl.
“The girls and fellows were mingling on the dance floor before the dance started and I spotted a girl who looked like Bette Davis, the movie star. I got up all my courage and asked her for the first dance, and she readily accepted. After we completed the set, I bought her a drink, visited a bit and then the band struck up again. One of my Romeo friends asked her to dance and she accepted.
“I stayed by the bar visiting with some of my friends, happy that I had danced with this beautiful girl and decided the competition was too great to dance any more. When this dance set was over, lo and behold, here she came back to me and really was friendly, completely ignoring my Romeo friend. We danced again and between dances she attracted a lot of attention. She told them she was my girl. Needless to say I was on cloud nine. She always came back to me between dances, and danced with me every third dance.
“After the dance she had to ride the train some 90 miles back home. I didn’t try to stay in contact with her because my tour of missions were about over, and I was afraid of a wartime romance. She was the nicest person that I met in England.”
Raid 26 came and went and tension was mounting in Brodersen’s crew. Bombers were shot down every day and the men wondered if their luck might also run out. Each mission grew more dangerous as German defenses pulled back, strengthening the concentration of anti-aircraft guns and fighter planes. Adding frustration to fear was the news that all combat crews would fly 35 missions before returning to the States.
“Raid No. 28 June 20, 1944.
“The 8th Air Force certainly had a field day in North Germany. We saw two large factories burning on our return. We had been bombing ball-bearing plants. If we can run them short of ball bearings it will slow up their war machine.
“We saw a few F.W. 190s near the target area, but they had their hands full, as some of our P-51s were keeping company with them.”
McCall, the pilot, had had enough of the war. He was hospitalized in England with a nervous condition, and Brodersen was assigned to the left seat. Subsequent raids led to a fourth Oak Cluster and a very special award.
“Our crew has reached a milestone for which we are very proud. We were awarded the “Distinguished Flying Cross”. This decoration did not come lightly as we have completed 30 missions under very dangerous conditions. Part of this can be contributed to luck, but much has to be credited to one of the finest crews in the Air Force. I was most fortunate to have such a crew like this and I feel each man owes his life to the rest of the crew.”
War was never far from the thoughts of the men, but Brodersen and Hall found that a horse could literally take them away for a little while. Queenie, who had eaten most of the grass around the barracks, as well as all of the oat bundles her owners could ‘borrow’ from neighboring fields, was again growing thin.
“The English farmers thrashed their oats so she hasn’t been getting any oat bundles anymore. While eating breakfast with Hall this morning, we were discussing what we could find Queenie to eat as grass wasn’t enough to keep her in shape. For breakfast at the mess hall there was always a big box of corn flakes on the table and we got the idea Queenie might just like them. We took a box back to the barracks for her, and she just loved them. We tore the top of the box open and we couldn’t get her head out till she ate them all. We brought her a box every morning, and in a few days she started to get her strength back. It was a miracle.”
A run over Mersburg, Germany, brought the war back in a hurry.
“In all 32 missions this one was the most uncomfortable one. I’ve never before seen such wicked, accurate flak. When the stuff exploded it was accompanied by a huge sheet of flame which threw our B-17 around like a kite. I thought this kid was going to knock on those pearly gates. I wasn’t exactly scared as I was too busy keeping our plane right side up. But I was extremely uncomfortable. We had numerous holes in the plane, but luckily, non were fatal. We picked up numerous pieces of jagged metal off the floor of the plane which were pieces of German shells. Time for the sack.”
Brodersen and his crew drew Berlin as their target for Raid 33. The mission took its toll on the young man from Nebraska.
“I shaved this afternoon before going to bed which I don’t usually do because one is completely exhausted after a nine-hour mission. It really worried me what I saw in the mirror. My eyes were completely black. I looked like a broken man and it scared me. After a bit, I got hold of myself and made up my mind I had the stuff it took to hang on and I wouldn’t let me crew down. This is the closest I ever came to breaking down. I thought of McCall and what he went through when he felt he couldn’t go on.”
Family and friends back home meant everything to the crewmen.
“I was assigned to censor mail that the boys wrote home. The reason for censoring the mail was to cut out any reference to the war which the enemy might benefit. I could hardly believe how love sick and heartbroken some of the boys were.
I didn’t have this problem. My mother and I corresponded and she kept me informed how the crops were doing, the hogs, cattle and the general health of the community, which I did enjoy hearing about. I did hear from a neighbor girl occasionally by the name of Tootie Rogert. From her I found out how and what my generation was doing. She was a very fine young lady, and her letters really boosted my morale. I shall never forget her for this.”
With only two missions to go, Brodersen was notified by the squadron commander that a shuttle raid to Russia was at hand. Involving four separate missions, Brodersen could turn down the assignment, as it would put him two over his quota. He discussed the matter with his crew.
“There were still eight original crew members, we had been through it all together and they were afraid bad luck would befall us if we broke up when I quit at 35. It was a tough decision, but I knew if I didn’t go and we were split up and then they were shot down, I would never forget, so Russia here we come.
Queenie was boarded at a nearby farm. The crew flew to Poland, and then into Russia, landing at the Poltavo airport. A bumpy makeshift runway of steel matting resulted in a less than perfect landing. Bouncing to a stop, the crew settled in for its first night in Russia.
“This evening a Russian soldier came around and asked if anyone would like to go to town and have a drink. There wasn’t anything else to do so he loaded our crew into a truck and away we went. They had set up a bar, a few tables, and chairs in a bombed out building and several Russians were playing in a small band. They brought us a round of drinks and boy were they strong.”
On August 7, after a raid on a German air base, the crews were once again entertained by their hosts.
“This evening the Russians put on a show for us at the Air Base. They seemed to be grand people. They have a wonderful sense of humor, seem like Americans. They danced and sang Russian songs, with lots of gusto. The women are really built stout, large busts and hips of which they are quite proud. When they smiled they had several teeth missing, making them look plenty tough. They are a rugged and very reckless people. They lost so many friends and family that they do very foolish things.”
Before returning to England, the crew went on Raid 36, bombing Buzair, Rumania and landing in Foggia, Italy, where they spent four days, enjoying the sun and the sea. But the day they had all prayed for came on August 12, 1944.
“Raid 37 Toulouse, France. 9 hrs 30 min.
“Our target today is an airfield in German-occupied France, and we will land back in England. This will be the final mission of our tour for eight members of the crew. When we reached the English Channel we opened a bottle of beer we had brought from Italy. We forgot how the beer would act at 12,000 feet. It went wild with foam. We passed it from one to another while holding our hand over the opening. Needless to say, more beer hit the walls and ceiling than anyone’s mouth, but nobody cared. We sang songs as we let down and prepared to make our last landing in England. We talked about how we would enjoy our meal at the ‘Lucky Bastards Table’. As our wheels touched the runway I’m sure my eyes were wet because I just finished a part of my life I shall never forget. Tonight we shall celebrate.” Robert Brodersen
(Photo of Hall, Queenie and Brodersen)
Omaha World Herald 11 Nov 2004; written by Michael Kelly
He never forgot; today we remember
Some of the veterans we honor today live in nursing homes, such as Robert J. Brodersen – a World War II bomber pilot who flew combat over Europe.
He grew up in the hills of eastern Nebraska and later worked on his uncle’s farm. When war broke out Bob trained in Kearney, Neb., on a B-17.
From March through August 1944 he kept a diary. After his first mission, over Berlin, he wrote: “This 23-year-old Nebraska farm boy had some view. In my wildest dreams, never did I think of seeing a thing like this.”
He’s 83, not a young man anymore. But what a contribution he and thousands of others made.
On one flight, three German planes fired from head-on, and the windshield shattered. “I checked my body over, just knowing I had been hit,” he wrote. “But no blood.”
His mother had given him a small Bible, which he always wore in a pocket over his heart. Many times, he saw American planes spin to the ground.
After one 12-hour mission, his B-17 returned to England in terrible weather, slid into a ditch and broke into flames. Bob escaped without injury.
His brother, Chuck, was with a tank unit, awaiting D-Day. Bob was offered a break at an English resort, but instead headed south and surprised his brother.
On June 6, 1944, airmen were given their assignment – Normandy. When the target was disclosed at a 1 a.m. briefing, “everyone stood and cheered.”
His plane bombed 800 yards ahead of the assault.
The crew that left Kearney was told it could go home after 25 missions, and Bob began the countdown. But the total was raised to 30. And then 35.
It was demoralizing, but Bob knew there was a good reason – we had a war to win.
There were light moments. He and a buddy won money at poker, and bought a carriage and a horse named Queenie. They would take rides on nonflying days and arrange for double dates with local women.
Mission No. 32 was the scariest, a bombing run at an oil refinery in Germany. Flak knocked numerous holes in the plane.
Bob wrote: “I though this kid was going to knock on those pearly gates.”
After No. 33, a nine-hour mission, he looked in the mirror and was shocked. “My eyes were completely black. I looked like a broken man, and it scared me.”
But he got hold of himself “and made up my mind I had the stuff it took to hang on.”
Bob ended up flying 37 missions. The last one for him and seven crew mates, on Aug. 12, was a German airfield in Toulouse, France. On the way home to England, as the plane reached the English Channel, the crew opened a bottle of beer, which “went wild with foam”
On Cloud 9, as they prepared to land, they joyously sang.
As a young man, Bob Brodersen didn’t knock on the pearly gates – he returned to Nebraska and married Pearl. They had three children: Sara (Cameron), Joan (Clements) and Mike.
Bob farmed west of Tekamah and has lived a good life. Pearl died in 1993. His brother Chuck, who farmed nearby, died about 20 years ago.
In 1996, Bob and daughter Sara toured Europe, calling it his “38th mission.”
The last entry in his wartime diary recalls he moment of landing after his final mission.
“As our wheels touched the runway,” this farmer-soldier-pilot wrote, “I’m sure my eyes were wet because I just finished a part of my life I shall never forget. Tonight we shall celebrate.”
Found the following on Ancestry.com obituaries:
Name of Deceased:Robert Brodersen
Age at Death: 87
Death Date: 21 Dec 2008
Obituary Date: 22 Dec 2008
Newspaper Title:Fremont Tribune
Newspaper Location:Fremont, NE, USA
Birth Date: 27 May 1921
Residence (at time of death): Oakland
Spouse's Name: Pearl Lang
Parents' Names: James and Sadie (Cameron) Brodersen
Childrens' Names:Joan (and husband, Bernie) Clements of Herman, Mikel (and wife, Kathy) Brodersen of Lake View, Iowa, and Sara (and husband, Steve) Cameron of Lyons
Marriage Date: 23 May 1948
Marriage Location: Herman
Number of Grandchildren: 11; Number of Great-grandchildren: 17
Military: U.S. Army
Note: The obituary said U.S. Army but the article above said 8th Air Force.
~~~ Obituary courtesy of the Washington County Genealogical Society. Newspaper clippings on file in the Blair Public Library at Blair, Nebraska.~~~