Navigating WWII Memories
By David B. Pittman
It happened more than 68 years ago, but Art Schaefer remembers the details as if it were yesterday.
The 90-year-old Tucson author of “In Like Flynn” was 21 and serving as navigator aboard a B-17 bomber flying missions over Europe against Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.
In writing his book of the bombing missions he flew for the U.S. Army’s 8th Air Force, Schaefer had help. He used the diary he kept all those years ago of every mission he ever flew – 27 combat missions and six food drops to starving civilians who were captives of the German occupation.
“Each evening, after returning to my barracks, fit and thankful to be alive, and happy that the fear of having to ditch our plane in the North Sea was only temporary, I recorded the harrowing facts of the events of the day, to the best of my knowledge,” he wrote in the book’s prologue. “I did this so I would never, for the rest of my life, forget those events and the reasons why each was so important.”
For years, the longtime mining executive and safety engineer didn’t speak of his wartime experiences. Like many World War II vets, he didn’t think of himself as a hero, but just one of 16.1 million Americans who crossed the ocean to do a job. And when that job was complete, these soldiers returned home to finish their educations, marry their sweethearts and build the United States into the greatest economic engine in history. These were the men Tom Brokaw aptly described as America’s “Greatest Generation.”
So why, after so much time has passed, has the University of Arizona graduate conjured up old memories to write his first book?
It was partly because of a close friend. John Davis, owner/operator of Arizona Lithographers, whose own late father was a B-17 pilot in World War II, urged Schaefer to write down his wartime memories as a legacy to his children and grandchildren. After Schaefer penned a few of his wartime experiences, he showed Davis, who was moved by Schaefer’s work and encouraged him to continue.
“Reading Art’s recollections puts a humane and personal touch to the life and trials our servicemen who experienced flying daily from the relative safety of Britain, over the English Channel into occupied territories, and finally into the heartland of the enemy,” wrote Davis in the book’s foreword.
The cover of the book features a painting of an airborne “In Like Flynn.” It was painted by Schaefer’s wife, Mary, an accomplished artist who used old black-and-white photos and her husband’s memory in recreating the B-17.
Schaefer was instrumental in the naming of the aircraft.
“Being the navigator, I was the one person who knew where we were all the time. When we would fly over a town or a river, somebody in the crew would often ask where we were,” Schaefer said. “Most of the time I would tell them. But now and then I was busy trying to navigate, so I would say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re in like Flynn. Everything is going to be OK.’
“That got to be kind of a joke with the crew. So anytime anyone would ask, ‘What’s that over there?’ or ‘Where are we?’ somebody would respond, ‘Don’t worry, we’re in like Flynn.’ ”
Curiously, Schaefer first yearned to be a horseman, not a flyboy.
“I began my military career in the horse cavalry ROTC at the University of Arizona,” he recalled. “Our class of advanced ROTC training was the last class to have horses.”
In the book, Schaefer provide a birds-eye view of historically important aerial attacks and battles – such as the bombing missions that permitted Allied forces to move from France into Germany by crossing the Rhine River, the annihilation of Dresden, and Czechoslovakian aerial attacks clearing the way for an infantry onslaught led by U.S. General George Patton.
“Crossing the Rhine was the largest airborne battle the world has ever seen – and will ever see,” Schaefer said during an interview at his home. “I think it was the most decisive battle of the war. It proved to be the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.”
The most chilling moments of the book come from descriptions of near-death experiences. One example was the recounting of a mission over southern Germany in which Schaefer was directly hit by a piece of flak – German anti-aircraft projectiles that exploded into shrapnel after reaching a certain elevation. The shrapnel was feared by American airmen because it could, and often did, bring down entire airplanes.
“While the clear weather improved our bombing accuracy, it also improved the German flak gunners’ accuracy and we caught some close ones. One B-17 in the group behind us blew up – the biggest pieces we could see falling were the engines. Everybody got hit a little. One close burst sent shrapnel through our nose, and a piece about the size of a nickel hit me in the chest. Fortunately, I always wore my big heavy flak suit when we were over our target and the flak didn’t go all the way through. I was knocked head-over-heels into the catwalk between the nose and the pilot’s compartment. I reattached my oxygen line and throat mike and continued navigating. I had a big bruise on my chest and was sore for a week. Otherwise, I was none the worse for this experience.”
Schaefer also wrote about an incident 68 years after his military service that shows “the ghosts of war” are long lasting. He saw a clerk who was wearing a shirt with the name Swinefurt on it.
“Swinefurt was the ball-bearing center for all of Germany and the 8th Air Force really wanted to knock it out. The Luftwaffe came up with all their might and our Air Force lost more than 60 B-17s on that one mission. Over 600 of our men were lost in a single day. Chills and goose bumps appeared on my arms and I had to stand quietly for a moment to regain my composure.”
Schaefer’s book is available at the Pima Air & Space Museum gift shop.