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Interview on experiences in World War II

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Interview with Harley Meyer: World War II Veteran

Mr. Johnston and young students, first of all, I want to thank you for letting me come here and talk to you. My name is Harley Meyer, and I was a pilot in the 38th Bomb Group of the 71st Squadron in the Pacific Theater. I'm seventy-five years old, and I graduated from high school in 1941. Of course, in the summer of '41 on June 22 Germany invaded Russia. Then December 7, of course, we had Pearl Harbor, so we were looking ahead at a very uncertain future.

The war after Pearl Harbor, of course, changed things. Prior to that we were in the throngs of the Great Depression. Gas was 15 cents a gallon. Hamburger was 5 cents a pound. I finally got a job working for a painting contractor paying 20 cents an hour, and I was damn glad to have it. Then, of course, when the war came along things changed. Carpenters were getting - a good carpenter would get 35 cents an hour. Then to build up all the bases the government was offering three and a quarter an hour. That was so much money that we couldn't even comprehend it.

Well, anyhow, I'd always had it in my mind that I sure wanted to be a pilot in Uncle Sam's Air Force, I joined the Army in January of 1943, and to become a pilot, a navigator, or a bombardier you entered the aviation cadet program. Your title was aviation cadet. So anyhow, after a battery of tests, interviews, written examinations, and physicals; I was accepted in pilot's training. The first thing you do is go through preflight, and that's strictly classroom work. You learn meteorology, navigation, and the hardest thing though was code - Morse code. In our training you just had so much time, and if you didn't get it you just washed out .That was the end of it. I mean, you were really under the gun, but I loved it. Then, the next phase was primary flying. You had to learn to fly. See flying was in its infancy in those days. Very few people knew how to fly. They had to start from scratch to start an Air Force. I think we started with maybe 500 pilots and ended up training maybe 175,000. That was quite a feat.

So I went to El Reno for primary. That's your first phase of flying, and it's the toughest. We lost 56% of our class there that were washed out. We had four barracks, and we wound up with less than two. Then we went to basic flying, which was more sophisticated. You get a more high performance aircraft, and you get into instrument flying and night flying. That was at Garden City, Kansas, and there we lost another, I think it was another 19%. Three guys got killed in night flying . They lost their lives, and that was the other thing. Then after you finish that - those courses are always ten weeks long. Then you go on to advanced, and then you step up again an aircraft. You have a retract gear and again a lot of instrument flying. You do more acrobatics and stuff like that. That's your last go. Then when you finish that you graduate. That was a big day. You get your wings and your bar. You're now an officer and a pilot. Then I had a furlough - first one - twenty months after I went in.

Then I was assigned to instructors' school at San Antonio, Randolph Field. I was considered a West Point of the Air, and I went through that. Then I was sent to Vance Air Force Base to instruct. Well, when we got there we didn't even unpack our bags, because they had an order wanting pilots for B-25 training in Carolina. So I went to South Carolina - Greenville and learned to fly the B-25. I've got pictures of it over there. That's a twin engine bomber - a medium bomber.

Are you familiar with Doolittle's Raid any of you - flying off the carrier? Well, that's what they flew. They used them extensively in the Pacific. We didn't do any Ellis's bombing. It was strictly down on the deck as low as we could get, and we had 850's down in the nose that sat there like that. They spew out about 800-900 rounds a minute, and when you concentrate a fire like that on something it comes down. There I learned, back in Carolina, of course, I learned to fly the B-25 and trained for combat flying. I was there I think about three months.

Then I went to California and then went over seas. The first stop was a long flight -Hawaii, Johnson Island, Palawan, Pelelui, then Guam, then over to Leyte in the Philippines, then on to New Guinea. New Guinea's not too nice a place -strictly jungle- a three tiered jungle- that means damp. If you went down in that you was in big trouble. So anyhow, there we started our combat flying. I only flew three missions, I think, in New Guinea with veteran pilots that were combat veterans. Then I moved to the Philippines, and there I joined the 38th Bomb Group, 71st Squadron. I was there about three or four months, I think, until July in '45. We flew most of our missions there over Formosa, which is now Taiwan. They had a lot of alcohol plants, and we'd knock those out and we went after airfields.

We just about got old Bud (Albright) here supporting the infantry. (Mr. Albright commented that they went after troops.) Well anyway, I'll fill you in on that. They were moving up in northern Luzon, and the Japanese were following up in northern Luzon and they were pressing them further. The Japanese general's name, if I recall, was Yumashata, and they were on their last leg. But they don't give up, they fight to the bitter end. Well, we were the support while they were moving up, and our orders were to fire where the smoke was. Well, they had put the smoke down, but the winds changed and moved it over to where they were. And of course, we were strafing where we were supposed to, and the threat of B-25s, medium bombers, through those mountains is not exactly easy. It's a little hairy. I can recall it as plain as day. It was a little cloudy and so forth. But we did what we were supposed to. I don't know. Did we kill anybody? (Bud Albright replied that nobody was killed, but that they got them moving fast.) Okay, we were lucky. Okay.

Then we would hit airfields. That was one of our primary objectives. We would use parafrags, and we carried 72 parafrag bombs. They strang out and they had a little parachute on them that slows them up, and then they'd drop down. Then the minute they hit the ground, of course, they'd detonate; then whoomp off to the side and wipes everything out. After we were there then they secured Okinawa, and then we moved up to Okinawa. That was a hell of a place. And the Okinawans were kind of Mickey Mouse people. And they would have these extensive tombs where they buried their dead in the hills where we lived, and they were infested with rats. So, we'd have to put up a double mosquito bar and set our bunks up on gallon cans that we swiped from the mess hall, and that would give us a little protection against the rats. There were no lights or anything there. We just lived in tents and then stuff would come out at night. And I'd lay there, and I was deathly afraid of mice and rats. I'd sooner take any land of a reptile. But I'd lie real still in the morning to see if anything was in bed with me. And if there wasn't, then I'd manage to get out. Some guys, rats did get in bed with them, and it wasn't good. And you'd walk down a path with your flashlight, and they just scurried through there.

Well, then the big typhoon hit there in August. Every man for himself - at 4:00 our tent left. I think the winds got up to around 150 miles an hour and just wiped out our entire living area. Of course, then the Army flew in tents and put them up again. The next morning it blew itself out, but that night you had to get out of the way and get into a swale or something like this to keep the flying debris from hitting you. It was pitch dark and raining like crazy. When we got in that first swale, well, we had waterproof clothes on, because my navigator and co-pilot - we managed to go over to the Seabees and steal some good waterproof clothes. The Seabees always had everything. They looked out for themselves first, and then they built the roadways and that's all right. Well, at least we were dry, by the time my legs got on the bottom nothing could crawl up it. Well, that darn swale was full of rats, they liked it too. So, we finally got out of it and found another one and finally found one without any rats. We went through the night and like I say, the next morning it blew itself out and calmed real nicely. It beached a lot of ships and caused an awful lot of damage.

From there we were flying to Japan. That was like a three hour or four hour flight up there and went on to various things. Then the night flights we would leave at one o'clock in the morning. Three airplanes flying a separate route, then we would rendezvous at daylight at geographical coordinates and go after shipping along the China coast. They would be going along the coast and sneak into a harbor just at daylight. We liked to catch them there, and we'd catch them there and raise hell with them and sink them. Then it was a long pull back to Okinawa, and we had ten and a half hours of fuel, but those flights sometimes landed flat at ten hours. If your navigation was off a little, it wasn't so good. But our navigators were very good. Now when you'd leave at one o'clock at night and fly in darkness, you'd have to use celestial navigation. And they were pretty good to hit that geographical coordinate where the other two airplanes were. Then we'd go in formation and go after what we were supposed to hit.

Let's see.. .then we went over Japan, and my last mission was at Oita in northern Kyushu after some railroad bridges. That was the same day, I think it was on the sixth, it was the same day that they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Well, they had told us on our briefing the night before to stay away from Nagasaki and not to get within 50 miles of it. Okay, we'll stay away, and we did. Well, we saw the big smoke of it. I didn't see the big mushroom. The bomb had gone off. We just thought it was a big B-29 raid, and then that night when we got back to Okinawa we was listening to the radio from Guam. Then they told us about it, and of course, that's the last time we flew a flight. What made that mission kind of hairy was we went after these bridges, and I was about the third guy through right down the deck. The guy that dropped a bomb ahead of me it delayed a little and didn't go off right away. Then it went off too late right ahead of me, and I flew through the smoke and dust and dirt and everything and looked up and there was a chimney. Well, I thought this is it, we've had it. We cranked that old wheel to the right and just got the wing up in time. The chimney was here like this and whoosh not like that, blah. That was the last mission, and it would have been curtains if we'd have hit that. It would have disintegrated the airplane.

Then we went to Japan on back to Okinawa, and when we landed after a mission the intelligence officer would come out and brief you while it was clear in your mind. And guess what he brought along - whiskey - all you wanted. It would calm your nerves, and then your mind was fresh. It was quite an experience, and I was only 21 years old. Now

your title - my title was - Combat Crew Commander, and you're in charge of your crew. Our crew was six guys - pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, radio operator, and the armorer, who was the tail person. Three enlisted men and three officers. At our briefing we would go to supper, then we'd go through the briefing about the next day's mission. They'd fill you in on everything - what you was supposed to do right down to the finest detail. We'd walk back. I wish to hell I was watching this in a movie, and I'd know how it turned out. Well, anyway, that's about the size of it. Our commanding officer was a West Pointer, very nice. His name was Colonel Hollis. He was from Texas. Three days before the war ended they went after a carrier that was hiding in the cove there in Japan. And they were waiting on him, and they shot him down and killed him. It was land of a bad deal. That's about it. Got any questions?

Student: About what was your range on your B-25?

Harley Meyer: The range was about 10 hours at 170 miles an hour. We flew at Thompson air speed, and that would make the navigation a little easier. See a B-17 flew about 155 or 150. Ours was a twin engine and 1700 horse in each engine. Like I said, a ten hour range. We carried a Tokyo tank up in the bowel. We could carry less bombs, and it carried an extra hundred gallons of fuel and extended our range. The Pacific was a different deal. You didn't have those big 1,000 plane bombing raids like you did in Europe. Our maximum effort was 24 airplanes in a group.

Mr. Johnston: Why was that? What was the difference? Because it was so spread out? Why did they not go in those big clusters?

Harley Meyer: Well, in Germany you had the country, and it was compact. You had a whole bunch of targets, and we were all scattered out all over a whole half acre with primarily air fields and stuff like that, shipping, and so on; and then some grounds, of course. But in the Pacific, it was entirely different than Europe. If you got shot down over in Europe you'd be taken prisoner by the Germans, and you'd survive. It wouldn't be the Hilton or anything, but if you didn't try to escape or anything, like I say, you'd survive. In Japan your chances of getting shot down were less, but it happened quite often. There were a lot of casualties. But if they got ahold of you - you were done. They'd use a Samurai sword and cut your head off, They didn't like air crews at all. There's all lands of documented proof about that. They were a different breed of cat - the Japanese. They wouldn't surrender to very few people - the Japanese wouldn't surrender - they'd fight to the death, We didn't lose too many, but we lost our share. Anything else? Surely you've got some questions.

Mr. Johnston: What was your rank? What was your rank while you were in the service? Second Leiutenant?

Harley Meyer: Yes, Second Lieutenant. I'm Captain now. Student: How old were you when you actually went in?

Harley Meyer: Eighteen. I went in when I was 18, and I got out when I was 21.1 was a Combat Commander at age 20. That's pretty young, but you grew up pretty fast. It's a young man's game. That's just the way it is. An old man wouldn't survive health wise and stuff like that. You go without sleep an awful lot, and the food isn't the greatest. In Japan -1 mean in the Pacific, we had dehydrated food, and that's not exactly too tasty. Because of the weather and refrigeration. But it was an interesting experience. I would say it's one of the greatest feats that's ever been accomplished the way our country put together an armed force in four years is incredible. We put 16,000,000 men in uniform, and the best decisions at the high level- at the bureaucratic level were made by us - the United States. The worst were made by Germany and Japan. The evidence speaks for itself. They lost. They bit off more than they could chew. Germany was whipped when she started. So with Japan, they were playing the game. But one of the best things that happened was when they attacked us. That galvanized the country behind the war effort. We said you started it, and we're going to end it. And Japan's plan was to run wild for six months and conquer what they wanted, and then go for a negotiated peace. But that didn't work, we buttered their necktie. That didn't work. Anything else? How about you Mr. Johnston? Do you have any?

Mr. Johnston: I've got a question. See I have taught, and I've asked this of some of the European guys, and I just kind of wanted you guys' opinion. Here's something that you know I've taught World War II. We kind of go with a survey, but we don't go into real detail. This is as much detail as we've gone in since I've taught this. This is something that always kind of puzzles me. That once you have Pearl Harbor you know December 7, and I know that Germany and Italy and Japan were in the axis powers. I still don't see why the Germans and the Italians decided to declare war on the United States.

Harley Meyer: That was a big mistake, but they honored their treaty agreement. That's the reason, and the 11th of December Hitler declared war on the United States. And the German war right over here, and heard that, was a Navy career man in both wars in Germany. He said at that time in Germany, "We're done. When we declared war on the United States, it is just a matter of time. There is no way we can compete with their industrial might." It's the way it was.

Mr. Johnston: Yes, I think they said it would have made a pretty good case in America. We're not at war with the Germans and the Italians, we're at war with the Japanese. We're obviously what turned the tide there in Europe.

Harley Meyer: In World War II it turned around in 1942-43 with the Battle of Stalingrad. Germany lost that. They went into Africa, and they turned it around there at the Battle of El Alamein in 1942. Then in the Pacific the Battle of the Midway which was June 3rd and 4th of 1942. We creamed them there. Sunk four of their carriers, and they were on the defensive ever since. And the Japanese they did very poor planning. See the Japanese had no resources. All their stuff had to be shipped to the islands, built and then shipped out again. Really one of the unsung heroes of our armed forces were the submarines. You don't hear too much about them, but they sank those Japanese ships by

the numbers. And that's a terrible service to be in, it's a poor way to die in a submarine. How about you young lady? How about you boys - you got any questions?

Mr. Johnston: What, we kind of.. .now I guess when you are first drafted or when you first go in the service you realize that you may never come back. How did you deal with that? How did you emotionally deal with that?

Harley Meyer: When you're flying combat, and you guys will bear it out - you say to yourself, it'll be the other guy. They ain't gonna get me. That's what you go on, and in my case that's how it turned out. It was an experience I wouldn't trade anything for. I wouldn't mind doing it again if it turned out this way. I had a ball. I was paid well. Three hundred and twenty-seven dollars a month as a flying officer and overseas for eleven. What the heck. That was a ton of money in those days. Wasn't it Bud?

Bud Albright: Mine wasn't that way, Twenty-one dollars a month. Richard Garman: Seventy-eight dollars a month.

Harley Meyer: I could go on and on and on for little things that happened over there. You remember the funny things. The other ones you just.. .they weren't funny, so you try to forget them. Well, thank you guys.

Mr. Johnston: Thank you very much. Thank you.

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