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Escape of the tail-turret gunner.

LELAN H. STRINGER WAS HEADED for a birthday. On Christmas Day 1941, he would be 20 years old, a teenager no more. But even bigger changes were headed his way: before his birthday arrived, the United States joined World War II.

Since high school, Stringer had worked with his father in the cattle trading business in northeastern Texas's rural Van Zandt County. That changed on November 18, 1942, when Stringer enlisted in the US Army Air Forces. Two days later he married Opalene Dickert, and soon afterward he was on his way to boot camp.

Stringer trained at different locations, including armament school in Colorado and gunnery school in Nevada. The first aircraft in which he practiced gunnery was an AT-6 (a North American Texan trainer). "You got in the back end, and when you started firing, you had to stand up," he said. "You were looking over everything and getting all the prop wash [the powerful air current hurled backward by propellers]. You could just feel yourself being blown away, even though you were strapped in."

After training in other aircraft, Stringer graduated and was sent to Davis-Monthan Army Air Field, near Tucson, Arizona, to await assignment to a flying unit. There was time to relax, but he got tired of that and went to the flight line where crews were being made up and said he wanted to be a tail-turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator (a twin-tailed Consolidated heavy bomber). He got his wish. As a member of the 738th Bombardment Squadron, 454th Bombardment Group, he headed off for crew training and more, as he recounts here in an interview done before his death on April 30, 2000.

THEY SENT US FOR CREW TRAINING on the East Coast, including nine weeks in South Carolina. We knew we were close to going overseas. We went down to Palm Beach, Florida, and got all our clearances to do just that.

Was I ready? Might as well be. You were going. You knew that. Excited? No, I wasn't excited because that didn't bother me. I guess because of the way they trained us, and nobody had sense enough to get nervous.

After 13 months of training stateside, we continued south to Brazil and then to Africa. We knew we had just enough gasoline to fly it, and we had confidence in our pilot. We ran out of gas before we got off the runway after landing in Africa. We ate Christmas dinner 1943 in Dakar [in Senegal, Africa, then a French colony].

Our crew worked in a friendly atmosphere. As [the] two Southerners in the crew, the bombardier and I took a lot of ribbing from the others. They would talk about the way we'd say "y'all," and we would say "you-uns" back at them. Nobody ever got mad. It was friendly joking.

Heading toward Tunisia in the northern part of Africa, our bomber and 13 others made overnight stops. This meant sleeping in our aircraft. The temperature at night was getting below zero in the desert atmosphere. Man, you would freeze if you went outside. We got as many blankets as we could find, got in the bomb bay racks where we had stuff stored, covered up, and tried to sleep. Then came the 100-degree days.

We eventually got orders to our home base in Italy [the Fifteenth Air Force's San Giovanni Airfield near Cerignola in Southern Italy's Apulia region]. It was like a big opening as seen from the air. Actually, it was a grape bed, and grapes were still being worked there. They just cleaned out a place big enough to make a runway, taxi strips, and hardstands where planes would sit when not flying.

Each squadron set up six-man pup tents nearby, and we had to dig a trench outside our tents. It was cold. The first big rain came, and all the trenches filled up with water. Nobody would have crawled into those cold water holes if there had been an air raid. They'd have stayed inside and got killed.

Two days after arriving, our bomber group was called for its first mission. It was a submarine home base near the Italy and Yugoslavia border. We got the devil shot out of us. There was no fighter escort or nothing. The old bombers were helpless if they didn't have some escort back in those days. German fighters could sit out of range of our guns, and we couldn't hurt them. We didn't lose a plane, but they were shot up pretty well.

On our eighth mission, our group and six others were sent to Austria to bomb an airplane factory. Each group had 28 bombers, and we figured we wouldn't be bothered by enemy fighters--just too many of us. Well, you had to figure something like that to keep you moving.

The bombing run was a success, but only seven planes out of our group landed at home base on the return trip. One landed on the coast of Italy on a sandbar, which was the best place to put down when the landing gear was shot out. We landed about three miles from home at a fighter base. It took seven weeks to get our bomber flying again. However, I did get credit for one and a half planes shot down that day. One was an Me 109 [common GI parlance for the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter] and the other an Fw 190 [a fighter built by Focke-Wulf].

Bombers started getting fighter escorts with P-39s and P-40s [Bell Airacobras and Curtiss Warhawks], even though the range for the fighters was limited. They couldn't go all the way to the target--some of our missions were 11 hours long. Then along came the P-51 [the North American Mustang fighter] and, man, I want you to know that they would put auxiliary gas tanks on the wings and pick us up where those others would turn back. They also would strafe German fighter aircraft on the ground ahead of us, helping to keep most of them from getting into the air. The P-51s would circle the target and then pick us up and bring us home. If they got attacked, some of them would drop their auxiliary gas tanks and fight. Others stayed with us. The P-51s shot the heck out of the German fighters. After the P-51s started having their success, crews hardly ever saw a German fighter.

When you went over the target, you didn't get scared until that ack-ack [antiaircraft] fire started bursting right beside you. Then you knew they had your range. As a general rule, the Germans had a fighter giving out the altitude of our bombers [to anti-aircraft gunners on the ground], and our altitude was generally in the neighborhood of 20,000 feet. If it [the anti-aircraft shellfire] burst 20 feet below you, you didn't worry because they didn't have your altitude. But if it was above, you had to worry because that shell burst would go through the plane and blow it up.

I got 27 missions in quickly, with 50 being required before going home. I got calls to fly with other crews because they would need a tail gunner. That was the reason I was ahead of the rest of my main crew.

Another mission was over Vienna, Austria. We got the heck shot out of us from the ack-ack. Our bomber was knocked out of formation and leveled off at 5,000 feet. We just got right on 9w the treetops and headed home by ourselves. If you flew higher, German aircraft would just shoot you down.

We got back as far as Yugoslavia, landing in a field where partisans picked us up. It was some 700 miles from our home base. We had certain places we could land and expect partisans to be looking for us. The Yugoslav women in the army picked us up and took us to an underground wine cellar in an open field about half a mile from the coast. We had confidence that the Yugoslav partisans would protect us and fight to the last person if the Germans showed up.

Later at nighttime, the partisans said all they had to transport us back to home base was an old flattop boat, about 50 feet by 30 feet, with two big, old outboard motors on it. Because of the darkness, we could hardly tell what we were doing in trying to board. And when we did, they handed each of us a gallon of wine and explained that it would be cold on the water. We discovered what they meant. Some of us just drank a little of it, and some drank all they could.

It took us all night on that boat and then up into the next morning before landing at a little town south of our base. The first thing they did was to carry us to the hospital and see if everybody was all right. Our crew was at the hospital two days before being transported to home base.

I lacked seven missions to reach the 50 and going home. I continued volunteering for other crews when they were short a man. Soon my total was up to 48.

Next came a bombing mission on the border of Switzerland and Germany at a Swiss shell factory. I was under the belief it was a German shell factory. The Germans were getting the shells, ack-ack shells, and we wanted it out of commission. We were briefed that we would bomb right in the middle of lunchtime because they closed the factory then and very few people would be there.

There were 28 planes in the bombing group. About a minute after coming off the target, some ack-ack hit us. Then a second hit. I looked out one time, and we didn't have all our engines. One engine had a roll of oil coming out as big as your arm. Then the pilot rang the bell. We were already getting out of the turrets because we knew what we had to do. We got the parachutes and strapped them on. When the pilot rang the bell again for bailout, the four of us off our regular crew reached up and grabbed hands.

The assistant engineer was the first off. He was tall, hitting his head on the escape hatch on the way out. I rolled out after him and waited until I had cleared real well before I pulled my parachute. Everybody got out, including 11 crew members--we were the radar ship, and we had two bombardiers [instead of the usual one] to be accurate because the group was bombing on us [following their bombing path]. The Germans would fly over us in their fighters, throwing prop wash into our parachutes, trying to collapse them. But they didn't get anyone by doing that.

Everybody counted 10 parachutes. We kept waiting and waiting, but one didn't make it. We landed inside Switzerland, away from German troops at the border. However, we were housed in a camp under guard by the Swiss [because of Switzerland's official neutrality, the Swiss were required to intern any Allied or Axis personnel who crossed into their country]. Finally, they brought in the last man. He had hit on top of a two-story building, and he rolled off and broke his leg.

I think I was there about 80 days, and I had enough of it. I asked one camp worker what he would charge for helping me and another fella to escape. After some talking, he came in one cold day with two I sets of clothes on. He got my friend John Faron and me clothes that way--clothes I that he had stolen. Then one day he said we were leaving the next day at noon. I

The three of us walked out after the first roll call, expecting to be in the surrounding mountains before the second roll call later in the day. When we walked out of the gate area, the guards kind of turned their backs, but I kept thinking they were going to shoot us. They were Swiss, but they didn't let anyone go. The only thing I could think of was they were working with our guide.

We got into the mountains before the second roll call. The snow was about waist deep. When we got to the other side, we just scooted and slid nearly all the way till we got to the bottom.

Our guide got us on a train to Bern, Switzerland, and then to a house. We had to trust him. It was all we could do. Fortunately he spoke good English, and he knew he would get money from the American government.

At the house, we had freedom to talk and do as we pleased but had to just hold it down. The man of the house was in the Swiss army but would be gone for a month. You know, his wife and family took us in that night to the back room and fed us anything in the world we wanted to eat. John and I spent the night in the barn, and the people supplied plenty of blankets. We were there two days and were fed the entire time.

Then we were on the move again, trying to make connections with another train in Bern. With some time to kill before the train arrived, the guide suggested buying a bunch of carrots and feeding them to the polar bears at the zoo. We said might as well. We threw them carrots and watched them eat.

Then the guide said it was time for us to eat and catch the train. We walked into the train station, and my friend and I knew not to say anything. We let him do the talking. We were going along as dummies. If anyone said anything to us, we would stand there and let the guide do the talking.

He was telling them that we can't talk and this and that, and that he was carrying us to such-and-such place. We sat down in a corner of the dining room and ordered. We got to talking a little English, and then we saw some Swiss officers in another corner. They were kind of looking our way. We clammed up and let the guide do all the talking. We got out of there pretty quickly --we were afraid we had stuck our nose out too much.

The guide purchased the tickets. We weren't really sticking out like a sore thumb, but we felt we were. We had to wait till the guards checked for passports before the train left for Geneva. The guards would go through one car, close the door, and then go to the next car. When the guards did that, we took off. Our guide opened the door of the car already checked, and we crawled on.

There was plenty of room, with two empty seats here and there. We got over on one side. The guide warned us that if anybody sat down where we were, you don't say a word. We were supposed to be deaf and dumb and don't know anything. He said to just kind of look around like what's going on or something.

Well, it wasn't but a little bit that an old lady came and sat down beside us. She started chattering. I never did know what our guide said to her, but he got her out of there pretty quickly. My friend and I wondered if he told her we were crazy or something. She took off, anyway.

We rode the train through the afternoon till evening darkness, arriving in Geneva around 9 p.m. They were going to check passports as we got off the train. Our guide said that we should follow him, and we got up and went to the door. When the train slowed down at the station, we jumped off. We went running to the edge of the station and up some stairs to the top.

We got into a taxi, figuring our guide knew the driver. That taxi took us to a cafe in an out-of-the-way place. We went around the cafe to the back door, and there was a room where he told us to sit down. The guide said he would be back soon.

The guide went into the kitchen and talked to a French woman, who spoke good English. She came into the room and asked, "You're American soldiers, huh?" She told us that we would be well taken care of. She brought us a menu and told us what everything was. They gave us anything we wanted and didn't charge for it. A lot of it was French food, but whatever you wanted you got.

And then, when we started to leave, those ladies who were cooking put packages of cookies and everything else in our pockets. They said we were going to want something after awhile. They even gave us a thermos bottle of hot coffee. I was really surprised.

After that I knew there had to be a gang--a pipeline--that was working together. Later our guide got a taxi, and we drove to the countryside. Headlights were dimmed on the taxi because they knew where they were going. About that time we looked up and saw a Swiss guard in the middle of the road. The driver speeded up and went around him. You could just feel being shot at....

A little farther and we were dropped off. They told us we were 100 yards from the Swiss and French border. We were to walk to a fence row at the border and stop till we heard some racket, maybe a gunshot or something. Guards might shout "halt," and they could be running this way and that way. Then we would make a break to get through the wire entanglement on both sides. The guide said we would be on our own then.

We got to the fence row and waited and waited. Our clothes were wet and frozen. Then we heard noises and decided to take off. We finally worked our way through the barbed wire on both sides and went about a hundred yards.

We sat down and had some cookies and coffee. But the longer we sat, the colder we got. And our clothes sounded like ice when they were shaken, due to the misty rain and cold temperatures. We just about froze to death. You could hear wolves howling--not a good noise to hear.

Then we looked ahead and saw a dim glow of light. We agreed it had to be in France. We cautiously walked toward the lighted area and noticed two guards at the post. John decided to approach them, while I hung back. He made the French army guards understand and then motioned me to come.

After searching us, the guards allowed us to spend the night in their outpost building that had a good fire. The next morning, an 86-year-old lady woke us up, took us to her house, and gave us breakfast. We had rye bread, cheese, and rye coffee [a substitute necessitated by wartime shortages]. We ate plenty--we were hungry.

The lady was as friendly as she could be and had traveled around the United States. "All right, I'm going to ask you where you're from," she said. I told her I was from Van Zandt County in Texas, and Tyler was the closest big city. "I know where Tyler is located, and I can tell you some things about Tyler," she said. And she could. She told me right where the rail-3 road station was located. She also told John about Boston, his hometown.

She said the nearest US Army base was 27 miles away. We said we wanted to go, and she and her friends agreed to help. They put us on a trolley-like car, and we went 12 miles. Of course, she gave us a bunch of rye bread and cheese before we left. The cheese was good, but that old rye bread was something else. We stuffed our pockets. I guess we looked like peasants eating our cheese.

They drew us a map to use after we got off the trolley, and then we were on our own to find the 7th Fighter Command. They also gave us some identification in case we were stopped. John and I walked 15 or so miles through towns. We didn't have a bit of trouble. Well, people would look at us, but that was it. So, we'd go on.

When we got to the fighter command post, nobody wanted to believe us. We told them everything, and they still wouldn't believe us. They said anybody could make up that kind of stuff. I didn't blame them. They kept us under guard for two days until they contacted our outfit and confirmed what we had told them. They took us out of confinement and fed us.

After three days, they put us on a B-25 aircraft [a North American Mitchell medium bomber] that took us back to Italy. We felt like kings, like we had the world by the tail. We knew then we were going home regardless, but we wanted to see our unit friends first.

Then we learned that airplane flights to the United States were booked and that we would go to Naples to board a ship. After a week, we were put on a ship and told it would be two days before we would leave. The next morning, we got up, and you couldn't see land anywhere. The departure date and time were a secret for security reasons. Our troopship was in the middle of a herd of ships so that the Germans would have trouble torpedoing us. There were 3,700 men on the ship.

I'll tell you when it felt good. It was when we landed in New Jersey after 14 days and saw Old Glory. There were people everywhere to greet the ships.

Two days later, John went to Massachusetts, and I headed to Texas. After braving the war, we both worried about not having a proper uniform and thought the military police might take us off our trains. I made it to San Antonio with no problem. I got a new uniform and a pass to go home, by way of Dallas, where my uncle met me at the train station, fed me breakfast, and then took me to East Texas. It was Thanksgiving Day 1944. I lacked one day being gone two years.

Lelan's wife and relatives knew he was coming home, but they didn't know when, so his return was a surprise. After a few stateside assignments, he volunteered to help instruct crews in B-24 aircraft until his discharge in August 1945 as a staff sergeant. In Tyler, he stayed in the printing business for 40 years. He and his wife, both of whom have now died, had two daughters, Ginger and Corene.

JERRY STRINGER of San Antonio is a cousin of the late Lelan Stringer. He worked as a newspaper reporter before entering active duty with the US Air Force as a public affairs officer. He is retired from the Air Force Reserve after 30 years.

Caption: Above: Lelan Stringer took it upon himself to find his own assignment in the air forces. At his request, he was made a gunner on a B-24 (one from the Eighth Air Force flies over Germany here). Soon he was in Europe with the Fifteenth Air Force (this was his shoulder patch).

Caption: Lelan Stringer's dog tag. Fortunately it did not need to be used for its ultimate purpose: to provide essential personal information after its wearer was wounded or killed.

Caption: Lelan Stringer (front row, second from left) and crew with their B-24 Hairless Joe, which sometimes flew with an 11th man, an extra bombardier for greater accuracy.
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Title Annotation:I WAS THERE; Lelan H. Stringer
Publication:America in WWII
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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