Gene Estle

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World War II Service Badge

Buzzzz! The buzzer ends the highly contended basketball game. It is Marion in the year 1942. Marion is a town of just 26,767 people, with only 32 policemen with five squad cars. There is only 40 miles of paved road in the whole town (Cline) (See Appendix VI). Most teenage boys in high school are doing what they always do, playing basketball. All the boys go home to study and cram for the end of the year finals at school the next morning. They all know that they will be out of high school and pushed into the real world within the next week. Those who have the highest grades or athletic ability will get scholarships to their college of choice. Those who are not able to attend college and are not drafted attain jobs at one of the many local factories that were housed in Marion at the start of the 1940’s (Cline) (See Appendix VI). Those who do not secure a job are either drafted or enlist in the military and join the ever bustling war effort during World War II (Grider Interview). Elmer “Gene” Estle was one of the many boys who voluntarily enlisted for the military after his senior year in high school was up and in doing so, sacrificed fourteen months of his young life in a P.O.W. camp in deep Germany.


Early Teen Years

Gene Estle was born as Elmer Estle in Dayton, Ohio on September 26, 1923 then moved to Marion, Indiana when he was a boy. During the time he enlisted, he was living with his family on South Adams Street in Marion (Grider Interview). Estle knew that after high school, he would have to make an important decision about his future. At that time everyone who graduated high school that was Estle’s age was being drafted to serve in WWII (Grider Interview). Pearl Harbor had been attacked earlier on December 7, 1941, and that plunged America into World War II (See Appendix II). Having been bombed by the Japanese; America was looking for new pilots to man their fighters and bombers to counter Japanese forces. Gene enlisted for the Air Force on December 8, 1942 and was looking be a cadet and eventually a pilot (Personal Interview). After joining, his unit was moved to Miami Beach, Florida for basic training. “Well, we were 19 years old, bright eyed and looking to conquer the world, I guess. We wasn’t smart enough to be scared,” Gene recalls on his first days of boot camp (Grider Interview). After boot camp they were moved to Texas for gunnery school then on to South Dakota for radio operator school. Next they were assigned their own combat squadrons in Salt Lake City, Utah before making the flight across the Atlantic into Novington, England where the unit’s headquarters were housed (Grider-Interview).

Assigned to the Bomber Group

European,Africa,Mid East Ribbon

Estle was assigned to the 381st heavy bomb group in the 8th Air Force as a Technical Sergeant, or radioman (See Appendix XVI). He had hoped to become a cadet and then advance as a pilot, but by the time there was an opening in cadet school, he had already gone through training and been assigned to the 381st (Grider Interview). The 8th Air Force had gained a reputation of being one of the largest and most important flying units that the U.S. had in its arsenal (Childers 49). Activated in January of 1942, it grew to be the largest unit when it reached full operational strength in 1944. With more than a thousand bombers and more than 800 fighter escorts, it was able to mount some of the most important and costly missions known to the Air Force to date (See Appendix XV). In one heroic mission, the Regensburg-Schweinfurt raid of August 17, the 8th Air Force lost a total of 148 bombers with 1,480 crew members in just one week of flying (Childers 50).

Risks Involved

The life of a bomber or crew member during World War II was not a hopeful one at all. The life expectancy of a bomber and crew during Estle’s tour of duty was somewhere around 15 missions. A normal tour of duty for a bomber crew was around 22 missions total. Even worse was the fact that a person, who was in a bomber crew, had only about a one in three chance of surviving that tour of duty (Childers 50). One might ask, why so costly? Why so risky? The name of the game in U.S. Air Force strategic bombing raids was daylight bombing. With daylight bombing the targets could be spotted more easily and hit with more accuracy than on a nighttime bombing raid (Childers 48). The catch to this strategy was that you could be seen easily by anti-aircraft gunners from the ground or picked off by the experienced German Luftwaffe aces in the air. To make up for these risks, the pilots were told to fly in tight formations while over the target areas (See Appendix III). These formations were packed so close together that the wings of one plane could be so much as 10 feet away from hitting the plane beside it. These formations kept the Germans from flying in between the planes and helped the machine gunners and fighter cover do their jobs more efficiently (Personal Interview). E.C. Humphrey, a retired bombardier during WWII, stated that he heard of German leaders stating that bombing raids were what crippled the German military in WWII (Bombardier). The men, who flew and operated these planes, were men of true bravery and valor. Most were enlistees, who volunteered and knew what they were getting into. When asked why he chose the Air Force for enlistment Estle only replied, “I just wanted to fly” (Personal Interview) . Flying is exactly what the former Marion Giant did.

The B-17 Flying Fortress

B-17

The bomber of choice for the U.S. Air Force for a majority of the war was the B-17 “Flying Fortress” (See Appendix XII). It took a ten man crew to run these planes. Each bomber crew consisted of a pilot, co-pilot, nose-turret gunner, bombardier, navigator, engineer, two waist gunners, a tail gunner, and lastly a radio operator/top turret gunner. Estle took on the job of radio operator (See Appendix XI). This job consisted of keeping radio contact with the rest of the planes in the formation, and assisting the navigator on their position. However, during most of the mission the radio operator could not use the radio because the formation would issue radio silence to keep from giving up their position to the Germans. So in addition to these tasks, the radio operator would usually take up the position of top-turret gunner during times of air to air combat (Personal Interview).

During a Mission

Gene Estle in his flight suit before mission
One major difficulty that the bomber crews faced while on the raids was the low temperature that one has to endure once up that high. The bombers would fly at normal altitudes of more than 20,000 feet and temperatures could reach down to -60 degrees Fahrenheit at that altitude. “Boy it was so cold up there that your snot could freeze inside your nose if you wasn’t careful”, Eslte stated (Personal Interview). At those temperatures if any skin was exposed for too long the skin could be frostbitten. To keep frostbite from occurring the crews equipped themselves with as many layers as they possibly could (See Appendix IV). They tried to cover every inch of their bodies, and underneath it all, they were given an F-3 flying suit that was electrically heated using small metal wires that ran like veins throughout the suit (Childers 77). This invention helped, but the rides were still very uncomfortable for the crews that manned these “Flying Fortresses”.

First Mission

Gene had been on a few training missions on practice targets once he got to England, but he soon learned that he would have to start bombing for real. Gene got that chance on March 6, 1944. His mission on the 6th was to ride with around 750 other bombers from the 8th Air Force and execute a major daylight bombing raid on Germany’s capital, Berlin (Grider Interview). Gene soon learned that this would be the first daylight bombing raid on Berlin that the American forces would attempt. Also, to make matters worse; his bomb group got word right before they took off that the fighter squadron assigned to cover them in the air would not make it for the mission (Personal Interview). So here Gene was; on the verge of flying his first mission in the Air Force, assigned to fly deep into enemy territory over Berlin, Germany’s capital city, in the daytime with no fighter cover whatsoever. Some first mission huh?

The ride over went pretty well. Gene kept to himself and attended to his duties as a radio operator as the plane neared for Berlin. “We didn’t know what we was getting into; we were looking forward to the raid, until we got shot at,” Gene stated (Grider Interview). As soon as their plane flew over enemy territory, Gene issued radio silence to the rest of the planes in their formation. From that point on, he had nothing else to do but to go on gun watch (Personal Interview).

Firefight

As soon as Gene manned the top turret gun, he could see a faint spec on the horizon. As those specs got closer, Gene realized those specs were actually German fighters. Suddenly the fighters made their first pass on the bombers; Gene counted at least 13 German fighters (Grider Interview). As soon as he started firing on them the formation started getting broken up by flak fire from the ground. Dick Maggart, a B-17 pilot, who also flew with the 8th Air Force, describes to the Marion Chronicle about getting attacked with flak fire, “The shrapnel rattled like hail from hell when it hit the fuselage.” (Jones) (See Appendix VIII) The flak fire immediately took out the #1 engine of Gene’s plane. A piece of shrapnel from the flak flew into Gene’s turret and cut him on the neck. Gene commented on getting shot at, “Once we got shot at we just realized what the war was all about I guess.” (Grider Interview) Immediately the pilot knew he would not be able to stay up with the formation so he dropped his bomb load and tried to catch up (Personal Interview). The German fighters noticed Gene’s plane in the distance and made it their primary target. The second pass the fighters made on the bomber was a risky one. They came into about two or three hundred yards, from the bomber and from that range, the turret gunners could cut them apart (Personal Interview). Upon asking Gene if he was frightened during the firefight, he replied, “We were so busy firing back at the German aircraft that we didn’t really have time to think about being scared.” (Grider Interview) Gene and the rest of the turret gunners were given credit for knocking down five of the thirteen fighters before the plane was rendered useless. The men were forced to bail out over Cologne, Germany (See Appendix XIII) (Personal Interview).

Missing in Action

All ten of the ten man flight crew made it out of the plane before it hit the ground. With the exception of the tail gunner (killed from German fighter fire, he was parachuted out by his fellow flight crew) all ten of the men made it out of the plane alive; although seven of the ten had been hit with flak fire, including Estle (Grider Interview). When Gene, landed he landed hard right in the middle of a street, just outside of Cologne. As soon as he hit the ground he broke his left ankle from the force of landing. Before he could even whip out his weapon, the German citizens of Cologne all mobbed around him and his fellow crewmates spitting on them, kicking them, punching them. Cologne had been bombed very harshly the day before, so the citizens of the town were looking to “get even” as Estle said. Before he knew it, a group of them had lassoed up a noose on a nearby tree and were ready to hang Eslte and his crewmates. Just as Gene thought it was over, the German army came to rescue and grabbed Eslte and his nearby crewmates and hid them in a nearby factory until they were able to disperse the mob (Grider Interview). In my own private interview with Gene, he stated, “Boy thought I’d never be so happy to see German military in all my life; it was them, who saved our lives.” (Personal Interview)

Prisoner of War Ribbon

Prisoner of War

Word got back to Gene’s mother in Marion in April of 44 as shown in an April 5th article in the Marion Chronicle (See Appendix IX). Meanwhile Gene was being interrogated by German soldiers. Once captured, Gene was registered as a P.O.W. and given a P.O.W. identification sheet (See Appendix V). The interrogations began the next day. “Each day they would come and get us from our cell, and we would go to a room where there would be a couple German MP’s, but it was usually the German SS troopers that did the interrogating,” Gene recalled (Personal Interview). The interrogators would ask the men questions that they could not answer. Questions like: What kind of plane were you operating? Where is your base or headquarters located? How many aircraft were involved in your raid (Grider Interview)? Gene and the rest of the men knew that they were only obligated to answer back with a standard name, rank, and serial number, and that is all they would say. “After a couple failed attempts at questioning the Germans got a little agitated and threatened us by saying things such as “You will never see your mother again” just standard things like that,” Gene stated, “but after awhile they got the hint and would kind of just give up.” (Grider Interview) This story of interrogation is also backed up by a Dr. James Fall, a captured P.O.W. in Germany in WWII, who was also threatened to be turned over to the Gestapo and shot (Kingery) (See Appendix VII). There were only a few instances that Gene witnessed violence in the P.O.W. camp; one of which was a Jewish soldier being beaten more violently than usually by SS guards, and the other was when a prisoner attempted to escape and was shot by prison guards (Grider Interview). “Everyone tried escaping at least once during their imprisonment,” Gene stated. Even Gene and a few others attempted once. After dark one night they snuck out of their cells and were going to hide behind the washer in the washroom until the laundry was taken out. But unfortunately for Gene a guard dog sniffed them out, and they were punished by being placed in solitary for a week. “Solitary wasn’t so bad,” Gene said. “It was tough, but you’d get through it.” (Personal Interview) When being placed in solitary, you would be held in a 6ft. x 10ft. room with a thin mattress on the floor for you to sleep on and bucket for you to do your business in. The room was completely dark and had walls of concrete with no windows (Grider Interview).

Life Inside the Camp

Gene's P.O.W. Identification form
Aside from the interrogation and the solitary, the P.O.W. confinement for Gene was not so bad. “I was outa combat, it wasn’t too pleasant, but there were a lot of us there so we got through it,” Gene stated (Grider Interview). Gene is predominantly Catholic and still to this day worships at St. Paul Catholic Church. He stated in a personal interview with me that each week a group of Catholic prisoners would get together to pray and have their own little mass in the camp (Personal Interview). Also, during Christmas Eve of 1944, the guards allowed the prisoners to walk about freely and talk and celebrate for the evening (Grider Interview). The prisoners learned to communicate with the guards well and there were a couple one or two that became friendly with the prisoners, but for the most part the Germans stuck to themselves. The prisoners would nominate their own group leader that would negotiate with the German guards their wants and/or needs that the group had. On some occasions they would bribe a guard with cigarettes for wartime news and extra rations (Personal Interview). Also, the Germans let form letters be sent out with censorship with the Red Cross to and from home to let families know their sons were alright. After awhile in the camp with nothing to do but exercise, the YMCA furnished basketball equipment for the prisoners and the Germans allowed the men to use the equipment to play with (Grider Interview). The prisoners would form their own teams, and Estle recalls two of his fellow prisoners on his team. The first, Cliff Barker, went on to join the Indiana Olympians after the war. Another name Gene remembers was an Ogie Donatelli. After the war Ogie went onto become an ump for the MLB (Personal Interview). After being moved around Germany a few times to evade the advancing Russian Army, they finally were moved to Barth, Germany and were finally liberated on May 1, 1945 a week before V - E Day (See Appendix XIV) (Grider Interview).

Life after War

Estle had been held prisoner of war under German forces from March 6th of ’44 to May 1st of ’45; that is fourteen months of his life he sacrificed for his country. The moment he got home he “ate like it was goin outa style”. Estle went on his flight weighing 150 lbs. and was liberated weighing a slim 114lbs (Personal Interview). Estle earned the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, and the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) Medal during his tour of duty (Grider Interview). After being liberated he was flown to Reins, France and boarded a ship for home. Eslte stayed in the Air Force until he was discharged at the end of November 1945. After he was discharged, he used his GI Bill and went to college at Ball State University. He then worked a few jobs until settling in at RCA for 34 years (Personal Interview). Estle stated that he never regrets his military experience, and he is very proud to be an American. He told me during our interview that if he had the option he would no doubt do it again. When asked about similarities or differences involving WWII and the current Iraq War; Gene simply stated that during WWII the moral back at home was a lot different. People never downgraded the war or its soldiers. People respected it and supported it (Personal Interview). Maybe we should all take a lesson from history and think first before attacking the war in Iraq. When asked about the issue of a possible future draft being issued, Gene simply stated, “I hope I never live to see another draft.” (Personal Interview) Thanks to the sacrifices of past heroes such as Gene Estle and the rest of the men who served in WWII that will never happen again.

Credits

This article was written by Justin Shockey and submitted on June 5, 2007 for Mr. Munn's AP US History class at Marion High School.