The oldest of our nation’s veterans are now those who served in World War II, either in the European Theater, Pacific Theater, or stateside, preparing to join their fellow soldiers abroad.
SUN staff is in the process of sitting down with some of our community’s WWII veterans to hear their stories, memories, lessons and more.
Imagine waking up at 2 or 3 a.m., flying from England to Germany, dropping bombs and returning to England, with those flights taking anywhere from three and a half hours to 11 hours, sometimes repeating this for three or four days in a row, but most of the time repeating with about two day’s rest.
Imagine flying most of those mission with only a few hundred other planes, but, on occasion, joining a force of nearly 1,000 other planes, instead of only a few hundred.
Such was the reality for World War II pilots in the European Theater. It was also the reality for one Pagosan, Bill Carnicom.
While some of the more famous 1,000-plane raids of Germany in World War II took place starting in 1942, those raids continued throughout the war.
During one particular 1,000-plane raid to Berlin in 1945, the now 90-year-old Carnicom was sitting as copilot in a bomber, flying through thick smoke, when the plane’s other pilot told Carnicom to take over; he’d lost vision.
Carnicom’s copilot had suffered a bout of vertigo that left him temporarily blind.
In the midst of switching pilots, the plane lost about 1,000 feet of altitude, but was able to recover, thankfully without being hit by enemy fire in the process.
That was not the end of the trouble on that mission.
Later in the mission, three bombs hung up in Carnicom’s plane, holding the plane’s door open.
“The part that was scary was we had some bombs hung up in a bomb bay and I volunteered to kick them out,” Carnicom recalls of the mission. “I was back there without a parachute and it was cold.”
So there Carnicom was, flying at about 18,000 feet (a lower-than ideal altitude) over eastern Germany in March 1945, working to kick three active, 1,000-pound bombs free of the plane, one of which was hanging only by the shackles, with nothing to help him if he went the way of the bombs.
Luckily, all ended well and Carnicom made it safely back to Thurleich, England, where he was stationed during the war.
That mission was one of 28 that 1st Lt. Carnicom, part of the 306 Bomber Group, 423rd Squadron, 8th Air Force, flew over Europe during World War II — 27 of which were flown over Germany and one of which flew over France.
Carnicom recalls taking part in either two or three 1,000-plane missions, two of which took place over Berlin.
Those larger missions were usually to targets of higher importance and likely had to do with the German army, Carnicom explains.
For the number of flights Carnicom took, he earned an Air Medal with five oak-leaf cluster — one earned for every five missions flown.
Despite the danger of the missions, which were primarily flown in order to blow up airplane manufacturers, ball bearing factories and refineries, Carnicom recalls, not one fellow crew member was killed in war.
“We never lost a crew member, although a plane got shot up one time pretty bad,” Carnicom says, adding that the plane returned with 32 holes in it.
The worst injury sustained by anyone in Carnicom’s crew was a sprained back, he recalls.
Although never seriously injured during missions, the men in Carnicom’s crew had one sight that let them know they were, indeed, safe — his crew’s air field (one of about 70 or 80) was next to an Anglican church that bordered the base.
“It was a comforting sight because we knew we made it safe,” Carnicom says.
Carnicom knew early in his military service that he wanted to take to the skies, but the path toward becoming a pilot was not always easy.
Carnicom joined the Army voluntarily on July 26, 1942, at the age of 20 and, after basic training, requested a transfer to the Army Air Force (the predecessor of today’s Air Force).
Carnicom says only about half of the men who wanted to be a pilot met that goal, with a rigorous selection process that, at one point, included being in a room with about 20 doctors.
Carnicom made it through the process, however, with the OK to be a pilot, aviator and bombardier.
Prior to becoming a pilot, Carnicom was a props specialist in El Paso, Texas, where he took care of the propellers, controls and general maintenance of planes — and also came in contact with Clark Gable, actor and military pilot.
From there, Carnicom went to flight school in Stamford, Texas, followed by a basic flight school elsewhere in Texas.
During that training, however, Carnicom had a health scare that left him recovering for four months.
Carnicom woke up one morning, sick to his stomach. He reported to the barracks that he was “sick as a dog,” at which point he was taken to the hospital with a ruptured appendix, he recalls.
To recover, Carnicom was sent to a rest camp at San Antonio, where he healed and exercised twice a day until deemed fit to return to the basic flight training.
From there, Carnicom went to Houston, where he finished his flight training and earned his status as Lt. Carnicom.
After flight school, Carnicom was assigned to a crew and jaunted around the company before heading overseas.
After flying 28 war missions, the war in the European Theater drew to a close and Carnicom’s duty changed — he was temporarily moved from the 8th Air Force to the 9th Air Force.
With the 9th Air Force, Carnicom helped complete a series of high-altitude flights for the purpose of photographing the sea around Portugal and north, flying in strips, in order to more accurately map the area.
Carnicom says that, after about six weeks of mapping flights, he was among the first troops to return home in December 1945.
Upon his return home, Carnicom was sent to a disbursement center and later sent home to Toledo, Ohio, where he served in the Reserves for about five years.
Carnicom took a job working for a railroad for three or four months after returning home, before deciding to go back to school, where he studied geology.
But Carnicom’s time in the military, and in Europe, were not all work.
Carnicom recalls seeing high-class entertainment while stationed in England, including Rita Hayworth and Adolf Menjou.
And, in fact, the closest Carnicom ever came to being injured in Europe didn’t come while flying over Germany — it came while on leave in London.
While on leave, Carnicom and his navigator rented a taxi, which was rocked by a bomb.
“We climbed out and set the cab back on its wheels,” Carnicom says, adding they then continued their jaunt in the city.
Another time, Carnicom participated in a somewhat impromptu air show at the base.
Carnicom explains that, normally, landing planes would be separated by a minute, but, on this particular day, someone decided that the planes would fly over the fields in formation, to put on a show for those on the ground.
The downfall came when two groups performing formations collided in midair, with about five planes subsequently crashing.
Carnicom, who was flying at the time, was not injured.
While the stories stored in Carnicom’s memory deal with all facets of life in a war zone, it is apparent that Carnicom’s duty stands out as the most important.
Carnicom says the missions, his duty, and his ability to help, were the most important aspects of serving.
“Well, it was one thing to sit on their hands and wait to be killed, annihilated, or you could go to war and fight and save our country,” Carnicom reveals about his decision to volunteer for the military.
The most difficult thing for Carnicom after joining, then, was “staying alive.”
And what did Carnicom learn during his time at war?
“I learned a lot about the weather and about planes,” Carnicom says, “That’s about it.”
He also recalls that the biggest change he saw in himself from the beginning of the war to the end was, “I got pretty tired, tired of flying.”
In fact, after leaving the reserves, Carnicom never flew again.
But he does keep in touch with those crew members who helped keep him safe during the war.
Carnicom says half of the 10 men in his crew are still living, including his combat copilot.
Carnicom still corresponds with that pilot, as well as with some of the other men he flew with.
But corresponding, as one might imagine, is an entirely different experience today.
Carnicom remembers when it cost two cents to mail a letter, with a letter taking 10-14 days to cross the ocean.
Carnicom says he received letters from home and from cousins about once a week, writing back as often as he got a letter.
Writing was as much of a family affair as the war, however, with a first cousin of Carnicom’s also serving as a pilot in the war, later retiring as a colonel.
Oh, and one last note — if you happen to see Carnicom around town, know you’re seeing Carnicom and not 1930s actor and fellow WWII veteran James Stewart (who passed away in 1997, but who Carnicom notes he has been confused for in recent years).
If you are a WWII veteran with stories to share, please contact Randi Pierce at 264-2100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.