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Veterans Remember: Tom Freeman flew his first and last combat mission weeks before Germany's surrender

Tulsa World - 9/25/2017

After more than a year of training to navigate massive bomber planes for the Navy, Tom Freeman suited up for his first combat mission. It would also be his last.

It was common knowledge that Germany was on the brink of surrender when the Eighth Air Force prepared for what turned out to be its final assignment of the war - destroying the last weapons manufacturing plant controlled by the Axis powers.

The target was Skoda Armament Works in Czechoslovakia, and its termination was decreed on April 25, 1945. Adolf Hitler's death came less than a week later. Germany officially surrendered less than two weeks after.

Many bemoaned being ordered to embark on a dangerous mission so close to the end of the war in Europe.

So why bother taking the risk? It wasn't to tack on another punch in the Allies' clobbering of the Axis. It wouldn't speed up their defeat.

Rather, the U.S. military wanted to keep the weapons out of the hands of the Russians, whose army was quickly advancing and would soon be in position to capture the plant.

Freeman, a 19-year-old from the New York suburbs who landed in Europe a month earlier, accepted the news in stride.

"It's what we were trained to do," said Freeman, now 92 and living in Tulsa. "I didn't think about it."

Anxiety began to sink in when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower notified the plant of the precise time the bombing was set to take place. The factory employed an estimated 40,000 people, mostly Czech civilians, and Eisenhower was more interested in wiping out its armament than its workers.

The Germans intercepted Eisenhower's message and sought to meet the incoming planes with as much artillery as they could muster.

"It was just plain stupid," Freeman said about the general's announcement, though he also understood the importance of saving civilian lives.

The day of the attack was overcast. Low visibility forced the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress occupied by Freeman and nine other men to circle the target three times before the bomber could release its payload.

Flak from the anti-aircraft guns filled the sky, and 16 of the roughly 300 planes were shot down. Some of the downed airmen were captured, while others reportedly were executed by Germans and civilians.

The bombing run was a success, however, and the majority of planes safely returned to base in England. When Freeman exited his B-17, he noticed every aircraft received extensive flak damage. Holes the size of BBs pockmarked the fuselages and wings. It wouldn't have taken much to finish off the planes.

"We were fortunate," he said. "I had seen a plane spin out of the sky and watched the parachutes go down. It was an initiation for a first flight. And then all I could think about was how I was glad I didn't have to do that 25 more times."

As luck would have it, Freeman's list of combat missions ended with his first. That number could have skyrocketed if he arrived in Europe a month or two earlier.

Freeman never was interested in combat. Every boy in his high school senior class knew they would be going to the military. His father encouraged him to seek a branch of service that required long training and kept him from the front lines. The idea came about that flying planes was the way to go.

He enlisted at 17 and set out for basic training after his 18th birthday. It didn't take long for him to learn he wasn't cut out to be a pilot, which didn't surprise him because he couldn't drive a car, either.

Navigation felt natural to him.

"I qualified and did well on the navigational part of my exams," Freeman said. "I'd always been a reasonably good student in high school, and math was easy. I became a navigator."

It became his responsibility to calculate the aircraft's position to ensure the crew gets to where they need to go. Flight technology was more primitive then, and Freeman relied on tracking ground fixtures and celestial bodies to guide the plane.

The training for navigating a B-17 bomber took 18 months, keeping Freeman away from some of the bloodiest parts of the war.

Following Germany's surrender, Freeman was sent to Belgium to learn photo-reconnaissance work, which he did for about a year.

One of his more memorable experiences during this time was a day trip to the Nuremberg trials to witness the prosecution of prominent Nazi party members.

Freeman noticed a bulletin board one Friday afternoon with a signup sheet for anyone wanting to ride in a truck to Nuremberg, located about 50 miles from base. Most officers wanted to spend the weekend drinking, but Freeman was younger than his peers and didn't care to join them.

He hopped on the truck the next morning and found himself at the Palace of Justice - a court building chosen as the site of the trials because it was untouched by the war.

Hundreds filled the courtroom, along with 24 of the highest-ranking Nazis.

"All of the major war criminals were there, the ones still living," Freeman said. "What stuck to my mind was (Hermann) Goering. He was a big fat slob of a man. Just think of all the misery he had caused.

"At the time I didn't really think so much about the trials. But later in life, I looked at that really as a unique experience. I realized it was really a part of history. These were men that had dominated the Nazi party and put on the war."

Freeman returned home in August 1946 and started college that fall to study psychology and English. He still finds it odd to think about what he accomplished before the age of 21.

Eventually he met the headmaster of Tulsa's Holland Hall during a conference in New York. The headmaster persuaded Freeman to work at the school, so he moved to Tulsa and oversaw students for more than two decades.

Looking back at his time in the air corps, Freeman believes his experience helped prepare him for a career in education.

"I think dealing with middle school students, you have to have a sense of humor, and it helped," he said. "In the military, the only way you can really survive is to have a sense of humor about it all. Though I don't think I could have gone through the infantry. I don't know how I would have survived."

 
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