My father passed away at the age of 86 on Sunday, January 29. He had been ill for quite some time, and dodged death on at least 2 occasions in the last few years, a story I will tell in due time. He always appreciated dark humor and I used to joke with him that he was on "injury time", the indeterminate time soccer matches continue after the 90 minute game time is up. In reality, however, my father had been living on bonus time since 1944. He was modest about his service in WWII but through the years he told his grandchildren, two of whom subsequently entered the military (and one more who plans to follow in their footsteps), some of the stories of his time. In 2003, the Jewish Museum in New York City interviewed my father for an exhibit featuring American Jews who fought in WWII. A book commemorating these men, Ours to Fight For, was published as part of the exhibit and included a chapter on my father.
In the next several posts I plan on transcribing his story, with some additional commentary (in parentheses) as an homage to a wonderful father, husband of 64 years to my mother, devoted grandfather and great-grandfather. In a very real way, without the job that my father and his generation performed, and the great sacrifices so many of them made, we would quite literally not be here today. Here is my father's story, in his own words:
"I wanted those sons of bitches to know"
Bernard Branson U.S. Army Air Corps
I graduated at sixteen, in 1941. There was a war on, so what you did was you waited to get old enough to go into the army. I was working as a Western Union messenger. I used to work down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard delivering telegrams. I remember seeing the HMS Barham come in. It was a British battleship, which had been pretty shot up, and I would go down there and look at it and I couldn't wait to get into the service.
There was a course in Quoddy, Maine, for about four or five months. I got to Maine and the I worked my way out to St. John in Canada. And I walked into the RCAF and I said, "Oh, here I am. I'm ready to fly." And they just sent me home. They laughed. I must have been seventeen, just about seventeen. And they said, "We're not taking Americans. You're not Canadian, you can't go in. You've got to go back and you've got to tell the Americans to take you in." So I went back and I had to wait until I hit eighteen to get into the air corps because there were no enlistments any more. And at eighteen, as soon as I hit eighteen, I said, "Take me in. I'm ready." My brother was already in by then.
I was a very thin little kid. The marines wanted me. And the airborne wanted me. And I'm looking, and I said, "I don't want them. I want the Army Air Corps." That's all I knew, was the Army Air Corps. And the marines said, "Well, you're going into the marines," when I was getting my physical. I said, "My mother's going to hate you for this. I want to be an air corps man." And he stamped the thing and I looked. It said "Army." And I'm like, Oy!, that's what I wanted. I'd always wanted the army ever since I was a kid. And I went from there, I went to Camp Upton, and the first day they get us our uniforms, you know, all the shots and stuff like that. To make a long story short, I went down to Miami Beach. That's how I found out I was in the air force. As the train went out and the officer came through, I noticed he had the air force badge. And I went, "Oh! Everything is working out." And then my mother made me swear-and that was the only thing-on my father's grave that I would not fly as a pilot. I would not try to be a pilot.
She has a thing about the military. She had a son in the military. He was already in, my older brother. He was a radar man when it was still top secret. And she knew what I wanted to do, but she made me swear. So when I took the exam and they wanted to send me to pilot school, I couldn’t really tell then that I couldn’t do it. It was like, you know, I had sworn on my father's grave. I don't know how you describe it but it was a … it was a real promise. I made the promise and didn't really realize it. I'm like that. If I give you my word, I'm, I'm a dead man. I don't change it. She thought I'd be on the ground. I never told her there were gunners. So the guy said, “Well, then you're going to gunnery school.' I said, “I'll take it.”
You stay about two or three weeks in tents waiting to go to class, and then ti's about a six-week course in gunnery. First week is sitting and practicing. The second week is shooting skeet on trucks. I was a good skeet shooter. I never shot a gun in my life, but I was a marksman. Don't ask me how. I was good. Till one time I was so good that one guy who had been a corporal in 1938-George Ostamulow was his name- said, “Boy, look at that Abie shoot. Look at that. He, that Abie, he can't miss. He can't miss.” He said, “Jesus, that fucking Jew boy, he can't miss. Don't you miss, Jew boy?” And then I missed. I missed two and I turned around. I just nicely said, “Oh, fuck you,” and turned around and I got the rest of them. That was about the extent of any anti-Semitism. You couldn't really call it that, because when I came back form overseas I met him, and this guy couldn’t … he was so thrilled to see another guy alive that he just hugged me. We were friends.
The crews' names were put together. And then what they did, you went and you met each other and you were given three months to either get together and get close or drop out of the crew. No questions asked. And we, we just hit it off. Joe and I were in the same crew, and we met Irving Simon, who was another Jewish boy-most of the crews had a Jew somewhere in there, you know. And very luckily, my pilot … I think I'm here because I had a good pilot. Calvin hall. He had flown with the RCAF, flown dive-bombers, and then switched over and became an instructor on B-24s. And so when he came to us, he had 500 hours on B-24s, and that's a lot of hours. He was one of the few guys who could stall a B-24 and bring it out of a stall. Nobody could do that. That's how wonderful the guy was. And that's why I can talk about one of the worst experiences I had in my life.
Don Gray was my copilot. He didn’t make it through. They took him away because he started to see enemy fighters all over the sky. He couldn’t, he couldn’t even control the plane. And we had an engineer. He had an appendectomy and we got another engineer, a guy named Johnny Murphy who was an old man and an alcoholic. He became a problem. They took him off the crew. And then there was Bob Polk, who had been a lumberjack. He was a front-turret gunner. And Bob Polk was a very good Catholic. He would go out and sleep with anything that walked, and then he would go to confession. He didn’t care what age. We, most of us, got disgusted with him. And Earl Everett, who was the shortest man in the air force. He was four feet eleven and a half inches tall. You had to be five feet. He just got in. He was our bombardier. Our navigator we had for a very short time, and then when we were over there we received another navigator, a flying office called Bill Fidraki. And he was hit over a target where the nose gunner was killed--his eye was shot out—but he had a choice to pull the nose gunner in and try to save him or try to save his eye. He tried to save the nose gunner, so he went home with a decoration. But thank God he lived. He wanted to be a doctor. And that was us.
To be continued... Earn This: Part II