A Veterans Day story – remembering my Pop, Walter “Wally” Ershow

At the start of World War II, my Pop went to officer’s training school and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, and became a radar navigator. He was assigned as the Bombardier on a B-17 “Flying Fortress” with the 15th Air Force, 2nd Bomb Group, 20th squadron, based at Amendola in the Apuglia region of southeastern Italy, until the end of the war in May, 1945. He flew on 23 missions. Pop had been pulled off of crew #7621 at the last minute before shipping out, and was reassigned to #7619. Well every man in #7619 survived the war despite flying  scores of bombing missions — and crew #7621 unfortunately lost many men during its missions over Germany with the 8th Air Force stationed in England.

After combat crew training in Ardmore, OK,  the men waited anxiously in Lincoln, NE for their orders to ship out. My grandmother Minnie Reinfeld Ershowsky actually travelled all the way out there from Newark on the trains so she could see my Pap and after that, his brother Barrett. She wrote  emotional letters home every day  to my grandfather — I still have those original letters, written on the hotel stationery. Pop wrote in his war Memoir, “We had some fine parties in Lincoln at the Cornhusker and Capitol Hotels. The local beers were Stites and Griesiedicks and we always seemed to be looking for it. Well, these were to be our last days in the States, hopefully just for awhile, and we wanted to live every minute to the last second. We had a farewell party attended by all including … my Mother …. Some of the food was brought all the way from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” Nana Minnie had arranged for a full supply of Reinfeld’s salamis and pastramis from the family butcher business in Newark. The crew was assigned to fly a B-17G to Europe. Taking the provisions with them, they called it their Flying Delicatessen and headed out the day before Thanksgiving, 1944.

Pop loved the flying, especially the view from above, and liked to have fun no matter what the circumstance. He wrote in his memoirs: “Frank and I shared the nose compartment of the B-17; he was Navigator and I was Bombardier. I always liked the idea of being the first one on the plane to get anyplace since my position was in the extreme forward end of the plane, surrounded by plexiglass for excellent visibility.” He admittes though that ” I did feel somewhat exposed even though thin gauge aluminum was not any more protection.”  He also loved meeting people in all these different countries. On their way to Europe, they had fun in their stop in the Azores: ” … The Azores was a tropical paradise compared to Newfoundland. Warm weather, lush vegetation, and plenty of cheap booze. The island was a throwback to rural 18th century life. The Portuguese soldiers on guard duty around the base all had bottles of Espumant” (Champagne) stashed in their clothing and we stocked up at the club for a party in the barracks that was memorable.  The four crews cut loose and we all bought ourselves hangovers that lasted for a couple of days. The flight surgeon fixed us up and we reluctantly left this little paradise for North Africa.”

After landings in French Morocco, and Tunis they eventually they made it to Italy.  As he described it, “We were ferried up to the 2nd bomb group by a couple of flack-happy combat veterans. The pilot decided to buzz the Italian hilltop towns and dropped to the deck and we went roaring over these towns practically at roof top level.” The mood of the new flyers turned somber as they headed up the Adriatic Coast and realized that they were looking down over  power stations, railroad yards and houses that had been reduced to wreckage by German bombing campaigns. During the course of his service, he was impressed and dismayed by what he described as the Germans’ ability to dispatch  “well trained labor battalions that worked at night and then camouflaged the damaged area to look like it was still destroyed and then [get] the [bombed] railroad lines running very quickly again.” He never lost his hope or his dedication to the cause of defeating the Nazis. Many times his plane came out of a mission with “large parts ..  blown out” but miraculously, he was never injured.

Decades later, when the memoirs were written as part of a Crew project in the late 80’s, Pop could still remember in detail the weather and the clothing they wore. Just try to imagine being inside the B-17 with its narrow central walkway, or trying to nimbly operate the controls of the plane when dressed like this: ” Unless our boots and shoes were kept dry they froze up at the sub-freezing temperatures at high altitude and it took awhile to thaw them out when we came back from a mission. We were not supposed to wear our flying boots except in the plane, but everyone wore them all the time. Our new heated suits and alpaca-line overhauls and jackets were a big improvement over the sheepskin-lined pants and jackets we formerly used at high altitudes because we were able to move around more freely even though we had many layers of clothing; GI 2 piece long johns (usually wool), olive drab wool pants and shirt, sweater (sometimes), electrically heated pants and jacket that connected to electric gloves and boot liners,parachute harness with British type quick release, Mae West jacket (life preserver) and when over the target area, an armored flak jacket and helmet on top of all this. We looked like space walkers …” He told me that each man also wore his silk pilot’s scarf every day, for good luck.

Pop brought his music everywhere. We have photos of him standing in front of Army Air Force tents in Italy, playing an accordion. He played guitar, harmonica, banjo and mandolin as well. He learned to speak Italian and travelled around when he could, often looking for his many cousins who were on other bases. For the rest of his life we was proud of his service and made sure to pass on stories of the heroism and adventures of his fellow airmen to anyone who would listen.

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