A Passion for Aviation

On the Way to Becoming a Military Pilot

Earning Pilot’s Wings and Getting a Crew

Thoughts of Survival

Copilot’s Performance

Flak Damage

Lyle Pearson Story

Flying Combat Missions

Stuck Live Bomb

Enemy Opposition

Final Mission

Returning Home

Looking Back

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[Annotators Note: Interview begins mid-conversation.] Herbert Heilbrun was waiting for his crew in Salt Lake City when he heard his comrade was killed. He harbored animosity towards the Japanese until he met and took a young Japanese boy to a Christian Science church. [Annotators Note: Interviewer asks to turn down volume and Herb instructs him to turn the volume off causing a silent pause.] Heilbrun grew up in Avondale [Annotator’s Note: Avondale, Ohio] and went to Avondale School and Ohio State University. He participated in swimming and polo but never graduated. Heilbrun used to read pulp magazines named G8 and His Battle Aces about World War I pilots that flew Spads [Annotator’s Note: French SPAD S. XIII biplane fighter] and Jennies [Annotator’s Note: Curtiss JN-4 biplane] with his wingmen Bull Western and Nippy Martin, when he was 12. He also made model airplanes of balsa wood. Heilbrun and his friend would put matches on the plane and launch them out the window of a second story house convincing Heilbrun to go into combat. Heilbrun loved flying and tested engines like the GR2600 [Annotator’s Note: Wright R-2600 Cyclone 14] on the B-25. He would test them on test blocks. Heilbrun took a test to become a pilot and continued to work to be a cadet in a nine month program. He wanted his wings more than anything. Heilbrun joined the cadets after the war began. He was working for Wright Aeronautical Corporation when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He took the test but had to wait because the flight schools were all full. Heilbrun preferred to fly, but would have enjoyed the navy. Heilbrun was fortunate to get B17s. Heilbrun and his friend met at the local swimming pool. Of the five friends, two still remain. All of his friends were three or four years older and joined the military before Heilbrun. Heilbrun lost one of his closest friends in combat.

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Herbert Heilbrun was not working the day Pearl Harbor occurred. On that Sunday morning he was at a restaurant and thought the United States would go to war. Heilbrun wrote two letters a week to his divorced parents from overseas. He has the last letter he wrote to his parents before his missions. Heilbrun was only 24 years old when he came out of service. Looking back on his letters he remembered writing, “I close now that charming place I call boyhood.” Heilbrun cites the war as the place where he grew up. He would fight in battle again if it was necessary. After Pearl Harbor he hesitated joining the military. He is an only child to his mother and was working seven days a week. He took the exam in August 1943. After the exam he left for Nashville for classification. The men had to be physically perfect, but Heilbrun had a small calcification on his lung. He was taken to the doctor where they changed the calcification. Heilbrun then changed, mistakenly, from a Navigator to a Pilot. He and other men went on a train to Santa Ana [Annotator’s Note: Santa Ana Army Air Base in Costa Mesa, California] and he was taken off the train in Needles, California because he had measles. They transported him to the 61st Evacuation Hospital which turned out to be groups of tents in the desert. He and another man from his train were given shots. He stayed in the hospital for about ten days. Heilbrun transferred to Santa Ana for training. He flew his first open cockpit plane in Wickenburg, Arizona. Heilbrun was able to fly by himself once he landed multiple times. He took his basic training flying a Vultee Vibrator [Annotator’s Note: Vultee BT-13 Valiant] which he disliked. They lost an instructor and two cadets flying those planes. Heilbrun’s officer would hit him on the knees as he flew if the officer did not like how Heilbrun was flying the plane. Heilbrun still got his wings.

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Herbert Heilbrun flew twin engines in his second stage of flight training. He flew the Cessna Bobcat [Annotator’s Note: Cessna AT-17 Bobcat], a twin-engine 225 horse power engine. At this point Heilbrun had not yet gotten his wings. He had moved to advance training. His father came to Fort Sumner New Mexico to pin his wings on Heilbrun. Both parents visited when Heilbrun was in basic training. Heilbrun put his grandmother in a B-17. Heilburn moved to B-17 transition school to learn how to fly the plane. Heilbrun still has the book that includes everything to know about the B-17. It includes fuel system and electric systems and everything. As a pilot they had to know everything about the planes. Heilbrun rode in the ball [Annotator’s Note: the ball turret]. The one good thing is it was steel. There’s a hatch in the airplane through which you enter. Heilbrun heard a story about a young man got stuck in the ball and couldn’t parachute out with the rest of the crew. One of the waist gunners stayed and went down with the ball turret gunner even though he could have bailed out. When Heilbrun had gathered his crew to go across the ocean one of his gunners was late. His crew was broken up and his engineer was killed in England. Heilbrun was sent back to combat training to pick up another crew. It gave him time to get more experience. His first cross country flight had bad weather and he had to land in South Dakota, but he did it and the men were impressed. The crew members Heilbrun went overseas with included four officers. They were the bombardier, navigator, pilot and co-pilot. The engineer, ball turret gunner, two waist gunners and tail gunner were enlisted men. There were a total of ten people in the crew. Everybody had their job to do. Heilbrun became close to his engineer. He paid a surprise visit to his engineer many years later after having picked his kids up at summer camp. Now his crew is all gone. Emergency procedure did say that the pilot is the last one out, so he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.

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Herbert Heilbrun did not care which theater he fought in as long as he was a part of the war. He got into training late and instead of forming a group the men were sent wherever they were needed. He flew from Lincoln, Nebraska to Bangor, Maine to Gander, Newfoundland to Terceira in the Azores to French West Africa to Tunis and Italy. He flew 7075 miles. Heilbrun met Cary Grant and Dwight Eisenhower and Jack Dempsey and Primo Carnera. Heilbrun’s crew was assigned to Italy as a replacement crew. Two men were replacements. In 1944 his commander told him to fly and bring his assigned airplane to Germany 35 times and if completed, he could go home. Heilbrun read about the heavy air losses that included 127774 casualties in both theaters including wounded, missing, and killed in action. Heilbrun was told it was impossible to complete 25 missions from England as a pilot. Heilbrun was concerned, more than scared, about survival. Czechoslovakia had 850 flak guns and Heilbrun’s plane was hit 89 times. Heilbrun did not turn onto the target and instead turned onto the bomb run where the men put on their flak suits. On the bomb run the whole sky turned black and the important part was to do the job. Over Linz, Austria, Heilbrun called his navigator to discuss coming home but he did not answer. His navigator could not handle it and almost jumped out of the plane. Another pilot got scared and began screaming and wanted to drop the bombs early, but Heilbrun told him not to.

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Herbertert Heilbrun believes in the power of prayer. On his fourth mission, Heilbrun was flying with 36 airplanes in nine squadrons, staying in tight formation. Heilbrun and the other pilot would trade off flying every 15 minutes because the plane was hard to fly. He traded off and suddenly the plane was upside down while his other pilot was shouting for Heilbrun to take over. They could have taken out four planes that day. Heilbrun took control and got back in formation. His other pilot was paralyzed with fear and had to control the plane for hours. He became very tired and asked god to help him and believes he became stronger from praying. Heilbrun’s first mission was as a copilot. He was finally overseas and enjoyed flying around. Heilbrun was not shot at until his third mission which was his last mission as a copilot. They ran a milk run which was supposed to be easy. They were flying at 18000 feet with limited guns. They were being tracked by flak guns. The fire missed Heilbrun’s plane and hit the plane next to his. After they landed he saw the pilot in the plane next to him with his head on the glass and a bottle of plasma hanging from the compass. Heilbrun’s fourth mission was his first with a crew. Poe was the navigator that lost control and almost jumped out of the plane. After that mission, Heilbrun told Poe that the men were being watched on rendezvous and when the men were asked who was practicing inverted flight, Poe walked forward and claimed what he did. He got behind prop wash and out of formation. Halfway through their missions the men could either go to Rome or Capri. Since it was cold, they went to Rome so Poe could make up extra missions and the crew could finish and go home together. Poe was shot down a couple days after their final mission. Heilbrun was told Poe was dead and when he and the men returned Poe was sitting on the bunk. Poe told them he jumped out of the plane while it was on fire and had holes in his parachute. Poe landed near the Russians, where he gave them his watch. He and other men drank vodka and black wine until he was turned over to partisans and brought back to base. Poe ended up finishing with the rest of his crew.

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Herbert Heilbrun went through the cadets with Lyle Pearson. On 29 December, Heilbrun lost track of Pearson who was about to fly his fiftieth mission during the briefing. On his fiftieth mission, the target was Northern Italy. [Annotators Note: Heilbrun takes out his diary from the war and begins to read.] Over the Brenner Pass they began throwing 150mm flak and Heilbrun did not put on his flak suit or helmet. Pearson was shot down that day. Both wings were blown off the plane and it hit a mountain within 30 seconds. Heilbrun believes it is god’s will for these people to die and they are going to a better place. The pilots made two 360 degree turns then headed for the alternate target, Castle Delfranco. The men were in the flak for one hour and fifty minutes. Heilbrun flew all the way home in a sweat soaked flak suit in bad weather. Heilbrun used to find little sayings he posted into his diary. After he was married, Heilbrun would get a letter from 301st Bomb Group every month. People would write in looking for people or things. One man wrote in response to Heilbrun looking for former members of his bomb group. The letter describes a pilot who flew his fiftieth mission on 29 December and crashed and spent the rest of his time as a guest of the Third Reich [Annotator’s Note: slang phase for a prisoner of war in Europe] signed by Lyle Pearson. He had survived the war without Heilbrun knowing. Heilbrun called Pearson who lived in Minnesota. At one point they lived very close to each other, but never realized either one was alive. Pearson told Heilbrun how he could not jump out of the plane until his plane exploded. Pearson opened his parachute and passed out. He was taken to a cell where he was interrogated. The interrogators knew everything about Pearson and wanted more information, but Pearson only told them he was an Air Force Commander and his serial number. They threatened to shoot him and he still did not tell them anything. [Annotators Note: Heilbrun hands a photograph of himself and Pearson to the interviewer].

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[Annotators note. Heilbrun is showing a photograph of Lyle Pearson and himself to the interviewer]. Herbert Heilbrun heard about men who jumped from airplanes without a parachute and lived. His friends who went down in Italy were given parts of the plane. [Annotators note. Heilbrun leafs through his diary looking for his story of the Christmas Day mission in 1944]. Heilbrun’s thirteenth mission was to Innsbruck, Czechoslovakia [Annotators Note: Innsbruck, Austria] on Christmas Day in 1944. The Americans delivered ten 500 pound RDXs [Annotators Note: 500 pound bombs packed with RDX which is an explosive compound that is more powerful than TNT] which took 9 hours to deliver while the Germans shot from the ground. He had a new navigator who was on his first mission. The plane was shot 89 times and all of the men were close to being shot. They all had a turkey dinner waiting for them when they returned. Heilbrun’s most memorable mission was when he lost two engines on his plane. He flew over Munich near Berlin on one mission and noticed the Berchtesgaden below and did not attack because he was not a suicide bomber. The worst target for pilots was Berlin because of fuel capacity and a thousand guns over Berlin. Almost all mission locations the planes were hit. All of the bombing planes had a bomb bay. The bomb bay was held with wires and silver pins which were controlled electronically. Over Linz in the cold weather one of the bombs hung up. Heilbrun had to fall out of formation and his bombardier and radio operator kicked the bomb until it got out of the door then they moved back into formation. Some of the things that happened were not in the books. The pilots had heated suits for the cold weather but only practiced at 20000 feet. Heilbrun was flying higher than 30000 feet and his perspiration froze on the window. He had to stick his head out of the plane and saw the pilot next to him scraping off the ice with a knife. He kept the suit on incase the windows were blown out or he had to bail out of the plane but did not plug the suit in again.

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Herbert Heilbrun wore long johns under woolen pants with a warm shirt under a Mae West [Annotators Note: inflatable life preserver] and heavy gloves. He flew the plane with leather gloves. The waist gunners had to wear silk groves so their skin did not stick to the guns in the cold weather. The best bomber plane was the P51 with a Rolls Royce engine. The pilots depended on their crew. It was impossible to fly B17s against the best of the Luftwaffe. The P51 with the Rolls Royce engine stopped the constant demolition of entire crews. By the end of the war the main enemy was the flak. The crews took care of each other so plane dependency was not an issue. Heilbrun’s plane was never attacked by Luftwaffe fighters. Heilbrun’s last mission was a ground support mission for the troops near Bologna, Italy. The 8th Army and Germans were close to each other but could not move far because of the muddy winters. The pilots carried frag bombs with dynamite capsules on both ends. The radio men watched their location and they could not drop anything past certain locations. The pilots dropped the bombs into the 316 and turned around. Heilbrun was told he was done and could go home.

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Herbert Heilbrun wrote his last letter before his final mission. [Annotators Note: a baby has been crying for at least 20 minutes.] The letter is from Tuesday 17 April 1944. [Annotators Note: Heilbrun takes out a letter to read.] Heilbrun flew as deputy lead and one of his friends led the squadron. The pilots landed safely and Heilbrun was finished with his missions. He flew 35 missions and told his parents he would be home seven months after he left home in the United States. In his letter Heilbrun believes that nothing will amount to the Second World War. Heilbrun had a hard time coming to terms with leaving Europe and realizing he is an adult. The war has made Heilbrun religious. He does not fear death anymore since he has faced it so many times during the war. Heilbrun believed the poem Invictus summarizes his feelings of the war.

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Herbert Heilbrun packed up his gear and left for home without his crew. Heilbrun decided to take a ship home instead of using his accolades to fly home by mistake. On the Mariposa it took 11 days to get home from Europe. They took the men to Camp Mile Standish to get their orders to go home. Red, White, and Blue girls greeted them and they ate chicken sandwiches. Heilbrun called home and had his mother and father and two grandmothers greet him. One grandmother had no idea what he was really doing and she was most concerned about his boots instead of his 35 combat missions. [Annotators note. Heilbrun is filing papers.] 53 years later Heilbrun and his friend John met when the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. He went to meet someone who flew the same time he did. He was the only white man at the event. He told the first man he saw his story and asked if there were any men who flew at the same time and the young man pointed to his father. Heilbrun approached John and gave him a hug without saying anything. Heilbrun thanked him for keeping his bomber in the air. Heilbrun was invited to a talk John gave about their times flying in World War 2. Heilbrun discovered they went to grade school together when they had dinner one night. John was the only black kid in the same class as Heilbrun.

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Herbert Heilbrun is happy he made friends with John the Tuskegee Airman. Heilbrun had yet to visit the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. A restored B17 is being turned into an exhibit there. [Annotators Note: Heilbrun and the interviewer discuss the new B17 going up and being restored at the Museum.] Families have donated items to the museum pertaining to airman. Recently over 15 Tuskegee Airman were found to still be alive. [Annotators note. The interview ends abruptly].
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