Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: August 23, 2007

Lieutenant Leo Bach Army Air Force

Speaker Photo

Bombardier B17 534th bomb squadron, 381st bomb group, 8th air force

* Enlisted in the Army in 1940, never finishing high school
* Was a telephone linesman at Hickham Field in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed
* Volunteered for flight school and became a bombardier in a B17 in Europe
* Shot down on 3rd mission
* Spent 13 months in Stalag Luft 1, Barth, Germany. Bombardier B17 534th bomb squadron, 381st bomb group, 8th air force

* Grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn
* Enlisted in the Army in 1940, never finishing high school
* Was a telephone linesman at Hickham Field in Hawaii when Pearl Harbor was bombed
* Volunteered for flight school and became a bombardier in a B17 in Europe
* Shot down on 3rd mission
* Spent 13 months in Stalag Luft 1, Barth, Germany.
* Never attended college nor took advantage of GI Bill
* Married to Sylvia DuBro for 49 years until she succumbed to Altzheimers
* Raised two children, Emily and Dan. Two grandchildren, Aaron and Andrew, and one great grandson Max Everett Murdock
* Lived in Berkeley for more than 25 years, then moved to Rossmorr in 1989
* Served on the Berkeley City Council
* Leo has a book "Going Home" which he will bring to the meeting.

"‘Be brave,’ my father had said to me.

"I don’t think bravery was on my mind when I volunteered. I volunteered a lot. Not only did I join the army, but also the Air Corps. That was a glamour job. Ask the guys in the infantry. We had sheets on our beds and ate three squares every day. We lost a helluva lot of guys every time we went out. If memory serves me right, our casualty rate was ten percent."

Leo Bach was born in the community of Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York. He never finished high school, but joined the U.S. Army in September of 1940. Bach paints a portrait of his friends and their thoughts on their future at the start of World War II, by reading from his autobiography, as quoted above.

Bach had trained as a telephone linesman in the Army’s 53rd Signal Aviation Company and was sent by ship through the Panama Canal to Hawaii via San Francisco. On the Sunday morning the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was at nearby Hickam Field.

"I lived in a pyramidal tent, right on a chain link fence which separated us from Pearl Harbor. The planes started coming in overhead, and we said ‘Goddamit, what’s the Navy doing out on maneuvers on a Sunday! Damn Navy!

"And the bombs started to fall. I saw some dumb ass sergeant line up his men on a parade ground and dressed them right. Down came a Japanese plane and mowed ‘em all down. Stupid things like that happened. We were completely unprepared."

Bach, assigned as a driver for his sergeant, ran to the motor pool for a car and then picked up First Sergeant Alvin Bradshaw. Their first stop was to secure .45 caliber ammunition for their automatic pistols, because, after field maneuvers on the prior Friday, they had relinquished their ammo.

"I jumped out of the car, skipped over a little patch of gardening protected with a twelve inch high string ‘fence’. I leaped over the string and caught my foot in the string and fell, and my ankle blew up like that."

Bradshaw drove the car for a while, but when he suggested Bach go to sickbay, they both decided it would be better to leave the medics to caring for the bleeding wounded.

Later that night, Bach was driving a truck for his duties, and while passing a checkpoint he failed to stop and give the entry password.

"He had a Browning Automatic Rifle aimed at my head, and I heard a click. Uh oh. I slammed the brakes and gave him the code signal, and went on my way. I was shivering, thinking my head was about to be blown off."

One activity for Bach was the laying of telephone wire. He says his unit had been practicing laying wire as a communications backup the thirty miles from Hickam Field to Wheeler Field, splicing the line as each reel wound out; inserting boosters improve signal strength, and burying the wire where it crossed a road. In practice that prior week, he says his crew had hooked up a field phone… only to find it would not work.

But on December 7th, when bombs were falling, Bach says they completed the task in half the time… and the phone worked.

Bach says his plan had been to do his time in the military and then get out. So, after Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the Army Air Corps, which meant coming back from Hawaii to the mainland for training.

The Air Corps needed bombardiers and sent Bach to New Mexico’s Kirtland Field where he earned his wings, graduating with the class of WC 43-12. He was linked to a B-17 crew in Rapid City, South Dakota before being sent by ship across the Atlantic to England as a member of the 534th Bomb Squadron, 381st Bomb Group, based at Ridgewell.

The first two missions for Bach’s crew were to Rheims and Braunschweig. On the latter mission, flak hit the bomber’s tail assembly and gutted it. That meant a replacement plane for the third mission-a plane that would never return to Ridgewell.

"On the day I was shot down, April 11, 1944, we were going to Cottbus, in eastern Germany near the Polish border. Eleven hours in and out. We blackened the sky with 700 B-17s and B-24s. We lost 70 planes on the mission… ten men to a plane, that’s 700 men killed in action, missing in action. Some of whom turned up as POWs. I was one of those."

Shot down and captured

Bach’s replacement B-17 (42-31497) was an aircraft without a bombsight. Instead, Bach was to toggle the bomb payload on the lead bomber’s drop. The bomber had a crew of only nine due to the regular chief engineer not flying this mission, and it carried extra fuel and the minimum number of oxygen tanks. In turn, that meant the trip to about 50 miles southeast of Berlin, would be at a maximum 17,000 feet instead of the normal 35,000 feet altitude. The lower altitude, and the B-17’s ‘tail-end Charlie’ position in the formation made it vulnerable to both aerial attacks and a wide variety of flak. The combination proved too much for the B-17.

"Messerschmitt 109’s got engine #1, a Focke Wulf 190 got engine #3 and antiaircraft got engine #2 and it was time to leave. All nine of us got out.

"Our plane was pretty badly shot up and our belly gunner’s communications were evidently cut, because he didn’t know we were bailing out. The pilot, just before he went through the escape hatch, noticed Bernie’s chest pack (parachute) was still on the topside and realized Bernie Blanche was still in the bubble.

"Bernie swivels up and comes out swearing, and (after putting on his chute) goes out the window yelling ‘You son of a bitch!!’ "

Bach had bailed out and had parachuted safely until a gust of wind caught his canopy just before he landed. His right leg struck the ground and buckled. He shed his chute, limping as he covered it with pine branches, before curling himself around the base of a small pine tree. The tree hid him for a few minutes. But then he heard the sound of barking dogs and moved off to a more mature cluster of trees in which to hide his bright blue electric-heated flight suit.

He walked north for about an hour, before fatigue set in. He hid in some trees to catch some sleep, then began walking again, avoiding traffic on the road. But at the end of three days, he suddenly discovered he had returned full-circle to the place where he had landed after bailing out!

Without water for those three days, Bach was parched. He hailed a passing woman on a bicycle and she offered him ersatz coffee from a thermos she was carrying. As he lowered the thermos from his mouth, he noticed her expression had changed. Behind the downed airman stood a German soldier, aiming a rifle at Bach’s head.

Bach says he was taken to Dulag Luft in Frankfort am Main, where he and eleven other airmen were "received" at a brick building inside a barbed-wire-surrounded compound. There was a long row of tables in a room, with one guard seated behind the table for each POW standing in front of the table.

Told to empty the pockets of his blue flight overalls, Bach produced an escape kit belonging to another airman. His guard/clerk accused Bach of being a spy. Then the German interrogator reached inside Bach’s flight suit and grabbed his dogtags, which included the airman’s name, rank, serial number, blood type and the notation "(H)", for Hebrew.

"The German’s lips twisted into a crooked sneer, ‘Jude!’ It dripped from his mouth like a snarl from a mad dog."

Bach’s heritage led the stalag guards to place him in a windowless cell with a steel door. A light in the high ceiling illuminated a plank of wood covered with a bag of straw that was Bach’s bed.

Another interrogator, who said he was from the Red Cross, came into Bach‘s cell and commanded the airman to give information so Bach’s parents could be notified. When the questioning shifted to Bach’s unit, commanding officer and codes, Leo returned to answering with name, rank and serial number.

"This infuriated my interrogator. His reaction to my response was chilling: ‘Come now, we know that you’re a Jew. We only want to make things easier for you. You know the military people have no use for Jews. If you cooperate with me, I can make things easier for you."

Bach remained silent. Then he was alone again with his fears.

Star Spangled Banner

Bach was expecting his "Red Cross" investigator to come back for a second round, but he never did. Instead, for some unknown reason about 50 Americans were herded into a small patch of dusty ground heavily surrounded by barbed wire fencing.

As the Americans shuffled restlessly in the stockade, one began singing in what Bach recalls was a gravelly whisper, barely audible…

"Oh, say can you see… by the dawn's early light… O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming… Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there….

"It was picked up by others, a little louder, and soon we were all singing. The whisper had changed to singing. Never before, nor since, have I heard the difficult piece of music sung so beautifully.

"It was one of those moments when men dropped all pretence and let their deepest emotions and love for one another show. It gave us the strength we didn’t know we had. We had won. We had been alone and now we are together and alive. We could make it, we could make it. Our voices dropped down to a whisper.

" ‘We did make it!’ our thoughts shouted."

Before long, Bach was moved to Stalag Luft I, where life was different. In this larger camp, the American and British contingents set up their own organization and operations. With concerns the Germans would try to infiltrate the POW population, internal security was a top priority, and the Americans always interrogated new prisoners as they came in.

Bach recalls eating a so-called ‘soup’, made with pieces of potato, rutabaga, grass and occasionally horsemeat. They were also given Kriegsbrot-black bread made of ground acorns, flour and woodchips.

"Our rations were seven men to a loaf. There were fourteen men in our room so we got two loaves of bread, and that had to last for two days. In order to make it last, we had to slice it very thin. We didn’t have knives, but Americans being pretty clever, we managed to hone things down to make knives."

According to Bach, the tools to make the knives were in plain sight, but the Germans never caught on.

Bach says his captors told the POWs that Allied bombings of the railroads were either destroying supplies the Red Cross was sending, or making their delivery impossible. When the Germans left Stalag Luft 1, the POWs discovered provisions simply never delivered.

"When we were liberated we found warehouses full of Red Cross parcels they were living off of.

Unlike most of the larger aircrewmen in Stalag Luft 1, Bach only lost about ten pounds during his 13 months as a prisoner of war. He had come into the Army Air Corps weighing 155 pounds.


Bach says there was a great ebb and flow to the POWs’ emotions as 1944 came to a close:

"There were highs and lows. We were betting we would be home by Christmas. Then came the Battle of the Bulge and we really tanked at that point. The news was bad and we were really, really low. And then we broke out after the Battle of the Bulge and the war was over shortly thereafter.

As news of the Soviet Red Army’s crossing of the Oder River reached the guards in Stalag Luft I, Bach says the Germans began burning confidential documents and copies of Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf. Guarding the Allied POWs took a back seat to the Germans’ self-preservation. Before the Russians arrived, the stalag guards had fled, leaving operation of the camp to the Americans and English.

Bach says the first Russians the POWs saw were guerillas, who wore all manner of uniforms and lived off the land. When regular Red Army troops came to the gates of Stalag Luft I, they were veterans who had fought for three years from Stalingrad across the Ukraine and Poland to Germany.

"We were liberated by the Russians on May 1st. We were evacuated on May 13th. The Russians wanted to take us back through the Soviet Union to Vladivostok. The Americans were just 70 miles away across the Oder, and we managed to contact the Americans to make them aware where we were.

"The Russians had different things in their mind. There were stories later on about how people that were evacuated through the Soviet Union never made it back. They were used as slave laborers to rebuild cities."

Through what was apparently skillful diplomacy on the part of senior Allied officers, Bach and his fellow airmen were finally allowed to go home.

"After we persuaded the Russians not to take us out through the Soviet Union, we persuaded them to allow the Americans to fly in to pick us up. They flew in B-17s. My squadron was ‘triangle-L’ and the plane they loaded me on was (marked) triangle-L, so I got shot down and picked up by my own squadron.

"In the process of readying the runway for our planes, they went over and searched for mines, and found some. They also found dungeons underneath the airstrip, and the dungeons, human beings-Jews, Communists and Poles-people the Nazis didn’t like. We knew they were around someplace. They wore striped uniforms and the ones I saw in there were more dead than alive. Most of them died when the Russians came through and gave them pieces of food before the doctor could stop them. They couldn’t handle the food and they died."

Leo Bach’s trek home started with his B-17 flight to Le Havre, followed by an unauthorized flight to London, where he was rounded up and shipped to New York. Bach says he’d expected to hear "Glad you’re home!" from the whole world, but that kind of reception only came from family and friends.

He says he was on his honeymoon with his bride Sylvia in August 1945, when he heard the war was over, and still had the urge to yell, "I’m home! Look at me, damn it!"

From 381st BG, 354th BS transcripts of the mission, April 11th, 1944:

Today’s squadron was to go to the Cottbus, Germany. Lt. Dorrington was leading the squadron which was composed of Lts. Freese, Lt. Myers, Lt Henry, Lt. Ackerman, Lt. Rayburn, Lt. Henry (duplicate apparently), Lt. Williams, Lt. Kuhl and Lt Hesse. Bombing results were reported as good to fair. Crews reported that the bomb pattern was pretty well strung out but that the MPI was hit as well as a number of other buildings. Enemy air opposition was stiff. Flak was heavy. Today’s raid cost the squadron the loss of a crew. A/C N 1497 from this squadron as seen to feather #2 engine in the vicinity of Hannover. Subsequently #3 started smoking badly and this was also feathered. Forced to drop back of formation at this point but was still in sight at target area. At 51 52’N – 13 00 eight chutes were reported to come out of this ship. When last seen the ship was still under control. Listed crew, now MIA:

(only a partial crew listed for some reason)

Hesse, R.W. 2nd Lt.

Gatewood, R. 2nd Lt.

Noga, T.F. 2nd Lt.

Bach, L.S. 2nd Lt.

Hollenbeck, B.A. Sgt.

Blanche, B.T. S/Sgt

Puryear, R.A. Sgt.