Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: September 27, 2007

Major Bob Bleier USAAF/USAF (Ret)

Speaker Photo

* Flew forty-seven (47) combat missions in WWII, 22 as Lead Navigator
* 780th BS(H); 465th BG(H); 15th Air Force
* Operated primarily from Pantenella, Italy
* 1st 25 missions with original crew
* Completed 20 years in USSAF/USAF; retired at Travis AFB as an active navigator * Brooklyn, NY native; born January 31st, 1917
* Flew forty-seven (47) combat missions in WWII, 22 as Lead Navigator
* 780th BS(H); 465th BG(H); 15th Air Force
* Operated primarily from Pantenella, Italy
* 1st 25 missions with original crew
* Completed 20 years in USSAF/USAF; retired at Travis AFB as an active navigator
* Became a stock broker with EF Hutton for another 25 years
* Currently, President of his Squadron & Editor of their newsletter

"That B-24 was a tough old bird. It had two tails, and one time we had one of those tails shot off. As the pilot was about to tell us to bail out, he said, ‘let’s wait awhile.’ It shook and shimmied and felt awful, but it got us back."

As a navigator, Bob Bleier was in charge of making sure his B-24 was flying the right course from its airfield in Italy to targets in southern Germany and eastern Europe, and back home again. He performed that task nearly four dozen times as part of a military career that spanned two decades.

Bleier was born in Brooklyn, New York on January 31st, 1917. He grew up in that East Coast metropolis, graduating from high school in 1935. It was right in the middle of the Great Depression when Bleier began his military career:

"People didn’t realize at the time that FDR really was bringing the country up to participate in WWII. One of the places they had was CMTC the Citizens Military Training Camp. It was an organization that trained you for a month in the summer, at no cost to you."

Bleier later joined the National Guard at a recruiting office on Park Avenue in New York City. He and his cousin, Irving Wacker decided to join the Army Air Corps. But after enlisting they were broken up and Bleier was sent to Chanute Field in Illinois for a series of exams. Asked what he would like to do, he told the examiners he wanted to be an airplane mechanic. He got his wish and was soon in mechanic training.

After graduating, Bleier was assigned to St. Lucia in the British West Indies.

"It was very nice duty. I had a few Hawaiian friends and we managed to go swimming every day until we were the color of the natives.

"While we were down there, World War II broke out. It was a tremendous night of confusion. A Navy airplane flew overhead and we shot at it with .30 caliber machine guns because nobody knew what was going on.

"The Germans brought their U-boats down to the Caribbean and the Atlantic and they had a field day. We had very little in the way of protection for anything."

Bleier says U-boats came right into the harbor at Castries on St. Lucia and sank all the ships that were there. His Air Corps unit had a B-18 bomber with a single light machine gun in the nose, and some bombs but no bombsight.

"We went after them, and it was laughable, because the .30 caliber machine gun would bounce off the hull. And without a bomb sight, just dropping the bombs wouldn't have done much good."

Bob’s next direction in the Air Corps was set when a team of officers arrived to give a series of tests, seeking officer-training candidates. That process led to Kelly Field, Texas, and since there were plenty of pilot candidates by that time, Bob was shuttled into navigator training.

Completing that training, Bob was told his new unit, the 465th Bomb Group, (unlike the others at Kelley Field at the time) would not get leave before their overseas assignment.

"I called my mom. I said, ‘Mom, call the Red Cross and tell them you’re sick.’ She did and the CO called me in and said, ’I guess I’ve got to give you some kind of leave.’

"I said, ‘Sorry, sir.’ And I went back and married my childhood sweetheart."

Bleier was transferred to a new station in Lincoln, Nebraska, and his new wife, formerly Bette Zayas, came out for ten days together with him.

Then, Bob and his crew flew their B-24 to Dakar, Senegal via South America. It was February 1942, and the crew found that in winter, even Africa could be chilly enough to defeat government-issued flying gear.

"We had this very nice-looking leather jacket with sheep’s wool lining. But, leather gets so cold…"

From February until April, the 465th Bomb Group’s four squadrons—Bleier’s 780th and the 781st, 782nd, 783rd—flew training operations out of a base built in a wadi (a dry riverbed) in Tunisia. When Allied troops in Italy had pushed enemy troops far enough back to use Italian airfields, the group moved to Pantanella, within 25 miles of the front lines, but out of range of German artillery.

Hitting Germany from the South

The 465th Bomb Group, as part of the 15th Air Force had primary objectives of destroying the Luftwaffe in the air and its aircraft production facilities on the ground—fighter aircraft plants, ball bearing and rubber manufacturing, oil refineries and munitions factories. It also supported ground operations in Italy, and cut supply routes through Austria.

"We flew a great deal of disruption missions. Marshaling yards were one of our primary targets… fuel dumps. We flew to Ploesti three times."

Navigating the bomber formations to their targets was the responsibility of two men in the squadron’s lead B-24, one doing ‘normal’ dead-reckoning navigation and the other doing pilotage from the nose turret position.

"Sitting in the nose turret you could tell the navigator behind you, ’you’re about to cross the Danube’, and he’s got his map there, jotting ‘half an hour’.

"The only significant improvement in navigation while I was in the Air Force was Loran, which came in later. We didn’t even have calculators. Navigators were picked for their ability in math, because flying over the oceans you just had a sextant, an air almanac and a drift meter, and from these you calculated your course. With experience we got pretty good at it."

While an important part of the war effort, these missions, in Bleier’s experience, were uncomfortable for bomber crews:

"We were awakened at two o’clock in the morning, given breakfast and we took off. B-24s are not pressurized, so you wore an oxygen mask and breathed in the oxygen mask and it froze to your face. That was for most of the mission.

"Also, if you had to use the facilities, we had a tube with a funnel at one end, which froze up pretty quickly. If you had something else to do, we had empty ammunition boxes. "

The ammo boxes were parked in the bomb bay for release over the target.

While at Pantanella, Bleier had the good fortune of being able to re-connect with his cousin Irv Wacker. When Bob and Irv went separate ways after joining the Air Corps, Irv had become a B-17 pilot, was sent to Italy and was flying missions from the airbase at nearby Foggia.

"He and I used to have a good time. We were only 40 miles apart and when the airplanes weren’t on missions we would fly over the other camp and drop notes. The notes were wrapped around wrenches and stuff like that.

Bleier and Wacker kept in touch when they could until Wacker’s bomber was shot down. The Air Force sent Bob’s aunt a telegram saying Irv was missing in action. Bleier drove up to Foggia one day to talk with other crews who flew on the same mission Wacker was shot down. He says they assured him Irv had been killed in action.

There were usually three days off between missions and Bleier, the assistant squadron navigator, volunteered for extra missions. He had flown 25 missions before the rest of his crew did, and having reached that goal, had a choice of where he would take his rest and relaxation: on the island of Capri or at Bellagio Mancuso, a high altitude forested area where Italian premier Mussolini had a hunting lodge.

"I chose Bellagio Mancuso because I thought the isle of Capri would be too overrun, for one thing. It was a good decision because there aren’t many trees in Italy and this forest was just delightful—cool and nice.

"Then I came back and that wasn’t too good, because my crew of ten was shot down and all of them were killed except for the bombardier, who had a cold that day and didn’t fly. So the two of us, through fate, fortune or the will of God were the only two that survived. "

According to Bleier, the bombardier, Frank Dodd, was shot down on a later mission, survived and evaded to Switzerland, where he spent the rest of war. Bleier says the man later attended the University of Zurich, where he sat in class between two men Dodd said were Nazis.

"But, he told me, ‘We did our studies and became very good friends, because as far as we were concerned the war was over.’"

Close calls

"The first real close call I had… the navigator’s compartment in a B-24 has a bubble on the side and it’s most practical use is to stick your head in that plastic bubble and when the bombs are away you say, ‘bombs away’ and you pull your head back and log the time."

On one memorable moment during a mission, when Bleier went to perform this task, he discovered the bubble had been shot away by a flak burst.

Bleier’s B-24 nearly fell victim to another bomber’s payload on another strike.

"Sometimes the altitude gets out of whack a little bit. One of the planes above us dropped five 1000-pound bombs and my pilot was just barely able to pull it back as the bombs went down right in front of our nose."

After another operation, a fire broke out in the waist of the B-24, just as the bomber was preparing to land back at the base. Except for the pilot and co-pilot, the whole crew manned every available fire extinguisher to knock down the flames, and succeeded just before the airplane landed.

On his 22 missions as assistant squadron navigator, Bleier says he rode in the nose turret of the lead B-24, instead of sitting mid-fuselage in the navigator’s position.

"I liked that. Because there I was with a pair of .50 caliber machine guns beside me, which sure beat the hell out of sitting in the back with a pencil.

"But one time, when we were returning and I was in the nose turret, something hit the ship and the nose turret turned 45 degrees. The only way you could get out was through the back, and now it was impossible to get out. If the ship had gone down, I would have no choice but to go down with it. I couldn’t get a parachute and couldn’t get out the back. Fortunately, here again, that tough old bird made it back and the airplane mechanics got me out.

Among the damage reports, Bleier’s B-24 returned from one mission with more than 200 holes in it. Flak was a greater threat than Luftwaffe fighters, but Bleier says the Germans in the air were very capable, and without fighter escort, the air-to-air risk would have been greater.

"We weren’t exactly helpless. There were 36 B-24s in a group, flying in a big ‘V’ formation and we had ten .50 cal machine guns on each bomber, for a total of 360 machine guns.

The big problem came when you became a straggler and you were out there kind of by yourself, or with one or two other bombers. If the enemy fighters came in then the odds were more in their favor.

During his missions in Italy, Bleier says he saw the Tuskegee Airmen flying escort in their red-tailed fighters. Crews appreciated them, bombing groups requested them and Bleier says they were also fun to fly with…

"We were flying one time over some heavily-defended targets near Vienna when over the radio we heard, ‘Who dat.’ Then we heard, ‘Who dat who say who dat.’ And then, ‘Who dat who say who dat, who say who dat’. When, a very authoritative voice said, ‘Radio silence will be maintained,’ there was a final reply: ‘Who dat who say dat.’"

Bleier recalls many instances in his time in the Mediterranean Theater when danger followed the crews from their bombers to their bivouac.

"You do some silly things under those circumstances. We lived in tents… and we had a big argument one day, when my crew was still alive, over how accurate the .45 cal automatic was. A couple of them said you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with it, and I disagreed.

"I took out my .45, and right next to the pilot’s cot was a 37mm shell, maybe an inch and an eights wide, about six inches high. I hit it dead center and pieces flew all over. I thought later, ‘what a stupid thing to do! We were living in a tent. If I had missed, who would have stopped that bullet?!’ "

Bleier says he wasn’t very fond of his squadron’s commanding officer, especially when one day after Bleier he had 43 missions in, the CO called him and said, " I’m going to transfer you to another squadron.’

"I said, ‘Colonel, I have flown 22 missions together and I would like to finish my career with the 780th.’

"He said, ‘Well look at it from my point of view. You’ve got 43 missions in. You’re not any good to me any more.’ "

In September of 1944, after totaling 47 combat missions, Bob Bleier was sent by ship back to the States. He says it was a great experience to see all the new destroyers escorting the convoy. As Bleier leaned on the ship’s rail, taking in the sights of New York, he recalls a big, strapping airman next to him asking, "What’s that there?"

When Bob answered, "Brooklyn", the big guy said, "I never thought I’d see the day when I’d prefer Brooklyn to Oklahoma."

Bob reported next to the navigation school at Hondo, Texas, where the commanding officer told Bleier he had seven cadets on the verge of washing out of the training program. Bob was given the task of becoming their instructor, and when Bleier finished his work, all seven made it and one of them was the valedictorian of that class.

After the war, Bob Bleier remained in the Air Force until September 1960. He completed 20 years of service, including navigating cargo flights across the Pacific Ocean during the Korean War. He retired at Travis AFB as an active navigator, and then became a stockbroker with EF Hutton for 25 years.