He Flew 34 Missions Over Europe. An Interview With A 100-Year-Old World War II Veteran

Of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII, less than 50,000 are still alive.
B-24 Liberator bombers, of the US 15th Air Force, bombing railway yards in Salzburg during World War Two, Austria, circa 1941-1945. (Photo by European/FPG/Getty Images)
European/FPG/Getty Images

The following is an edited transcript of a Morning Wire Memorial Day interview between Daily Wire editor-in-chief John Bickley and decorated World War II Army Air Force pilot John F. Homan, who flew 34 combat missions over Europe during a crucial period of the war.

JOHN BICKLEY: Joining us now to discuss his war-time experience documented in his new memoir “Into the Cold Blue: My World War II Journeys with the Mighty Eighth Air Force” is retired Army Air Force pilot John F. Homan. Also joining him is his co-author for the book, Jared Frederick. Thank you both for speaking with us today. 

JOHN F. HOMAN: Thank you for having us.

JOHN BICKLEY: First of all, happy Memorial Day and a belated happy birthday, John. You turned 100-years-old in January. I’m sure everyone wants to know your secret to longevity.

JOHN F. HOMAN: Thank you — Don’t get shot down. That’s the key to longevity. 

JOHN BICKLEY: Seems like good advice. According to the National World War II Museum, there were 16 million Americans who served in the Second Great War, and now just a few thousand of them remain. How important was it to you to share your experiences in your memoir and what drove you to write it now?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I didn’t do anything except, I went to Rutgers and they had an oral history program. I did that years ago. That’s the only thing I ever did until I retired. When I retired to this community, they had a magazine called “The Miscellany,” and I talked to the woman that ran it, and she asked me to write a story. So I wrote one about a reunion, which I thought was great, in England. Then she says, “Why don’t you write another one?” So I wrote another one on what a B-24 was like. Then I wrote a series of six. She had a friend that was involved in the local military museum and they asked me to give a talk. I gave a talk and it went over brilliantly. I gave three or four more talks and then I quit. I said, “I’m not in the business of making lectures.” And that’s when I think Jared found some of that stuff.

JOHN BICKLEY: And how did you get to know Jared?

JOHN F. HOMAN: He inquired around town after I gave a talk at the history museum here. I gave a few more talks and he found out about them from someone who was interested in the Eighth Air Force. And then he contacted me.

JOHN BICKLEY: And Jared, you’ve done a lot of writing about the Eighth Air Force, correct? 

JARED FREDERICK: Yes, this is my fourth book on the Second World War, and I’ve long had an interest in interviewing World War II veterans, going back to the time that I was in middle school and grade school. Part of that has to do with the fact that my own grandfathers who served in World War II, both of them were gone by the time I was eight years old. And so I thought if I could learn the stories of others, that I might be able to establish a more profound connection with my own grandfathers who I never got to question myself on their journey during World War II. And that was one of the things that led me to John. A mutual friend introduced us. When I sat down to interview him, after about 35 minutes, I said, “John, I think your story is worthy of a book.” And he said, “Well, we better get started then.”

JOHN BICKLEY: That’s terrific. Before we get into your war experience, John, I’d like to know some about your childhood. Your parents immigrated to the U.S. from Britain. You were born in upstate Maine. Why did your parents come to the U.S.?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Well, they were both born in 1900. There were bad times in England that they found very difficult to find work. And they got married when they were 20 years old and couldn’t find any work. I think my grandmother had a relative in this country, so they just got on a ship with a baby girl, and landed in New England around the Boston area. And then he found various jobs and he just kept moving till he found a permanent job. 

JOHN BICKLEY: And your father served for the British Navy correct? 

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes. He was a minesweeper for five years, starting at age 16. I think that’s what convinced me I didn’t want to join the Navy because he was in a boiler room for five years and I didn’t think I wanted to sit out a war down in the boiler room of a Navy ship, 

JOHN BICKLEY: Were your parents supportive of you serving in the military? 

JOHN F. HOMAN: No. My mother was dead set against me going in because she remembered World War I. Of course, she was born in 1900, so when she was 16 the war in England was known as trench warfare. Just ugly, brutal trench warfare. One of our neighbors in New Jersey where we lived was gassed and he died later. So she had a bad taste of war.

LISTEN: Catch the full Memorial Day interview with John F. Homan on Morning Wire

JOHN BICKLEY: Yeah, I’m sure. Now, you served in the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force out of England in 1944. First, when did you join and what was that process like?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I was only 17 when the war started, so I was unable to join. I decided — why? I don’t know, I don’t think I had any logical sense at that point — I decided I wanted to be a pilot. The pilot training required two years equivalent of college. So I finally got a job at Hercules and worked a steady second shift and went back to high school, cramming all the math and algebra I could before I applied to join the Air Force. And then somebody told me the fastest way to get in the Air Force is to join the Army and then ask for a transfer. Which I did. I went to Fort Dix and they sent me over to the Air Force Base and I took some tests there, (I had to go back twice). I passed those tests and wound up in casual duty in the Air Force, so I could get tested. After that, I was sent to Nashville where they did all the physical tests for about two weeks. The most rigid physical you could find — both mental and physical — and acuity and reflexes. Passed that and went to Maxwell Field in Alabama for preflight. 

JOHN BICKLEY: So you become a pilot of the Army Air Forces and are eventually stationed in England. How many missions overall did you fly? 

JOHN F. HOMAN: I was in the Eighth Air Force 49th Bomb Division and flew 34 missions. When I was over there, they changed the rules from 30 to 35 while I was flying. So I flew 34. That group was disbanded to come back to the States and check out the B-29s and go to the South Pacific. So, I was asked if I wanted to go, and I said, ”No, thank you.” 

JARED FREDERICK: Yes, so he was in combat for four months with the 489th Bomb Group. 

JOHN BICKLEY: So those 34 missions – you flew that many in just four months?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes, in less than four months. That might be a record. 

JOHN BICKLEY: Tell us about your crew. They were very young, correct? 

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes, we were a separate crew. All crew members were sent to Salt Lake City and assigned to specific crews. So we had never seen each other until then. They put our crew together and we went to Casper, Wyoming, to go through B-24 training. So I had an official designation in the Air Force as Engineering Officer and Administrative Officer. They had an administrative officer, a bombardier navigator, a nose gunner, a radio operator, a tail gunner, a waist gunner, and a ball gunner — 10 men. They were from all parts of the country, from Louisiana to Connecticut. The job was to mold that crew into a well-oiled operation, which we did in four months. Then we were giving her a sign, a brand new B-24, right off the run line. Signed a receipt for $285,000 for a new plane. Flew that for a couple weeks, and then she went to Goose Bay Laboratory and flew across the Atlantic to Scotland overnight, a 14-hour trip.

JOHN BICKLEY: And probably not the most luxurious accommodations. 

JOHN F. HOMAN: No. There is no heat, no facilities on a B-24, and it has no automatic controls, on a mission you have to manually fly the plane with cable connections. 

JOHN BICKLEY: Now your first mission was on July 6, 1944. You have said that all your missions were strategic and that you remember all of them – can you tell us about that first mission?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes, I remember that it was in Kiel, which is on the southern end of Denmark, a shipyard. When we could fly north across the North Sea out of the range of our German fighters. It was a pure, beautiful day, and I thought, this is going to be a pushover, the whole deal, because we didn’t see anything until we got to the target. Then we got some flak and got ahead a little bit. While we were on the bomb run, I saw a stick of bombs go through our formation and looked up and there was a B-17 group bombing the same target at the same time.

JOHN BICKLEY: Wow. And so you made the first run. About how long would that take, there and back? 

JOHN F. HOMAN: Probably a seven or eight hour total trip.

JOHN BICKLEY: Was the crew afraid? Excited? What was the state of mind?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Can’t tell. The pilot who is not flying is in charge of the crew and every so often you say, “Crew check.” Then each person on the crew has to check in whether they’re okay or not. So if there’s a problem, you send somebody to help them.But there was never any indication of excitement.

JOHN BICKLEY: Were there some operations that were particularly memorable for you, that would be good for the audience to hear about?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes, that was the second mission. 

JARED FREDERICK: Yes, July 7, 1944. 

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes, second mission. We were hitting what I think was an aircraft factory fairly deep in Germany and the German Air Command had changed their tactics — for the first time they used a new method. They used to fly in a division line and each group was one behind the other. They sent a whole host of fighters out there and decided they’d just come down the line, start flying wide open, down straight through the formations. And hit as many as they can. And that was one of the biggest air battles in the war. I saw a German fighter plane in front of us get shot down and the pilot bailed out with a suit on fire. And the tail gunner said he saw another German fighter go down. Then, as we came up away from the target, we were on the outside formation, and a plane came and flew on our wing. We looked over and there was a red stain all the way across the top of the plane, it was getting hit with 220 millimeters, one in the nose and one in the top turret. Did a hell of a lot of damage to the guy’s head and it bled out all the way to the end of the plane. 

The next one was the most exciting and also the closest I ever came to buying the farm was when we dropped supplies to the paratroopers that dropped in “A Bridge Too Far.” We were supposed to drop supplies at 500 feet in a small area and we made three passes because every time our lead plane went to go drop, there was another group in the way. So we made a big circle, flying over Germany, and there were farmers out there shooting at us with shotguns or something. Finally our turn came to go and drop. We were dropping by squadron, not by group, because it was a small area. As we started through this drop zone, the quadrant in front of us, I looked and I saw two planes shot down out of their quadrant right away. And then, when we dropped, everything was all right. Just as we were leaving, we got hit pretty good with machine gun fire. The number three engine was hit on the way in and I couldn’t get full power out of it. And it knocked the number four engine out. It hit the hydraulic system and the cockpit filled up with what we thought was smoke, but it was atomized hydraulic fluid. The radio operator was standing between us and he got nicked in the fanny. So, at a low altitude, that’s something you have to do instantaneously without thinking — I had to feather it and flip that switch off on number four. When a dead engine is rotating by force of the plane, it’s a drag on the plane, it may pull you down. So I had to feather that prop, shut all the switches off. We couldn’t see in the cockpit, it was so cloudy. So we had to assume the other fellow was doing the right thing.

We finally got that prop feathered, now we had some more power on one and two. Now, you couldn’t put too much power on number one because it would pull the plane off to the right. We had to keep the nose down so we wouldn’t stall out, but when we got down to treetop level, we had it squared away enough to where we could level off and fly straight. With more adjusting, we kept adjusting, we managed to get up to 800 feet. We stayed there until we got to England. In England they had an emergency field, a 10,000 foot concrete runway with 5,000 feet overshoots, and they’re extra wide. So without hydraulics, no brakes, we had to try that field.  When we were on approach, we see a B-24 burning halfway down the runway on the right hand side. I had to pick the left side. When we touched down, the left tire shredded and flew off and it went down on the carriage and screeched down the runway and ran off the runway. Now, our top gunner in his write-up said we had part of our tail shot off too. So, we requested that we abandon that ship in a hurry and got away from it. And in the history book it shows it was scrapped. That was it. Never flew again. 

JOHN BICKLEY: So you got a brand new plane out of it? 

JOHN F. HOMAN: No, an older one. A hand-me-down.

JOHN BICKLEY: Do you remember, was there any reluctance to go on the next mission after that? I mean, was anyone spooked by that near death run?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I think we had one day rest and had to go out again. The only time anybody had a little reluctance is when the nose gunner got the plexiglass shot out in his nose turret about three missions in a row. And we’re all climbing in for the next mission and he said, “I’m not getting in that thing again.” Not one of us said a word. We just all climbed in and looked back and there he was coming in. That was it.

JOHN BICKLEY: So he got right back in, though, and did his job. You’ve been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Was that given to you for specific action or all your service combined?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I think it was for that mission I talked about.

JARED FREDERICK: The one on September 18, 1944. Yes, that’s correct.

JOHN F. HOMAN: That was some distinguished flying — it really was to save your own butt.

JOHN BICKLEY: You mentioned that your crew was very young. Did you all realize the consequences of the missions, how much it was going to matter in terms of the overall course of the war?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Not above the group level, because you had, like, ten groups in the Army Air Force B-24s, and you were quartered in squadron areas out in the woods, separated from everybody else. Your knowledge was really based on your briefing of each mission. And then after the mission you debriefed and they may even add photographs there for you. The P-38s went out to take pictures of the bomb damage, whether you hit or missed.

JOHN BICKLEY: So really the focus was on just what you’re trying to accomplish with your individual mission, keeping your head down, narrowly focused on your particular role in each mission.

JOHN F. HOMAN: That’s right. Every plane had a position in the formation and your job was to stay in that formation. You want to have a tight formation when you’re going on a bomb run because you want a small bomb pattern. But that left you more vulnerable to flak because the flak then could zero in.

JOHN BICKLEY: We reviewed your interview with Rutgers Oral History Archives and you said you never spoke of the dangers of the missions, your fears or worries with your crew. Each crew member just completed each mission quietly, professionally. Was that just the way that your generation was raised – or what do you attribute to this willingness to face danger without complaint?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I can’t answer that really, because every crew was different. But I never heard any crew member in my earshot complain about anything. 

JOHN BICKLEY: Remarkable. 

JOHN BICKLEY: And you were just 20-years-old when you came back to the States. What happened then?

JOHN F. HOMAN: We came back by convoy in some very rough seas and got back to the States on Christmas Eve. Then I went to Georgia to become an instructor pilot on B-25s. I was instructing West Point grads, who got their primary and basic at West Point, and then got their advanced training to get their wings in Florida. So I was instructing them for a while.

JARED FREDERICK: And perhaps you could tell them about what you saw in New York when you got back.

JOHN F. HOMAN: Oh, we were coming into New York Harbor, and it was a cloudy, misty morning, and we just started almost like gliding through the water at low power, and we were gliding past the Statue of Liberty. Everyone was upon the deck in complete silence. Just awesome.

JOHN BICKLEY: Just incredible. Now you also got married to your high school sweetheart, is this correct?

JOHN F. HOMAN: Yes. She was a straight A student, got a scholarship to a university, and she was a freshman, just out of high school. And we were going steady since we were about 14, 15. And when I had come back from overseas, she was in the middle of her junior year. She was a very sophisticated, educated young lady and I was just a dumb crop pilot that didn’t learn anything but how to drop bombs. We didn’t get along at all then, so we broke up. And then I realized, maybe four or five months later, it’s not her problem that I’m a dummy, it’s my problem. So I got back together with her. And we were married six months after I got out of the service.

JOHN BICKLEY: I love that so much. Now you’ve waited a long time to write your account of the war – 80 years. Why do you think it took you so long to start to really give your account about the war?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I really don’t know. I didn’t waste any time. We got married and I got a job and then I went to school, Rutgers on the GI bill, raising a family, just not had time to do that. And then when I retired, I was asked to do it by the person here in charge of miscellany. So when I started doing that, I found out that I had saved a lot of good material. One of our officers on staff was stationed in Washington after he came back to the States. And he wrote a detailed history of our group. So I bought two of those and I wrote down everything I could remember. So I had a pretty good record of what happened.

JOHN BICKLEY: And a terrific memory, obviously. I can’t remember what happened last week. Looking back at your experience, what are the important life lessons you feel like you learned from your time in military training and then missions that you feel like you wanted to share through your memoir? What are you hoping to convey?

JOHN F. HOMAN: I was not a military person. I did the best job I could. When the war was over, I wanted out. Now I was one of millions probably that did that. And when it came time to get discharged. They asked me if I wanted to join the active reserve. He had two choices — active or inactive. And I said, “Put me as inactive as you can.” And that was a smart move because when I went to college, the Korean War came out, and those people who said active reserve were put back in the service. So, if needed I’d come back, but I wouldn’t if it wasn’t needed.

JOHN BICKLEY: Well, John and Jared, thank you both so much for talking with us. John, we thank you for your service – and for sharing your story with the rest of us.

JOHN F. HOMAN: Thank you for having us.


JOHN BICKLEY: That was John Homan and Jared Frederick authors of “Into the Cold Blue: My World War II Journeys with the Mighty Eighth Air Force” – and this has been a Memorial Day edition of Morning Wire.


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The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  He Flew 34 Missions Over Europe. An Interview With A 100-Year-Old World War II Veteran