Interview by Robert C. Daniels
Fred Zurbuchen’s interview was held at the Union-Congregational Church in Waupun starting at 2:30 P.M. on 29 November 2005. The interview lasted 25.28 minutes. At the time Fred was eighty years old and very articulate.
What is your full name? Fred Zurbuchen.
How do you spell Zurbuchen? Z U R B U C H E N.
I know a lot of people born in the early twentieth century were not born in a hospital, but at home. Where and when were you born? Just south of town here, a small village that was in the country north of Burnett (Wisconsin). Birth date was oh three, oh five, twenty-five (5 March 1925).
You were born in a house, in a home? Correct.
Who were your parents? My mother and dad were…, Anna was my mother’s name and father’s name was Gottfried. Both emigrated from Europe, from Switzerland.
Do you have any brothers or sisters? Yes. I have two living brothers: Ewald, who is a resident of Florida, and a younger brother, Melvin, who is a resident of Janesville, Wisconsin. My sister passed away some years ago. She was the oldest of the family.
What was her name? Martha.
Where did you go to school? Fox Lake High.
Fox Lake had a high school? High school.
Did you graduate from high school? (He nods yes.) And I enlisted in the Army at seventeen. We had to skip a little (school), but I got in. And I had a choice at the time of enlistment as to the branch of service, and I picked the U.S. Air Corps.
That was the Army Air Corps at the time? Army Air Corps. It was the United States Army Air Corps, correct.
What was it like for you growing up? Typical country boy. Did all the things that you can imagine—hunting, fishing, and that sort of thing. But it was a simple life compared to what it is today.
So you grew up on a farm? No. My dad had a dairy plant. He operated a dairy plant, made cheese and butter. And as we grew up, my older brother and I, we had a milk route that we run throughout the county to pick up milk for his factory. Then he made cheese out of that milk.
So you drove a truck? Yes.
What were you doing in the 1939, 1941 timeframe, the timeframe just before Pearl Harbor? Well, that was in…, that was during high school.
Do you remember what you were doing when you first heard Pearl Harbor was attacked? I was home working in dad’s factory. And he came out in the factory, into the boiler room area which operated the plant, and he announced to the fact that we had broken into a war with Japan, the attack. That’s how we found it.
What time of day was that? Oh, I’d say it was around noon. I gather he got it off the radio the way it sounded.
What were your thoughts and feelings about the United States being attacked? It didn’t sound good, did it? Not really. An awful, terrible thing to happen to the country. And shortly thereafter, of course, my older brother was drafted, and, of course, I enlisted after he was drafted. I’m not going to let him fight the war alone, so I’m going to give him a hand on it, and that worked out pretty good.
Did he go in the Army? He was drafted into the Army, right.
What were the general feelings of those around you about the attack and the fact that the United States was now in a war? That’s a tough one! You know, that…, the sneak attack alone was obviously a horrendous thing to begin with. And, I don’t know, a big surprise really. Because that’s what it was, it was a surprise attack.
When did you decide to join the military? Right after that, after my brother went in when he was drafted, and I joined after that, shortly after.
Do you remember what day or what timeframe or what year you joined? I joined in 1942. October of ‘42.
And you went into the Army Air Corps? Right.
What did you do in the Army Air Corps? Well, first of all we had our basic training, which went anywhere from six to thirteen weeks. And then during that period of time we had the opportunity to write tests to where we were going to go into the Air Corps, what branch or what phase of it. And I passed the aptitude test and all other tests, I.Q. tests and so on, that qualified you to get into the Air Corps. First of all you have to remember that at that period the requirements to get into the Air Corps was a minimum of two years college, which I didn’t have. But I passed the equivalent test to get into the Air Corps and proceeded from there on.
You said you were seventeen years old when you went in? Yeah. I had to have a signature from dad and mother to get in.
And were they willing to give it to you? Well, not very easy, no, it was…(laughing). But after seeing my brother going in, why, I guess they submitted to it, so.
You said your brother was older than you. How old was he when he went in? Well, let’s see, I think he was probably two years older then I am.
What was your rank in the military? Staff Sergeant.
And what was your specialty? When you get into the specialty thing; we had to go through a schooling period, and after the schooling we were assigned to participate in the cadet corps. Which I did, I graduated into the cadet corps. And that school was at Wright Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio. We were then going to that school, to that college for training.
Obviously, what happened was it was filled when I signed up to get in, and when the school was filled up there was no place to go but then to go into some other area in the Air Corps itself. I went into what they called the armament school in Denver, Colorado. That’s where the school was. And I graduated from there—that’s a tech school like, similar to it. Then I went from there to the gunnery school in Las Vegas, Nevada, and also graduated out of there, so. And then later, of course, I was assigned to an aircraft.
Where did you go to boot camp at? Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for the basic.
Can you give us a brief review of your service, including maybe theaters of war and possibly any campaigns you were in? Yes. After the gunnery school we then came back to Lincoln, Nebraska. And there we were shipped as a crew down to El Paso, Texas, which was Biggs Field down there. And this was just part of the going overseas. What they did there was they ran simulated bombing missions for the bombardier, and also for the navigator, and navigational missions out of that place. When we finished that program we came back to Lincoln, Nebraska, and picked up a brand, spanking new B-17 bomber, and that we took overseas. And there were several stops on the way over, of course, for fueling. And one was Banger, Maine, and then Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland, and then Valley, Wales. That was in Britain. And then from there we took a train down to our station where we were housed.
Was this the 1942 or 1943 timeframe? Right. Well, I came out (discharged) in ‘40…, it was ‘46, ‘42 to‘46.
So you served in England? Our airbase was in Debach, England, and we flew twenty-five missions out of there.
What was your position on the airplane? I was the armorer-gunnerer on the aircraft. And that consisted of…, guns were loaded at the air field, and ammunition boxes were loaded. Also, my job was…, after we were airborne I fused the bombs depending on what target was to be hit. We then fused the bombs accordingly. They had a nose fuse and a tail fuse, and that was my job, I was the armorer-gunnerer. I was responsible for all the armament material aboard the aircraft.
Would you arm both fuses on the bombs? Depending on the target.
What targets would you use a nose fuse and which would you use the tail fuse? Well, on the nose fuse that was on contact (a contact fuse), and then the tail fuse was on an elevated attack, you know, they could set that tail fuse at an elevation. It had what they called an impeller on it, and that would unscrew to the extent that wherever the bombardier wanted to drop that bomb to explode it would explode at that altitude.
What was it like for you in the war? Well, that’s a lonesome life over there, although we did have some advantages to some other people on the ground. We always had a place to come home to and a bed to sleep in. And the days…, some days were very short and so were the nights—getting up at 3:00 to 3:30 in the morning to get this aircraft ready for a bomb run; it took some time. And then in between that, of course, you had to get your breakfast and so on, you know.
Because of our rank, our pilot, he was a captain and he was a lead aircraft pilot, so we generally always left the ground first. And for that reason the rest of the squad joined us. But we were up in the air and we blew out a smoke bomb, and that could be a different color, and, of course, the other aircrafts knew of this color and that’s what they formed on, on this color. And then we got assembled, and, of course, took off for our bomb run.
Do you remember what some of the targets were that you attacked? Oh, we hit a tremendous amount of targets: Dresden, Frankfurt, Kiel (all cities in Germany). For example, Kiel was a huge target. The Germans had a huge submarine pen at Kiel, and I think we hit that—I’ve got pictures of that—and they hit that three times before we finally penetrated the top of the pens. The top of the pens were anywhere from fourteen- to sixteen-foot of cement reinforced. And one (bombing run) didn’t do it, so we went back another two times to finally penetrate that pen. And Berlin, Germany, we hit that three times. And the third time you couldn’t see nothing but smoke, so I think that was pretty well confirmed at the target. And the rest of them were…, the deepest target we did hit was in Czechoslovakia, and that target was an aircraft factory. And we hit that…, I think we hit that twice, and that was one of the longest ones we had as far as a bomb run. That would run anywhere between six to eight hours, over and return. That was probably the longest one that we hit in that. But there were multitudes of targets throughout Germany we hit; Düsseldorf, you name it: the main ball bearing factories, marshalling yards, aircraft factories, and such.
How many aircrafts were on the bomb runs? Let’s start out with the bomb group. I was in the 493rd Bomb Group. Each bomb group has four squadrons. We were numbers 860, ‘61, ‘62, and ‘63. Each of those squadrons had approximately fifteen aircraft. Now, that is flyable aircraft; you got to remember now these planes were not always not flyable because of the…, they were sometimes shot up so bad that they had to remain on the ground for maybe two, three days before they could get them fixed. So the ordinary squadron carried fifteen planes, so you multiply that by four and you can see what a bomb group consisted of. That would amount to sixty aircraft, right?
How big were the crews? How many people were on the…? The complement on the B-17 were ten men. There were six enlisted men and four officers. However, at that period of time when we went over there we were short one enlisted man, so we only had five. And that guy was the waste gunner. And he was alone. Normally we carried two waste gunners, one on each side. But he took care of both sides. And, of course, the officers were the pilot, co-pilot, and the bombardier and the navigator.
Okay. And I flew the ball turret.
The ball turret? That was my position. And, of course, you got the nose turret, and you got the upper turret, and you got the tail turret.
So you said you flew twenty-five missions? Twenty-five. It was after that, of course, the war ended, then we flew a sixth (twenty-sixth) mission. And that was what they called a bread run. It was a mercy mission to Holland.
Germany had flooded Holland. They broke their banks (dams and levies), it was a complete mess. We flew six of those missions over. And they consisted of food, C-rations, K-rations, staples—flour, salt, whatever. And that was dropped from our bomb-bay. In order to do that, they had to put in a…, the company of repair had to put in a flooring in the bomb-bay area made of wood so we could pack the goods in there, and then when we opened the bomb-bay doors, this stuff would drop out.
We would usually try to land this stuff on an airfield. And that airfield was in Amsterdam (Holland). It was a huge airfield, and we tried to land this stuff on that airfield—and they would come pick it up from there. We did six of those. That was after the war.
And all your missions started off in England? Everything started off in England.
Was it the same airfield? Yup, the same airfield. We flew out of Debach, England.
What was it like when you heard the war was over and you were coming home? What a thrill, what a thrill.
Ah, something happened there that was very unusual, I thought. [When] we returned back to the United States we landed on July the fourth, and low and behold, from that day on things changed. When we landed at Bradley Field, Connecticut, our Captain, Reynolds, explained to us—he got on the intercom and made an announcement—he said, “If you gentlemen look out your starboard [right] side, you’ll see a whole row of B-29’s over there.” Okay, but the Japanese war was still on yet at that time. “So when you guys get back from your furlough,” (the captain continued) “you’re coming back here and we’re getting on board one of those B-29’s and we’re going to go fight the Japanese.” Low and behold, when I got home here my older brother is home also, unbeknown to me. We were both home at the same time when the Japanese war ended, huh? What a celebration, huh? He was with General Patton.
General Patton? Really, wow. Was he in tanks? Yes, he was a tank commander.
What was Waupun like when you came home? Well, I didn’t come back to Waupun. I came back to Fox Lake. That’s where my dad had his dairy.
What was that like when you came back? Completely changed. The whole thing was changed around. But it was a thrill to get back there. Of course, all during this time we came back from overseas and went back to Fort Dix, New Jersey. While I was home on furlough my wife and I had intended to get married, my fiancé. So I didn’t get a chance to get back home and she came out to Trenton, New Jersey, and we got married there. And she was teaching school at the time, and her older sister, she substituted for her to take her place while she could come out to get married. So when we got back to Fox Lake, why, I went to work back for my father and she went back teaching school.
What’s your wife’s name? And what was her maiden name also? Betty Lidtke. And that’s spelled L I D T K E. And thanks to her for all the beautiful letters she wrote; never missed a day. That’s what kept us going.
Were the people different when you came home? In what way? I didn’t notice the difference that much, really. Things were pretty much the same.
You said when you came home you worked for your father again. Is that what you continued to do? No. Then after a period of time, then I operated a dairy myself, and that was just for a short period of time, probably about five years is all. And I had a chance to join the Wisconsin State Prison crew up here in Waupun and I wrote the test to get into the prison system. And I did. And I retired from the State Prison System here in Waupun. I had thirty-two years total.
What did you do in the prison? In that prison…, there was a multitude of jobs you have to do, you know. The training period lasted anywhere from six months to a year, and I finally wound up with the property control system at the prison. And I was the sergeant there for all the years I worked there.
Did you take advantage of the G.I. Bill? No, I didn’t, no, no.
Do you have any children? Yes. Three grown children.
What are their names? The oldest is Diane, married. The second on the list is Scott, my son. And the youngest gal’s name is Merri, and that is spelled M E R R I.
Did any of your children serve in the military? No.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us? That pretty well covers it.
Something did happen during that period. My youngest brother went by my old…, it’s kind of hard to imagine this, but he went to the same school as I did in Lowery Field in Denver, Colorado. Lowery Field was separated by (into) two units. There was Lowery Field One and Lowery Field Two. Lowery Field One was photography and Lowery Field Two was armament, that’s the school I went to. My youngest brother, he was a photographer on the B-29, and he went to school at Lowery One, the photography school. He was in…, his service time…, he had the opportunity to photograph North Korea before the war broke out with Korea. They photographed that whole area. And that was his job.
Before the Korean War? Right, before the Korean War.
Was he in World War II? No, no, Korean War.
Was there anything else you’d like to say? Nothing that I can think of right off hand. We covered it pretty well.
Well thank you very much. You’re welcome.
Last updated on 27 Jan 2013 .
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