A few years ago I had to write an article about making a military scrapbook. My father-in-law retired from the Air Force after 30 years as a Colonel and after he passed away we found a large amount of memorabilia. I spent some time compiling some of the information, and of course, making layouts. He was a P-38 pilot, had shot down many Nazi planes and was shot down himself, captured by the Nazis and spent time in the concentration camp Buchenwald.
He was interviewed many times about his experiences so information was pulled from various sources. Some excerpts...
Nothing could have stimulated pilot morale of the 429th Fighter Squadron more than the coming of 1st Lt. Merle E. Larson, holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air medal, and other citations. His combat record has already been an inspiration to all flight officers of this squadron.Lt. Larson, a South Dakota man, underwent a normal aviation cadet’s training – minus combat training – but went into combat under a handicap condition to survive and make an honorable and respected name for himself.He was trained on the West Coast in the summer of 1942. In September of that year his Group went over. They made the voyage in troop ships, landing in Scotland after spending 7 days on water.From Scotland he was sent to Northern Ireland where he was stationed on an R.A.F. field for about two and one-half months. While there, he was given a series of lectures by R.A.F. Intelligence Officers, which were helpful.Then, about the middle of December, he was on his way to Africa. He flew down as far as southern England, and then was “weathered in” for a week. His flight then took off for Africa.They flew for about two hours when German fighters jumped his formation, but it got through okay and finally arrived in Africa, near Oran, on Christmas Eve 1942.“Our first night on the new location” he comments, “was spent on the wings of our planes, ready to take off upon a moment’s notice. It was the worst Christmas Eve I’d ever had and I thought of the ones back home with the folks. But there was no time for self-pity, we had a job to do.”Christmas day he spent over the Mediterranean Sea, escorting a convoy.He relates that his living quarters were not favorable, in plain language, “rotten.” The mud was about a foot deep. His quarters were made of concrete (same as the floor) and he had no bed or anything to sleep on so that meant using the bare floor, still without a bath since leaving England.His unit stayed there for about a week, then the day came: it was sent up to operate. The real thing – and it seemed a little hard to believe. He was assigned to give medium bombers close cover protection. It was a rough job because his squadron had only a few planes at first, and being right in the toughest part of the fight against Rommel’s army, it was not easy. There were but a few ground crews at first, so Lt. Larson had to work on his own plane. He says it was not easy or fun.Living conditions behind the front lines were very poor. They had no beds; all they had were two blankets apiece, which weren’t nearly enough, and they nearly froze to death at night. The food, he relates, was poor. It seemed as if all he had was “stew and tea.” He seldom enjoyed a cup of coffee.But let him continue with his story:“The shortage of planes cost us a great toll in lives as well as planes the first months of combat. Also we were not properly trained for combat. Our first aerial target we shot at were ME 109’s and because of our not having any aerial gunnery in the States, it was tough.Our main job was bomber escort work. Most of those escort missions were ocean sweeps. Toward the end of the North African campaign, we were given some fighter sweeps to knock down German transport planes. We had very good results. Fortunately, I got three of them.There is no glorious feeling in knocking an enemy plane out of the sky. The thrill you would normally expect just isn’t there because you’re too tense yourself, not knowing when you are going to get yours. My biggest thrill was coming in from a mission and seeing the rest of the fellows in my flight come home safely.When we were escorting bombers, the main function of our fighter craft was to escort them to and from their targets, and protect them from enemy aircraft. We would fly tight formation until we reached the target, then we would go up and “sit” above the bombers until they had dumped their loads, and started on their way back home. One of the reasons for not following the bombers at a lower altitude was to escape “Flak” or anti-aircraft fire. Sometimes the Flak or smoke from the bursts was so thick we could hardly see the bombers below us. The thickest AA fire was at Tunis and Bizerte, where the Axis tried desperately to fight all Allied bombing attacks.My closest call was when I was 50 miles over enemy territory. Two AA shells, one 20MM and one 40MM went through the lower part of the gondola – I guess they just didn’t have my name on them, but they didn’t miss me by far. They knocked out my right engine and my wing tanks. Fortunately, I had not dropped my belly tank so I started my 50-mile trip toward home. It wasn’t the flying that did it, it was mostly luck. I landed safely in friendly territory and began hitchhiking back to my base.I rode in French and British trucks, finally making it. When I reported to headquarters they had me listed as “Missing in Action.” It gave me a funny feeling, and I thank God that it wasn’t true.”Lt. Larson reports that he was in on some fancy dive-bombing and skip-bombing that always seemed to catch the enemy completely flat-footed. At the end of the campaign, his squadron occupied several abandoned enemy airfields with enemy planes usually on the strips because there had been no gas to fly them off. In many cases, captured planes had been mined, and the minute anyone would touch the stick, the plane would explode.“Some of the German pilots we captured, “ he continued, “ranged from the age of 18 to 40. One South American who had been flying for the Axis was 18 years old and had over 1,000 flying hours before being captured.After 10 months overseas and my required number of hours in combat, I was sent home. I returned by Clipper via South America and had a pleasant trip. We landed in New York. It sure was good to be home again, but now that it is in the past and I lived through it, I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything. Now I am looking forward to (or expecting, I should say), combat again.”
From the Sunday Tribune for March 17, 1963Interview by William WingfieldLt. Larson will probably remember his year in Buchenwald as long as he lives. It was only two weeks after D-Day when German anti-aircraft fire brought down his twin-engined Lockheed fighter over France. “I got away from the Germans for three weeks. I was on my own for a week, then the underground picked me up. I was with them for two weeks.”Larson thought he was on his way to safety, but instead a red-haired French woman in the underground as a spy turned him and other Allied fliers over to the Gestapo. She was supposed to take them to Spain, but instead the men found themselves in Paris in the hands of the dreaded Nazi police.“We were caught in civilian clothes, so they called us spies,” Larson said, “We had our uniforms and flying suits on underneath, of course, and our dog tags, too, but the Germans took away our uniforms and tags and gave us back our civilian clothes, and took us up for interrogation.”“They said, ‘You’re spies, and you know what we do to spies.’ We expected to get shot.”The men were held in Paris for 45 days, then, when the American troops approached the city, they were bundled with 3000 prisoners into boxcars for Buchenwald.“Conditions were terrible in Buchenwald,” Larson recalled. “We didn’t have to work, but there was nothing to eat. People were dying like flies. Two of our people died there. They didn’t have gas chambers at Buchenwald, but they did have crematoriums. The Germans were hanging people right and left. Bodies were stacked in a room like wood. The guards would take the gold out of the teeth and then stuff them in the crematory.”“You had a pretty hopeless feeling,” he continued. “There was no way to get out that we could see. We appealed to the Germans that we were prisoners of war, but they said we weren’t. After about 3 months, they shipped us out to the prisoner of war camp.”The Nazis hustled off the prisoners on a 100-mile march to the new camp through a snowstorm. The reason was that the Russians were approaching Buchenwald.“That was a rough march,” Larson whistled, “especially when you were in bad shape to begin with.”The Germans took the fliers to Nuremberg. “I got sick at Nuremberg,” Larson said. “I had infections from the flak (anti-aircraft fire) where I was shot down.When the Americans were coming through, the Germans marched out those who were healthy, but I was in the hospital, so I stayed there and was liberated. “I had an ear infection and boils all over me. They gave me the last penicillin they had in the hospital. That snapped me out and saved my life.”
A True Story by William E. Chickering Jr.May 1945. The war in Europe is just about over. Our 474th Fighter Group, the only P-38 fighter unit still in operation in the 9th Air Force, is based at a place called Langensalza, Germany. Word gets to us that Merle Larson has turned up in an army hospital outside Paris. This is our first word about him since he bailed out over northern France a year or so before, and was last seen waving to the other guys on the mission before running into some nearby woods.George Edmonds and I, as 2 of the few remaining original 429th Squadron pilots, arrange permission to check out two P-38s for a flight to Paris to look up old Merle. We manage to program a long evening in several Paris bistros on the night we arrive, with plans to visit Larson the next day. With frightful hangovers, but young and strong, we report to the hospital at noon. We are directed to Captain Larson’s cot, and find ourselves in a heart-rending reunion. Merle had been imprisoned at Buchenwald as a so-called American spy, and now weighs a hundred pounds. He is close to tears when he sees George and me, but recovers quickly enough to exclaim, “So now you sons of bitches are Captains, and I taught you everything you know!” He is right at that, having been a veteran of the African Campaign and was one of the only combat-experienced pilots in our all-new 474th Fighter Group from the old Warmwell days. The visit is a good one, even though Merle can’t share the nip of whiskey George and I have sneaked in for him.Arrival at Langensalza airfield: We climb out of the planes and have one final toast to Merle Larson.
And not to leave out my dad - he was a Seabee in the Navy stationed in the Pacific.