GREATEST GENERATION: Sheep rancher recalls flying bomber in WWII | TSLN.com

GREATEST GENERATION: Sheep rancher recalls flying bomber in WWII

In the 1940s, with a war in full swing, young American men felt sure of one thing: the draft.

Because he figured he would be drafted and he "didn't want to be a foot soldier," Bill Lehfeldt of Lavina, Montana, enlisted in the army in 1942, with his focus set on aircraft.

"In those days it was the U.S. army and you got into the air force division," he said.

After passing the pilot tests, the teenager who had spent his growing-up years on a sheep ranch north of Billings returned to the school of mines in Butte where he was working on an engineering degree. Before he could finish he got the call from the army. In February of 1943 he started as a cadet and then after about six months, began his pilot training in Texas and Oklahoma.

After three months of training with his bomber plane, Lehfeldt picked up his crew, trained with them for a couple of months, then left his home turf.

He had married Barbara Forsell just six weeks before leaving for the war.

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"I picked up a plane in North Carolina. At that time the B26 didn't have a good range. It never did." Lehfeldt said an extra tank with fuel was loaded, and he and the crew were off. Twenty-one days later they arrived in England via South America. The plane couldn't hold enough fuel to cross the Atlantic.

"I took off for South America. We stopped about seven or eight times to fuel up, spend the night and then take off the next day." They overnighted in Puerto Rico, Brazil, Liberia, Morocco, and other places along the way.

Lehfeldt said the B26s were known as widowmakers. “They could barely fly on one wing”

"They needed me in the squadrons and then of course in January or February of '45 the Nazis knocked down a lot of our planes and my crew went over as replacements for the other guys. They lost these six crews one day. My crew was just another one that went over as replacements."

The pilot carried out 21 bombing assignments and a 22nd job – a strafing mission.

"We just went on assigned missions – that was it. The Germans had big guns on the ground they would shoot in the air. They could tell our range and altitude. They would spot us and explode at about our altitude. There was always lot of iron flying the air. At times in real bad bomb runs the sky was black from the explosion of the shells."

Flying one day as a replacement crew for another plane, Lehfeldt was thankful to be in a different place in the arrangement than usual. "I was called as a replacement for the crew for the squadron. The plane that was flying in my normal position got shot out ahead of me. Part of my crew couldn't stand it so I lost two men mentally after watching the plane blow up in front of them." He said the colonel determined those men weren't able to continue their jobs at that point, and they were likely sent home. "Just mentally they couldn't take it. Seeing that plane with their buddies blown out of the sky was too much."

Two crew members, the "tail gunner" and the "waist gunner" bailed out when the other plane was hit, Lehfeldt said. The soldiers landed "safely" in enemy territory and were captured but fortunately were freed by American troops after just six days.

Lehfeldt stuck with the program. "I didn't think as a whole we should bail out. We were down at about 800 feet and everything was going alright. They got scared and decided they should get out of there. We were getting out into anti-aircraft fire. We were close to the ground so they wasted a lot of shells on us.

"We kept flying toward home and then all at once the engineers said 'the right engine is on fire.'" After verifying, Lehfeldt said he found the closest landing place he could, not knowing if he was on 'American' or enemy soil.

"There had been somebody shooting at us all the time and you didn't know if you flew past them. We didn't know at the time, everyone was a little apprehensive that we might be picked up by the Germans but the Belgian army picked us up."

He wasn't sure if friendly fire had been part of the problem but when he questioned his American cohorts they told Lehfeldt 'if we'd have been shooting at you, we'd have brought you down.'

The next night the crew was treated to a memorable evening in a resort in Bad Godesburg, on the Rhine River, that he is quite sure remains today. A couple of bottles of scotch were shared by the soldiers.

The next day the crew was back to business but in May of that year the peace treaty was signed and by November he was back on American soil.

An official army account:

William H. Lehfeldt, 1st Lt., Air Corp., 39 1st Bombardment Group. For extraordinary achievement while participating in aired flight against the enemy on 3 April 1945, as the pilot of a 13-26 type aircraft Lt. Lehfeldt was dispatched on a mission to bomb marshaling yards at Hamelin, Germany. Despite ten-tenths cloud cover and concentrated anti-aircraft fire in the target area, Lt. Lehfeldt released his bombs at the objection with telling effects when his aircraft sustained severe battle damage, necessitating single engine flying. He skillfiully maintained control of his crippled aircraft. Although rapidly losing altitude, Lt. Lehfeldt executed evasive action and although subjected to continuing light anti-aircraft and small arms fire he skillfully landed the aircraft. The outstanding pilotage, courage and determination displayed by Lt. Lehfeldt on the occasion reflect real credit upon himself and his organization. Entered military service from Montana.

And for his actions he was awarded the following citations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and Campaign Medal with three Bronze Stars.

Soldiers were sent back home using a point system. Length of service was worth points, as well as being married and having children. Lehfeldt, with a wife and baby back home in Montana was able to return home fairly quickly.

He supported the cause of the war, as did 90 to 95 percent of the active military, he figures.

Lehfeldt was turned loose in Utah and promptly returned to the family sheep ranch. The outfit grew and has now been divided between two sons, William Robert Jr. and John Hayes, named after his superiors during the war. Both sons and daughters Susan and Wendy live within 50 miles of him. He lost his wife Barbara four years ago.

As sure as the draft seemed in the mid 40s, Lehfeldt is just as sure that a world-full of people will need to be fed, giving cause for raising livestock. "People are going to eat. I'm not sure how much meat they are going to eat but they will eat some."

The cattle business is currently hot, he notes, and his family has invested in some mother cows. "I don't think it will always look this good but it will be fair."

He sees a bright future ahead for the sheep industry because of low domestic numbers. "The market might not be real fancy but it will be fine."

“The Greatest Generation” was coined from Tom Brokaw’s, 1998 book, with the same title. “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” he said.

“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” we sometimes say.

They grew up through the Great Depression. The men were drafted into World War II and fought for something they truly believed in. The women were called to pick up the slack.

The VA estimates that World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 550 veterans a day.

In 2013 the VA figured there were nearly 22 million living veterans

7.3 million from the Vietnam era

6.5 million from the Gulf War era

5.5 million from peacetime only

2.1 million from the Korean Conflict era

1.2 million from the WWII era

We salute our veterans.