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The New England, ND, Bomber Club

A local paper had an interesting story about World War 2 bomber pilot George Ott.  This article speculated that George had flown a B-17 home to New England and that plane became the static display for the locally famous Bomber Club.  A few of us in the know including George’s family knew George did not play a part in getting a plane to the Bomber Club.  Some of us also knew that the plane at the Bomber Club was not a B-17.  I am too young to have seen the plane at the Bomber Club but over the years had heard about it and had been told that the plane was a B-25 twin engine medium bomber.  This made sense because a B-25 could have been easily landed in a field north of New England.  Occasionally I would hear that the bomber was a B-24 (very large 4 engine plane) and I concluded that this was in error as no one would dare land a plane that size in a field.  I concluded that the plane was a B-25 and calling it a B-24 was simply a slip of the tongue.  I eventually discovered I was WRONG!

Thanks to Bill Hanson of New England who got me in touch with Wendy, the daughter of the original owner of said “Bomber Club”, George Koppinger.  She sent me a copy of a letter written by the pilot who flew the bomber and landed it in a field north of New England.  It was indeed a B-24 World War 2 heavy bomber!

 Here is the story of how it got there.    

Short field landing by Edgar J Allen

While I was with the Sixth Ferry Group in Long Beach, California, I was required to ferry various types of aircraft around the country. These were mostly surplus aircraft being disposed of by the Army Air Force.

One such “opportunity” came on July 3, 1946.  I, along with a co-pilot Lt. R. G. Madrid, and engineer T/Sgt B. V. Mullen, received orders to proceed to Mather Field, California, to ferry a B-24 Liberator to Dickinson, ND.  The aircraft was to be delivered to Mr. George Koppinger who lived in New England, a town about thirty miles south of Dickinson.

We were flown to Mather field the afternoon of July 3 and it took until almost noon, July 4th to inspect the aircraft and have a number of maintenance problems corrected by the limited maintenance crew available on this holiday.

Since we were restricted to flying the aircraft during daylight hours under visual flight rules, we couldn’t make it all the way to Dickinson on July 4th, so we planned to go as far as Spokane, WA, and then continue to Dickinson the next day.  We thought this schedule would work out fine because we reasoned that Mr. Koppinger would be hard to find on the Fourth of July.

We arrived in Dickinson shortly after noon July 5th, and I immediately called Mr. Koppinger in New England.

When I identified myself and stated my purpose, he exploded and shouted angrily, “Where were you yesterday when I needed you?”

I calmed him down and eventually learned why he was so upset.  He had planned an air show for July 4th and had distributed many hand bills in that area advertising he’d have a “Giant Liberator Bomber” on display.  His air show had fizzled because his main attraction was AWOL.  He declared it was now too late to help him and he was not the least bit interested in signing for the aircraft.

That put me in a bind because I had not been told of the requirement to be there in time to support his air show.  I was unwilling to face telling my home base I couldn’t deliver the aircraft, so I tried to find a solution to the dilemma.  I continued talking with Mr. Koppinger and learned he had a friend who was willing to fly the B-24 into his little field near New England. 

That gave me an idea, so I asked him, “If we put the aircraft into your field, will you sign for it then?”

He said he would, so I discussed my plan with Lt. Madrid and Sgt. Mullen and they agreed I could try it.  When I asked Mr. Koppinger for details on how to find his field and the conditions of the landing area.  I learned the field was nothing more than part of a wheat field and it was less than a half mile long!

We filed a flight plan with the local Civil Aeronautics Authority and took off for New England.  When we arrived there, we were unable to locate the field at first, so we circled the town a couple of times hoping to pick it out from all the other wheat fields in the area.  We soon saw a clue:  A line of cars kicking up dust as they hurried along a dirt road heading north east out of town.  We guessed correctly that these folks were headed toward the field where we were expected to attempt a landing.  It wasn’t long before we were able to identify the field, and from the small size of it we could understand their desire to be on hand to watch the excitement.

We circled low over the field where the cars were stopping and assessed our chances of making it.  On the near end of the field was a barbed wire fence about three feet high strung along a ridge about three more feet high caused by years of plowing to the outside of the field.  At the far end was a ditch about three or four feet deep and twelve to fifteen feet across caused by erosion of a small road leading to another field off to the left.

We then made two low passes off to the side of the landing area for a closer inspection for rough spots, holes or whatever.  We didn’t see any, so we circled wide, went through the landing check list and began a straight- in approach.  We were used to landing on 7,000 to 10,000 foot paved runways and this 2’500 foot, soft, dirt field with obstacles at both ends didn’t look very inviting.  I came in as low and slow as I dared, remembering that runway behind our touch-down point was worthless.

At about fifty feet Lt. Madrid shouted unnecessarily, “Don’t hit the fence!”  I thought maybe he saw something I didn’t and pulled up just a tiny bit, but we cleared the fence by plenty.  As we crossed over the fence, I chopped the power and we started to settle in, but it seemed we were going to float forever.  Going around and making another approach flitted through my mind, but then we came to earth with a thud.  The ground was speeding swiftly by, and I knew I had to get the brakes on in a hurry, so I slammed the nose down quickly with a crunch and applied full braking.  We began kicking up clouds of dust from the dry field.  We were all watching the fast approaching ditch at the far end of the field, which wasn’t very far by this time, trying to calculate where we would stop.  We were still going at pretty good clip when I determined that our stopping point was going to be in or beyond the ditch.  So at the last instant I released the left brake, applied power to both left engines, made a careening turn to the right, kicking up more clouds of dirt and we missed the ditch by just ten feet.  We continued around, taxied up in front of the crowd of about a hundred who had gathered to watch the end of our trip.

Mr. Koppinger identified himself and I said to him, “well sir, here is your white elephant.”  He asked, “Why do you say that?”, and I replied, “It’ll stay here forever because you’ll never be able to get it out of this field.”

We stayed around for a while answering questions and basking in all the attention we were getting, then Mr. Koppinger took us to town and, to my great relief, cheerfully signed for the aircraft.  At that moment I wondered what his attitude would have been if we had damaged the aircraft on landing, because we had not discussed that possibility beforehand.

Later Lt. Madrid and I both agreed that we had gotten away with a very risky and unauthorized undertaking, but our home base never became aware that we had done anything but routinely deliver the aircraft to Mr. Koppinger in Dickinson in accordance with our orders.

Postscript:  After setting several years at the Bomber Club being exposed to the elements and steadily deteriorating it must have been sold to a salvage buyer, dismantled and hauled off.  Bill Hanson remembers at some point seeing the wings loaded on semi-trailer.  The salvage buyer probably didn’t have to pay much for the old plane and it was a lot of work to tear it apart.  If that plane was still setting in a field north of New England, even in a deteriorated state, it could well be worth several million dollars!

The Hazen North Dakota Bomber

Rudy Froeschle from Hazen, North Dakota, was a B-17 driver with the Eighth Air Force in England during Word War II. After flying several missions bombing the Germans, he and his crew were unfortunately shot down and became a guest of the same ones he was bombing. Froeschle ended up in Stalag Luft III and played a small part in the movie made after the war (The Great Escape). Froeschle wasn’t portrayed in the movie but the trombone he had in camp was. Rudy had requested it though the International YMCA for a band they were putting together. The trombone was “borrowed” by other prisoners and was used as an important component of a still to make liquor. The trombone was depicted in the movie storyline.
After liberation and the end of the war, Rudy was receiving his military separation papers at Lacklund Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The servicemen were in a large hall. In one corner of the hall was a surplus administration desk. Rudy approached the desk and asked what he could get. He was able to get papers to purchase a Fairchild PT-26 for $600, used as a Canadian instrument trainer, a Stinson Reliant for $1200 – used to transport generals and other individuals of significance, and a B-17 for $350, which could only be used for monumental or educational purposes.
When Rudy got back to his home town of Hazen, he met with the school board and told them about the great deal they could get buying the B-17 for educational purposes. Rudy offered to fly it in for them. The school board decided to buy the bomber.
It took longer then expected for the paperwork to come together and Rudy was already in Chicago starting medical school so Lyle Benz of Hazen (also a WWII Vet pilot) offered to get the plane.
Lyle and his brother John went to Altus, Okla. to gas up and add oil to the B-17 engines that had been “pickled” at the end of the war, when they were placed in storage. Lyle removed the cowling from each of the four engines, and with John’s help pulled the plugs and cleaned them.
There was no radio equipment on the plane so they knew they would have to fly VFR. When they departed Altus, the weather bureau forecasted clear weather. After flying for a while, they ran into clouds and climbed above them. The weather ahead seemed to be getting worse with the clouds rising to 20,000 feet. The Benz brothers decided to turn around. The nearest airfield they sighted was at Perry, Okla. The brothers landed the B-17 and caught rides back to North Dakota to raise money for more gas and oil before going back for the Fortress. The #3 engine had lost a lot of oil so they had to fill it back up. After refueling the brothers took off for Dickinson before delivering it to Hazen.
When they arrived at Dickinson the #3 engine was smoking badly and the local police raced to the airport to make sure they were OK. They knew they would lose oil on the way, so they added more oil before heading to Hazen a few days later.
It was a calm day when the Benz brothers roared over Hazen and landed in a pasture just south of town. The ground was softer than expected and the plane’s wheels sunk in the sod and nosed over, bending the prop tips on the number 2 engine. The whole town had turned out to see the landing and a bunch of the high school boys were able to pull the bombers tail back down.
The plane sat in that spot for several years as kind of a memorial to WWII. Its not known if it ever was used for educational purposes but people would crawl through the plane and scavenged parts.
In 1951 several men came and started working on the plane. They took the #2 prop to Herman Mayer, the town blacksmith, and he did an excellent job pounding the blades back in shape.
One winter morning, when the ground was frozen and a 40 mile an hour wind was blowing from the northwest, these guys turned the plane into the wind, and with no one to witness it, flew away from Hazen.
About 5 years after the B-17 left Hazen, Rudy Froeschle was practicing medicine in Tioga. One day, he treated a pilot who had been in a plane accident while crop dusting…… turned out to be the man who flew the B-17 from Hazen. Rudy found out the plane had been delivered to a buyer in Florida who equipped it for aerial photography.
After several years it was sold to Canadian company who used it for aerial photography all over the world. It changed hands several times while in this capacity. In its next life (1971 to 1982) the B-17 was outfitted with slurry tanks and served as a fire bomber in South Dakota and New Mexico.
The bomber was retired and displayed at the Pima Air Museum in Arizona, 1982—1984. In 1984 it was purchased by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and stored in an open hanger at the Dulles airport.
In 2011 the plane was donated to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia. Extensive restoration was started and brought back to its original glory as the famous B-17, “City of Savannah”. It is now the center piece of the museum and considered the finest B-17 Fortress static display in the world.
Article from the Hazen Star, 13 Nov. 2008 by Chris Gessele. B-17 44-83814
Book, B17 Flying Fortress Restoration by Jerome McLaughlin

Herbert Buffalo Boy and Cornelius Ryan

Cornelius Ryan was an Irish journalist and author well known for writing about World War II military history.  His most famous books were “The Longest Day” about the June 6th, 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy; “The Last Battle” about the Battle of Berlin, and “A Bridge Too Far” about the ill-fated invasion of the Netherlands called Operation Market Garden.  The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far were made into major motion pictures. 

Ryan researched his books in large part by interviewing and corresponding with participants in those battles.  One of these individuals was Herbert Jeffery Buffalo Boy Jr. of Fort Yates, North Dakota.  Herbert served as Staff Sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division and was one of a limited number of elite Airborne members involved in four combat jumps and one of only a few Native Americans earning the Four-Star Airborne Veteran honor.

Another Four-Star Airborne Veteran was Brigadier General James Gavin, the only General in history to make 4 combat jumps.  General Gavin commanded the 82nd Airborne and Buffalo Boy and Gavin knew each other personally.  Herbert Buffalo Boy made combat jumps at Sicily and Salerno in Italy; Normandy in France during the D-Day landings and in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden.  His jumps were made from a C-47, the military version of the DC-3.  He carried 125 to 150 pounds of gear and was expected to engage the enemy as soon as he reached the ground.  Herbert was well thought of in his unit and known for his bravery and fighting ability, having continued to fight, even after being wounded several times.  He at one time was the most decorated Native American from North Dakota. 

After also serving in Korea, Herbert came home to North Dakota, farmed and ranched, married, and had 5 children.  One of his sons, Robert, continued his dad’s legacy, serving 2 tours in Vietnam and coming home a decorated veteran.

Over the years, Herbert participated in many ceremonies and activities sponsored by the American Legion, including a turn as Commander of the Albert Grass Post in Fort Yates. He passed away in 1984.

Oscar Coen – North Dakota born Ace

Oscar Coen was born on May 11, 1917 at Walum, just a few miles south of Hannaford, North Dakota. Oscar graduated from high school, went to college and became a teacher. Teaching seemed a bit tame for Oscar so in 1940 he joined the Army Air Corp to become a pilot. The Army had other plans however and slotted Coen to be an Aviation Navigator instead. When Oscar found out, he abruptly resigned his commission and high tailed it for Canada, was welcomed into the Royal Canadian Airforce and put into pilot training.
When Coen got his wings, he was sent to England, joined the Royal Air Force and was assigned to 71 Eagle Squadron. The Eagle Squadrons where made up of American pilots who had volunteered to fly for the British before the US entered the war. Coen first flew Hurricanes then later Spitfires. On October 20th, 1941, Coen was strafing a German munitions train when it blew up, damaging his Spit, causing him to crash land in occupied France. Oscar was rescued by the French underground and was able to get back to England by way of Spain. He returned to his Squadron on Christmas day, 1941.
In April, 1942, Coen shot down 3 Focke Wulf 190 German fighters and in August he downed 2 more German planes during the unsuccessful Dieppe landings. Oscar often flew wing with his close friend Michael McPharlin during these missions.
With the US now fully involved in the war, Coen was welcomed back into the fold of the US Army Air Force and transferred to the 4th Fighter Group as Squadron leader and started flying P-47 Thunderbolts. While flying his P-47 near Alconbury, the engine exploded, causing Oscar to execute a high-speed bailout, breaking and dislocating his shoulder in the process. After several months recuperation, Coen was able to return to duty and in April of 1944 transferred to the 356th Fighter Group as Deputy Group Commander. On June 6th, 1944, Oscar’s friend, Mike McPharlin, had engine trouble during a mission supporting the Normandy D-Day Landings and was lost while trying to return to base.
After the war, Oscar married McPharlin’s widow, Virginia, and raised Michael’s daughter as his own.
Coen has the distinction of being one of North Dakota’s aviation combat Aces.
Oscar Coen made a career of the Air Force and retired in 1962 with the rank of Colonel. He passed away in 2004

Leroy Nayes, Escape and Evasion

Leroy Milton Nayes was born at Fingal North Dakota in 1923.
LeRoy attended rural school and graduated from Fingal High in 1941 and started school that fall at the Agricultural College in Fargo.  In December 1942, he entered the Army Air Force and received his Officers commission as a 2nd Lt. in 1944 and shortly after joined the 15th Air Force in Italy as a Navigator-Bombardier on B-24 heavy bombers.  On December 14th 1944, while on a bombing mission to Linz, Austria, Nayes’ plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire and 2 of the 4 engines were knocked out.  The crew had to bail out over enemy territory in northern Yugoslavia and landed in the Sava river.  Several of the crew unfortunately drowned but Nayes and 3 others were picked up by Yugoslavian civilians on a raft and stayed with them for 6 days.
They were able to contact the anti-German partisan forces led by Josep Broz Tito and evaded the Germans for the next month. On Christmas morning, LeRoy awoke to what he thought was gunfire and thought they were being attacked by German forces.  Unknown to Nayes, the Yugoslavs celebrated Christmas with fireworks, much like we do on the 4th of July.   Nayes and the rest of his crew, protected by the partisans, finally made their way to an emergency air strip in late January 1945.  They were flown back to Italy on a C-47 where LeRoy spent time recuperating in a hospital.  Nayes made it back to his base and flew 12 more missions before the war ended in Europe.  The last several missions they did not carry bombs but dropped food and supplies into German POW camps.  Nayes was finally discharged from the Air Force in December of 1945.
LeRoy came back to North Dakota, went back to school in Fargo and graduated with a batchelor of science degree in agriculture.  He married, started a family and began farming near McClusky until 1954 when they returned to a farm near Fingal.
In 1956 LeRoy was recruited to work for the Farmers Home Administration of the USDA which began a 27 year career administrating loans to farmers in North Dakota.  He was the head of the Farm Loan Division for 10 years until he retired in 1983.
LeRoy Nayes passed away on March 23, 2014

Frances “Cash” Register, North Dakota’s first World War II Ace

Nicknamed Pinky, Francis Register was born in 1917 and raised in Bismarck.  Pinky always had an interest in airplanes and with the coming of World War 2, he joined the Navy Air Forces and eventually became a full-fledged Flying Officer on December 12, 1941, just 5 days after the US entered the war.
As a Flight Officer, Pinky received his second nick name from his fellow flyers.  Francis “Cash” Register.
“Cash” entered the battle against the Japanese at a faraway South Pacific Island called Guadalcanal.  The Allies had a small toe hold on the Island and fought desperately to hang on.
Register flew the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter against superior Japanese forces that were trying to retake that small portion of the island.  Supplies could not get through and the Guadalcanal force had to make do with what they had.  Keeping the planes flying was very difficult with almost no spare parts coming in.  Damaged planes were quickly cannibalized to keep other planes flying.  Register flew every mission he could and soon was shooting down enemy planes.  When Cash sent down his 5th Japanese plane in flames on September 27th, 1942, he became North Dakota’s first bonafide Ace.
The fighting went on at Guadalcanal and Register was able to down several more enemy planes but his physical condition was rapidly deteriorating.  Cash had trouble eating and he was losing weight.  He was succumbing to the tremendous strain of flying almost every day under such terrible conditions.
On October 1st, Register was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, personally pinned it on his uniform.
On October 11 Cash was grounded by the Navy doctor and flown out on October 14, back to the states.
After several months leave, Register was called back to duty and headed for the north Pacific where Japan had taken over several islands in the Aleutians off Alaska.
Register served on the escort carrier, USS Nassau, supporting the landings on Attu to drive the Japanese from the island.  The weather in the Aleutians was described as some of the worst to fly in the world.
On May 16, 1943, Francis Roland Register, while assisting ground troops, crashed his fighter into a hillside and was killed.
He was buried at the Military Cemetery at Holtz Bay, Attu.  In 1948 his remains were disinterred and reburied in Bismarck.

James Vranna, A Life Well Lived

I had met James Vranna years ago when I was attending an art show in Washburn where I was showing some of my World War 2 aviation paintings.  In visiting with him I gathered he had been a WW2 pilot and that he had been injured in a crash in England.  I could tell by scars on his face that he had gone through a devastating injury but he didn’t want to talk about the crash and I didn’t press him about it.  He did say he spent a long time in hospitals after the crash.  He told me one humorous story about when he was in the hospital after getting back to the states.  It seems that the doctors were worried about Jim and another patient because they had a hard time putting on any weight.  The doctors decided to give them several cans of beer a day in an effort to get them to “fatten up”.  Jim said he and his beer buddy were the envy of the whole ward as beer was not normally available to the patients.
As the years went by I continued to interview other veteran aviators and do paintings to honor their service.  All the while I remembered Jim and thought someday I would like to document his story.
In the summer of 2012, I was looking through the obituaries and with sadness saw that James Allen Vranna had passed away.  He was 91 years old.
It was then that I decided to research his service and life story.
Jim had grown up and graduated from High School in Taylor, ND in 1939 and attended Mayville State collage for 2 years.   Jim volunteered and joined the Army Air Force in 1942, trained as a multi-engine pilot and ended up getting his wings as a 2nd Lieutenant, flying the B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber.   Jim often commented that he got his pilot license before he got a driver’s license!
Lt. Vranna had the thrill of flying a brand new B-17 across the Atlantic to England and was assigned to the 544th Squadron of the 384th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, stationed at Grafton Underwood.
Jim was in the process of going through operational training, preparing for flying missions against the Germans over the continent.  The number of missions a bomber crewman was expected to fly this time of the war was 30.  James Vranna never got the chance to fly his first bombing mission.
Jim had volunteered to copilot a B-17 in the late afternoon of  August 4th 1944.  They were to “slow time” a new engine that had been just put on the bomber.  Slow timing an engine was necessary to make sure the engine was running properly before putting it under a full combat load.
James took off with a minimal crew of five with Lt. Howard Jung as pilot, 2nd Lt. Thomas Bates as navigator, Sgt. William Sellars as radioman and Sgt. Harold Perry as tail gunner.  A full crew would have required 5 more for a bombing mission, a bombardier and four additional gunners.
Lt. Jung took off and the plane gained altitude, all the while James was making performance checks on the new engine.
It has been said that the second enemy for the flyers out of the United Kingdom was the Germans.  The first?  The English weather.
It was at this time that the unpredictable English weather reared its ugly head.  Before the crew realized it, the pea soup fog had rolled in and before they had a chance to try to land, the ground was totally obscured.  To make matters worse, it was also getting dark.
Fog lowered the ceiling over their airbase at Grafton Underwood to only 300 feet.  The tower advised Lt. Jung to find another field to land but all the other fields were also fogged in.
Grafton Underwood tower Flying Control tried using flares and mortars to guide the aircraft in.  Jung made two passes over the field but could not land.  On his third pass the aircraft’s wing tip struck a tree and the B-17 spun into the ground and burned.                                                                                                   All on board were killed except for James, who suffered major multiple injuries and third degree burns.  Jim’s injuries were so bad that the first accident report listed him as a fatality as he was not expected to live.
Jim was hospitalized in critical condition for over a week and much to everyone’s amazement his condition improved.  As soon as he was well enough to make the trip, he was sent back to the states.  James spent the next three years recovering in hospitals and went through a series of reconstructive surgeries.  One day when Jim was at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville PA, and in a dark depression combined with survivor guilt, a kind nurse laid a beautiful rose on the table next to his bed.  Jim concentrated on the beauty of that rose and it encouraged him to look forward to the future and not dwell on the pain of the past.  That rose strengthened his faith and awaken in him his life time interest in gardening.
Upon his discharge from the hospital and the military, he returned home to North Dakota and completed his degree in history at Dickinson State College.  It was during this time that he met Miss Viola Boschee, the love of his life, who was teaching in Taylor.  They married on Dec. 26, 1948.  The couple spent the next decade in Taylor, where they both taught.   Jim also served as principal, coach and athletic director.
Jim, Vi and their first two sons moved to Washburn in 1958, where he continued to teach and serve as principal, and where their third son joined the family.  He also served as superintendent of schools for a period of time, directed many plays and coached student speakers.
After retirement, Jim enjoyed hunting, fishing and golf.  He also kept up with his gardening that was started by that rose so many years before.
I found the records of the crash that Jim was in at the 384th Bomb Group web site.  The records of the crash listed no survivors.  Jim was listed killed in an aircraft accident on August 4th 1944.
I contacted the web site manager to inform him that the James Vranna, listed as killed that fateful day, actually went on to live a long and very productive life until he passed away on July 22nd  2012.
The manager thanked me and corrected the records immediately!
Sources:  Jim’s son, Greg Vranna              384th Bomb Group records and accident report

Leon Frankel, Fight for Israel

As Leon Frankel sat, strapped into a German fighter plane, he thought to himself, what is a nice Jewish boy from Minot, North Dakota, doing here?
Leon had been in the service during World War II and came back a decorated Navy pilot. After spending some time in Minneapolis after the war, Leon jumped at the opportunity to open a car and truck dealership in Minot called Capital Motors.
After the war everyone wanted to buy a car and with the booming post war farm economy, the farmers needed trucks. Frankel would order trucks and put grain boxes on em. Red trucks were the most popular, Leon remembered. Business was good, Leon was making lots of money, had his own place and several girlfriends. Life couldn’t be better.
It was then that Leon got “the phone call”. The man on the phone said he was Steve Schwartz. Would Leon consider coming to the aid of Israel in their time of need? The new country of Israel was in desperate need of trained combat pilots and was reaching out to the recent veterans of the just ended war. Leon told him he’d have to think about it. After several days, thinking about the holocaust and the death camps that had come to light in Germany, Leon thought if he didn’t help, he would never be able to live with himself. Leon asked Schwartz what kind of plane he would be flying. Schwartz said he couldn’t tell him but they would be just as good as what the enemy had. This, as it turned out, was a big lie!
The US government frowned on its citizens going to Israel to fight, in fact it was highly illegal!

A story was concocted that Leon had to get to Italy to stop the marriage of his brother and bring him back home. Once out of the country, Frankel diverted to Czechoslovakia to learn to fly fighters being sold to Israel.
There was an arms embargo against the newly formed state of Israel in an effort to avoid another full-blown war. Israel’s Arab neighbors were well equipped with aircraft. The only country Israel could find to sell them fighter aircraft was cash starved Czechoslovakia. They bought them at highly inflated prices.
During World War II, the Germans built a factory in Czechoslovakia to produce the Me-109 fighter but the war ended before production could be started. The Czechs were left with the factory as a spoil of war and decided to produce the plane as their own and renamed it the Avia S-199. There was a problem however. The warehouse that contained the 109 Daimler-Benz engines was destroyed by fire. Another warehouse contained Junkers Jumo engines plus props destined for the Heinkel HE-111 bomber. The ill suited Jumo engines and large paddle propellers were fitted into the 109s which was like putting a truck engine into a sports car and resulted in extremely poor handling difficulties.
Leon had flown the Avenger Torpedo Bomber in the Navy. Flying the 109 was a whole new ball game! The Czechs nicknamed the 109, Mezik or Mule because it was such a stubborn machine to fly. These planes didn’t even have a fuel gage, just a red light that would go on if you were running low on fuel. If the light came on you may have 5 to 15 minutes left. They didn’t have the right machine guns to go with this plane so they mickey moused another type under the cowling. Every time you fired them, you prayed you didn’t shoot off your own propeller. They also had 2, 20mm cannon in pods under the wings.
The fighters were dismantled, loaded into C-54 transports, flown to Israel and reassembled just in time.
When Israel declared independence, they were immediately attacked by their Arab neighbors. Egyptian leaders had told its army that Israel had no military aircraft. The Egyptian Army was within miles of overrunning the Israeli capital when the newly arrived 109 fighters strafed the column and so demoralized the Egyptians that they were forced to turn back.
The Egyptians were flying Spitfires bought from the British and the rumor was that some were flown by ex-German pilots. The Irony was not lost on the Israeli pilots. Jews flying German planes against Germans flying Spitfires.
Frankel flew against Arab forces, air and ground targets. He also flew very dangerous photo recon missions over enemy fortifications in Egypt and Jordon, all alone, with no escort.
On his last mission, October 16th,1948, over Negev, Frankel saw a 109 after an Egyptian Spitfire. It was Rudy Augarten, former World War II P-47 pilot. They were flying toward Leon and Rudy was shooting big junks off the Spit. Leon saw another Spit below him, heading his way. Frankel flipped over and chased the Spit but it had gotten too far ahead of him.
At this point the red light came on. Leon was lucky to catch sight of a friendly airfield at Ekron. Leon landed and as they were refueling the plane, Leon noticed some oil dripping from the engine. He pointed it out to one of the mechanics who tightened some screws and declared “Fixed” and gave the thumbs up sign. Frankel took off and heading back to base.
After several minutes the engine started to run rough and Leon noticed the oil gage was zero. He tapped the gage in case the needle was stuck but the needle didn’t budge. Soon the cockpit started filling with smoke and Leon looked for a place to put down. Bailing out of these planes was not an option. Frankel hit the ground hard but other than some scrapes and bruises, escaped uninjured.
Leon started walking. He didn’t know if he was in Israel or Jordon. In the distance he saw a truck loaded with soldiers headed his way. Surrender was not an option. Other pilots shot down behind enemy lines had been tortured to death. Frankel had a 38 pistol with 6 shots. He would fire 5 shots and save the last for himself. As the truck got closer, he was much relieved to hear them hollering in Hebrew. Frankel was rescued! When Leon got back to his base, there was a 109 burning on the runway. The pilot, one of Leon’s close friends, was killed in a landing accident.
The next day, at the funeral, Frankel lost feeling in his legs and arms and collapsed. He was hospitalized for several days and recovered but decided to pack it in. New pilots were coming in and the crisis was over. It was time to go home. Frankel had flown 25 missions for Israel, ironically the same number of missions he had flown in the US Navy.
Getting home was not easy. Fighting for Israel could mean losing his citizenship. Leon was stopped at passport control in New York and interrogated all night. Leon claimed he had been going to school in Italy but his suitcase of full of pictures of him standing beside airplanes in Israel. Finally, by morning, the authorities told him to tell the truth or he was going to jail. Leon replied, “Go ahead, at least I can get some sleep”. With that the authorities told him to get the hell out of there and released him.
Leon Frankel ended up living in Minnesota, married and had 2 children. He passed away in 2015
I had the opportunity to talk to Leon several times on the phone and once in person at the Air Museum in Fargo. He had flown with Stew Bass in the Navy and had come to Fargo to see Stew (first time since the war) and to see the painting I did. Leon flew the Avenger torpedo bomber and like Stew, received the Navy Cross for helping sink the cruiser Yahagi. Leon along with Stew signed the painting now hanging in the gallery.
Leon also signed a water color picture I painted showing a Czech 109 in Israeli markings.

Walter Sharbo, P-47 Wolfpack Pilot

Walter Johnson was born on Oct 26, 1923 in Williston ND. When Walter was a teenager, he and his older brother changed their last name to the Americanized version of the real last name their father had in Norway. Walter’s father’s name had been changed to Johnson when he immigrated to America. There were too many Johnsons around and the brothers wanted to be different and at the same time giving a nod to their Norwegian heritage. Walter’s last name was changed to Sharbo.
Walter as a youth was a Boy Scout and earned the Eagle rank. He played sousaphone in the school band. He was an avid model airplane builder and developed a life long love of aviation. He sent numerous hours as a teenager cleaning the local airport hangars in exchange for flying lessons. After graduation from Williston High School, Walter went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he was intending to major in business. The day after the Japanese attacked Pear Harbor, Walter enlisted the Army Air Corp. Due to the number of enlistments he was not accepted until the following year. Once accepted, he trained as a fighter pilot, earning his wings early in 1944.
Walter Sharbo went on to train in the P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the Jug, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Walter had a problem. There were no signs of him being sent overseas to get in the fighting. D-day took place in June and the way the Allies were taking territory, there was talk of the war being over by Christmas. Another bad sign, the fighter groups were getting rid of their P-47s, replacing them with the longer-range P-51 Mustangs. It looked like the war would be over before Walter could get into combat. Walter rebelled and got into trouble. The last straw was during a training flight, buzzing sailboats in Delaware Bay and blowing em over with propwash. An Army Officer on the beach took note of the plane’s number and turned it in. Walter was almost court marshalled but his senior officers realized he was too good a flyer to be put in the stockade so got rid of him by sending him across the Atlantic as a replacement pilot.
In Oct. of 44, Walter ended up in England with the 56th Fighter Group, also known as Zemke’s Wolf Pack after commander Hubert Zemke. The 56th FG was one of the last Fighter Groups in the Eighth Air Force that was still flying the P-47. Sharbo started flying missions, escorting bombers into Germany and hitting the deck, strafing aerodromes and locomotives. Walter came back numerous times with severe battle damage and crash landed twice. Once, he brought his shot-up plane back across the channel but couldn’t make his air field, crashing well short of it and clipping a house with a wing, fortunately not injuring the occupants.  Walter became friends with the family of the house and exchanged Christmas cards with them for many years after the war.  The second time he had to belly it in, was in France.  Walter crawled out of the cockpit and noticed a lot of firing going on.  He looked up to see a tank pulling into the clearing.  He couldn’t tell if the tank was German or Allied and was much relieved when a Britt popped out of the hatch, urging him to get in the tank with them.  Walter spent the rest of the day with the British tankers and didn’t relish hearing rounds pinging against the machine.  He would have felt much better being back in the air.  Sharbo credited his survival to the ruggedness of the Jug, he would never have survived that much damage if he had been flying the P-51. Fighter groups that changed from the Thunderbolt to the Mustang had a marked increase in pilot casualties. Walter also started shooting down German aircraft including two ME-109s destroyed on Christmas day, 1944.
The Germans developed the first operational Jet aircraft in the world and it was first flown in 1942. The ME-262 would have been the perfect weapon to use against Allied bombers because it was faster than any fighters the Allies had. Hitler insisted the 262 be developed as a bomber and delayed the fighter development for many months. By the time it was finally deployed as an attack fighter in the summer of 1944. It was too little, too late. The 262 did rack up an impressive number of victories against Allied aircraft. Some sources say as many as 700 fighters and bombers fell to the jet!
Near the end of the war on April 10, 1945, Walter was escorting bombers in the Berlin area and doing lazy S curves to the rear of the bomber stream. He caught sight of several Me-262s coming through the other side of the formation. As they came through to his side, he banked and fired. One jet flew through his rain of 50 calibers, and to his surprise, exploded in a great fire ball.
Walter Sharbo is credited with shooting down the last ME-262 of the war and the last air to air victory for the 56th Fighter Group. Walter ended the war as one of North Dakota’s Aces with 5 and a half-confirmed victories.
After the war, Sharbo married and started working at the JCPenney store in Williston. He later worked for about 5 years as an assistant manager at the Penney’s store in Minot. Sharbo ended up managing the Penney’s store in Belle Fourche SD for many years and retired in 1983. He passed away in 2006

Dick Baron and the German pilot

Dick Baron had a very interesting time during the June 6, 1944, Normandy landings.  That day and the days following, Dick flew many missions supporting the invasion.  (Dick had a very detailed log book that he kept over this time.  Years afterward, Dick would loan out his log book so people could read it.  One day he loaned it out and it never came back.  Dick didn’t remember who the last person he loaned it to so the log book was lost.)

One evening, about a week after D-Day, after the missions for the day had been flown, Dick and several of his squadron mates were preparing to visit the Officers Club.  It was already quite dark when a late returning fighter caught their attention.  The control tower also noticed and turned on the runway lights but something was strange about this plane.  It was not a P-47.  Was it a Mustang or a Spitfire?  Something was odd about the note of the engine.  Could it be a damaged fighter from another base making an emergency landing?  The guys in the tower saw it first and quickly doused the landing lights but it was too late.  The plane was a Messerschmitt 109 German Fighter, possibly on a sneak late evening raid to attack an English base.  But this German fighter was coming in slow with its flaps and landing gear down.  Before anyone could bring guns to bear the plane had landed and pulled off the runway and came to a stop in the grass.  One ground crewman, still thinking this was an American or British plane, jumped up on the wing to see if the pilot needed any assistance and came face to face with a German Officer.  For several tense seconds they eyed each other, then the German pilot turned over his side arm and surrendered.  Dick and his friends were there when the ground crewman and the German came walking off the field.  The German could speak perfect English.  As it turned out, he had attended University in London before the war.  The suggestion was made, “We are on our way to the Officers Club, mind going with?

There was some confusion on base.  The rumor was that a German plane had landed but where was the pilot?  The German walked with Baron and his Squadron mates out the gate.  The unassuming guard at the gate even gave the German pilot a smart salute!

They were able to have several drinks and talked “shop” about this business of being a fighter pilot and the differences between the German and American Air Forces.  Before long the MPs finally tracked down the German pilot and hustled him off for interrogation.

By the next morning the 109 was gone, hurriedly trucked off, no one would say where.  The whole deal was hushed up and there is no mention of it in the Group or Squadron records.