© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WWII Hero Rolf Slen's Tales, Dune Part 2 Review & Dave's News Digest

Ways To Subscribe
1st Lt. Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator
Fargo Air Museum
1st Lt. Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Show Summary:

World War II Veteran, 1st Lt. Rolf Slen, Shares His Story

At the remarkable age of 99, 1st Lt. Rolf Slen recounts his valiant service in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. As a skilled navigator of B-24 Liberators, Rolf completed 40 combat missions against Japanese forces. His captivating narratives, shared during a special event at the Fargo Air Museum in February, offer a poignant glimpse into the past, marked by courage and resilience.

NOTE: The Fargo Air Museum will be unveiling a new exhibit in April that highlights the contributions of Eastern North Dakotans & Western Minnesotans who served with the 'heavies' of World War II. Several of Rolf's items will be displayed in this new display, along with many other incredible items. Be sure to check the Fargo Air Museum's social channels for more information on this exhibit in the coming weeks.

Matt Reviews "Dune: Part Two"
Matt delves into "Dune: Part Two," a cinematic continuation of Paul Atreides' quest for vengeance and unity with the Fremen against a cosmic empire's betrayal. Amidst a battle of destiny, Paul's haunting visions present a future hanging in the balance of humanity's survival. As the Academy Awards approach, Matt also shares his astute Oscar predictions, adding a layer of anticipation for movie enthusiasts.

Dave's News Digest
Join Prairie Public's News Director Dave Thompson as he sifts through the latest headlines, providing insightful analysis and summaries of the state's recent news.

Rolf Slen (Part 1) Interview Highlights

  1. Early Life and Family Military Background: Rolf Slen grew up in Madison, Minnesota, during the challenging economic times of the 1930s. His family had a strong military background, with his father having served in World War I and other relatives serving in various conflicts, including his younger brother who suffered from trench foot in World War II and a grandson who was severely injured in Afghanistan.
  2. Hearing About Pearl Harbor: Slen vividly remembers the day he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a Sunday, and the news reached him via radio. That evening, during a church event, the significance of a scheduled piano concert titled "Japanese Lullaby" was questioned due to the day's events.
  3. Enlistment and Training: Slen enlisted in the armed forces in 1942 after graduating from high school. His basic training took place at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, which he described as a cold, dirty, and unpleasant introduction to military life. He was initially trained to be a pilot but ended up failing pilot training and was reclassified to train as a navigator.
  4. Navigation Training and Challenges: Slen underwent navigation training at Hondo, Texas, where he learned crucial skills such as celestial navigation, dead reckoning, and dealing with the wind's impact on navigation. He shared a particularly challenging experience of navigating a B-24 from California to Hawaii, where he had to correct a significant off-course position using celestial navigation and a drift meter.
  5. Meeting His Crew and Combat Missions: After completing his training, Slen met his crew in Arizona and began preparing for overseas deployment. His first combat mission involved bombing Japanese installations in the Palau Islands, which was nerve-wracking considering the proximity of 30,000 Japanese troops just 30 miles away from their base.
  6. Reflections on War and Peace: Interestingly, 45 years after bombing a target in the Palau Islands, Slen and his wife, along with other veterans and their spouses, visited the very location they had targeted. This visit underscored the profound changes and reconciliation that can occur over time, moving from a scenario of conflict to one where former battlegrounds become places of peace and remembrance.

Transcript – Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Rolf, it is truly an honor to have you here. Thank you for your time and for your service. Where are you originally from?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

I'm originally from Madison, Minnesota. Madison, Minnesota is approximately 150 miles south of Moorhead.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

What was it like growing up there in the 1930s?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Many of you know the 1930s were tough economic times. We were just kids. We didn't think much of that.

We played the same game. We got a little older. We played baseball, pump, pump, pull away.

But we played all the games that kids play. Got a little older. We shot pheasant and ducks and huge amounts of pheasants out in Madison, Minnesota in those days.

Tell us about your family.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Did you have any military veterans that had served prior to World War II?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Yeah, my dad was in World War I. He was wounded slightly in that war. I had a younger brother a year younger than I.

He got trench foot in World War II, recovered very well from it. My wife's family also has military people. Her father was about 35 when he served in World War II, when I was about 19 serving in World War II.

She also had a grandson who was severely injured in Afghanistan. So we've had military people on both sides of our respective families. I finished high school in Madison, Minnesota, May of 1942.

World War II started really in 1941, as you all remember, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I was a 17-year-old high school student at the time. I didn't have the vaguest notion of where Pearl Harbor was.

It was somewhere out in the vast Pacific. I didn't know much about it. And then I finished in 1942.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Do you remember what you were doing or where you were when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Yeah, I sure do. It was a Sunday. We heard it over the radio.

There weren't any television sets at the time. I went to church that evening, a Luther League meeting, and one of my brother's classmates was going to play the piano at this meeting. And she apologized before she played it because she didn't realize that when she prepared it.

But the name of the piano concert that she played was Japanese Lullaby. She wasn't sure that was appropriate when the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

So tell us about your induction into the armed forces. Were you drafted or did you enlist?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Well, I enlisted. As I say, I graduated from high school in May of 1942. During the summer of 1942, I worked on various projects out in western Nebraska, building barracks, earning 50 cents an hour.

Saved up some money to go to St. Olaf College in the fall of 1942. St. Olaf is a small college south of Minneapolis, about 40 miles. So I went to, started to the college in 1942, September.

And then, if you remember, well, you probably don't, but in November of 1942, the Americans invaded or landed in Africa. Maybe you'll remember this from your history books. So I got kind of excited, I kind of thought, I think I'll join that war, too.

I was 18, and believe it or not, I had to get my parents' permission to join what I hoped would be the Army Air Force. They gave me permission. I joined technically, I guess, in November of 1942.

Finished that semester, first semester at St. Olaf College, and then almost immediately they called me up to Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities and swore me in for good, and that was really the beginning of my active duty in the Armed Services.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

So what was basic training like in the 1940s, and where was it?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Well, let me tell you a story about that. We took a train trip down from Fort Snelling down to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, which was a camp just south of St. Louis. That camp was very cold and dirty and muddy.

The train took us right into a siding that was right into the camp. I remember looking down from the train, and there were some guys down below that yelled up at us and said, you ain't gonna like it here, and we didn't like it there very well either. I looked over, and here was a building not too far from us that said, all hope abandon ye who enter here.

That was not a very pleasant way of being introduced to active duty. We finally got our uniforms, and we were in the march, close order drill, all that kind of stuff. We were there about 6 or 7 weeks, and from there we went to a small Jesuit college called Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri.

We went there to get 10 hours of basic instruction and learning to be a pilot in a paper cub. I was not very good at coordinating my feet and arms and legs with flying a paper cub, and I flunked out, washed out for pilot training. I remember at the time I was kind of happy I did because I wasn't any good at landing and taking off in a paper cub.

So they classified me thereafter as a track to be a navigator.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

After being selected as a navigator, what was that training like? Was it at the same base? What did they teach you there?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

No, the navigation school was out in Hondo, Texas. But before I even went to navigation school, I went to aerial gunnery school. I learned to be an aerial gunner down in Harlingen, Texas, and that was kind of fun.

I was pretty good at shooting a shotgun at the time because I'd done a lot of pheasant hunting out in Madison. Some of the guys from New York had never fired a gun before, so they had more trouble. We shot skeet and trap, and we shot at a sleeve that was pulled by an airplane.

Somehow or other, I became an aerial gunner. I learned how to take apart and put together a .50-caliber machine gun blindfolded. I remember that was quite a thing to do.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

I know when we had spoken in the past, you had mentioned that at navigator school, they taught you several different ways of navigating, especially in an aircraft as large as a B-24. Do you want to talk about those different methods?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Yeah, as I say, I went to navigation school for 16 weeks, Hondo, Texas. Hondo is about 100 miles west of San Antonio. That was very intense training.

We learned all about meteorology and how to find your location by celestial navigation and radios, pilotage. Pilotage was simply a method of looking down at the ground and finding out where you were. But the most important method of navigation that we learned was what was called dead reckoning.

Dead reckoning is a process by where you, by looking at your maps, you know exactly where your target is or where your destination is, but you have to make corrections. Many of you know, or maybe you don't know, a compass doesn't point to the North Pole. Many people tell you that a compass points to North.

It doesn't. It points to the North Magnetic Pole, which isn't the same thing as the North Geographic Pole, so you have to make corrections for that. But the biggest correction you have to make on every flight you ever fly is a correction for wind.

You never can get anywhere, today or anywhere else, without knowing which way the wind is blowing. You never get a direct headwind or a direct tailwind. The wind is always pushing you from the left or the right and the way you determine the amount of way in which your plane is being pushed off course is by a drift meter.

Every B-24 that I ever flew on absolutely needed and had a drift meter. This was probably the most important instrument you had in flying over water.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

After completing navigation training, when did you meet your crew that you would go overseas with?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

After finishing navigation training, I became, by magic of military protocol, I became a second lieutenant. And then I got a 10-day leave at home in Madison, Minnesota. I went there to see my folks and sisters.

After that 10-day leave, I went to an Air Force base, Army Air Force base down in Arizona. I got off the train and I asked somebody for where the bachelor officer's quarters were. Unfortunately, I finally found them, but unfortunately, the guy that I asked directions from later became my co-pilot.

And he had a lot of fun and so did the others talking about their new navigator who looked awfully young and couldn't find his way on land, and how in the world would he be able to find his way in the air? So I started out as a disability. I met my whole crew there at that time.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

We really got along very well. We actually have the picture pulled up right behind us. Do you remember their names and what positions they would have been on the aircraft?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Oh, absolutely. I lived with these guys. They're all dead now except me.

Off to the left and back is my pilot. He was from Montgomery, Minnesota. Next to him in the back was the co-pilot from Superior, Wisconsin.

Then I'm the next one in the middle in the back. The next one to the right was from Providence, Rhode Island. He was a bombardier.

In my opinion, he was the best bombardier in the whole Army Air Force, but I might have been a little prejudiced. The last one in back on the right, was the flight engineer. He worked a lot with the pilot in transferring gasoline from one wing to the other.

I know all these guys, knew them all very well. On the left, down below the pilot, he was a top turret gunner. He sat right above me, really, and to my left.

The guy next to him was from New Mexico. He was a tail gunner. The middle guy in the bottom there, Al Emery, was a nose gunner.

Next to him was the old man on the crew. He was 28 years old. He was a belly gunner.

Way off to the right on the bottom was a radio operator. These are all very good friends of mine.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Yeah, it's truly fascinating that after all these years, you still remember what positions they were in. That is absolutely incredible. Following meeting your entire crew, did you know where you were going right away?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

At some time during our training together as a crew, this crew here, we were told we were going to the Pacific. I remember feeling a lot of relief because the news that was coming out of Europe was terrible. Many, many B-24s, B-17s, were being shot down by German AK-AK guns, and many were being shot down by German fighters.

And we were very relieved we were not going there, and we were happy we were going to be assigned to the Pacific.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

So tell us about your flight over water. Were any special modifications made to your B-24?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Well, okay, I will. Well, that was kind of exciting. I don't know how many of you know this.

Maybe many of you do. It's about 2,500 statute miles between the Golden Gate Bridge and Hickam Field in the Hawaiian Islands. There ain't a bit of land in between.

It's all water. And I was a navigator who had flown very little over water. They told us before we took off, told the navigators anyway, that the wind would be from the north.

Fairly strong. And I had to build that into my computation and what direction to tell the pilot where to fly. The wind was a lot stronger than we realized.

And when I got oh, maybe four or five hours out from the land in California, I took my celestial instrument out and got a sun line from the sun that was shining. And I got a signal from a little picket boat down below, and when those two lines crossed, that was my location. And to my horror, we were approximately 100 miles off course.

The wind had been much stronger than we thought, and there was no way I could have figured that out until I got this location with celestial navigation and radio operation. So I told the pilot that corrected him oh, just a very little bit to the right. I didn't tell him we were 100 miles off course.

I didn't think he'd appreciate that. We corrected his direction slightly, and then hours went by and I found out that we were approximately on course. Corrected the direction again a little bit, and some hours went by.

Then my co-pilot called me up and told me look out to the left. Here are the mountains on the big island of Hawaii, Mauna Lea and Mauna Kea I think it is. Those big tall mountains stood up through the clouds.

We were real happy to see them. The whole flight took approximately 14 and a half hours. Today I think they fly from San Francisco to Hawaii in 4 or 5, I don't know what.

I didn't sleep a wink on that during that 14 hours because I was very concerned about getting there. But we got there and we landed. We had a lot of gas left in the tanks that had been installed in the bomb bay.

Then what happened was we got to Hawaii, Oahu, but our base was over on the island of Kauai is about 100 miles west of Honolulu. It's the westernmost island in the Hawaiian Islands. We were at a base there called Barking Sands Air Base.

We spent 5 months there doing some more training but basically we were waiting for a base where we could be based way down the line from there and fly combat missions against Japanese targets. It took a long time for the military to find enough places for us to land and be functioning as a 494th bomb group.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

So did you have a particular B-24 Liberator assigned to you? And if so, what was its name?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Yeah, there was a plane assigned to us. Incidentally, the 494th bomb group was composed of four squadrons. Each squadron had 12 airplanes.

So a total of 48 B-24s. We were assigned one of those B-24s. We had it christened and labeled as the Lonesome Lady.

Oh, that's a good one. It's not an erotic picture. I think it's very well done.

As you can see, it's a naked woman on a raft in the middle of the Pacific with her bra as a sail. laughter I thought it was a terrific picture. laughter We flew that very plane most of the time during our career bombing Japanese targets in the Pacific.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Do you recall your first combat mission?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

I remember how nervous I was the night before we had to fly our first mission. I had no idea what it would be like to fly in a B-24 with people shooting at you or whatever they were going to do to us. Now, I've got to explain a little bit.

We flew down a chain of islands to the Palau Islands. P-A-L-A-U The Palau Islands were about 6, 7, 800 miles from the Philippine Island. That was our base for approximately 7 months.

Yeah, sure, I was nervous. I was... I didn't know what to think.

Now, I have to explain a little bit about the Palau Islands for you to understand this. The Palau Islands were a series of islands running north and south 7, 800 miles from the Philippines. The island in the Palau Islands where we were based was an island called Angaur.

A-N-G-A-U-R 30 miles north of us in the Palau Islands were 30,000 Japanese troops. Now, we on our first mission were to bomb installations involving these 30,000 Japanese troops which were located only 30 miles from our base. Now, you can't fly directly to a target 30 miles away because you'd never get up to elevation in time.

Actually, on our first mission, we flew 20,000 feet. We had to fly way out over the ocean before we could fly back to the Japanese target which was only 30 miles from where we were based. We bombed a target 30 miles north of us, an island called Erika Bison.

Erika Bison. A lot of military installations there. There were a few anti-aircraft explosions directed towards us but they didn't amount very much.

We dropped our bombs there. I don't know whether we hit the target or not. I couldn't see.

But I have to tell you what happened 45 years after that. 45 years after we had bombed Erika Bison north of Angola where we were based, my wife and I came with a number of middle-aged 494th pilots with their wives. We stayed in a nice five-star hotel on that exact spot that we had bombed 45 years ago.

An amazing thing. And to think that we had dropped bombs on that very spot 45 years ago was very interesting. But we didn't come back there 45 years later to see that spot where we had dropped.

We came back there to see where we were based, 30 miles south of there on that little island in the Palau Islands. So we got back to the... We got back there 45 years later to the very spot where we had been based for seven months.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Can you describe what a milk run is? And do you recall some of those missions?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

A milk run is the easiest bombing mission you can possibly take. And we love those. A milk run was simply a mission where you'd took off, you dropped your bombs on the target, and you came home.

That's a milk run. No anti-aircraft fire, and no enemy planes. Wonderful type of mission.

We loved them.

This transcript was generated using AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.