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WWII Hero Rolf Slen's Tales (Part 2) & Analyzing the Presidential Race

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A B-24 Liberator Aircraft.
Fargo Air Museum
A B-24 Liberator Aircraft.

Show Summary:

World War II veteran, 1st Lt. Rolf Slen, Part Two
At 99 years young, Rolf Slen is a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Force. He served as a navigator onboard B-24 Liberators during the war, flying 40 combat missions against the Japanese. Rolf tells some truly incredible stories at an event that was hosted by the Fargo Air Museum in February.

The Status of the Presidential Campaign
Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane is Professor of U.S. History and the Lowman Walton Chair of Theodore Roosevelt Studies at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. We discuss the current state of the Presidential campaign, what we learned from Super Tuesday and President Biden's State of the Union address, the strengths and weaknesses of President Biden and former President Trump, and what each must do to win the White House in November.

Interview Highlights, Part Two, Rolf Slen World War II Navigator:

  1. Christmas Day Mission Over Mabalacat: Rolf Slen shares a vivid account of a perilous mission flown on Christmas Day, 1944, to bomb a Japanese air base in Mabalacat, Luzon, in the Philippines. The mission, notable for its timing right after a festive meal, turned out to be a 14-hour flight surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and Japanese fighter planes, yet resulted in no losses for Slen's team despite the dangerous conditions.
  2. The Visuals of War: Slen recounts the stark and lasting visual memories from a mission on January 2, 1945, against Clark Field, including the sight of a B-24's wing floating beneath their plane and a parachute descending into a fiery explosion. These vivid colors and scenes underscored the perilous reality of their missions.
  3. Near Mistake at Bam-Bam: A tense moment occurred during a mission to bomb a village called Bam-Bam, where a misidentification nearly led to bombing the wrong village. This story highlights the high stakes of wartime navigation and the relief of avoiding civilian casualties, emphasizing the moral burdens carried by crew members.
  4. Reflections on Comrades and Missions: Slen reflects on the 40 combat missions he flew, the evolving number required for service completion, and the significance of these missions in the broader context of the war. He shares an anecdote about the myth of bombing the Japanese battleship Haruna, revealing the complexities and challenges of wartime intelligence and mission planning.
  5. The Atomic Bomb and War's End: Slen provides a personal account of hearing about the atomic bomb's impact on Hiroshima and the end of the war while based on Okinawa. He recounts the mix of disbelief and relief at the war's conclusion, tempered by a tragic incident of friendly fire during celebrations, illustrating the complex emotions and dangers that persisted even as conflict ended.

Transcript, Part Two, Rolf Slen World War II Navigator

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Do you recall any difficult missions? And if you are willing, do you recall any one or two of them that really stand out to you?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Yeah, I can remember a number of them. I better start at the beginning. On Christmas Eve day, 1944, we had the best meal I ever had overseas.

We had turkey and mashed potatoes and vegetables and gravy and stuffing. A wonderful meal, Christmas Eve day, 1944. But a few hours after that, we got a message, you've got to fly on Christmas day.

And your target is a target called Mabalacat. Mabalacat was a very large Japanese air base on Luzon. Luzon was the most northerly of the big islands in the Philippines.

The Japanese were there and controlled all of that area. General MacArthur had landed with his troops in the central area of the Philippines, but the Japanese were still in full control of the northern part of the Philippines. We were awakened about two o'clock Christmas day morning, ate breakfast, rode out to the flight line in trucks, got on our airplanes.

Our airplanes had been loaded with bombs during Christmas Eve and Christmas day, filled with gas, bombs and plenty of gas. And we took off on this, what turned out to be a 14-hour flight up against Mabalacat. We were told ahead of time that Mabalacat was surrounded by all kinds of anti-aircraft guns and plenty of Japanese fighter planes.

So we knew it was going to be a tough one. We got up there. I think we had just dropped our bombs and were turning away, and suddenly my co-pilot yelled at me and said, hey, look at this.

And I got up and looked out his window. Here were a bunch of Japanese planes about two or three thousand feet above us, and they were dropping phosphorus bombs on top of our formation. And these phosphorus bombs would explode above us, above our formation.

And when they exploded, they would send down long streamers of white phosphorus. The idea, I guess, I don't think they were very effective, but the idea was for these streamers to hit our planes and burn holes in those planes. I watched this and I thought, wow, this is just like a Hollywood movie.

Japanese planes up here, long explosions of bombs, long streams of phosphorus coming down through our formation. And then the wonderful P-38s, the American fighter plane, they came way down from way above the Japanese planes. They came screaming down towards these Japanese planes.

It was just like a Hollywood movie. I was entranced watching the whole thing. It wasn't until I got home from that mission I realized, hey, this is trouble.

This looks bad. We didn't lose a single plane on that mission. Some of the planes, I think we got a few little flack holes in our airplane, but it didn't amount to much.

It wasn't until I got home from that mission that I realized, hey, this is dangerous. All that stuff. It wasn't a Hollywood movie at all.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

You mentioned during that mission that you encountered Japanese aircraft and flack. Was it pretty common to encounter that while on missions? Do you have any particular stories of any close calls with flack or zeros or any of those Japanese aircraft at that time?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Yeah, I sure do. This was Christmas Day. We didn't lose a single plane.

A few planes got flack holes in them, but nothing very dangerous. But on January 2nd, 1945, we flew another mission up in that very same area against Clark Field. Clark Field had been taken by the Japanese from the Americans early on in the war, and they still occupied Clark Field.

We went up there on another long 14-hour flight where you got up at 2 in the morning and didn't get home until 10 at night. We refueled at a base in between, but those were long, long flights. This was another one.

What happened was we got up there and were going to bomb Clark Field, but there was an undercover layer of clouds preventing us from dropping our bombs. We didn't have any radar in those days that amounted to anything. A decision was made by somebody that we'll fly over the target, but we won't drop our bombs.

We'll make a huge turn. The entire 24-plane group make a huge turn and then come back over the target. Hopefully, the clouds will be gone by that time and we'll drop our bombs at that time.

Well, we did. We dropped our bombs, but shortly after dropping our bombs, first of all, I have to say, I was down in the well of the plane holding the bomb bay doors open because there was some danger that the doors might close accidentally. I was holding the bomb bay doors open with a lever, and I was looking down out of the bomb bay, and here there was a big explosion, a lot of ak-ak, a lot of flak.

The exploding anti-aircraft shells were very close. You could even smell the cordite from the exploding Japanese shells. I drifted into the bomb bay.

It is not a nice smell. I almost threw up, but I stayed down there in the bomb bay, and there was a big explosion. I looked out, and here was the silver wing of a B-24 floating underneath our plane.

About the same time, I also saw a huge orange explosion below us. Then, shortly thereafter, a white parachute passed into my view. This white parachute holding a man fell into this huge orange explosion and burned up, and I could see the man falling like a rock down to the jungle below.

This is very scary, of course. What stuck with me so many years afterwards were the colors. Here was the silver wing.

Here was the orange explosion. Here was a white parachute. Here was the green jungle, not jungle, forest down below.

I never could get those colors out of my mind.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

You mentioned in the previous that you had been escorted by P-38 Lightnings. Was it pretty common to be escorted into action by P-38s or P-51s or any other type of aircraft?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

Mostly P-38s. There were some P-51s, too, later on in 1945. We all thought that that P-51 was the most beautiful fighter plane ever invented, and it still is a beautiful plane.

Let me tell you about one other mission. It was a mission against a village by the name of Bam Bam, B-A-M-B-A-N. Kind of an odd name for a village, but there it was.

The reason we were going after that village was because we were told there was a large Japanese military presence there, and we were supposed to bomb them. What was so interesting about this mission was that about two minutes before I thought we were going to get there, my bombardier said, here it is. I think this is it.

Well, I was flabbergasted. I was sure there was still at least two minutes to go, and here he said he claimed he saw the target right below him. I didn't know what to say.

Am I wrong? Is my navigation wrong? Is he looking at the wrong place?

I finally stopped talking to him because I didn't know. He could see better than I could, so I just held my breath. I thought, I can't believe it.

Well, what he saw was another village which was very similar to the village we were supposed to bomb, and seconds went by. Nothing happened. Total silence on the intercom.

More seconds went by. Nothing happened. Finally, he said, here it is.

It turned out to be Bam-Bam, and we dropped our bombs there and went home. The scary part of this mission was, what if he had dropped his bombs on the wrong village? He could have killed dozens of Filipinos, and they, of course, were our friends during World War II.

He got the right village, but he told me afterwards, I was within a hair's breadth of dropping our bombs on the wrong target. Can you imagine? He might have had to live with that the rest of his life.

Might have killed dozens and dozens of people.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

In total, how many missions did you fly on?

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

We flew a total of 40 missions. When we first got over there, we were told we only had to fly about 35, but it was later changed to 40. We knew at all times that after we had finished 40 missions, we could go home.

I want to mention something first to tell you the significance. Early on in the war, it was told to the American people that a Japanese battleship by the name of Haruna had been bombed by an American bomber pilot named Colin Kelly. He was supposed to have flown his B-24 or whatever he was flying right down the smokestacks of this Haruna battleship.

This would have been early 1942 or late 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor. That was totally false. There was no truth whatsoever to this story about bombing the Haruna.

I know that to be true because on our 36th mission, we were told to go up to Curie Harbor, K-U-R-E, Curie Harbor, and bomb the Haruna. The Haruna had been active as a Japanese battleship all during the war. It had never been bombed by Colin Kelly.

The Haruna was our target. It was by far the worst mission we had ever been on, our 36th mission. I want to get back to the Lonesome Lady.

Because on that mission, our 36th, we flew a different plane. The Lonesome Lady was flown by Tom Cartwright flying his second mission. He and his crew were a replacement crew.

They were shot down on this mission. They were flying right next to us. They were shot down on this mission.

People saw parachutes coming out of his plane. His plane lost altitude, finally disappeared in the clouds, and we got home. That was July 28, 1945.

The war in Europe had been over for a couple months, but the war in the Pacific was going full blast in July of 1945. This is a long story, but what happened to the Lonesome Lady? It went down, but what happened to the crew?

Did they get out? What happened to them? Did they live?

Years later, many years later, information trickled back to us about the fate of the Lonesome Lady and the fate of that crew. As it turned out, the pilot and the tail gunner of the Lonesome Lady survived the war. All the rest of that crew were killed when the atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Tom Cartwright, who I met many years later, I did not know him at the time, became a professor down in Texas. I forget the name of the college. He wrote a book about the fate of the Lonesome Lady.

The name of the book that he wrote was A Date with the Lonesome Lady. He had survived that mission. He got out of that plane.

He was the last one out, and he survived. He was questioned by the Japanese military fairly close to where he got out, where he landed. He just told them everything he knew, which wasn't much.

He didn't know anything except where he had flown from. Many of you probably remember that you're only supposed to talk about your name, rank, and serial number. Well, that wasn't applicable at the time.

He told them everything he knew. They didn't believe him. They took him up to Tokyo for more questioning.

He told them everything he knew, where he had flown from, how they got hit, and everything else. They didn't believe him then either. They were going to behead him up there in Tokyo.

This was near the end of the war, and I think they were afraid of retribution if they started killing American prisoners. Now, what's also interesting is the story of the tail gunner of Tom Cartwright's plane, the Lonesome Lady. The tail gunner, as soon as that Lonesome Lady was hit, he was out.

He got out of that plane real fast. He got out faster than the rest of the crew. He landed quite a distance from where the Lonesome Lady fell and crashed.

He landed practically on top of a mountain. He immediately took his parachute off, hit it in the brush someplace, and survived on top of this mountain by doing his best to evade search parties who were looking for him. They knew he had crashed, had landed there, but they couldn't find him.

He hid away from them, but he got so hungry, absolutely starved, that he walked down, if you can believe it, he walked down this mountain. He got on a Japanese train and surrendered to a military guy on top of this train. They took him, I think, to Yokohama.

He was nowhere near the Hiroshima where many of the other crewmen were imprisoned. All of the crewmen who were imprisoned in Hiroshima all died when the American V-29 Enola Gay dropped that one bomb on Hiroshima. They all died there along with several hundred thousand Japanese civilians.

I met Tom Cartwright years later at one of our reunions. He had acquired somewhere along the line pieces of the Lonesome Lady. How he had gotten these pieces, I don't know, but I've got a piece of the Lonesome Lady right here.

It's right in front of us. I think it's a piece from the tail section of the Lonesome Lady. I finally asked him, could I have it?

He said, yeah, okay. I took it, and there it is, a piece of the Lonesome Lady right there by those photographs.

Max Sabin, Fargo Air Museum

Where were you when you heard the news of the atomic bomb drop and the end of the Okay, I've got to try to remember this.

Rolf Slen, World War II Navigator

The time the Lonesome Lady was shot down, the mission was July 28, 1945. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, when the Americans were killed in that explosion. I was on Okinawa, where we were based at that time, flying missions against Japan and a couple against Japanese targets in China, too.

When I heard the news of the dropping of this atomic bomb, I just could not believe it. How could one bomb do all that damage? It was unbelievable.

We flew missions after that. In fact, we flew one mission the day after the atomic bomb was dropped, and we came within the 60 miles of Hiroshima. I looked and looked and looked.

I wondered if I could see anything over there, but I could not see a single thing. Between the time the atomic bomb dropped, August 6, we flew some more missions. One night, I was sitting on a bench watching an outdoor movie on Okinawa.

I do not remember what the movie was, but suddenly I heard some commotion outside the area of the movie. Then people started yelling, the war is over, the war is over, the war is over. I could not believe it.

I could not believe this war that we had been fighting for months was over. A tremendous emotional letdown. I left the movie.

I went back to our tent. Then the dumbest thing that Americans ever did, they started shooting anti-aircraft missiles off in celebration of the end of the war, August 12th. These missiles, the exploding shrapnel from these anti-aircraft guns that were being shot off to celebrate the end of the war, missiles, particles of these exploding anti-aircraft bombs came down on the Americans located on Okinawa.

It was just an unbelievably stupid thing to do. We did not get hurt, but it was reported later that almost 20 Americans died from falling anti-aircraft shrapnel that was celebrating the end of the war. So we thought the war was over, August 12th.

It was not over. What had happened was the Japanese had offered to surrender on August 12th. As far as we were concerned, as far as the American government was concerned, the war was not over.

They offered to surrender August 12th, but the offer of surrender was not accepted by us until August 15th. So between August 12th and August 15th, we flew our 40th mission. Can you imagine?

We still were fighting that war tooth and nail, even after the Japanese offered to surrender.

NOTE: This transcript was created using AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.