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Aukerman saw the war through B-24 gun turret

World War II veteran Arlie Aukerman

World War II veteran Arlie Aukerman

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Arlie Aukerman completed 25 dangerous missions as a nose gunner on a B-24 Liberator, including a 1,300-plane raid over Berlin on March 18, 1945. As a member of the 453rd Bomb Group, Aukerman fought the war over Europe in good company: Oscar-winning actor Jimmy Stewart piloted one of the B-24s and Walter Matthau served on a ground crew at the Royal Air Force base Old Buckingham, near Attleborough, England.

Front row seat to European theater

Arlie Aukerman completed 25 dangerous missions as a nose gunner on a B-24 Liberator, including a 1,300-plane raid over Berlin on March 18, 1945, as a member of the 453rd Bomb Group. Below is a list of some of the missions Aukerman flew:

• Mayen: the Marshalling yards in town, 2,000 planes on raid, lost 35.

• Neuwied: the Rhine River Bridge, lost two planes from formation, missed target by 2 miles, crash landing due to crosswise nose wheel.

• Rheine: Marshalling yards, feathered No. 3 engine 34 minutes from target, lagged formation, returned alone.

• Gielbelstadt: Jet Airfields near town, awarded citation for best bombing in 8th AF, worst flak ever encountered, 15 holes in plane, 4 hits in one wing.

• Berlin: Anti-aircraft factory, unbearable flak, 1300 planes in the raid, lost 24 bombers and 6 escort fighters.

During the initial phase of the air war over Europe, only 25 percent of B-17 and B-24 bomber crews completed their 25 required missions. The average was 15 before being shot down, killed or captured. American air crews had a one-in-four chance of surviving.

Arlie Aukerman completed 25 dangerous missions as a nose gunner on a B-24 Liberator, including a 1,300-plane raid over Berlin on March 18, 1945. As a member of the 453rd Bomb Group, Aukerman fought the war over Europe in good company: Oscar-winning actor Jimmy Stewart piloted one of the B-24s and Walter Matthau served on a ground crew in the 453th at the RAF base Old Buckingham, near Attleborough, England.

Born to farming parents in Jackson, Mich., in 1922, Aukerman recalled, "We raised our own food and livestock. I did the milking, churned butter, mom canned tomatoes and peaches, no indoor plumbing and no electricity."

Their 'soft' water was rainwater caught running off the roof. "Ma had a cook stove in the kitchen," Aukerman said. "She always had a hot meal on the table for Pa, the three boys, and two adopted girls."

Aukerman was married in 1940 and the father of a son, and he wasn't drafted until 1943.

"I did so well on the I.Q. test they assigned me to the air corps," Aukerman said. He was sent to Jefferson Barracks, Mo. better known as Pneumonia Gulch and finished basic before traveling to Butler University in Indianapolis.

"I joined the CTD, college training detachment, to be a pilot, bombardier, or navigator," he said.

Disappointment lay ahead: all the draftees were pulled out of CTD for gunnery school in Texas.

"Clark Gable was training there too, but I never saw the guy," he said. In Mountain Home, Idaho, Aukerman flew on his first B-24 bomber before being assigned to Topeka, Kan., for more training. There the trainees rode in back of pickup trucks to fire on moving targets and practiced field-stripping .50-caliber machine guns while wearing thick gloves.

"When flying at 20,000 feet the temperature is 20 or 30 degrees below zero, so wearing gloves was a touch of reality," he explained.

Checked out on the Emerson gun turret, Aukerman was finally assigned to a crew.

"We were typically American," Aukerman said, "Two Jews, a German Dutch, Yanks and Rebels, and a top gunner from Kentucky. He was a bootlegger and drank a fifth of whiskey each day."

Aukerman eventually was sent to Old Buckingham RAF Base in England on the coast of the North Sea. The routine became routine: up at 2 a.m., breakfast, briefing, boarding the B-24, normally the Silent Yoakum.

"The actor Jimmy Stewart flew in the same squadron," Aukerman said. "He was a regular guy and took his chances just like the rest of us. We had a lot of respect for Jimmy."

After takeoff the B-24s made formations in 'bunchers' flying in circles at a certain altitude until in proper formation.

"That was a scary part," Aukerman said. "We usually lost 2 or 3 planes during the procedure."

From the nose gunner front-row view, Aukerman witnessed one B-24 clip the tail off another B-24.

"Nobody made it out," he said.

One B-24 with a full bomb load and 2,500 gallons of aviation fuel didn't have the power to successfully take off.

"It ran off the end of the runway and exploded in a huge fireball," Aukerman said. "Nobody even checked for survivors because we knew that the crew couldn't survive that kind of crash."

Sadly, one did. "They found him the next day. He'd crawled into a ditch and died of exposure overnight," he said.

Aukerman had close encounters with the ME-262 German Jet Fighter.

"It was too fast for us to draw a bead on," he said. "By the time you saw it, it was gone, but our P-51 escorts would drop their fuel tanks and dive after the jets. They'd usually bag them, too."

After surviving 25 missions, the crew was sent home for various assignments, but Aukerman, having studied to be an engineer, was sent to Alma Gordo, N.M., to train as the flight engineer on a B-29 bomber. Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have saved his life.

"I was always thankful America developed the 'bomb' first," he said. "It saved millions of lives, including Japanese."

After the war Aukerman returned to the concrete business. Times were good; the country was rebuilding and rediscovering itself. Aukerman invented and then patented the variable screed, a device that enables highway contractors to quickly construct concrete medians that separate traffic on interstates. Plus, 90 percent of the concrete poured into the interstate system circling Atlanta was poured by A. C. Aukerman Company.

After a heart condition took his first wife, Aukerman eventually met and married his present wife, Frances. The couple was married in 1980. Together they've renovated an old farm house into a gorgeous antebellum home in Lovejoy. The Aukermans discovered a long forgotten cemetery on the property that entombs Confederate soldiers.

"Hitler caused the deaths of many brave men, and it's an ironic note to history that the S.O.B. took the coward's way out," Aukerman said. "You know, we're now known as 'The Greatest Generation,' but we just did what we had to do."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.