Earl "Lee" Leaser was born and raised in Greenawalds and graduated from South Whitehall High School in 1938. He had a job in Allentown when America entered World War II.
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I worked at Arbogast & Bastian and became very familiar with an individual named Charlie Mack. He evidently wanted to fly ever since he was 3 feet high, so he talked me into going down to Philadelphia to try to get into the naval air corps.
We went down there but found out it would be impossible to do, because you needed two years of college. Neither of us had that, so we checked on the Army Air Force, and they wanted two years of college or the equivalent. So we boned up and went to night school, and after going there we took the test, and we both passed. The traveling physical board came down to 5th and Hamilton streets, and would you believe it? I passed the physical, and he didn't. This really hurt him. The thing he couldn't pass was the depth-of- perception test. That's what washed him out.
After getting my commission and pilot's wings, I asked to be in twin-engine light bombers, and I got it. I lucked out, because you don't often get what you ask for. So I flew the A-20 Douglas and had just cracked 50 hours in it when a wire came in, saying all twin- engine pilots with 50 or more hours will go to four engines.
I started sweating out what type of an airplane I was going to get, a B-17 or B-24. I wanted the B-17. I had heard stories about the punishment it could take. The B-17 is what I got. I went through the training and got over to England in 1944. I was with the 412th Bomb Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, based at a little town called Diss.
My 19th mission came on the 29th of April, and it was a big one over Berlin. We weren't even supposed to fly on that particular mission, but there was a crew that had gone through more fighter attacks and flak than we had, and they were not in the kind of condition that we were, so the squadron commander asked if we would fly that day.
The plane we took was called "I'll Be Around."
We got all the way in over Berlin and dropped our bombs, but it wasn't 30 seconds later that we got a direct hit in Engines No. 1 and 2 on the left side. It knocked them both out. We could still fly, but at about 28,000 feet, we couldn't hold our altitude with two engines. We were dropping down. There was no problem, though, because there were escort fighters out there, P-47 Thunderbolts, and a couple of them stayed with us.
There wasn't too much talk on the intercom, but there was no doubt in our mind that we were going to get back to England. The thing was, would we get back to our base or have to land at another base?
We started to throw things out of the airplane to lighten the load as much as possible. The gas was going down on the right side, so we decided to transfer fuel from the left to the right. As the fuel transfer started, we watched but nothing was happening to the fuel instruments. The level remained the same for the left and didn't increase for the right. We tried everything, with the exception of going out and hauling it across with a bucket. Evidently it was a lucky hit. It must have gotten the fuel transfer line as well as the engines.
It became apparent that we were not going to get back to England. We just kept flying the airplane until we were completely out of fuel, and then we ditched just about where the North Sea and English Channel merge.
It's amazing as to what happened in the ditching. We had read about it in a book, and everything that was in the book happened. They told you that when you hit the water, it's as if you've gone underneath the water, then all of a sudden, you're back out of the water and you skip, and then you have another bounce, and then the airplane kind of settles in. It worked just that way.
Also, you practiced getting out of the airplane after every mission. It was an orderly procedure, because sometimes there were three or four people who went out of one exit. The airplane could have gone down in the water in two minutes and we all would have been out. But it stayed floating 18 minutes.
The only casualty was the radio operator, who panicked. He couldn't swim, and he wanted to get out before it was his turn. Somebody pushed him down and stepped on his nose, and it hurt him pretty much, but that was the only injury.
We had two dinghies and life preservers that we wore. With all the flak we took, there were holes in one of the dinghies, so we put four crewmen in that one and six in the other and connected the dinghies with a rope. We weren't in the water more than 45 minutes when a couple of P-47s buzzed us. They left after a while, and a twin- engine Lockheed Hudson with a boat on the bottom arrived.
The procedure was they would make a run over you and drop a smoke pot to check the wind drift. They would drop the boat from upwind, and it would float in to you. After dropping the smoke pot, the Hudson made a wide sweep and came across again, so we figured, now the boat is coming. But no boat. The next thing, they left. This was in the afternoon. We went through the night.
In the morning, P-51 Mustangs buzzed us. We had drifted in close to the shore, and the German shore batteries were firing at the P- 51s, so the planes didn't stay out too long. Later, we saw a boat coming toward us, and we hoped it was an American or English boat. But as it got closer, we saw it was German, similar to a Coast Guard cutter. We had been in the water about 24 hours, and I had almost frozen feet and couldn't walk.
The Germans took us through Holland to an interrogation place called Dulag Luft. They separated me and the three other officers from the six airmen.
I was interrogated by a German first lieutenant who probably spoke better English than I did. He had been a pilot flying on the Russian front, was knocked down and was hurt, so they made an interrogator out of him. I was interrogated three different times. They always told you what they could do to you if you didn't talk -- they could shoot you -- but at the time it was name, rank and serial number.
The first two times, he opened his drawer and there were Chesterfields, Lucky Strikes, Camels, and he blew smoke in my face continuously. I just told him it didn't bother me, because I wasn't smoking then. What he was trying to do was, if I was a smoker, this would get me to want cigarettes, and maybe I'd do almost anything for one.
And then he said, "Well, if you're not going to talk to me, let me show you something." He reached behind me and got a big book out and started paging through it, and he came to the 95th Bomb Group and went a couple of pages past it, and he said, "I missed your outfit, didn't I?" So he paged back to the 95th Bomb Group. It almost knocked my socks off. They had the squadron commanders' names. They had a picture of the airfield, where the airplanes were parked, and they actually had tail numbers.
The interrogator told me, "It's too bad the Americans and the Germans can't get together and take on the Russians. There's no doubt in my mind who's going to win this war." And he pointed to me. "The United States will win, and England. You're going to be fighting the Russians."
I was taken to a camp near Berlin, Stalag Luft 3. I never had any physical mistreatment. The only thing I went through was lack of food, the same thing that most everybody went through.
Starting off, there were American, British and Canadian Red Cross parcels. You were supposed to get a parcel a week, then it was a parcel every two weeks, then a parcel a month. Finally, we didn't get any more parcels. When the Russians were advancing, and the Germans decided to evacuate us, we passed warehouse after warehouse that was stacked from the floor to the ceiling with Red Cross parcels. The Germans just kept them in the warehouses, so you know who got them.
At first, trying to escape was big sport. The Germans considered it big sport, too. Then it got to the point where they said, "If you try to escape and we catch you, we're going to shoot you."
The first night of the Battle of the Bulge, the Hauptmann of the camp started screaming throughout the compound, "Now the Allies have had it! Germany is on the march!" And that was a low point. But I don't think there was any doubt who was going to win the war, and morale was so high that even though you were there, you thought you'd get out, that you'd make it.
When they moved us out, it was December and we were heading toward Nuremberg. We marched most of the way and were in boxcars part of the way. It was cold, we were tired. I vowed then that I would never, ever complain about the heat -- and I never have. That month, I turned 24.
We didn't stay in Nuremberg for long, because the Americans and the English were pushing in. The Germans moved us to Moosburg, where we were liberated on April 29, 1945, exactly a year after we ditched "I'll Be Around."
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Leaser returned to the States, got married and made the Air Force his career, including a stint as commander of Travis Air Force Base in California. After he was in the service 25 years, Lockheed -- the maker of the plane that somehow failed to rescue him and his crew -- offered him a job. But he turned the company down to work in the Pentagon as chief of the airlift division. He is 78, lives in Whitehall Township and has three children -- Diane Martin, Scott and Steve. His wife, Geraldine, died in 1992.