Ninety-four year old Phillip Thompson was raised on a farm three and one-half miles northeast of Wendell. The only boy in a family that included five sisters, he had to help his dad farm.
“We milked 25 Guernsey cows by hand, twice a day,” he recalls.
The farm work was so demanding that Phillip’s father would not even allow him to go to high school in Elbow Lake, because he was needed at home.
“My mother didn’t like that. She had graduated from Concordia College and had taught school in North Dakota.”
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, Phillip was allowed to take flying lessons in Morris.
“I had read somewhere that pilots were needed to ferry planes from Canada to England to help England in their war against Germany. Me and a friend of mine were planning on doing that.”
But in January of 1942 he received notice that he was about to be drafted.
“My dad went to the draft board and told them he needed me to stay home to help him farm.”
That kept him out of the service for a while, but in July of 1942 he received an official draft notice. Because of his flying experience, he was sent to the Army Air Corp, a forerunner of the Air Force.
Thompson was sent to gunnery school in Colorado for two and one-half months, then to Kingman, Arizona to learn how to shoot moving targets from a moving vehicle, in preparation for his eventual job as a gunner on a B-17 crew.
Thompson was assigned to a crew of six enlisted men and four officers in Tampa, Florida and they were all sent to Missouri to train for a couple of months.
In the summer of 1944, Thompson and his crew were assigned to a brand new B-17 Flying Fortress, that they flew to Maine, Newfoundland, and the Azores, before touching down in Tunis, North Africa. Living in a tent with his fellow enlisted men, the crew did more training before heading across the Mediterranean to an air force base near Fossia, Italy, 180 miles north of Naples. He was assigned to the 15th Army Air Force, 840th Bomber Squadron, 483rd Bombardment Group.
This was to be his home for the next year, living in a canvas tent with his fellow crew members and going on bombing raids to northern Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.
“Our main targets were oil refineries,” he said.
There were a lot of refineries around Vienna, Austria, which was often a target for the B-17s.
“They were well protected by anti-aircraft guns and the flax was so thick, the sky was as black as a plowed field back home.”
As the right waist gunner, Thompson was responsible for protecting his plane and crew from fighters coming at them from that side. He fired a heavy .50 caliber machine gun. There were also gunners for the left waist, the tail, and in a movable ball turret that was attached to the bottom of the airplane. The flight engineer, who had a lookout bubble on top of the airplane, also has a machine gun, and some versions of the B-17 also gave a gun to the bombardier who rode in a plexiglass bubble at the nose of the airplane.
Other members of the crew included the pilot and copilot, navigator and radio operator. Thompson’s crew of 10 stayed together throughout the rest of the war, and the planes they flew were never shot down.
But they came close a couple of times. In fact, on their fifth mission in their new B-17, the plane was shot up so bad by flax and enemy fighters, after they landed at their base, the plane was towed to the salvage yard never to be flown again. Planes in the salvage yard were cut up for parts to keep the other planes in the air.
On most missions, American P-51s would escort the heavy bombers as far astheir fuel allowed them to, but then the B-17s were on their own.
“On over half of our missions, we came back on only two engines,” recalled Thompson. The B-17 operated on four huge rotary engines, but was designed to limp along on three or even two if it had to.
Bomber crews were told that after 25 missions they would be sent home, but Thompson said that in Italy there were no replacement crews, so they kept flying.
One of Thompson’s jobs was to help arm the bombs when the plane was nearing the target. The 500 pound bombs were so dangerous, they had a cotter-type safety pin in the firing mechanism. Thompson would have to balance himself on a narrow catwalk between the two rows of bombs and pull out the safety pins. He kept track of the pins as well because if weather obscured the target, he would have to go back on the catwalk to replace the safety pins in bombs.
“I would pray using the 23rd Psalms a lot during the war.”
When a bombing crew returned from a mission they went through an interrogation, where they are asked how many planes they shot down and how many bombers they saw shot down. They were also asked if they saw any parachutes deployed from the American bombers that went down.
One thing Thompson looked forward to after every mission was the Red Cross coffee that was served to worn out crews.
“That coffee kept me going,” he said. “It really relaxed me and kept be sane.”
Thompson credits the Red Cross coffee for his lifelong love of the beverage. He calls it Norwegian Geritol.
By February of 1945 the Germans were deploying the world’s first jet fighter used in war, the Messerschmitt 262. The plane frightened B-17 crews because of their terrific speed, yet Thompson recalls vividly the time he shot one down.
“We were trained to shoot the .50 caliber machine guns in short bursts, but when I saw that Me262 coming at me, my finger froze on the trigger and I just kept firing. I must have hit the pilot because he just kept coming, getting so close I could see his face before his plane veered off. I watched it go all the way down until it hit the ground and exploded.”
Thompson said fellow pilots who were shot down and captured, talked after the war of seeing Me262s parked along country roads all over Germany. The roads had to be used as runways because bombers had destroyed so many airfields.
But these squadrons of jets never got into the air because the Germans had run out of fuel.
“I really think we would have lost the war if Germany had not run out of fuel,” Thompson claims, proud of his part in contributing to that factor.
After the war in Europe was over, in May of 1945, bomber crews were told they could expect to be sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. But first they were all sent home for a short leave. Thompson, who didn’t think he would make it back home if he went to the Pacific, took the opportunity to marry his sweetheart, Ethel Kronnerman, from Fergus Falls. They had been engaged during a previous leave.
Then, the young couple got the good news that Thompson had enough points that his fighting days were over. He was discharged on the 27th of September 1945.
With the war over, the couple settled down. Phillip sure didn’t want to farm, but his mother was worn out from helping his dad on the farm, so he decided to help out. The couple purchased a quarter section and Phillip farmed with his dad until he passed away a few years later. Phillip, who was suffering from a bad back he got during the constant jarring in the B-17, and bending over his machine gun, quit farming and found a job at a cabinet shop in Fergus Falls. He had always loved woodworking and would continue in cabinet making and other woodworking, both in Minnesota and Colorado, where the Thompson’s moved, until he retired in 1995, and they moved to Fergus Falls. The couple raised four children, two boys and two girls. Last fall Ethel had a stroke and she is now living in the Broen Home. Phillip has noon lunch with her nearly every day.
Thompson is a remarkably fit 94 years old, he will turn 95 in June. However, he has no hearing in is right ear as a result of his service. The B-17s four huge engines had no noise suppression and roared just feet away from the waist gunners who were protected only by one-eighth inch thick aluminum. The noise intensified greatly when all five .50 caliber machine guns were firing. He attributes his good health to all that Guernsey cream and homemade bread he ate as a child on the farm.
The Thompson home, on the shores of Opperman Lake on the north side of Fergus Falls, is full of Phillip’s many woodworking projects and on the walls, among photos of family and grandchildren, are his collection of medals he earned during World War II. But there is one medal he never collected, the European Theater Campaign Medal. Through the diligence of Grant County Veterans Service Officer Joe Hjelmstad, Thompson will receive that medal, 70 years after he earned it, during a noon presentation at Hans House Restaurant in Elbow Lake, this Friday.
Hjelmstad will pin the medal on Phillip Thompson’s Army Air Force uniform, while he wears it. You see, his uniform jacket still fits!
“Not the pants though,” he says with a smile, “The waist is 27 inches and I weigh four more pounds than I did in 1942.”