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LP’s Les Baumann shares his World War II experiences

November 5, 2007

By Gary Jenneke

As a kid growing up in Lester Prairie in the 1950s, I remember being fascinated by movies about World War II. I also remember Les Baumann as a kind man who always had a friendly word for me. I never put the two together, that the men I watched perform those heroic deeds in movies, might be some of the same men who lived and worked in town. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned Les was one of those men.

Leslie Baumann graduated from Lester Prairie High School in June 1942. America had been at war since Dec. 7, 1941. That fall he enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College. While there, knowing he would be drafted, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He had expected to be allowed to finish his freshman year, but his orders came, calling him to report in February, 1943.

He left for St. Louis, where he received basic training at Jefferson Barracks. After basic, which was delayed while he recuperated from pneumonia, he was sent to Jamestown, N.D. He received training to become an officer at Jamestown University. Les called it a little West Point. “It was the best training,” he said. “It was tough.”

They were on the honor system and were expected to turn themselves in for demerits if they hadn’t done something right. If a cadet didn’t turn himself in for an offense, and was later found lying, he’d wash out of the program.

“When a cadet received seven demerits,” Les said, “he had to march one hour on the weekend.”

“Did you ever have to march?” I asked.

“Never,” Les said proudly, and then he laughed and explained how once the instructors realized that, they deliberately gave him enough demerits so he had to march back and forth for at least one hour.

After his course at Jamestown was completed, he took cadet classification to determine what further training he would receive. He already had flown for 10 hours and realized he didn’t want to be a pilot. He chose to be a bombardier and went to pre-flight bombardier-navigation school in Santa Ana, Cal.

He was one of the highest four in mathematics in the course and was classified to be a navigator instead.

At pre-flight school there was a heavy emphasis on math, along with having to learn how to identify stars, and also courses on Morse code and aircraft identification. They had to be able to recognize all the different German, Japanese, British, and American ships and aircraft. An image would be flashed on a screen for less than a second and they would have to be able to recognize it.

After graduating from Santa Anna, Les went to Hondo, Texas for six months of navigation training. “We got a really condensed course in both dead reckoning and also celestial for nighttime navigation,” Les said. They had to learn 65 stars and where they were positioned. Les described how he would plot three stars and then consult a manual and charts to determine where they were. The calculation would take 20 minutes and by that time, they’d be far beyond that point. He’d do another three stars to find a new point, then using the speed of the plane, he’d be able to plot their position.

Les found the training interesting and fun. “I liked math,” he said, “I was always good in it and navigation is a lot of math. But you can’t make a mistake; if you make a mistake in navigation, it can really cost you.”

All through the training process pink slips were being handed out to the guys who weren’t making it, so Les felt justifiably proud when he graduated and was given the gold bars of a 2nd Lieutenant.

Les went home for two weeks of leave before going on to March Field, which was just outside of Los Angeles. March Field is where his bomber crew of 10 men was assembled to eventually go overseas. They trained together for three months in a B-24. One day, on a training flight, a radio quit working and when they landed, the pilot told Les to stay behind so there was someone on the plane when the guy came to fix it. When the repairman showed up, it was Hillard Stapel, also from Lester Prairie. Neither even knew the other was on the base.

“Normally,” Les said, “the pilot would have asked one of the enlisted men to stay behind, but that day he just happened to ask me, so that was a pretty funny thing.”

Their pilot was 2nd Lt. Tom Wonnell. “Tom was 28 and we thought he was an old man,” Les said. “The rest of us were 19, 20, 21 years old. He was a high school principal from Indianapolis, had a master’s degree in physics, was a ham radio operator, and worked for RCA in research in the summers. He was quite accomplished and could troubleshoot if something went wrong on the plane. We were really lucky to have him.”

They practiced flying in formation and one day, Wonnell was ill so they didn’t go up. The plane that replaced them was involved in a mid-air collision and crashed. The navigator on that plane was a good friend of Les’ and he was killed.

After they left March Field, they went to Hamilton Field near Oakland, where they picked up a bomber to fly overseas. Les’ girlfriend, Dorothy, and his mother, Rose, were on hand to visit him before he left. They were still in Oakland when Les left. One of the bombers developed engine problems upon takeoff and crashed into the bay.

‘“They were on needles and pins,” Les said, “until they found out it wasn’t my plane that crashed.”

They hopscotched across the country from Oakland to Mississippi, took a detour over Niagara Falls to see it from the air, on to Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, and finally to Wales. They left the plane there and were transported to Harrington Field at North Hampton, where they joined the 801st/492nd Bomber Group.

When they got there, Les wondered why the bombers were painted black. They found out the next morning during briefing that they’d be dropping supplies to the Resistance fighters in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Norway.

Les showed me a card that certified that he served in the Army Air Wing of the OSS. The OSS was the forerunner of the CIA. The unit they were assigned to was nicknamed the “Carpetbaggers.”

The planes were modified so that, besides bombs, they could also drop supplies. The two waist gunners were assigned to different crews, and the belly turret gunner was sent to a dispatching school. The dispatcher on Les’ crew was Corporal John Gault. The plane would sometimes carry saboteurs, who they called Joe’s, and it was his job to coordinate when it was time for them to parachute out. He’d also push supplies out the “Joe hole” to the Resistance fighters waiting below in the drop zone.

To keep up pressure on Germany, the Allies conducted around-the-clock bombing. The Americans flew daytime missions, and the British nighttime. Besides the supply runs for the Resistance, Les’ plane, which they named “Lil Eva,” was assigned to the Royal Air Force for nighttime raids. “So we’d fly with the RAF one night, and then the next time, we’d be flying supplies to Norway or Denmark.”

Les described how 30 of their planes would join 270 British for a bombing run of 300 planes, but that might only be a diversionary force, while the main body of 1,000 planes would be hitting the main target. The German fighters would come up after them before realizing a larger attack was taking place somewhere else.

By their third mission, Lil Eva became a pathfinder crew.

“We’d be the first ones on the target to mark it,” Les said. “And if we were told we had to be over the target at midnight, they didn’t mean one minute after or one minute before, it had too be within 30 seconds of midnight.”

So, besides getting them to the target in the middle of the night, Les also had to calculate their speed so they’d arrive at the right time. They’d drop red and green phosphorescent markers on the target and also flares that would hang above any clouds that might be above the target.

I asked Les why his crew was picked as a pathfinder, if it was because they were good. He laughed slightly and said, “That must have been it.”

In some ways, it might have been slightly better to be a pathfinder.

“Can you imagine,” Les said, “you’re flying along at night in a bomber stream, no taillights, no wing lights, no lights at all, can’t see anything, and suddenly, whoosh, your plane starts to jump, you’re in the prop wash of some plane that’s ahead of you somewhere.”

They flew at 20,000 to 25,000 feet, and this was before pressurized cabins, so they had to wear oxygen masks the whole time, and it was cold, 50 degrees below zero. They wore gloves, but the navigator had to take his off so he could write and calculate their position. Les had a muff he’d periodically use to keep his hands from freezing. Les said he hated the oxygen mask. His breath would come out of it and then freeze on his eyelids.

The Resistance drops also required very delicate timing. When they arrived over the drop area, they had to fly very slowly, almost at stalling speed and with the flaps down, so the packages wouldn’t scatter. If they dropped a dozen parcels, they all had to be in a tight area because if even one went missing and was found by the Germans, they’d know that the Resistance was operating in that area. Also, the navigation had to be very precise. Les described it vividly by saying, “It was like flying from Minneapolis to Chicago at night, and then locating two guys in a woods with a flashlight.”

Les remembered a “Joe” they were dropping into France one night, a Frenchwoman whose whole family had been killed by the Nazis. She wore a long coat and the inside was filled with guns, ropes, and knives. Her single purpose in life was to kill Germans.

They alternated between OSS and bombing missions. One night, when they were lead crew on a bombing run, their plane was lit up like it was daylight by a searchlight from below. “The RAF had told us that when that happens,” Les said, “you were a goner. But, a few seconds later the lights went out, I don’t know why. Then, after we dropped our flares, all the lights came back on. So Tom, being a good pilot, turned and put us into a nose dive to get out of there.”

“Well, then, all of a sudden, flares were going off all around us, lighting us up against the sky so the German fighters could see us better. The traces started coming in, but then they stopped, too. We figured there must have been American night fighters up who chased the Germans away.”

Most of the time, Les was too busy to see what was taking place outside of the plane, but he could look out. One time, the flak and flares bursting outside made it look like the 4th of July. Another time, they were on a raid over Duesberg, which was close to Dusseldorf.

“We really caught it that time,” Les said, “it looked like you could walk across the flak.” Les lost a good friend aboard another plane that night.

Tom Wonnell, the pilot, kept a journal, and Les read an account of one of their missions. “This is the story of a screwed-up mission, from beginning to end. There was too short of a period between briefing and takeoff. One-and-a-half hours before takeoff I started dressing and with electric suit, flying clothes, oxygen pack, parachute, and flak suit on. I can’t move. I was soaked with sweat and feeling so hopeless I want to give up.”

“After takeoff, number two oil pressure began acting up, but I kept going. Got to the target on time at 18,400 feet. But, there were no target indicators lit up. Then, Doyle, the tail gunner, called and said the lights were behind us. So I decided to take a chance and go back and on in, despite the flak. Over the target the bombs could not be released. Hydraulic system was out, bomb bay doors could not be closed. I started home intending to drop bombs in the water by prying them out one at a time. After a two-hour agonizing flight I left the coast of France and headed across the channel. At this time, number two engine failed. With that load and only three engines, we began going down fast. In desperation, I grabbed the pilot’s emergency release and frantically pulled it out by the roots. Something gave and I saw the bombs fly away.

“At Harrington, when I put down the landing gear, nothing happened. After minutes of hard work, the landing gear was cranked down.”

After reading this account, Les told me that this was their first mission. The pilot later told Les that he was getting ready to tell everybody to bail out.

Les said he wasn’t scared before the first mission because he didn’t know what was going on, but he was scared before the second one. And, after about five missions, he started having nightmares. “I wasn’t superstitious,” Les said, “but I became superstitious. You didn’t want to change anything because you had made it this far.”

Some guys turned to drink to ease the stress. Les’s bombardier was one of those. “Alcohol did him in, and he was dead 10 years after the war. For me, though, once it was over, it was over,” he said. Les never suffered any nightmares after the war.

They flew one mission to Norway, up by the Arctic Circle, to drop supplies. They refueled in Scotland, and flew all night to drop supplies during the day. The drop zone was in a valley and it was really cloudy. They dropped down through an opening, but the Resistance fighters weren’t waiting so they headed back into the dense clouds.

Les called on the radio. “Tom, we’re going down.”

“No, we’re going up,” the pilot replied. “The altimeter shows we’re going up.”

“I got a radar altimeter that shows we’re going down,” Les insisted.

They realized what was happening. They were climbing, but heading toward the side of a mountain. The pilot’s altimeter was measuring altitude and Les’s was recording the distance between them and the mountain. Tom hit the power and climbed, and they cleared the top of the mountain.

One of the other crews that flew with them crashed and didn’t make it back. On that mission, they were in the air for 16 hours, and with pre-flight, a stop in Scotland for refueling, and then de-briefing afterwards, they were awake for 36 hours.

Bomber crews had to fly 35 missions before they were relieved. Because Les’s crew was a lead plane, a pathfinder, their tour was 30 missions.

John Gault, the turret gunner who became the dispatcher, missed the first mission because of going to dispatcher school. So, when they finished their 30 missions, Gault had one more to go with another crew.

When Gault flew that last mission, he asked the pilot, Tom Wonnell, to walk with him to the plane. Gault said, “I don’t think I’m coming back.” And, his premonition was right, he didn’t. Gault was listed as MIA because they don’t know what had happened, the plane just didn’t come back.

To make it worse, the war ended two weeks later. The crew spent so much time together they were like family, like brothers.

“Every time I see that MI.A flag, I think of him,” Les said. “Poor kid. He was such a wonderful person. I thought the world of him. He had a girlfriend back home he was going to see. One mission . . . ”

There was talk of them going to Italy, or India, or possibly even the South Pacific, but the war ended. Les was discharged in November 1945, and came home to Lester Prairie, and has lived there ever since, working at Weise and Kuhlmann’s. He married Dorothy in May of 1946, and they had two sons, Gary and David.

Besides receiving a number of unit citations, Les was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He attended reunions for years, and sometimes even Resistance fighters from France or Norway would be there.