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History Project

Islanders record memories of WWII ‘Long Bombers’ for Library of Congress archives

By Mary L. Grady
Mercer Island Reporter

A group of Islanders led by Greg Babinski and Eagle Scout, Derek Poppe, have made an extraordinary record of the memories of a group of World War II Air Force veterans as part of the U.S. Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Last spring, Derek Poppe was looking for an Eagle Scout project. A family friend, Greg Babinski suggested to Poppe’s dad that he help preserve the memories of a group of WWII veterans who were meeting in the summer.

Babinski, whose father Staff Sgt. Walter A. Babinski had served with the 307th Bomb Group, was the reunion organizer. Walt Babinski had died before finding out about the group of his fellow soldiers. Greg Babinski then joined the reunion group himself. As the event approached, he was hoping to find help in recording the memories of the group and tapped Poppe for help.

Formed in 1942, the 307th Bomb Group, faced combat in the skies of the Pacific Theater during WWII. It began operations as a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber unit at Geiger Field, near Spokane, Wash. Its first mission was to guard the Northwestern United States and Alaskan coasts against armed invasion. After patrolling the western coastline for five months, the 307th’s B-17s were replaced with the famous B-24 “Liberators.” The unit relocated its entire cadre and 35 bombers to Hamilton Field, Calif. From there they were soon deployed to Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.

Well it, its kind of frightening when you look out and you see a man flying straight at you and you see his guns belching out fire and, and you know that they are shooting right out at you.

Lt. William D. Holston, Clovis, Calif.

On December 27, 1942, 27 of the group’s aircraft were deployed from Oahu to Midway Island. From there, the B-24s staged their first attack against an enemy fortress on Wake Island. The enemy was taken by surprise during the predawn raid. Before Japanese units responded with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, 307th bombers had blasted 90 percent of the Wake stronghold. All aircraft returned safely from what was considered the longest mass raid of that time. It was from this raid that the 307th Bomb Group became known as the “Long Rangers.”

We flew a mission from Noemfoor to Balikpapan, Borneo, and that’s where I got hit. I was hit over the target and we had about 420 holes in the plane. There was this Japanese plane coming down, later it occurred to me that he was trying to crash into us! But we were flying along, and he came down like this, trying to crash his right wing into our left wing, but he missed, and as he came down, I looked at him right in the eyes, and I could see his goggles, his nose, his mustache, and his teeth — he was smiling, that’s how close he was. I don’t remember much before or after, I got hit about the same time. I heard a loud boom and saw part of the back of the bomb bay open up, and I looked down and I saw a G.I. shoe with a piece of a leg stickin’ out of it.

“Whose is that?” I looked (again), it was mine.

Tech. Sgt. Thomas W. Pelle, Jacksonville, Florida.

When Poppe started putting the project together, he was concerned about how to get it approved. It did not fit into a standard Eagle Scout project criteria. Building trails or bus shelters are common scout projects. This was a project that combined leadership and building — but this time, of memories.

He needed a set of volunteers: a person with some expertise to interview the vets, and a way to record the interviews and transcribe the tapes. But the key was to get the vets themselves to talk.

“I didn’t want to build a trail,” Poppe said. “But that would have been easier.”

Poppe was worried if there would be enough volunteers to interview.

It turned out, there was no need to worry, twelve vets signed up. Poppe knows a couple had their wives talk them into it.

Babinski also wondered about being able to get vets to talk about their experiences in front of a camera — things they may have never told anyone before.

“As it turned out, when we ran out of time there were others who still wanted to share their stories,” he said. “I think there is (a) recognition that time is running out and this part of their history needs to be recorded.”

We bombed Wake Island. It was night and boy, we’d look up there and there was no way we could fly through that flak. There were tracers and anti-aircraft everywhere. I was flying with Larry Krebs, and I remember we reached over and shook hands and said, “Boy, this is it.” And son-of-a-gun, they didn’t hit us at all. So we all got back. I think we got two holes in the airplane, but we all got back safely to Midway after flying 14 hours, then back to Hawaii.

Col. Edward A. Jurkens, Honolulu, Hawaii.

To Poppe, the missions they described seemed impossible. Even more extraordinary, was the fact these raids were being carried out by young men slightly older than himself. They flew through storms, and their targets were airfields and enemy bases. A single mission would be 12 to 18 hours of flying time, he marveled.

As Poppe began filming the dozen hours of interviews, he said he expected to hear a lot of geography — names of places he didn’t know.

“Stuff I wouldn’t relate to,” he said. “But instead, they were telling stories like they were 19 again.”

“They got younger the more they talked,” he said.

It was emotional for some. A couple of the soldiers told him that it was good someone would be “writing these things down.” At least one said he had never told his own children these stories.

“Even I got emotional,” the teen said.

Poppe, in addition to his involvement in the Boy Scouts, plays several musical instruments including the piano, steel drums and the trombone. He also participates regularly in drama productions at Youth Theatre Northwest and is on the MIHS swim team.

After the interviews, Poppe organized other scouts and volunteers to transcribe the tapes and sent them back to the individuals to check and review the myriad details in order to prepare the interviews for the archive. When completed, the records will be sent to the archive maintained by the Veterans History Project in Washington, D.C.

We were so lucky. I think about it a lot now, how lucky we were. We were just lucky. People talk about the training that the American forces had, and the equipment, and that’s all true. But nothing beats luck. You can train for years but get killed in the first mission. There’s just no way to tell.

Tech. Sgt. Wayne Cooper, Hayward, Calif.

Greg Babinski contributed to this story. He is working on a book about his father and the 307th.

We were so lucky. I think about it a lot now, how lucky we were. We were just lucky. People talk about the training that the American forces had, and the equipment, and that’s all true. But nothing beats luck. You can train for years but get killed in the first mission. There’s just no way to tell.

Tech. Sgt. Wayne Cooper, Hayward, Calif.

Greg Babinski contributed to this story. He is working on a book about his father and the 307th.

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