Remembering V-E Day

By John Tepper Marlin
Charles Miner Jr., World War II bomber pilot, investment banker, and summertime East Hampton resident, died in March at the age of 96. John Tepper Marlin

May 8 will be the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe. I am on my way from London to Holland, where the 1945 liberation is celebrated on May 4. That day, I plan to be at the Cemetery of Heroes in Amsterdam to remember my relatives who gave their lives to fighting the monster Adolf Hitler through the Resistance.

East Hampton contributed many fighters to this effort. Some survived World War II with powerful stories. Charles Miner Jr., who died at 96 in March, was a bomber pilot in World War II. When he died, he was one of 480,000 surviving veterans of that war, out of more than 16 million Americans who served. 

Charlie was not related to me, but he was extremely helpful to my understanding his grandfather William H. Woodin, who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Treasury secretary, and my own family during the war. 

As we talked one day, I became interested in his life story. Charlie had to leave Princeton before he graduated to join the Army Air Forces. “I was studying engineering and they wanted engineers, so I was called up,” he told me. “I went to a single-engine flying school, graduated in March 1943, and from there was sent to a sub depot in Charlotte, N.C., where they rebuilt planes that had crashed. I was given the job of test-flying the rebuilt planes before they were returned to their home bases. I got flying time in many types of aircraft.”

While assigned to the base, Charlie married in October 1944 a Southern belle, Mae Hoffman, who was called Maisie. “But just two weeks after we married, I had to report for combat training in two-engine bombers at the Greenville, N.C., Army Air Forces base. We were trained on the B-25 Mitchell bomber. We had three months’ training, doing mock bombing runs over Myrtle Beach at night.”

The B-25 has been described as the most versatile bomber in World War II, named after the air power advocate Gen. Billy Mitchell. Nearly 10,000 of the bombers were built between 1941 and 1945. It was the most heavily armed airplane in the world, used in the historic Doolittle raid over Tokyo in 1942.

“We had a crew of five,” Charlie said. “Besides me, the pilot, we had a co-pilot, bombardier, radio operator, and gunner. Boeing strengthened the plane by adding a gun in its nose, which allowed us to shoot back at targets, but lowered the plane’s maximum speed.”

When was his first combat run? “After my training in Greenville, I was first sent to Corsica to be instructed by the more experienced [Royal Canadian Air Force] and especially [Royal Air Force] pilots who had been flying the B-25. Some of the R.A.F. and Italian pilots were daredevils. They didn’t seem to care whether they lived or died. We had the Mosquito, a laminated-wood plane that could break the sound barrier. The pilots loved it, and they would dive from 5,000 feet. But one day a pilot tried this and one of the wings just came off. The pilot, of course, went straight down with the plane and was killed.”

Miner paused and continued in his jaunty rat-a-tat style (he was a superb joke-teller): “We started flying missions out of Corsica. The Germans were pushed north in the Italian boot, so we relocated closer to the targets, in Fano, on the Adriatic in eastern Italy, about 150 miles south of Venice. My squadron flew 18 missions at 15,000 to 18,000 feet over the Brenner Pass in the Alps between Italy and Austria.”

How did he feel on these missions? Charlie slowed down. “Of course, the Alps were a majestic sight to look down on, but each flight was nerve-racking. We had to stay perfectly in box formation during the bomb run so that the bombardiers could be accurate. We had to keep to it so long as we had more bombs to drop. We could see yellow puffs below as anti-aircraft guns tried to shoot us down, but we were not allowed to take evasive action until our payload was dropped. As soon as we released the last bomb, it was a relief, we were all out of there in every direction, helter-skelter.”

It is easy to visualize Charlie keeping his formation while the flak was flying. His cousin Woody Rowe, in an interview with me, compared Charlie (whom he calls Chas) to his mother, Libby Woodin Rowe. She was a patient mother, although neither of her sons inherited her patience. But Woody told me that Charlie never seemed to be mad at anyone. Asked about it, Charlie thought and said, “I guess you’re right. Disappointed, perhaps, but not angry.”

I asked Charlie whether the anti-aircraft fire found its mark. “Yes,” he said. “We would find out when we returned to the base when a plane and crew were gone. We all paid our respects. But after that, we didn’t talk a whole lot about the ones who were gone. It was just the risk you took.”

Again, Charlie’s usual fast-paced speak­ing style became slower. He looked at me with the closest I ever saw him get to a tragic expression. “There was one pilot who seemed immortal. He was a major in the Army Air Forces. He finished 50 missions, which meant he could retire and go home. But he wanted to keep flying a couple more times, even though he didn’t have to. On his 51st mission, his plane was hit by flak and he bailed out. I remember seeing his parachute going down over the Alps. If he was lucky, he was rescued by one of the partisans below.”

“Did you ever find out what happened to him?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I never did.” He was silent for what seemed like a long time.

That was a personal moment for me as well, because my Dutch-born uncle Willem J. van Stockum worked hard to put himself in harm’s way. He was a bomber pilot for the R.A.F. and was hit by flak over France on June 10, 1944. I was 2 years old then, so I never got to find out from him what it was like being on the front lines of the air war against Hitler. He was flying with 10 Squadron, one of 126 squadrons serving with the R.A.F.’s Bomber Command. They were bombing a Luftwaffe airfield in Laval, France. His plane was hit by flak.

Bomber Command in World War II recruited 125,000 aircrew, of whom 57,205 were killed. That’s a 46-percent death rate. The queen unveiled a monument in 2012 to the extraordinary bravery of these R.A.F. aircrews.

My uncle Willem, a mathematician who worked in Einstein’s institute in Princeton, understood these numbers. He just had to do something about his country being occupied. His story is told in “Time Bomber” by Robert Wack. His crew of seven and another that came down on the same mission are buried in Laval. I have visited three times, including in 2014, when the French locals erected monuments to the two crews. A survivor of the bombing, of course a child at the time, said that my uncle’s flaming plane steered away from the house where she and her family lived, into an orchard.

This year I went with my wife, Alice, to see for the first time my uncle’s base, R.A.F. Melbourne near York, England. I am grateful to the 10 Squadron Association volunteers who helped us make the visit.

And I am grateful to the late Charlie Miner for helping me understand better what was facing this uncle I never knew. Whatever questions we have about the morality or effectiveness of indiscriminate bombing of civilians in World War II, our appreciation of the bravery of those who looked in the evil face of Hitler’s guns will never be sufficient.

John Tepper Marlin, a regular contributor to the “Guestwords” column, has had a house in Springs since 1981. He is writing a biography of William Woodin and a book about his Dutch relatives’ work in the Resistance.