People develop an unusually strong connection when they put their lives in each other’s hands. That certainly was the case with the daring men who flew bombing missions together over France and Germany in World War II.
Their unbreakable brotherly bond helps explain why Harold “Diz” Kronenberg of Eau Claire was so excited to learn that he was not, as he suspected, the lone remaining survivor among the 18 men who shared a barracks together in England between death-defying air raids over Nazi-occupied portions of Europe in 1944.
Based on information Kronenberg, 88, learned from a mutual friend five years ago during a reunion of the 390th Bombardment Group, he assumed that his old barracks mate Joe Collector was dead. Kronenberg, a retired Eau Claire public school social studies teacher, even added that item to one of several books he has written about veterans with ties to the Chippewa Valley.
So one can imagine his surprise when, about two years ago, he answered the telephone only to hear these words: “This is Joe Collector, and I want you to know I’m not deceased.”
That telephone reconnection, followed up by several more calls, led to a personal reunion between the two former U.S. Army Air Forces comrades last weekend in Norfolk, Va., which Collector, 89, calls home.
It may have been 69 years since the two men had last seen each other, but in many ways their time together in the famed Eighth Air Force seemed like only yesterday.
“You live in a barracks together, and you become like a family,” said Kronenberg, who flew 21 raids over Italy and 20 over France and Germany, including five over Berlin, after volunteering for the war effort immediately upon turning 18.
“Joe was a really good buddy, so it was very emotional when I first saw him at the airport,” Kronenberg said, his eyes moistening at the memory. “I’m so lucky I’ve had so many good things happen in my life.”
After sharing a welcoming bear hug on Friday at Norfolk International Airport, Kronenberg and Collector spent the weekend reminiscing, touring the area’s military bases and museums, and catching up — a process that takes a while with 69 years of ground to cover.
The visit was an eye-opener for another reason for Kronenberg, an Eau Claire native and one of the most gifted athletes in city history who had wondered how much Norfolk had changed since he played minor league baseball for the Norfolk Tars, a then-New York Yankees farm club, in 1948.
Kronenberg was accompanied on the journey down memory lane by his nephew Steve Hill of Rochester, Minn., who called the reunion an amazing experience to share with his uncle.
“It was emotional to see these old guys reconnecting about something they’d shared in their life that was pretty monumental,” Hill said.
The two proud members of what is often called the Greatest Generation shared a lot of laughter and some tears, too, over the weekend they spent together.
Hill said the two old buddies spent much of the time talking loudly — hearing protection wasn’t a priority for the men engaging in aerial dogfights with Luftwaffe pilots — about all of their old crew members as well as their flights.
“It was remarkable how they could remember specific missions and specific targets they had on those flights,” Hill said. “It’s pretty amazing to hear them talk about what they saw and did. It’s history right out of their mouths.”
Witnesses to history
Kronenberg and Collector both flew on B-17 bombers, the iconic Flying Fortresses credited with being a key factor in the Allies victory in World War II. On their typical missions, which often lasted seven or eight hours, they would fly in formations of 36 planes.
In particular, the men recalled two of Collector’s most harrowing and haunting flights, one in which his plane caught fire over England and the entire crew had to bail out, and the other to Augsburg, Germany, in which the pilot was killed and another crew member was injured so severely his leg had to be amputated.
Kronenberg flew his 41st and final mission the day before D-Day — the war’s turning point on June 6, 1944, in which Allied forces stormed Normandy, France, and began the climactic march across Europe to defeat the Nazis and Adolf Hitler the following spring — and recalled seeing thousands of ships gathering in the English Channel for the invasion. Among the medals the staff sergeant earned are the Distinguished Service Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Presidential Unit Citations and an Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters.
Both Kronenberg and Collector served primarily as ball turret gunners, meaning they perched in a cramped space at the bottom of the plane in subzero temperatures and operated two 50-caliber machine guns capable of firing 1,100 rounds per minute. Though ball turret gunners had the advantage of being able to fire in a 360-degree radius, the station was known as the “suicide position” because its occupants couldn’t wear a parachute, Kronenberg recalled.
Though flying through constant bursts of anti-aircraft flak was nerve-racking for many people, Kronenberg said gunners often were too busy fighting back to think about the danger.
“We just focused on doing our job,” said Kronenberg, who reported to the press upon his return to the United States in 1944 that he was “lucky” that his crew never counted more than 40 holes in their B-17 after a mission.
Others were not so lucky, however. B-17 crews suffered a horrific casualty rate during the war, with about 46,500 of the roughly 250,000 Americans aboard the more than 12,000 Flying Fortresses either killed or wounded, according to HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. The website of Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine says 37 percent, or about 4,700, of the Flying Fortresses were lost or written off by the end of the war.
Though last weekend’s trip brought both painful and cherished memories flooding back for Kronenberg and Collector, they were pleased to be able to share the experience with someone else who was there and could understand what they went through.
“I’m very, very glad I went,” Kronenberg said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to see Joe again.”