In the violent skies over Berlin, two men held a badly damaged B-24 aloft through shear determination. Because of them, five crewmen escaped the flaming aircraft and had a chance to bail out. Three generations later, the names Leo Ofenstein and John Wall are still revered by the families of those who survived.
I believe my parents met in Washington D.C. My mother was Lucy Burford. Her father was Archie Dean Burford, the commissioner of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (back when it was still a bureau rather than a service). She was a student at George Washington University and he had signed on as a treasury agent. It was one of those things where, he saw her coming into the office to visit her dad.
She was born in Hannah, Wyoming, a little mining town. My grandfather had been the superintendent of schools and he became a treasury agent as a result of going to a convention in San Francisco. He was hanging around the halls of a government building, waiting for the convention to start, when he walked by a room and they were getting ready to give a test of some sort. He was the type of person who didn't like doing nothing, so he asked if he could take the test. Then, he went back to the convention and forgot about the whole thing. A few weeks later, they sent him a letter stating, "We are hearby offering you the position of treasury agent". The salary was about twice what he was making as a school superintendent, so he said, "Hell, Yes!" It was a good deal, so he went off to Washington.
My dad's father was Clarence Leo Ofenstein. It's kind of interesting to note that he was the first person in the United States to get a degree in aeronautical engineering. He was the first civilian chief of what later became the FAA Just before the depression; he quit his very secure government position. In September of 1929, he set out to establish his own aircraft company...now this is not good timing! He no sooner got it set up, and then the great crash put the kibosh on that. He ended up working as an aircraft engineer for other people. In fact, he worked for North American-Northrop in San Diego and was the principle designer of a rather bizarre aircraft called the flying wing. It was the grandfather of the stealth bomber of today. I think it was kind of a flop at the time; the main reason was that they didn't have computers to fly aircraft, like they do now. Anyway, my dad had a pretty solid background in aviation.
He was apparently a hell of a good pilot. Our family has been blessed with good physical skills. One of the stories that goes around, is that my dad was just a basically good natural pilot. When the army figured that out, he was promptly turned into an instructor. He had to do quite a bit of fast-talking and finagling to go out and get assigned to a combat crew. I know he wanted to be a fighter pilot, but his size might have gone against him there. I'm sure the combat assignment didn't sit well with my mother.
Somewhere along the line, my father got transferred to San Antonio, Texas in conjunction with his flight training. That's where the name of the plane might have originated. I know they got married in Austin. He was twenty five and she was nineteen. I suppose it wasn't so unusual back then for a guy out of college to marry a girl out of high school. It's amazing to think that these people were all so young. My mother was only twenty three at the end of the war.
When war broke out my father tried to enlist but was rejected. First of all, he wasn't draftable because the height limit was 6'4 and he was taller. There was another thing; he had scarlet fever as a youngster and had a heart murmur as a result. That same thing kept him out of West Point. He ended up at Virginia Military Institute instead, in aeronautics. Anyhow, when they rejected him from the service, he went around from one enlistment center to another. Finally, he found one with a doctor who didn't listen to carefully his heartbeat. Needless to say, my mother was not thrilled by this at all...not even slightly happy about it. From that point on, both of their lives changed track dramatically. I guess a lot of people's personal dreams got put on hold "for the duration".
I think one of the reasons he got involved in this whole thing was, that he was in college in the middle 30's and had to drop out. His dad couldn't afford to send all of the kids to college so, he decided make it on his own. He wanted his younger sister to go. His parents had told her that since Leo and Charles were in college, she couldn't go. So he said, "Okay, fine. I'II quit and now she can go!" Probably, he wanted to prove something in the field of aviation. I have a feeling it was all a part of the reason why he put himself to so much trouble to get assigned to a combat crew. Perhaps his long range plans included getting in there and having a good war; then continuing on as a commercial pilot or something of that sort. Maybe, he was planning a military career...although I kind of doubt it.
I've spent a good deal of time growing up associated with the military in one way or another. After the war my mother was a civilian army employee, doing accounting. We spent several years of my youth in Europe. At one point, we moved to England and actually lived in Kings Lynn, right in the middle of the territory used by the Eighth Air Force. That part of England was full of abandoned airfields. We kids used to travel around and look at all the sights in the area, and you couldn't miss those old flat concrete strips. Recently, I was staggered when I saw a map locating the 392nd bomb group at Wendling.
It's amazing to think the crew only lasted five weeks over there. I've heard that from late 1943 until just before D day, the life expectancy of an Eighth Air Force bomber crew was about sixty days. Something like fifty percent of them were gone in sixty days .I remember talking with a fellow from my dad's group who told me that people were just coming and going constantly...some of them didn't even get to unpack their bags. They'd come in at night, sleep, and the next day have to go out on a mission and maybe never come back. He told me it got to the point where the "old timers" didn't want to know these new people. They didn't want to grieve for anyone anymore, so maybe they just didn't get close to anyone. There has always been the image of great camaraderie, which you might have in a platoon in the infantry. There you have a whole lot of people together for a long time; but these guys weren't together for a long time!
My dad is just pictures to me. I was just a baby; a year old when he left. I've got pictures where I'm in there with him...just a little guy all swaddled up. Really, all I know are these family stories, yet I do believe there is some continuity in life.
Leo Elmer Ofenstein was born at Sibley Hospital in Washington D.C., on August 3Oth in 1915. He was the oldest of the four children of Clarence Leo Ofenstein and Emilie Henrietta Gathgens Ofenstein. Clarence, a graduate of MIT in 1911, became a civil engineer and later an aeronautical engineer.
Leo graduated from Western High in 1933 and attended Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia for three years. Later, he went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He was married to Lucy Burford on June 22, 1940 in Austin, Texas. He was not drafted into the armed service due to a heart problem, which he developed from Rheumatic Fever, which he had in his early teens. He was employed by the U.S. Treasury Department until he, somehow, was able to enter the Air Force training program.
According to our parents, Leo was destined to be a flight instructor and remain in Texas. Somehow, he wound up being a ferry pilot...initially; he flew planes to some place in Africa. Later, they learned he was flying them up to England. Eventually, he began flying into combat.
I, myself, was drafted in January of 1941 and ended up in a field Battalion in Arkansas. After entering the service, I saw Leo only one time. This was the fall of 1942, when he passed through Fort Smith, Arkansas on his way to report for duty in Texas.
The following Spring, Leo and Lucy had a son; Leo Dean Burford Ofenstein. He was born in Austin on April 4, 1943
My unit, a separate battalion assigned to 2Oth Corp artillery, 3rd army, left the U.S.A. during the pre dawn hours of April 24, 1944. We landed at Liverpool on May 9th. My unit went inland, but I stayed behind as ship baggage officer. During the crossing, I wrote Leo a V mail letter, to let him know I was enroute. On May l4th, my small group was picked up and driven to Sturbridge and my unit. Thoughtfully, the truck driver brought us our mail. I was literally shattered when I came across my V mail letter to Leo with a large, red notation stamped on it: MISSING IN ACTION.
The very thought of it hurts today. I still have that letter. I have not opened it.