Robert “Bob” Reierson loved flying.
At 97, the La Posada resident can still remember every type of plane he flew while training for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Then there was the A-20 Havoc he piloted in 52 combat missions in New Guinea and the Philippines in 1945-46.
Reierson joined the Army in 1942 when he was 18. He lived in Wisconsin and had completed some college before he got the call to head to Chicago for training.
“At that time, aviation people were part of the U.S. Army, they didn't have a separate air force,” he said. “It was basic Army training for a month then we went to a five-month program in Oklahoma with a lot of basic physics and after two-and-half months they pulled some of us out and we went to San Antonio for the classification training center. Then a lot of people got cut out of the pilot program, either for eyesight, coordination, response time, vulnerability to low oxygen, all sorts of things.”
There was a lot of travel during his training, which was a mix of bookwork, ground training, dual flights with instructors and, ultimately, solos.
“After a while the student gets to go solo and do a variety of things. We started doing cross-country navigation and then at the end of basic training if you were over six feet you would go to multi-engine — cargo planes, bombers — and if you're under six feet you could head for fighters — P-51s, P-38s, whatever,” he said. “Those of us over six feet advanced to a twin engine and no acrobatics, it isn't the type of flying we were gonna do.”
Meet the A-20
The A-20 he would end up flying was small, with no room for an instructor. He had six 50-caliber machine guns and a small bomb load.
“It was used for low-level strafing and bombing...and it was a fun airplane to fly,” he said. “Once when I was in training in the A-20 — I hadn't been flying for very long and I did some slow rolls. An A-20 is just a beautiful plane for doing acrobatics and I read where you're not supposed to do acrobatics in an A-20. One of the crew chiefs said to me when he saw me, ‘Lieutenant, you really shouldn't do acrobatics in this airplane.’”
Eventually, he headed to New Guinea where he flew two missions.
“On one of those missions the instructor said stay with him and the other two planes went back to base,” he said. “We went over into interior New Guinea. He had been told to check on a B-25 that had crash-landed over there and we went and found that and circled around that but nobody showed up.”
“Eventually, we got orders to report to the 417th Bomb Group, W.T.A: whatever transportation available. In those days that's really what you had to do. You had to go to a nearby air strip and try to find a cargo plane that's going the direction you want to go.”
He became part of the 417th Bombardment Group flying low-level missions at altitudes from 10 to 100 feet.
He loved the low-level flights and said those flying at high altitudes had a lot more to contend with.
“These Air Corps people in Europe and flying out of England and flying out of Italy doing high-altitude bombing at 20,000 feet in the winter time… it’s 50 degrees-below and the wind is blowing through the airplane. You have to wear oxygen masks, do everything you can to stay warm,” he said. “The German anti-aircraft was pretty accurate and until late in the war the German planes were knocking down a lot of the high-altitude bombers. So they are struggling over there with eight-hour missions and freezing and losing a lot of planes and a lot of men.”
Reierson said with low-level flights they didn’t need oxygen, and only needed their khaki pants and shirt and boots that hopefully would stay if they had to bail out.
He said the ground units in Europe and the Pacific may have had the toughest time of all.
“Air Force people got to go back to base, sleep on a cot, which isn't bad. You got some heat and you got warm food,” he said. “It's the armed forces that really had the tough time. They are the ones who saw the deaths and injuries.”
“In the Air Force — in Europe, especially — they would see the planes go down but it wasn't where they could really see the death and injuries. That's what probably has been so tough on the ground forces who lived through those conditions and saw these things that happened to their friends.”
For pilots like Reierson, one of the biggest threats was weather in some cases.
“To some extent planes can get above most weather now but in those days it wasn’t so, and there was so much weather in the Pacific,” he said. “It's all a big hazard and there was very little radio navigation there and so we really tried to avoid bad weather.”
“Early on they had some high losses when weather came up while on a mission and a lot of them never found their way back to the home base.”
One of his most memorable moments overseas was during the Battle of Corregidor, which was essentially a fortress island in Manila Bay that was surrendered to the Japanese on May 6, 1942.
“We were on the first low-level attack on Corregidor and I happened to be nine ships abreast. I was on the right side,” he said. “My peripheral vision told me there was a machine gun muzzle flyer from a machine gun but I could pull over and use the machine guns and drop a couple bombs right into the caves that machine gun was at. For me that was quite memorable.”
Most of their missions were close ground support to the Army, who would identify nearby Japanese lines which the A-20s would straf and bomb. Sometimes there were specific places they would bomb at low level.
Reierson left the service in March 1946, and kept flying, this time light planes with “low wings.”
“The low wings, you really have to be on the controls a little more; high wings, when you’re turning to get ready to land that wing is over there so you can’t see,” he said. “That's one of the reasons some of us like low wings; when you turn you get beautiful visibility. It's an interesting thing in terms of pilots’ preferences.”
He lived a lot of life beyond the military, settling down in several places from Washington, D.C., to California. He returned to college, married in 1949, worked for the Department of Agriculture, was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and even worked for the Central Intelligence Agency at one point.
He and his wife raised their five children mostly in the Denver area and he has lived in Green Valley-Sahuarita since 1989.
All these years later, Reierson can identify the photos of planes on his walls at home and tell you how they would fly together in formation, often in groups of three with one plane forward and two to the sides above it.