A World War II bomber pilot tells his story

Last week, during a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ thread, former B17 pilot Carl Estersohn answered questions from readers about what it was like to fly and fight during World War II.  Here’s a brief series of excerpts.

IKingJeremy: How did you and your fellow airmen keep their spirits up during war?

CarlEstersohn: We drank a lot of beer, hahaha! We would go to London every 3-4 days… we’d go to the dance halls, dance with the pretty girls, and that’s about all we could do, because London was at war, and they were being bombed, and it wasn’t really that safe a place, but we managed to survive.

hurtsdonut: That’s amazing, dancing while being bombed.

CarlEstersohn: Yeah, well, we didn’t have a choice! If we wanted to go to London to be entertained, that was the only place we could go. And everything wasn’t really available, it was wartime, there were a lot of restrictions – there were no restaurants, there were taxis available but they were few & far between, difficult to get, there were a lot of Americans over there waiting for the invasion, and a lot of the guys that were flying were going – and that’s what took up the limited stuff. They were very good to us. We were made to enjoy English beer, which was quite a feat! That’s all there was. There was very little food. They had eating clubs, here and there throughout London. If you belonged to one, you could get some chicken or maybe steak – I think they were cooking horsemeat steaks at that time. They were pretty good, hahah!

. . .

kinglyryan: What was your worst experience in WWII, and what was your best?

CarlEstersohn: My worst experience and my BEST experience?

Well, my worst experience was when I got shot down during one of my raids, and landed in Belgium, which fortunately was in Allied hands. The Allied armies had pushed their way up through France, and up into Belgium, on their way to Holland, so I was not made a prisoner of war. And myself and my crew got back to our base in England, and we managed to fly all together 35 missions.

My best experience during the war, that’s kinda tough, I’d say my last mission was probably my best because that was knowing that I wasn’t going to be subjected to enemy action anymore, and I took over somebody’s job as a planning officer, to send missions out, and brief the other guys as to where they were going and where they were supposed to do.

I was still an officer. I didn’t have a title, I was just Lieutenant Estersohn. And later I became a captain, and I went home on a troop ship, just about the same time as the armistice was declared in the German theater of war. First week in May 1945. And I got home, became a civilian, and went back to school.

. . .

Sercos: How did your experiences during the war change you as a human being? Would you say that overall it was for better or for worse?

CarlEstersohn: I would say, overall, it was for the better.

It gave me a chance to get my priorities straight.

It gave me a chance to look at so-called “crises” with a different outlook, different expectation and different way of handling it.

I don’t mean to say that war is a good thing, in ANY respect.

But it does affect you. I think that any person that’s been at war, or any kind of skirmishes, can say the same thing. It changes your values.

. . .

MethMachine: Did the war change your outlook on life? If so, how?

Thanks for your service, and for doing this AMA!

CarlEstersohn: You’re welcome!

And of course, absolutely. You come to realize that all the things you thought were so important are not really, because life is what’s important, and without it, there’s nothing. So you understand that… whatever problems you have are minuscule compared to having to go out and fight a war.

Which very people realize today. Very few people experience.

But that’s about the story, your outlook on life, it sure does change.

Priorities change. Your values change.

There’s much more at the link.

Sobering, thought-provoking stuff.  My war was years later and on another continent, but I learned many of the same lessons.  Thanks for your service, Mr. Estersohn.


1 comment

  1. I once knew an old gentleman, retired Air Force, who flew B17s over Germany. He had some interesting tales as well. Since he retired in 1970, he was able to fly a wide variety of planes ranging from the B17 to the F100. I once asked him what his favorite was of the planes he'd piloted. Without any hesitation he responded "the P51."

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