Ken Becker, a navigator in the 99th Bomb Group, was my friend, and spending hours with him on the deck of his lakeside home in Wisconsin in 2014 is one of my most treasured memories from researching and writing Bombing Hitler's Hometown. He shared incredible stories and memories, not all of which made it into the book. I hope you enjoy these stories and photographs, particularly the incredible memory of the 25 April 1945 raid that I was able to verify.
Ken reflected on his stark thoughts in the morning as a young man in his early 20s.
Another quote from the book:
As Hitler’s hometown grew larger in the distance, the crew’s navigator, Ken Becker, realized that, though he had many windows in the nose, he had never used them on missions for anything other than navigation. In his sixteen previous jaunts into enemy territory, Becker had not taken a single look outside while passing over the target, focusing instead on making himself as small as possible under his flak vest and helmet as he hunkered back-to-back with the togglier, Alex Jastrab. Everyone knew the war was winding down, and Becker feared he might not get another chance. To hell with it, I want to see what’s going on, he thought to himself, and the navigator stood up and peered beyond Jastrab and out the nose of the Fortress.
The navigator had no frame of reference for the carnage he saw outside. Flak painted the sky black, and down below, Linz’s rail yards burned. There were columns of black smoke. There were columns of brown smoke. There was even white smoke. Becker did not know what that meant, but he did know he was scared to death.
Incredibly, I found the below photo - taken from a bomber in Ken's 99th BG - in the National Archives. I see brown, black, and white smoke, too. That is how vivid the memories of the Linz mission were for many of the men who were on it.
And now some stories not found in the book.
Becker had much fire in the belly. On either side of his small house in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, had lived young men who had been killed in the Pacific theater. One perished in the invasion of Iwo Jima, the other in a plane crash. Becker wanted to help finish off the Germans so he could go fight the Japanese.
The young navigator was intent on going to the University of Wisconsin to finish college after the war. He sent all of his monthly pay home for his college fund and lived in Italy off of what he could make from selling cigarettes. Each airman received a cigarette ration, and Becker would stockpile his and sell them for two dollars per carton. There was nothing to spend money on in Italy anyway, though once, as a joke, he bought a pair of pajamas at the base exchange for a dollar seventy-five, making him one of the only men in his 348th Bomb Squadron who wore the garments to bed at night.
The Wisconsin native didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and didn’t gamble, but he did like to tinker. Building crystal radio sets had been a hobby as a kid, and in Italy he scrounged the parts to build another one. He would plug his flight headphones into the makeshift radio and listen to “Axis Sally” play American records. On 12 April, he was listening to the radio when President Roosevelt’s death was announced. Like so many servicemen, Becker felt a profound sense of loss. He had known no other leader.
Read more about Ken Becker in Bombing Hitler's Hometown, coming on 26 March from Citadel Press.
Source: Ken Becker interviews with Mike Croissant, 10 June 2013 and 31 August 2014.