Born in 1921 in Kansas, Jerome Neal enjoyed a privileged lifestyle.
As the grandson of a bright pharmacist turned resourceful businessman, life couldn’t have been better. But the family wealth was quickly swept away with the Depression and, like many Americans, Neal’s life changed dramatically.
“When the war came, I was with a buddy and we heard a radio broadcast about flying for the Army. They said if you failed the test you could become an Army glider pilot, moving troops that way.”
Neal laughs. “We thought we could do that—if all you had to do was fail.”
Neal went with his buddy to the test in 1941. His friend failed but Neal passed.
“Never in my life had I ever thought about flying. It’s not like it is today. You didn’t see planes flying overhead. It just never entered my mind.”
But the effect on Neal was profound.
“I wasn’t raised in a spiritual home. I never thought much about God before then.”
But the experiences Neal had were amazing.
He recalls his first night flight above the ozone layer. “When you get up that high, the skies open up. What you see is different than what you can see from the ground. There were so many stars and they were so brilliant.”
The sight took Neal’s breath away. “I remember thinking, ‘This could only be from God!’”
It wasn’t long after that when another incident happened during a training mission in Idaho.
“We had flown out over the Pacific and were on our way back. It was night and we hit bad weather.”
Neal says he had been trained on how to use his instruments so he shouldn’t have needed visual access to land.
“Knowing how to use instruments and actually doing it is another thing,” he says with a laugh. “You rely on your feelings and that can get you killed. It’s natural to rely on your senses and not trust your instruments. Especially if you’re inexperienced.”
Neal was in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, searching for his base, hampered by not just darkness but harsh weather.
“I saw a beam of light and I flew toward it. I then circled around and around the light, going lower and lower. It took me right down to the airfield of my base.”
“How was that possible? A beam of light thousands and thousands of feet above that field which guided me safely down so I didn’t hit a mountain peak. It was God!”
From Idaho, Neal was sent to England. “We flew down to Brazil and crossed to Africa. Then we followed the coastline up to the base where we were stationed in England.”
Why such a southern route? Were they avoiding German aircraft over the mid-Atlantic, the direct route to England?
Neal’s explanation was simple. The southern route was the shortest way across the Atlantic. “Even then we had to carry extra fuel tanks.”
Once in England, Neal began training to fly combat missions.
“Formation flying was the key when facing the German Luftwaffe. We didn’t usually have fighter pilot escorts in the beginning. Some of those German pilots had been flying since the late 1930’s and they were experienced.”
“But,” Neal explains, “a tight formation of bombers forced the German pilot to deal with many 50 caliber machine guns trained at him.”
“We might have 800 to 1,400 bombers in the air at a time. The Germans would fly above us, up and down the line, looking for a group that wasn’t tight.”
Formation flying, however, didn’t help with two other dangers facing bomber pilots. Neal describes the insulated clothing he would wear inside his plane—layer after layer of thermal underwear and fleece-lined attire.
“At 30,000 feet, the temperature inside the plane would drop to minus 70 degrees. And missions could be 10-12 hours long.”
Neal always faced the possibility that his oxygen mask might freeze.
“Then you would suffocate,” he says.
He explained that if a gunner had a jam, he better get his hand back in his glove fast. Three minutes of exposure to that depth of cold could lead to frost bite so severe that the hand had to be amputated.
Neal remembers how moisture would condense in his mask and a trickle of it would slide down his chest. “We ended up with icicles on our chest.”
Tasked with flying deep into Germany to knock out strategic targets like railyards and ball-bearing plants, the bomber pilots were always faced with German anti-aircraft.
“They were very effective,” Neal said. “They had excellent radar.”
Neal wasn’t prepared for his first combat mission. “When I landed, my plane had been hit so badly that it couldn’t be saved. It was sent to the bone yard.”
It was a miracle he survived.
Neal said this about his next mission. “It was the same thing. My plane was damaged so badly it wasn’t flyable.”
A common saying at the time, according to the National WW2 Museum, was that “Flying in the Eighth Air Force was like holding a ticket to a funeral – your own.” Most 1943 bomber crews didn’t survive past their fifth mission.
Neal agrees. “By the time I finished my first three missions, I knew I was already dead.”
“No one ever slept before a mission,” Neal says. “We wouldn’t know where we were going until we got to the briefing room in the morning. My third mission was D-Day.”
Neal pauses again, remembering the moment.
“Few got to see it from the air. There were thousands of ships crossing the English Channel at once. It looked like a carpet, like you could walk across to dry land.”
Neal’s mission was to bomb the crossroads at a French town to keep seven Panzer units of German tanks from reaching the front.
“We circled and circled, but the weather was too bad to see the target. We never bombed civilians, only strategic targets.”
On his way back across the Channel, the B-24 ran out of fuel.
“The roar of the bomber engines was massive, and there was suddenly silence. Then we began to fall fast.
“I got my crew to parachute out, but the other pilot and the navigator stayed with me. When I realized I still had my bombs, I released them and fortunately we were so close to the water that they didn’t trigger.
“But I knew the plane would sink fast when we hit the Channel; we expected to drown. Then, in front of me, I saw what looked like a sand bar, but it was a strip of rock right in the middle of the English Channel. I hit it and skidded across, losing the engines and the body of the plane — everything but the cockpit and one wing.”
The three men then climbed out on the wing and awaited rescue.
“That was God,” Neal says. “How else can you explain it?”
But after D-Day, Neal flew B-17’s. The National WW2 Museum said the B-17’s had only four machine guns in the front. German pilots exploited that weak spot, coming at the nose of the B-17, firing their cannon, and then cutting away.
“It was like a game of chicken,” Neal says, remembering experiencing those attacks. But no German pilot got him.
“That was a God thing, too.”
Neal said the Army made many battle field promotions based on demonstrated leadership. “Young men grew up quickly.
“At briefing, the group commanding officer always addressed the crew members. We would stand at attention as he passed to the platform. We called him the old man — he was twenty five years old.”
Neal also grew up quickly.
“When I first arrived in England, a tour of duty meant completing 25 missions and then you were sent home. By 1944, it had risen to 30 and then 35.”
A bomber crew consisted of ten men: two pilots, a navigator, a bombardier, and six NCO gunners. The Standard Operating Procedure for mission completion was that when the bulk of the crew reached the 35th mission, any member who had completed only 34 missions was included with the rest.
“Imagine how I felt,” Neal said, “when I was advised by my commanding officer that the SOP had changed. I had to complete another mission.”
But Neal said that he was allowed to choose the mission and the crew to accomplish the final requirement.
Neal said he spent several days looking for an easy one. “That was usually signaled the night before the next day’s mission. You could tell by the gas and bomb load to be used. I selected a mission, based on that criteria, and went to bed.”
During the night, the mission changed.
“When I saw that the new target was Berlin, I knew my time had come. Not only was that target one of the deadliest, but I was in the lead plane—the first target for the German AA fire.”
“I shouldn’t have survived that mission, but I made it back with hardly a scratch. For some reason, on that raid, the German radar attacked the rear of the group.”
Neal flew over 35 combat missions and was awarded the “Distinguished Flying Cross.”
After the war, he gave up flying. “I lost a lot of men to missions,” he said, recalling on D-Day how some of the crew that had parachuted to safety had, in fact, drown.
He lost another man when his oxygen line twisted. Neal had quickly tried to get him out of the gun turret while in flight. “He died in my arms.”
Neal went on to have a long career with Honeywell. He then was part of a successful business. Neal followed that as a newspaper publisher.
Every December, we remember Pearl Harbor, WWII, and those like Jerome Neal who offered their lives for this nation. But every day, remember to thank a soldier for serving.
War takes a terrible toll on a soldier. But Jerome Neal, who turns 100 in April, will tell you something more.
“Those experiences led me to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord,” he says. “My life has had value. I don’t think that would have happened without the war.”
From the worst in life can come the best.
See more of Jerome Neal here with an excellent pictorial display:
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