Today is Armed Forces Day. This is a day when we honor all of those who have served or are serving in our American military.
My husband, John (retired Air Force) and I visited Gene Dettmer, a World War II veteran who served in the Army. We have been able to visit him often in the last few months and for that we are grateful. He’s so happy to have served his country in Europe. He thanks God every day for making it home. We’re thankful for his friendship.
Now to show my appreciation for all of our veterans I’m sharing a story from my book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans (Book 2, WWII Legacies). Search my website for dozens of other amazing stories of men and women who have given so much for our freedoms.
Thanks to our veterans and their families for their sacrifices for our freedoms!
Robert Kiester — Army Air Corps
While flying bombing missions over German-occupied territory in 1944, B-26 crews were instructed to fly 50 feet off the ground to ensure accuracy. However, that low altitude at 280 miles per hour made them easy targets.
“So many planes were getting shot down that we were given permission to fly higher,” said Robert Kiester of Fort Wayne, Indiana. He served as a bombardier on a B-26 assigned to the Eighth Air Force based in England.
There was another reason to fly higher. The B-26s carried a secret weapon – the Norden bombsight. This weapon used an analog computer to constantly calculate the bomb’s impact point based on current flight conditions. This ensured accuracy in daytime bombing. “It was only precise at higher altitudes,” said Kiester who operated the top-secret weapon.
Even when the B-26’s began flying at 14,000 feet, they still encountered flak. “German soldiers were dug in close to the edge of the English Channel,” he said. “When they shot at us with buzz bombs (rockets), we knew if one hit our plane, we’d be in trouble. British Spitfire pilots helped defend us.”
Kiester was born in 1921 in Henrietta, Oklahoma. His father, a native of Columbia City, Indiana, had served as a sailor in WWI. After failing to find work in the Oklahoma oil fields, his father returned to Indiana, settling in Fort Wayne.
After graduating from South Side High School in 1940, Kiester worked at General Electric before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in December 1942.
Following completion of basic training at Santa Ana Army Air Base in Santa Ana, California, Kiester and other cadets were given a choice of training. “I knew many cadets would apply for pilot positions,” said Kiester. “I chose bombardier.” He also had a secret. “I was afraid if I was in the cockpit I might wash out, due to motion sickness.”
Kiester was accepted into bombardier training at Albuquerque, New Mexico. In September 1943 he received his wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant.
Kiester was assigned to a B-26 crew. His pilot named the plane after his wife: Miss Eleanor. Together, they flew from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to England in April 1944.
Kiester’s crew of five was stationed with the 322nd bomb group, Eighth Air Force, at Earls Colne about 100 miles north of London.
They flew dozens of missions to France, Belgium, and Holland. “We were assigned targets within 500 miles of our base,” said Kiester. “The bigger planes could go further, but we didn’t have the fuel capacity.”
Their targets were bridges and roads. “We wanted to limit Germany’s mobility,” he said. Inclement weather often grounded planes due to rain or fog. In good conditions, flight crews flew twice daily. Each mission was referred to as a ‘sortie’.
By June 6, 1944, Kiester’s crew had flown dozens of sorties. When the 9th Air Force moved to England, Kiester’s crew was re-assigned to it.
They participated in the invasion of France’s shores on D-Day. Afterward, Kiester’s unit moved to a Welsh air base.
By July 1944, Kiester’s flight had flown 75 missions, all miraculously without injury. When Kiester received orders that relieved him from combat, he returned to the United States where he applied for pilot training. Kiester graduated with his license two weeks after the war ended.
Kiester taught bombardier cadets and was assigned to Lowry Air Force Base (then Lowry Field) in Denver before being discharged in November 1946.
Sadly, Bob’s brother was killed in England during a routine practice session two weeks after Bob arrived home.
Bob Kiester remained in the Air Force Reserves until 1961, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. In Fort Wayne he operated a plumbing business and raised five children with his wife, Mary Patricia Kilkelly.
Kiester attended military reunions for 30 years. He still has his winter flight suit. “By the time I was 21 years old, I knew people who had been killed in the war,” he said. “I was scared often, but did what I was trained to do.”