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Local veteran remembers Pearl Harbor, flying in WW II

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- Mr. Charles Childs remembers exactly where he was on Dec. 7, 1941.

"I was an aviation cadet at Maxwell Field, Alabama," the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel said. "We sat around the radio and listened to President Roosevelt's speech. We then knew that we were in a war."

After the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor attack, the young Army Air Corps aviator was selected for instructor duty and said he "just kept going up in planes."

"I went from single-engine aircraft, to twin-engine and then finally to four-engine," he said. "I was instructing in B-17 and B-24 bombers when I got tired of instructing and asked for combat duty."

Mr. Childs, a captain at the time, ended up in Nebraska where he met his aircrew and was ordered to Langley Field, Va., where he received a relatively new weapon in the fledgling Air Corps arsenal - a radar navigator.

The slang for a radar navigator in the 1940s was "Mickey Man," due to the enlarged headsets the radar navigators wore. Mr. Childs said he and his aircrew trained in radar bombing, a new capability for the bomber corps, and then headed overseas.

World War II was eventful for Mr. Childs.

"The mission to Brno, Czechoslovakia was a rough one," he said.

He said target of this mission was a processing plant, which was the largest supplier of synthetic oil to the Axis Powers. According to a 1944 press clipping, the bomber crews in this mission encountered over 100 enemy fighters and the air corps lost 29 airplanes.

"I was the first plane over the target," Mr. Childs said.

In December 1944, Captain Childs described another hair-raising operation when he was directed to fly a "lone wolf" mission, which was a single bomber directed against a high-priority target without fighter or mutual bomber support.

According to the citation accompanying his first distinguished flying cross, the flight was in near zero-visibility conditions due to the thick cloud cover. Weather conditions were so bad, one of the B-17's four engines iced over and shut off.

When Mr. Childs' B-17 reached the target, the element of surprise was lost as the weather cleared and he was repeatedly attacked by, in the words of his DFC citation, "intense and accurate barrages of enemy anti-aircraft fire."

After striking the target, he was forced to evade enemy aircraft in the area by navigating back to his home base in the thick cloud cover by flight instruments alone.

A few days later, Captain Childs had another close call.

The citation with his second DFC details how, over a target in his B-17, two of the aircraft's engines were shot out. His navigator gave Mr. Childs a heading to Switzerland, where he and his aircrew could have landed but would have been interred for the remainder of the war.

"I had no desire to be interred," Mr. Childs said.

To avoid this, Mr. Childs explained he ordered his aircrew to toss everything out of the plane that wasn't necessary such as machine guns, ammunition and other loose equipment. This was to lighten the load of the aircraft so he could gain necessary altitude over the Alp mountain ranges as he tried to fly back to his home airfield on the two remaining engines.

The citation states as Captain Childs was approaching the 2nd Bomb Group's landing field, another engine went out leaving him with only one of four to land the heavy bomber.

Captain Childs safely landed the aircraft, thus "saving his crew from being interred or bailing out over enemy territory," the second DFC citation reads.

"My crew was credited with shooting down six Nazi fighters during the war," Mr. Childs said. "My co-pilot was seriously wounded, my engineer was killed, my radio operator was wounded and one of my waist gunners was seriously wounded.

"The man upstairs must've liked me as I came back weary, but whole," he said.

Mr. Childs flew 37 credited bombing missions, had 13 "turn backs" while over enemy territory and, according to Mr. Ryan Warner, 28th Bomb Wing historian, is a member of a fraternity that's critical to preserving America's history.

"Veterans are perhaps America's greatest historical treasure," he said. "The information gleaned from interviews with these men and women oftentimes constitutes the background for historical military writing.

"WW II veterans, for example, are leaving us at the rate of roughly 1,000 per day," said Mr. Warner. "With the passing of these veterans of America's greatest generation, we're losing a vital channel to the history of Americans in combat."

Mr. Childs retired at Ellsworth after 22 years of service, qualifications on 20 different aircraft and was recently inducted into the S.D. Combat Aircrew Hall of Fame. He and his wife live in Rapid City.

Editor's Note:  This is the third and final story of a series on Pearl Harbor and World War II.