B-24 pilot remembers fallen comrades


Jack Oliver of Naples, Fla., piloted 35 missions during World War II. He was one of the fortunate ones – the B-24 Liberator he flew had a couple of rather unflattering nicknames: the Flying Boxcar and, worse, the Flying Coffin.

On this Memorial Day weekend, The Naples Daily News has a nice profile of Oliver, recounting his service during “The Big One.”

Oliver, now 91, lost two of his crew and many of his fellow pilots in the fury of Hitler’s last stand during World War II. He remembers the intimate terror of German fighters streaking by his plane, one “so close I swear I could see the octane rating in German,” Oliver told the paper.

In the story, Oliver recalled his most harrowing mission, over Odertal, Germany, on Dec. 17, 1944:

“Nazi fighters began coming at their group a half hour before they reached their target. A report by Oliver’s engineer gunner, Charles Keller, tersely recounts seeing three B-24s go down.

‘Didn’t see any chutes, but was too busy to watch for them,’ it mourns.

The mission was disastrous; 12 of 28 bombers had been shot down.

‘They didn’t tell me until we arrived back at Toretta. They knew I’d be a little disturbed,’ Oliver says grimly. ‘No — terribly disturbed.’

His voice wavers when he speaks of the deaths of two of his own crewmen, navigator Peter Konapaka and nose gunner John Reiser. Neither died from enemy fire.

Oliver remembers most that he had just given Reiser permission to fly on another pilot’s plane for a final mission — the magic number that would earn Reiser a 30-day leave to go home and see his newborn son. The plane collided with another in a routine maneuver.

‘It was a milk run,’ Oliver says grimly.”

Oliver won the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 3 bronze oak leaf clusters, the European theater, the American theater; World War II victory medal, and the Distinguished Unit Citation with 7 Battle Stars.