|World War 2 Veteran Shares His Story With Reid Students|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
04:47AM / Monday, April 17, 2017
|Bill Weigle shared his story and advice to Reid Middle School students on Thursday.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It was like pins and needles.
That's what Bill Weigle, a World War II pilot, told the Reid Middle School eighth-grade class of his flights during the war. He never knew when or if a German fighter would appear near him and shoot him down.
"I did not come here to tell you I'm a hero because I'm not. But we were on pins and needles the whole time," Weigle said.
Weigle was alive on Thursday to share his story with the class and credited that to the education and training he received. He stressed the importance of education to the students, multiple times telling them that if he didn't have the training he had, he would have died.
"If you get a good education it will last you a lifetime. I suggest you get all the education you possibly can. It will help you forever. I think one of the reasons I was able to survive World War II was because I was very lucky to receive and excellent education as a grade school student," Weigle said.
Weigle was in high school when the war broke out. The headmaster at his school changed the entire curriculum to one that would help the students "survive," he said, which focused on meteorology, math, navigation and technical lessons such as how engines work.
At age 17, still not graduated from high school, Weigle went to take the exam to become an Army Air Forces pilot. He was in a room of about 200 people when the exam scores came back; two-thirds of the men in the room, many much older than he, were excused.
He shipped off to basic training and then to flight school. He put in his flight time and was certified to fly the B-25 bomber. But then word came down that for D-Day, the United States was looking to use 30 percent of its pilots to fly C-47 transports. Weigle learned how to fly those and was sent to England when his training was completed.
He remembers looking out of the plane's window and seeing the same massive icebergs outside of Greenland that sunk the Titanic as they navigated their way to the only landing strip. On the next leg from Greenland to Iceland, sparks began flying from the propeller and he was worried that the plane would explode. But, a radio operator used a high-frequency antenna to kill static so they could land safely.
Then it was on to the airfield in Ramsbury, England. He arrived months after D-Day and there were some 100 planes stationed there. All of them were out flying and as co-pilot, he watched everything, including two planes crash into each other.
"All of a sudden they collided. The pilot in the second plane stood up in his cockpit, pulled his chute to get out, but it went over the rudder in the back and didn't open. Those two planes dropped down into a lake and all of the people on board died. There were 700 pairs of eyes flying that day and Charlie Phillips and I were the only two pilots that saw it," Weigle said.
"That tells me situational awareness is critical. If you have a smartphone, don't walk across North Street with a smartphone in your face and ignore what is going on around you because you will end up getting killed."
He was tasked with dropping supplies for the troops during the Battle of Arnheim in the Netherlands. But the Allied troops were trapped.
"They were being slaughtered. The Germans had them zeroed in so it was a real problem. The sad of it was that despite everybody's best efforts, the Germans took over," Weigle said.
Next was the Battle of the Bulge.
"It was probably the largest battle our side fought over in Europe. It was interesting because at that point England had been fogged in and we could not go and resupply the 101st Airborne until 10 or 12 days later. Finally, the air cleared and we took off right away from England. We flew into Bastogne and dropped supplies," Weigle said. "Going in we didn't seem to have any problems, we found our target in the nice little village of Bastogne, which is about the size of Egremont. As we were leaving there was quite a lot of flak."
On the way out, he saw a German plane shooting machine guns at the supplies he had just dropped. But, it got hit and as it pulled on the side of Weigle, he remembers seeing the pilot jump out of the plane.
The battle was still going on when he returned. They sent him back to get wounded soldiers out. He loaded up and spent the night in a small town in Belgium.
"That night they were close enough to bounce our airplane right off the ground. As pilots, we said we've had enough of that stuff, let's get out of there," he said.
The crew got back to England but wasn't able to get back to the base because they didn't have the right code of the day. They were stuck with a plane full of wounded soldiers on the top of an overpass. They needed to get south to find a hospital.
"We leaned back on our education as pilots and we knew we had a radar altimeter in the airplane. A radar altimeter sends a signal down to the ground and that will tell us how high we are. If you are over land the radar altimeter was always bouncing up and down. As soon as you go over the English Channel, which we needed to do to get southbound, that needle would settle down," Weigle said. "When that happened we marked our time to keep track of where we were."
He remembers it being rainy and they were peering out the window, using the navigation tools, and landed on a small strip. Forces on the ground saw their flare and rush in to take the soldiers to the hospital.
"It all goes back to how well we were educated," Weigle said.
He went on a few other small missions after that but ultimately the war settled down for him. When he got out of the Air Force, he went to Cornell University, which let him take classes despite not having a high school diploma. He was allowed to graduate only after keeping an average above 80 for two years.
Weigle shared his story with a class doing a cross-curriculum unit on the Holocaust and World War II. One student's family is friends with Weigle and teacher Patrick Gariepy arranged the lecture.
Weigle told them "wise men speak because they have something to say" and that "fools speak because they want to speak." He hoped they would judge him by the former. He delivered a message about education, about war and about life. He told the students not to do drugs and to take care of their bodies and health.
"I got tangled up as a youngster in the Army, where they gave us cigarettes. I ended up with a lung problem 60 years later. So my first piece of advice, if I may, is as you grow up don't start smoking or you'll end up a wreck like me. It is no fun," Weigle said when opened his lecture.
He was joined by his friend Ed Ivas, also a pilot, to deliver the speech. His hope was to provide a little bit of advice to the class so they, too, can survive, just as his high school teacher taught him.