Niilo August Isaacson


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Photo 1: Elbert Huey (ball turret gunner), Niilo Isaacson (engineer gunner), Leonard Tebbs (co-pilot), William Jordan (bombardier), and Howard Pinner (pilot) on March 14, 1945, two months after their engine caught on fire and they were forced to make an emergency landing on the North Sea (three members of their crew did not survive), and four days before they were fired on while flying over Berlin.

Photo 2: Niilo Isaacson in flight gear. ----

Niilo August Isaacson served during World War II in the U.S. Army Air Forces from May 11, 1943, until November 9, 1945.

He was assigned to the 398th Bomb Group. Two times he narrowly escaped death.

Once, on January 1, 1945, one of the plane’s engines caught on fire and the pilot made an emergency landing onf the North Sea, 120 miles from land. Three of the crew were lost; Mr. Isaacson and five others survived, largely due to the courage of 2nd Lt. Leonard Tebbs, who managed to release a stuck life raft.

On March 18, 1945, their plane was shot over Berlin. One of their engines was disabled. They knew they could not fly back to England in their condition. Instead, they flew east without any maps, hoping to avoid German-controlled territory, hoping instead to reach Russia or Poland. They knew the Russians were advancing on Germany from the east. They succeeded in landing at a Russian-controlled air base near Kutno, Poland, south of Warsaw.

His rank was Technical Sergeant.

Mr. Isaacson was decorated with the European Victory Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Air Force Medal.

Mr. Isaacson was born on February 17, 192_, in Kettle River, Minnesota, the son of Isaac and Jenny Isaacson.

Source: Veterans’ Memorial Hall Veteran History Form; article: “Niilo Isaacson narrowly missed death twice during World War II,” Arrowhead Leader (see below; reprinted with permission of the Arrowhead Leader)

When Niilo (pronounced Nee-lo) Isaacson left the home farm near Kettle River in 1943, he didn’t realize what the next two years would hold for him. By Mother’s Day two years later the war in Europe was over, and Niilo had survived two life-threatening experiences.

Niilo’s brothers, Walter, Waino, and his twin brother Hugo, had left the farm earlier. “Walter was drafted soon after the war started,” said Niilo in an interview in his home near Kettle River last Tuesday. “He was sent to New Guinea and became a stevedore—he unloaded ships.”

“Waino went next. He volunteered and was assigned to the infantry. He got wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. He heard a projectile coming, ducked, and he heard it hit a tree. Shrapnel hit him in the belly and he spent a long time in the hospital recovering.

“My twin brother, Hugo, started in the infantry as an ammunition carrier, but he had flat feet,” said Niilo. “He couldn’t handle walking in the mountains. He got transferred to the medical corps and was stationed on an island in the South Pacific.

Niilo was drafted and left home on May 11, 1943, to join the Air Force.

Arnie was the last of the brothers to join the war effort. However, he never got into the fighting. Niilo explained that while he was in basic training, he was swinging on a rope over water and the rope broke. His ankle was severely injured. From then on he had a stainless steel ankle. “He got a medical discharge,” said Niilo.

The youngest brother, Reino, did not have to leave home. “They had a rule that they wouldn’t take all of the boys in a family, they would leave one,” he said.

Niilo served his time in Europe as an engineer gunner on a B-17 bomber flying from England and bombing various targets in Germany. He and the other members of his crew arrived in England in their bomber 59 years ago this month, unknowing what they were to face in the next four months.

Trouble began on their first mission in 1944. “We flew our first mission to Stuttgart on Dec. 9 and one of the engines went out due to a mechanical failure,” said Niilo. “We made it back, but couldn’t stay with the other planes, we didn’t have enough power.”

Trouble hit again on a mission on Dec. 24. “We bombed Koblenz, and flak hit a control cable,” said Niilo. “We went into a nosedive. The navigator was also hit. But we were able to fly back on automatic pilot. We got back in the afternoon of Christmas Day. We missed Christmas dinner.”

The plane was repaired and more bombing missions followed. It was Jan. 1, 1945, when the crew had the first of their two harrowing experiences.

“One of the engines caught on fire and we had to make an emergency landing I the North Sea,” said Niilo. “We lost three of the crew.”

In a written report, crew member Second Lieutenant William F. Jordan of Tarrytown, New York, told the story:

“The day’s mission to Magdeburg, Germany, on Jan. 1, started in a routine fashion, but while flying over the North Sea around 7 or 8 a.m., the crew, piloted by First Lieutenant Howard M. Pinner, Candler, North Carolina, found itself in real trouble.

“A fire started in one of our engines while we were flying with the formation at 5,000 feet. The pilot tried to feather the engine but it was not use. Flames stretched at least 20 feet beyond the wing. We used the fire extinguishers but the fire continued to flare. Then Lt. Pinner attempted to put the flame out by diving at excessive speed. That also proved useless.

“At this stage the pilot alerted all members of the crew and everyone prepared for ditching. Each man calmly waited at his position to leave the plane as soon as it struck the water. According to reports from other bombers that were flyng above, Lt. Pinner made a magnificent approach over the rough water and set the bomber down as level as possible.

“The plane, now 120 miles from land, hit the waves and broke in two just behind the ball turret. Within 10 seconds the 64,000-pound bomber, with three tons of bombs aboard, sank. During these few seconds the men accomplished wonders: I remember pushing one of the enlisted men out of the radio hatch escape door. The water then poured in over me and I thought it was the end. Somehow, by help of the good Lord, I shot right up from about 20 feet under. When I came up, I found myself next to the plane’s fin. Immediately, I swam away because I didn’t want to be sucked down with it.

“From his position, co-pilot Second Lieutenant Leonard P. Tebbs, Cheyenne, Wyoming, noticed that the dinghy on his side of the plane had not been released. With complete disregard of being swept down by the path of the front section of the bomber, he turned back and manually set the life raft free. If it wasn’t for the heroic deed performed by the co-pilot, all members undoubtedly would have drowned within a few minutes.

“The tail gunner, Staff Sergeant Glen H. Cline of Albany, New York, and engineer gunner, Technical Sergeant Niilo A. Isaacson, Kettle River, Minnesota, were able to get out at the point where the plane broke. However, Staff Sergeant John E. Furrow, Jr., Roanoke, Virginia, the waist gunner, and Second Lieutenant Warren L. King, Sequim, Washington, the navigator, were not so fortunate and drowned immediately after the plane hit the water.

“Six of the crew finally climbed into the dinghy. At this time the tail gunner was only about 50 yards from the life raft. For nearly 30 minutes the crew members used every effort to paddle toward Sgt. Cline, but due to the rough sea they were unable to get to him before he was lost.

“The emergency radio, called a Gibson Girl, must have popped out of the radio room because we found it floating nearby. We paddled after it and unpacked the equipment. The radio operator sent out our position.

“For at least an hour and a half the wet, cold and sick survivors continued to send out their position by radio. Finally three P-47 Thunderbolts made an appearance and approached the dinghy at about 500 feet.

“We all cried for joy when we saw these three friendly planes circle us. The planes flew so low over us on their second pass we could see the pilot waving at us. This was enough assurance to know that we were in safe hands.

“The Thunderbolts continued to fly over us, and more came to relieve them. Two Lindholm rescue dinghies were dropped within a few yard of the stranded men. They paddled to them and Sgt. Huey climbed into one and Lt. Tebbs climbed into the other. Food, water, cigarettes and protective clothing were available in those two rescue rafts and the men took advantage of all of the items.

“Just before dark we saw two big British bombers heading our way. Each plane carried a Flying Dutchman lifeboat under its fuselage. One bomber dropped the rescue boat about 75 yards away, but all the chutes on the boat failed to open and it crashed into the water, sounding like a 500-pound bomb. It sank. The other bomber then dropped its boat, and this time there were no mistakes. There was plenty of room for all of us.

“These lifeboats were equipped with every possible necessity, including two engines, a compass, foodstuffs and clothing. The engineer gunner, after reading the instructions, was able to start the engines and head for England.”

That engineer gunner was Niilo. “We found out that there was a problem with the compass,” he said. “We had been heading for Germany. We got that to work right and changed our course for England.”

Jordan went on to tell more about the ordeal:

“Before long we saw a ship hearing our way. It turned out to be a British air-sea rescue launch, and it came alongside to take us on board. When we got on deck, one of its members greeted us with a “Happy New Year, yanks!” What a greeting that was! We’ll never appreciate a New Year’s present like that one.

“The rescuers took care of us six airmen in tip-top fashion. The bacon and eggs served the survivors were better than any $10 steak at the Waldorf!”

Later the crew was assigned to another plane and made more bombing runs over Germany. There was one incident in February where they ran out of gas and had to land in Brussels, Belgium, but they refueled and got back to England, and completed more bombing runs on into March.

It was March 18 when the crew had their second harrowing experience. “We were shot at over Berlin,” said Niilo. “Our plane had been hit, but we still had two engines and glided to an airstrip and landed.”

Pilot Lt. Pinner wrote his version of the story:

“We bombed a target 20 miles north of Berlin—an ordnance plant at Oranienburg. On the bomb run we had a lot of flak. An unexploded missile went through the gas tank of the number two engine. It made a hole so large that all of the fuel ran out of that tank. This created a fire on the wing. The flow of fuel and the wind from the engine caused the fire to wash off of the wing. We feathered the engine because it could get no fuel.

“With only two good engines, we knew that to try to get back to our base in England was out. We would have been shot down by German fighters or more flak. The decision was made to continue to fly toward Poland and Russia.

“We flew east with no maps. At that time the Russian armies were driving toward Berlin and advancing rapidly. If we flew too far north or too far south or not far enough, we would land in German-controlled territory. We followed a double-track railroad until we spotted an airfield.

“It was almost sundown when we circled the field. Our wheels and flaps were down, indicating that we were planning to land. Red flares were shot towards us. This meant for us not to land, but it was quite late in the day, and this was the only place that looked like it might be suitable to land. The runway did look short.

“We decided to land. As soon as the wheels touched the runway, I locked the brakes. I looked down and saw cinders and stones flying in all directions. It was then that I knew that this was not a hard-surfaced runway. I then released the brakes because we were about to nose over from the wheels sinking in the mud.

“I then gave the then three engines full power and held the tail down until the plane slowed. We had plowed the whole runway. The plane stopped with the wheels in the mud and dirt up to the axles. The ball turret on the underside of the plane was touching the ground.

“When the plane stopped, we got out with our hands held high waving some leaflets that had been given to us at the morning briefing. We were told that the leaflets were in Russian and said, “Take us to the American Consul” or something like that.

“Before landing, there was not one person to be seen on the airfield. When the plane stopped, suddenly Russians were coming in large numbers from all directions. They first spoke to us in German to be sure that we were not Germans. A man soon stepped forward who spoke English fluently. We then learned that we had landed at a Russian fighter base near Kutno, Poland, a town south of Warsaw.

“We stayed for five days while they made sure that we had no military secrets. Then they asked us if we could fly the plane out. It had more than 80 holes that could be easily seen. The tail wheel was flat. Only three engines were operating. If the runway had been hard surfaced and if the tail wheel had been repaired, we could have flown it out.

“We were transferred 30 miles or so in a truck to another Russian air base. At this base we met five American crews who had had experiences similar to ours.

“An American C-47 with a Russian and American crew spotted a B-24 or B-17 as they were flying over this base. When they landed, they found six crews who had not been reported or accounted for there. They were out looking for any Americans that might have been forced to land in Poland. They made plans to take us to an American base.

“All of our crew and most of the other crews climbed aboard this plane. It was fully loaded. In a few hours we landed at the shuttle base in Poltava, Russia.

“At this base we were interrogated and given American food. They also notified our base in England that we were safe. After one night we began the journey to England.

“We stayed one night in Tehran, Iran, one night in Cairo, Egypt, one in Berri, Italy, then on to Paris, France, and finally some 15 days from the time our mission started, we arrived back in England.”

Niilo added: “When we were flying over the desert, we saw a camel caravan coming in and we saw pyramids close to Cairo. In Italy, the pilot flew around Mount Vesuvius and we could see the smoke coming out. I saw 15 different countries and I walked in all of them.”

Niilo said that they still had a few missions to go to make the required 25, and flew their last mission on April 21.

According to American History, A Survey, on April 30, with Soviet forces on the outskirts of Berlin, Adolf Hitler killed himself in his bunker in the capitol. And on May 8, 1945, the remaining German forces surrendered themselves unconditionally. That became known as V-E Day. The war against Japan continued until September.

To Niilo and the other soldiers stationed in England, the surrender in Europe was the news they had been waiting to hear. “On Mother’s Day I sent a telegram home to Mother,” he said. Niilo was one of 10,000 soldiers crammed into bunks on the Ile de France, the ship brought them back to America. “I saw the Statue of Liberty when we got to New York,” he said.

Niilo spent time at Edwards Air Force Base in California and at Chanute Field in Illinois before he was discharged.

Once Niilo got home he found that his brothers had all survived. “The whole family came back, safe if not sound. “ There are three left: Walter, Hugo, and Niilo.

And there are only three left of the crew that had shared so much together. “I saw the pilot, Howard, Pinner, years ago,” said Niilo. “He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina. The co-pilot, Leonard Tebbs, is still living. He lives in Sarasota, Florida. Us three are the only ones left of the crew.”

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