'We weren't looking for glory': Brainerd resident manned a machine gun in World War II bomber

Arthur "Art" Nystrom, 91, is likely the last person alive in the Brainerd area who served as an airman during World War II, and also likely the last man left from the crew of his B-24 Liberator bomber.

Arthur "Art" Nystrom

Arthur "Art" Nystrom, 91, is likely the last person alive in the Brainerd area who served as an airman during World War II, and also likely the last man left from the crew of his B-24 Liberator bomber.

Last month, the government of France awarded Nystrom the Legion of Honor medal, for his participation in the liberation of their country. On Oct. 27, former Vice President Walter Mondale presented Nystrom with the award.

Nystrom was in high school when the war broke out in 1941, and later volunteered to avoid the draft. He chose what was then called the Army Air Forces so he didn't wind up stuck in the infantry. The older generation around him that had been in World War I told of the horrors they had seen fighting on the ground.

"The guys around me then-veterans-had been in trench warfare in France," he said. "They kept telling me, don't go into that, because that is murder."

The Air Force had a particular appeal to a teenaged boy who had grown up during the Depression, where nobody could really afford to do anything exciting.


"A 17-year-old looks for a little adventure," Nystrom said. "I sure as hell got it."

After basic training in Missouri and gunnery school in Texas, Nystrom was assigned to be a waist gunner on Liberator. He flew patrol and shuttling missions all over the world, visiting everywhere from Havana, Cuba, to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Then, the farm boy from Crosby became a staff sergeant flying over Nazi-occupied territory with his finger on the trigger of a .50 caliber Browning heavy machine gun, defending the Liberator's fuselage (where the bombs were kept) from attacks by German fighter planes.

He recalled the day in the autumn of 1944 when he arrived at his squadron's base in England. When they got to their barracks, the base staff was cleaning out the personal effects of the airmen who had been killed earlier in the day.

He flew his first combat mission on Oct. 25, 1944, bombing the city of Gelsenkirchen in northwest Germany as a member of 702nd Squadron, 445th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. Movie star Jimmy Stewart flew in the same bomb group, but transferred out before Nystrom went to England.

He went on to fly 35 missions, spending more than 234 hours in the air.

Conditions in the Liberators were hostile. The missions could run as long as eight-and-a-half hours, a full workday of possibly being shot out of the sky. Since the bomber planes weren't pressurized like modern jets, Nystrom had to wear an oxygen mask at high altitudes. As a byproduct of being constantly exposed to deafening noise, Nystrom only has 10 percent of his hearing left.

The B-24s were forced to endure being shot at by flak-bursts of shrapnel from German anti-aircraft cannons. The American planes couldn't try to evade the flak if they wanted to stay on course and drop their bombs in the right spot, so they flew straight into it every time. Whether or not they were hit depended mostly on coincidence.


"It was the luck of a draw, like a turkey shoot," Nystrom said.

The flak bursts appeared as different colors to the crew members based on how close the bomber was flying to the exploding shells, he remembered. Distant bursts appeared as gray puffs, closer ones as black, and when the bombers were all but on top of the flak, it looked red.

"Sometimes, you'd look out there and it'd look like you could walk on the damn stuff," he said.

Overcast days offered a slight reprieve from the flak, because the German gunners had to rely on radar to aim their cannon. That meant the Allied planes would drop huge swaths of tinsel or "chaff" behind them to confuse the German radar on the ground. But if the weather was clear, the flak was back again.

The fact that Nystrom began flying combat missions after the tide had turned against the Germans had both advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the Allies had achieved air superiority over Europe, so Nystrom was less likely to encounter German fighter planes than the airmen that had flown before him. However, Allied success on the ground made things more difficult for Nystrom. As the Germans lost territory, they pulled back their anti-aircraft guns from the vast spreads of occupied countries and concentrated them in the remaining land they controlled, so Nystrom got an especially intense dose of flak when he went over, he said.

The bombers worked as a team with each other, flying in a shape that allowed their machine guns the maximum amount of coverage. They also had escort fighter planes to help shake off German fighters. When a Liberator was hit, however, the other friendlies couldn't slow down to protect it, Nystrom remembered.

The German fighters would then pick off the wounded bombers that fell behind from the rest of the formation.

Nystrom said he gets at least partial credit for one downed fighter, although it was difficult to tell who struck the killing blow.


"Who really hit him?" he said. "And we didn't give a damn. All we wanted to do is knock those guys down so they didn't knock us down. We weren't looking for glory, we were looking to get the hell out of there and go home."

Once, his commander shouted back from the cockpit for the crew to get ready to bail out. But Nystrom's Liberator, "Win With Page" (named for their ground crew chief) made it through without ever being shot down.

He had a reason to be scared, Nystrom said, but his Depression-era upbringing meant he flew anyway.

"When my dad told me to do something, I done it," he said. "You didn't give no argument. It was the same thing in the Air Force."

The crew members would be so anxious after they got back that the doctors would make them take two shots of straight whisky before they gave their mission debriefing, Nystrom said.

"I've hated that stuff ever since," he said.

New terror

On one mission, Nystrom witnessed what was then a brand new advance in aerial warfare: the fighter jet. But this jet was German, and stalking Nystrom's bomber formation.

Lucky for them, the lone jet didn't engage, and then flew away.

"He was scared, he didn't want to get too fancy," he said.

Nystrom witnessed a different innovation in killing as the war drew to a close.

In April of 1945, the Russians were nearing Berlin and the Germans would eventually surrender the following month. Despite this, the southwestern corner of France remained occupied, almost a year after the Normandy invasion. Up until then, the Allies had skipped the coastal area around Bordeaux to focus on the drive to Paris, and Germany. But the French wanted the area liberated, so the Allies launched "Operation Venerable" to free the area from German occupation. Nystrom was part of the American bombing strikes that included one of the first uses of napalm, an incendiary weapon more commonly associated with the Vietnam War era. Several Liberators were also downed by friendly fire, as the B-17s flying above them dropped their bombs at the wrong time.

The April 15 raid on Royan is in Nystrom's mission log-but not in his memories of the war. What he remembers, he said, are the emotional moments.

One such moment happened on a mission when the next Liberator over in his formation was hit.

That bomber veered closer to Nystrom's bomber, and Nystrom kept his eyes glued to it, fearing a midair collision. As it drew nearer and nearer, Nystrom reported back to his pilot how close the stricken plane was to their plane.

Then, a German flak shell hit the other B-24, where the wing meets the fuselage. The wing folded up from the force of the explosion.

Since the doomed plane's co-pilot was on the side closest to Nystrom, he could see the man's expression as he realized the plane was about to crash.

"I'll never forget the godawful look on that man's face," he said. "He knew he was going to die."

The plane could have blown up, sparing its crew from the horror of consciously falling thousands of feet to their doom. But that didn't happen, Nystrom recalled-his eyes followed the Liberator as it tumbled down to the earth with the crew still inside.

He remembers that on his last mission, after he got out the plane, he kissed the ground.

After his service was up in Europe, he was supposed to go back to the States and train on B-29 Superfortress bombers to strike Japan.

"Then my good pal (President) Harry Truman dropped the bomb," he said. "I didn't go. The war was over."

Father and son

Bob Nystrom, Art's son, said his father didn't like to talk about his experience until recently. The younger Nystrom said Art is his hero.

"They were kids ... I think there's a reason why most soldiers are 18-21 years old: because they don't think they're ever going to die," Bob said.

Art agreed.

"If they were older, they wouldn't have gone along with it," he said.

After he got back from the war, Nystrom got married, raised three kids, worked-he didn't dwell on what he had seen.

"You're busy," he said. "I worked six days a week, so you didn't have a ton of a lot of time to think about it. And if you did, you didn't say anything about it."

The Legion of Honor medal doesn't mean so much to Nystrom as the appreciation it symbolizes, he said. He was pleased to receive it, even though it came 72 years after the fact.

The bomber

The Consolidated B-24 Liberator was the heavy bomber that took Art Nystrom and nine other crew members above occupied territory during World War II as they bombed enemy factories, airfields, and other installations.

Date Introduced: 1942.
Manufacturer: Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation; Ford Motor Company; North American Aviation; Douglas Aircraft Company.
Number Produced: 2,698.
Specifications: (B-24D model).
Crew: 10, including the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer, ball-turret gunner, tail gunner and two waist gunners.
Wingspan: 110 feet.
Length: 66 feet.
Maximum Speed: 303 miles per hour.
Cruising Speed: 175 miles per hour.
Maximum Range: 2,850 miles.
Engines: Four Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43s, 1,200 horsepower each.
Maximum Bomb Load: 8,000 pounds.

Armament: Eleven .50 caliber machine guns.

Source: National WWII Museum.

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