John “Jack” Huston was born in Pennsylvania in 1925. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the age of seventeen and was relieved from active duty in December 1945. After the war, he served on the history faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy for twenty years and subsequently as the Chief of the Office of Air Force History. During his interview, he spoke about his experiences during the war, particularly his initial flight to Berlin and D-Day. He also spoke at length about studying the war as a historian. Looking back at his experiences, he muses on the values and motivations behind his (and other’s) actions during the war.
D-Day & Paratroopers
I flew two missions on D-Day and we were frightened to death because we normally bombed at 29 or 30,000 feet, and we were going in at 12,000 feet. And we said, “Wow, this is the end of it.” But then, to see at 12,000 feet, those poor souls down there being unloaded from the LSTs, jumping off into the ocean, holding their rifles so they didn’t get wet and be unusable, and then having sniper fire against them. And [we] felt how lucky we were. We really were. And you didn’t think about you being killed. I don’t think you could afford to. This was something that was going to happen to somebody else. This wasn’t going to happen to me.
Did you know before the flight happened about the invasion?
No, I was surprised. I had been in the [European] Theatre for six months. And when D-Day happened, it looked to us at 12,000 feet, as though you could jump from the deck of one ship to another ship, and we all said—then and later—“Where in the hell were they all stashed?” ‘Cause we had flown all around Britain. Some of them had not been stashed, some of them had been sent directly from the United States to coincide with the invasion. But before then, we had been bombing close support bridges, marshalling yards, so forth. But it was varied along the whole Normandy coast because we did not wanna pinpoint to the enemy precisely where the invasion was gonna be.
And remember: I’m a Second Lieutenant, nineteen years of age. But to think I still remember that, thinking of those poor souls, jumping off those LSTs and wading in that water, and being sniped at by people on the high ridges.And even worse [off were] the paratroopers who had come in and jumped the night before.
Later after the war, I did some jumping of paratroopers and often talked to them. And they’re indoctrinated to say that it is more dangerous to land in that airplane than it is to jump out of it. And I’m saying, “You are crazy as a loon.” If you’ve ever jumped out of an airplane, it is a real jolt. And if the lady wasn’t here, I would say that unless your straps are on tight with that chute, you’re gonna be in the Vienna Boys Choir.
And I bailed twice and I find it not something I want to do again. And when people say, “Why did you bail?” and the left wing was on fire, no time to talk about the philosophical consideration, I’m saying, “They’ve got lots of B-17s and there’s only one of me, so I’m the hell out of here!”
Disclosing Information from the Office of Air Force History
One more thing I’ll bore you with: We, my Office of Air Force History, still maintain a tail number file. Any airplane now which comes into the Air Force inventory has a tail number, whether it’s made by Boeing or made by General Dynamics or whoever. You give me a tail number and I can go to my file and tell you when that airplane was manufactured, by whom, where it was assigned, and what—to the best of our knowledge—happened to that airplane. Also, then, in the report that’s filed, it would list the name, rank, and serial number of those onboard.
Well, my friend the Dutch historian said, “Well, if I give you a tail number, will you give me the details of the last people were on board?” I said, “Fine.” So I did that. And he then wrote off to some of them, “We thought you might be interested that we found the plane Uncle Harry—or your husband or your boyfriend or whoever it was—was in.” And he said we got lots of letters back [saying], “Thank you. We never knew what happened to Uncle Harry,” or whoever it was.
But the Chief stopped me after a staff meeting and said, “We’ve got to talk about something.” He had a letter from a woman. I still remember his name was Armand J. Ramacity. Not a common name. And she wrote to the Chief saying, “I’ve heard from the Dutch historian that they’ve found the airplane that my husband was in. By now, however, that’s twenty years ago. I’ve since remarried. That hole in my heart is not completely closed, but I don’t want to be reminded of this.”
And the Chief said, “I don’t want you to help the Dutch guy anymore.” So I said to the Chief, “Will you give me time to think about this?” And I gathered the opposite letters—from people saying I’m so glad to hear [about this]—and I said, “Chief, think about this.” He finally said he thought that the anguish was greater than the joy.
So he forbade me then to furnish this information. And since he had four stars and I had two—I can count—[I said], “Yes, sir. We’ll quit doing that.”
It was embarrassing to me that a member of my crew, Hank Bangeth, ends up with a lady. And he and I finally had enough seniority that we then got a private room ourselves. But unfortunately, he gets shot down.
And I still remember going back to the barracks and she’s there saying, “What happened to Hank?” I don’t know. And I find it very embarrassing to be in the room, of the two of them making love. But this is war time, I guess, and it happened.
Then, it became very poignant to me as a nineteen year old, when then she had to go on the next truck going to town because her boyfriend—we didn’t know where he was. He ended up as a POW, but that’s the way life was.
My mother would’ve been absolutely embarrassed and chewing me out with, “You’re living in a room with a man and he’s then making love with a woman that he’s not married to.” But I guess I, like many others, grew up very quickly. You don’t necessarily wanna grow up, but you didn’t have any choice.
“Service is a Privilege”
To me, I believe that serving my country was a privilege. I’m not sure at the time I thought it was a privilege. I thought it was probably a pain in the tush. But [it] still gripes me today to think of people in positions of authority: fewer than twenty percent of the members of Congress have served in the military.
When I become king, when you reach the age of eighteen, you are gonna do a year’s service. You pick it. If it’s walking in the mud: fine. If it’s emptying a bedpan, in a nursing home: fine. If it’s teaching in the inner city: fine.
But you’re gonna do a year’s service when I become king. The chances of that happening are about the same as my getting pregnant; probably better odds of my getting pregnant. But I feel that serving my country was, now, a privilege.
Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the Ethics of Military Leadership
Paul Tibbets was the pilot of the Enola Gay, the B29 that dropped the atomic bomb. As the Chief Historian, he and I both spoke on leadership to the area university classes. And the first question always asked [was]: “Would you do it again?” Paul never hesitated, “I’m ready.” Was he bloodthirsty? No, he was a very humane guy. But you do what you had to do. And maybe the German officer in charge of Auschwitz tried to use this excuse, too.
Where do you draw the line? What you do as an officer to obey what might be considered an illegal order? Do you do it? I don’t know. But you’ve taken an oath to uphold the constitution and obey the orders of those superior to you.
Was there ever a mission that you experienced that you decided that you did even though you kind of didn’t wanna do it for ethical reasons?
No, not really because you’re seventy-two airplanes in a formation and you’re really saying, “All right, we see other airplanes in a formation shot down. It’s not gonna happen to me. Let’s get these bombs as close to the target as we can and get the hell out of here.”
I don’t really think that any of my colleagues, had the luxury or the perspective of thinking of what this was doing. Now at age ninety-two, yes. But not at age nineteen. And I don’t know the answer to how we quit doing battle against women and children. I find it very difficult to reconcile, even at my age, with what I did. But again, it’s rationalization. And again, the bad part is gonna be the new war. Man it’s gonna be, I think, over in a minute. I may be wrong.