CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Ellis N. Beesley
Ellis “Norman” Beesley was born on November 22, 1921 in Kearny, New Jersey. Beesley’s mother and sister died when he was seven years old, and after his father remarried, he was raised by his stepmother. Beesley had five siblings, three of them stepbrothers.
After graduating from Kearny High School, Beesley attended Newark College of Engineering part time while working first as an airplane mechanic, and then for the DuPont Corporation as a $16.20 a week chemist’s assistant. On December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, he was visiting relatives in Trenton, New Jersey. Beesley had always wanted to be a pilot and, instantly realizing that the country was at war, declared he was joining the Army Air Corps. In response his family laughed and told him he would never make it through pilot training. Despite that discouragement, Ellis Beesley enlisted in the Air Corps in early 1942.
Following three months in which a succession of written tests eliminated many of those he enlisted with from the program, Beesley was accepted as a potential pilot. In June he entered the Army Air Corps’ officer cadet program at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama for initial training and further tests. Beesley recalled one exam involving manipulating a number of rows of colored pegs while under pressure. His task was to move the pegs in a certain order – while one man shouted at him that he was failing the test, another told him a story that he had to remember, and yet another called out numbers that he had to record. In addition, the table on which he was moving the pegs was littered with mouse traps. He remembered that “they tried to get you every way they could to try and discourage you from passing — I passed.”
In September 1942, Beesley began actual pre-flight and then flight training in Albany, Georgia. The first plane he flew was a Stearman trainer, in which he practiced aerobatics, including snap rolls and slow rolls. After Beesley’s first flight, his instructor was so impressed by his flying skill that he ordered him right up in the air again. At graduation the instructor told Beesley that he had actually learned maneuvers from the young cadet. After two and a half months of schooling that included sixty flight hours, Beesley graduated and was sent to Greenville, Mississippi. When the oral history interviewer asked him if he was worried about his next assignment, he responded by saying “I got that far. I didn’t expect to get that far, so I had no worries.”
In Greenville, Beesley’s class of officer cadets trained on larger aircraft and began to practice night flying, formation flying, blind flying and landings. After another sixty flight hours, they were transferred to Harding Field in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they flew AT-6 trainer planes that were closer in size and handling to the combat craft they would be flying overseas, and practiced strafing ground targets with machine guns. Beesley successfully completed this final instructional phase and graduated on March 25, 1943 as a second lieutenant. He and his fellow lieutenants were offered the option of selecting which type of plane they wished to fly in combat. Beesley chose the dive bomber.
Before going overseas the newly minted pilots spent more time practicing at Key Field in Meridian, Mississippi, where they worked intensely on perfecting landing skills. Landing was a difficult task, because the planes touched down with their noses pointing up in the air. It was impossible for the pilot to see the ground, so he had to sense when his wheels were about to hit the runway. Beesley also practiced dive-bombing maneuvers at Key Field, although he and the other dive bomber pilots were not allowed to practice with actual live bombs until they were overseas.
In the spring of 1943 Beesley shipped out of Virginia en route to North Africa. On landing at Casablanca in June, he was assigned to the 27th Fighter Bomber group as the pilot of an A-36 dive bomber. In July, the 27th was in action in Sicily, where Beesley’s first mission involved strafing enemy ground forces with machine gun fire. On his first dive-bombing assignment, he and his wing man were unable to find their target and had to fly out to sea to dump their bombs. In spite of that rocky start, Beesley rapidly learned the craft of being a dive bomber pilot.
Beesley told the interviewer that dive-bombing was an effective way to drop 500 pound bombs, but that there was an art to doing it well. The diving plane was flying faster than the bomb just after it was released, and continued its downward arc briefly before pulling out and up before the bomb reached its target. He stated that this tactic was especially effective in Sicily, due to the hilly terrain that made it difficult for the enemy to see planes in the distance until it was too late. Although he was never formally trained to dive-bomb, Beesley had absorbed the theory, and opined that “once you do it yourself, you learn fast.” He also recalled that he liked to strafe trains, because it gave him a thrill to see something explode.
Beesley’s last combat mission was a December 5, 1943 assignment to bomb a bridge in Italy. As he approached the target, he noticed some Germans on the ground near a truck. Unfortunately, the Germans had an antiaircraft gun in the truck and were able to target Beesley’s plane before he could respond. He recalled that he could hear and feel the A-36 being hit and realized it was going down, and so he bailed out of the plane. Beesley said that he landed in a lake and was fortunate to be wearing a British parachute with an integral “Mae West” lifejacket, and he was able to easily shed the parachute. He maintained that if he had been wearing an American parachute, he would not have been able to unhook and rapidly shuck it and probably would have drowned. He was able to swim to shore, where a local farmer found him and brought him to his house. Although he was not seriously wounded, Beesley’s hair was burned off, and his arm and nose were bloody. Many years later, in 1981, he began to wear glasses, and the frames made his nose sore. The cause of the irritation turned out to be a piece of shrapnel, which had been embedded there since December 5, 1943.
A few hours after Beesley reached the farmhouse, the German soldiers who shot him down arrived, took him prisoner and escorted him to another house. The leader of the party spoke English and complained that he greatly disliked Hitler, and that the Fuhrer did not have the credentials to be in charge of an army. Beesley was invited to have dinner with his captors and was served, along with the German soldiers, a portion of steak, which he was reluctant to eat, fearing it was poisoned. The English-speaking German was amused and began to shuffle the plates around, telling Beesley to choose his own meal, explaining that if the meat was poisoned and he refused to eat, he would die of starvation anyway, so there was no difference in outcome. Beesley ate the steak, which was, of course, not poisoned. The German also explained to Beesley that if he escaped, then his captors would be shot, so the soldiers were not going to take their eyes off him. The oral history interviewer asked Beesley if he became worried by the sudden turn of events, but he said that his basic philosophy was: “Don’t worry about a thing until it comes, and don’t worry then because it’s too late.”
Beesley was transported from his point of capture through a succession of prisoner of war camps, sometimes by train and sometimes on foot. He described one early camp as a large field with hundreds of prisoners from different allied armies. Beesley was later moved to a camp near Spoleto. At all the camps, he recalled, rations were limited to potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. From Spoleto he was transported to Stalag VII A in Moosburg, near Munich, Germany. Beesley remembered that his fellow POWs spoke a number of different languages and passed their time trying to decipher what everyone else was trying to say. He also recalled that he was issued some bars of chocolate, which he called “D-bars.” He gave one to a young local civilian girl because he felt sorry for her. Unfortunately, she became ill because she was not used to eating concentrated chocolate. Eventually Beesley was brought to Berlin, where he was interrogated by the Germans. One of his fellow prisoners refused to speak at all to the Germans, and they beat him up in retaliation. He did not understand why anybody would refuse to speak when the Germans were the “guys with the guns.” The interrogations were very basic, since the prisoners did not have any intelligence information of value.
Beesley was eventually transferred to Stalag Luft III (made famous by the 1963 film The Great Escape), where he collaborated with other prisoners who decided to dig an escape tunnel. The tunnel committee assigned him the task of hiding the earth dug out of the tunnel in the attic of the barracks. His son, Phil Beesley, later added that at night his father would sleep in an upper bunk, thinking that the rafters might well collapse on him due to the weight of all the dirt he had stored up there. The tunnel was never completed.
As the war wound down and the Soviet army approached Stalag Luft III, which was located in eastern Germany, the prisoners were ordered to prepare for a long march, and some started to march around the compound with weighted boxes in their shirts to get in shape for the trek. In bitter January, 1945 weather, they began to march west in a series of stages, ending up near Nuremburg. In the latter phases of the march, Beesley and a few other men hung back from the rest of the group, feigning illness and looking for a chance to escape. They managed to acquire a sled and used it to haul Red Cross packages dropped by men in front of them. Some men died on the march and some just slipped away, as American troops were moving towards them, and the German guards, realizing the end was in sight, grew careless. The American officer in charge of Beesley’s group, a Colonel Alcart, forbid escape attempts. Alcart maintained that everyone had to stick together, and he threatened those who slipped away with eventual court-martial. Ignoring Alcart’s orders, Beesley joined those who walked off from the column. Shortly afterward, American troops liberated all the prisoners and the war ended.
In 1950 Beesley considered joining the army reserves. He completed all the necessary paperwork and handed it to the secretary at the reserve center, and she instructed him to proceed to an interview with — Colonel Alcart. He instantly asked for his paperwork back and tore it up in front of her. When she seemed confused, he told her the story about how the colonel had threatened to court-martial him and then walked out the door. Shortly afterward he and his wife Eileen decided to start a family, and he spent the rest of his career as a Kearny fireman.
Norman Beesley flew thirty-five combat missions during his military service. He loved flying and was very proud of his service, but he rarely flew a plane himself after the war. One of his friends, “Doc” Savage, flew glider planes as a hobby, and Beesley joined him on occasion, until Savage’s death in a glider accident. Since then, he has limited his flight times to commercial jets. He says he always enjoys the experience.