CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Martin D. Potash was born in Dunmore, Pennsylvania in November, 1921. Before World War II, he worked as a machinist and telephone equipment installer for the Western Electric Company, a subsidiary of New Jersey Bell Telephone, and lived in Trenton, New Jersey. Potash had always been interested in flying and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in April 1943. He received basic training in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he was quartered in the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
After basic training, Potash received further instruction as an airplane engine mechanic and aerial machine gunner at Keesler Field, Mississippi and Tyndall Field, Florida. He was then assigned to Westover Field, Massachusetts, where he joined an aircraft crew. At Westover the crew received extensive training in target recognition and flew many practice missions. Potash’s two brothers were also in the service, one in the navy and another serving as an army paratrooper. He recalled that he enjoyed the discipline and structure of military life, since his family had been well disciplined.
In September, 1944, Potash and his crew left Westover for Hampton Roads, Virginia, where they boarded a transport ship heading to Italy. He recalled that the quarters aboard the ship featured rows of six bunks on either side of a long aisle in the ship’s hold. Potash stated that he served as a contact person between the troops and the ship’s crew during the voyage. In addition to soldiers, the ship also transported Navy and Merchant Marine personnel.
The transport took Potash to Bari, a southern Italian port on the Adriatic Sea. He remained in Bari for a week and was then assigned to a ten man B-24 Liberator crew in the 740th Bomb Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, 301st Bomb Wing of the Fifteenth Air Force. He recalled that the B-24’s flew faster than B-17 bombers, although the latter were capable of flying at higher altitudes. As a Technical Sergeant, he was responsible for the maintenance of the plane’s guns, ammunition and armor. The crew included, besides a pilot, co-pilot and navigator, a flight engineer, assistant engineer, upper, lower, and side turret gunners. A photographer was sometimes assigned to record bomb damage and air-to-air combat.
Sergeant Potash’s first combat mission was to bomb Augsburg, Germany. Flying along the Adriatic coast near Venice on the way to Augsburg, he observed two American planes from another squadron collide with each other in midair. In all, he participated in twenty-nine such missions to targets in Austria, Germany and Hungary, where his squadron bombed enemy manufacturing centers, oil refineries, railway yards and other military targets. He remarked that several of the targets in Germany had been owned by the American Shell Oil Company prior to the war. The squadron was also called on occasionally to support the Fifth Army’s ground offensives. Potash recalled that the crew he served with had an interesting mix of people, and included a Mormon bishop. The bombardier was a rabbi. According to Potash the wartime experience made them “like family.”
Potash remembered that the average time length of each bombing mission was about ten hours, and that the planes flew at an average 25,000 feet of altitude. Crew members wore fleece lined clothing to keep warm in the below zero cold (minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit or lower). He stated that his assigned position in the plane was between the pilot and copilot, where he performed the role of flight engineer by observing the instrument panel.
Potash’s plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and damaged on a mission over Munich and was escorted part of the way back to base by a P-51 fighter. On another occasion a blown tire led to a difficult landing. On his twentieth mission a headwind encountered on takeoff resulted in excessive fuel consumption, and the B-24 crash-landed two miles south of the runway on the way home. In the crash, he and five other members of the crew were injured, and the combat photographer aboard was killed. Fortunately, the survivors were able to exit the plane and were rescued thirty minutes later. Potash suffered a concussion, injuries to his left wrist and ankle, and internal bleeding.
When not on missions, life for the air crews was reasonably comfortable. Potash remembered that the men played cards and read Yank magazines for recreation, and that food was tolerable, with breakfasts usually including oatmeal and SPAM. He recalled that British airmen were quite friendly, inviting the Americans to visit their bases, a courtesy the Americans reciprocated. Italian boys washed the men’s laundry once a week. The boys were given a bar of soap to do the wash, and another bar to keep for themselves.
By the end of the war in Europe Potash’s crew had completed twenty-nine missions. His crew was deactivated on September 9, 1945 at San Giovanni, Italy, and he was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina. He was scheduled for assignment to Wendover Field, Utah for training as a B-29 crewman, but the end of the war in the Pacific resulted in his separation from the service on October 2, 1945.
Following his discharge, Potash returned home to Trenton, where he found his mother extremely worried about the welfare of her three sons in the service. All three returned safely. He believes that his wartime experience elevated his respect for other people and reinforced his feeling that rules and regulations were necessary for a society to function properly. When speaking of his experiences, or attending funerals, he often finds himself tearful as he recalls his time in the war. He believes that modern family life has often been diluted with a lack of discipline.
Potash has attended one Fifteenth Air Force reunion at Langley Field, Texas, and other reunions of the Fifteenth in California and Philadelphia and met several members of his old crew in the years since the war. Following his interview he displayed photographs of his crew and aircraft, airfield and briefing room.
Technical Sergeant Martin Potash’s battles and campaigns include the Northern Apennines, Po Valley, Rhineland, Central Europe and the Balkans. He received the Purple Heart, Soldier’s Medal, Good Conduct Medal, European Service Medal with five campaign stars, and the Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters.