CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army Air Corps, 2nd Long Range Photo Recon
Date: December 27, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Cole Snedeker
Walter Rybarczik was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey in July 1921 into a family with a history of military service. His father joined the Imperial German Army in 1890, and served in the cavalry before his family emigrated to the United States. After the outbreak of World War I, he was ordered by the German government to return to Europe to serve in the army. Rybarczik Sr. ignored this request, as well as another letter requesting his return to serve in World War II – this letter he defiantly tore up.
In 1942, Rybarczik himself received a draft notice to serve in the US army. Though willing to serve his country, he wanted to be in the air corps rather than on the ground. Thus, Rybarczik went to the draft board and lied, claiming that he had not received a notice for the army, and instead asked to join the air corps. When asked by the recruiter what he wanted to be, Rybarczik said “pilot”. However, in the words of Rybarczik himself, “I don’t know anything about an airplane. I’ve never been near an airplane.”
After taking an entrance exam in Trenton and a physical at Fort Dix, Rybarczik headed to Nashville for orientation. One day, his group was called together and told that they would all be radio operators. Evidently, he did not know “anything about a radio either, or a code.”
Rybarczik was sent to Scottfield, Illinois for training with coding and building radios. Soon he was able to code at a rate of more than 20 words per minute. Then came gunnery school in Yuma, AZ, where the trainees were given shotguns and tasked with shooting clay pigeons while standing on a moving truck. This turned out to be quite challenging. “Nobody ever hit one of them that I saw,” recalled Rybarczik. Proceeding next to aerial gunnery practice, he was taken up in a plane and required to shoot “big white sheets” being towed by another aircraft. Learning to time shots ahead of the target, or leading, Rybarczik successfully completed this stage of training and earned his wings.
Rybarczik remembered running into difficulties with managing his finances. He briefly made a foray into card-gaming before losing $20 and quitting. Rybarczik also left much of his money in his coveralls on the clothesline, which unfortunately was then stolen. The criminal was eventually caught, discharged, and sentenced to four years in prison, but the associated trial consumed all Rybarczik’s leave time.
Finally, it was time to begin training for actual bombing missions. Rybarczik joined a bomber crew with diverse geographical origins. He was assigned to the roof gun turret, behind the cockpit. Initially missions were flown with a pilot instructor, and all went smoothly. On the first mission without an instructor, however, the plane’s gas cap was left unsecure. After it blew off mid-flight, gas began to gush out and hit the side of the plane. Fortunately, the skilled pilot dealt with the situation handily and landed the plane without further issue.
The crew was next sent to Mountain Home, Idaho, where they “still dropped a few bombs,” and then Oklahoma, where they conducted long-range photoreconnaissance at 30,000 feet, as well as mapping training. During one flight, while walking to the middle of the plane, Rybarczik’s oxygen bottle ran out. His parachute then became caught on something, and he fell over trying to free himself, tearing the ligament in his knee in the process. He declined to inform his officers of his injury, as he knew that doing so might result in his service being curtailed.
Following the conclusion of training, Rybarczik’s plane was supposed to be sent to the Pacific Theater, but twice it had to turn back for California due to engine trouble. “But it was alright,” he said, “because every time we came back, we got $2 a day extra pay just for coming back.” On the third trip, the plane finally made it to Hawaii, after which it proceeded to Canton Island and then Tarawa. Rybarczik recalled the grisly scene at Tarawa; the aftermath of the battle for the island three weeks earlier had not yet been cleaned up. He next went to Morotai, where he coincidentally met a man who had sat next to him in homeroom during high school!
Rybarczik’s plane, a B-24F7A, soon began to fly actual reconnaissance missions. With two canisters of film, each able to hold 500 photos, and supported by two 500-gallon fuel tanks, missions typically lasted at least ten hours long. Flights were conducted at 30,000 feet up. The temperature was so cold that water in canteens would freeze, and the airmen wore many layers of clothes to stay warm, including plug-in heated suits.
The altitude, supposedly too high for enemy Zeroes to operate at, led to missions being flown without fighter escort. According to Rybarczik “Zeroes could go up to 30,000 feet, but it was too late now!” He remembered how he recorded his mission count with marks on a smoking pipe, which he retains to this day.
As the radio operator, Rybarczik was responsible for making a position report every half-hour: “The navigator would tell me where we were at, and I would put it in code and send it back.” Though promptness was important, he typed slowly to avoid making time-consuming errors. Rybarczik also recalled that his crew listened to “Tokyo Rose” quite often.
While running missions, Rybarczik travelled to many places, from New Guinea to Palawan. He even got a chance to see General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. There was not much entertainment overseas, but the people Rybarczik ran into were generally hospitable. In New Guinea, he was approached by a young native boy. Though providing some candy, Rybarczik was unable to gift the government-issued shoes that the boy coveted.
Rybarczik returned to the United States on the first ship arriving in Seattle after the bombing of Hiroshima, and he was discharged in November 1945 as a staff sergeant. After the war, he did not use his GI benefits, but instead was employed by the post office for 40 years. Rybarczik initially did not associate with the VA and did not attend reunions, but recently has become more active. In 2009, he contacted his former pilot and began a relationship between their families. At the time of this interview, Rybarczik was a member of the American Legion’s Trenton post.
In the end, Walter Rybarczik reflected on his service years fondly: “I’m glad I was in it. I really had a good time in the service, I really enjoyed it.”