News

31 combat missions, one goal: to win

by Dan Colton
for The Beacon

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A MAN OF MANY MISSIONS – Oostburg resident Don Harder, now 100 years old, served with several bomber crews due to high casualty rates among airmen during World War II. Harder, second from left on the bottom row, poses with one of his B-24 Liberator crews.

A 100-year-old Oostburg resident flew 31 bombing missions over occupied Europe during World War Two.

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Don Harder, pictured Sept. 2019. He turned 100 years old this year.

As a radioman and gunner aboard B-24 bombers, Don Harder experienced crashes, freezing temperatures, deadly anti-aircraft flak and German fighter planes. He was stationed in southern Italy and soared over Europe en route to destroy and disrupt oil fields and supply lines in the Nazi empire.

On his very first mission, Don bailed out over Yugoslavia. He said he spent a week running from local fighters and Nazis despite a shrapnel wound in the leg.

He returned safely to Allied forces and, despite incredible danger — more airmen were killed than Marines  during the war— Don went up to fly 30 more times.  Military documents provided by Don, dated from that time, support the story.

Born Jan. 18, 1919 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Don grew up as one of five

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A close-up of Don Harder wearing a flight suit during the war.

children. His family moved to Fairmont, Minnesota as an infant to follow work for his father, a factory foreman. He graduated high school and took a position as a manufacturing apprentice. He’d completed the apprenticeship by the time the United States joined the war following the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The war was on, but Don was convinced by his bosses to remain stateside on deferment to continue manufacturing .50-caliber machine gun patterns for the war effort.

As the weeks and months stretched on, Don said he watched friends and peers sign up and ship out.

“I wanted to go,” Don said. “…I had a guilty conscience. All my buddies were going.”

The death of a close friend overseas shifted something within Don. He was troubled by his exclusion from the war and his stateside safety, so one day, he went to his favorite park to pray.

As he laid in the grass praying, Don — who credits his survival to a higher power — said he asked God for a sign.

He didn’t have to wait long for one. Shortly after arriving home a short time later, Don said he received a phone call. A group of buddies were going to enlist in the Army Air Force the next day, and they wanted Don to join in.

It was the sign he’d prayed for.

The next morning, Don linked up with his friends, and by that time, he was enlisted as an airman. It was June 24,1942. More than a year of training — and a 1943 wedding with his wife, Phyllis — lay before him.

In 1944, a 31-day journey from New York to Spinazzola, Italy brought Don to the war with the 15th Air Force. He embarked on his first bombing mission Oct. 17, 1944 and arrived for his inaugural 6 a.m. mission briefing with a stomach full of powdered eggs, coffee and toast.

That morning, Don learned they would be bombing a depot in Vienna, Austria, a heavily-defended Nazi oil and railway stronghold. He donned his flight suit and protective gear to shield against the negative 65-degree temperatures and low oxygen at 21,000-feet altitude.

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An original photograph from Don Harder’s collection shows B-24s dropping their payloads while navigating through anti-aircraft flak.

The bombers formed up and headed out for Austria. As the crews reached Vienna airspace, Don said “heavy and accurate” flak fire damaged his B-24. Other planes were going down in flames or spinning out of control all around him.

“We were getting hit hard,” Don recalled. “But we had to win the war. We really had to get in there.”

The crew managed to drop the payload on-target, but their damaged plane lagged behind the formation. Before long, no other planes were in view, and the engines were still losing power. The craft struggled to climb past 14,000 feet to clear the snowy Alps.

The men ditched radios and machine guns to lighten the load for the climb over the range. It worked, Don said, and the B-24 arched past the mountains; but troubles were compounded when fuel levels hit dangerously low.

Now all alone and thousands of feet above the Adriatic Sea, the B-24’s pilot banked east over Yugoslavia. The order was given to bail out at 9,000 feet. Don jumped.

He took a hard landing in a field on the west side of the mountains. As a gust of wind buffeted his parachute and dragged him to a rock wall, enemy mortar fire began to descend on the field around him, Don said. He hunkered down against the wall “until it died down.”

After 10 minutes, Don said, a group of partisans — local fighters opposed to Nazi rule — and greeted him. Don counted his lucky stars knowing that many armed groups roamed the countryside, and plenty were less friendly than those partisans.

They provided him with directions to other crash survivors and, most importantly, a route to safety.

Two of his crew faced a different fate after landing on the eastern side of the mountain, Don said. Captured by hostile locals, they were turned over into Nazi hands as prisoners of war.

Deep behind enemy lines, Don was luckier. With help from his newfound allies, he linked up with other survivors. A total of 18 men from two separate crews were bound together in a desperate march to safety — they faced a 30-mile trek through the pitch-dark to reach the partisan stronghold. In desperation, the group stole an unattended Nazi ambulance and drove off into the night.

Eventually, Don said they were forced to ditch the vehicle and sneak past the barbed wire of a German army camp. They crept in silence with wary footfalls, Don said, aware of how close they were to capture or death. But before long, the Nazi camp was to their backs.

“It was the best thing I ever did in my life, that 30 miles that night,” Don said.

The band of airmen reached the ocean and discovered a row boat before dawn, Don said. They took turns ferrying everyone to the nearby island of Kornet. They slept until morning inside the hull of a 30-foot boat; Don used his parachute as a blanket to remain warm in enemy land.

As the sun brightened in the sky, the men grouped up and headed for the coast. There, a sailing vessel was waiting and they spent two nights more harboring at anchor. But before long, a British torpedo boat took them to the island Vis in the Adriatic. There, the 18 men boarded a transport plane and landed in Allied territory in Italy.

And that was just Don’s first taste of combat.

“War is hell,” Don said. “But you had to do what you had to do. We did it properly, and I’m proud.”

Don flew dozens more missions, experienced multiple crash-landings and other close calls. He dropped bombs on oil targets, railroads, brought destruction upon cities with countless citizens trapped inside the blast zones.

“War is hell,” Don said. “It bothers me, always will. It haunts me … It bothered me to bomb a home. People got hurt by it. But you don’t have control over it and neither does anybody else.”

Don’s daughter was born not long after that initial flight — it pained him to be so far removed from his family.

He decided on a risky gamble to return home as quickly as possible: To speed the process, he began to volunteer for every mission he could. Army Air Force policy permitted discharge from service after 35 missions, and Don figured it was better to fly them quickly than to draw out the experience.

“I was either going to get killed or go home,” he said.

When the war ended in May 1945, Don was four combat flights away from the 35. He weighed 119 pounds and suffered from “war weariness,” according to military documents he provided.

The war had taken its toll on him, physically, spiritually and mentally. Don said he was ready for it to end.

“It was happy, and it was a relief, because (fighting in the war) was off your mind. You didn’t have anything left to bother you.”

Don returned home to his wife and daughter, finding work as a factory superintendent. He moved to Oostburg in 1978 for work, now with two children. He stayed active throughout his life, busying himself with family, work, and hobbies. Don even ran 3.5 miles a day until he turned 85.

He now resides at Pine Haven in Oostburg, a widower of two years. His apartment is tidy, a comfortable recliner facing a plasma-screen television. Candy dishes dot coffee tables and countertops.

He’s quick to smile and crack a joke.

Looking back on the war, Don said it was a struggle of good against evil. To him, it was black and white. No gray. The job had to be done, and it had to be done right. He has carried that sentiment throughout his days and said it’s the key to success in every facet of life.

“I’m one of these guys that if it has to be done, it’s going to be done,” Don said. “You’re dedicated. You’re going to finish it.”

Don smiled again and adjusted his glasses. “I’m determined,” he said. “Stubborn, if you want to call it that … I want people to take that away (from my story). I hope it helps somebody.”

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