In his senior year at Buffalo Technical High School, Robert J. Schaefer was working as a full-time welder at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft factory on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga.
The ambitious 18-year-old worked the night shift, 1 a.m. to 8 a.m., and then headed to high school until 2:30 p.m.
“It wasn’t easy, but I was young and could do those things,” the 88-year-old Schaefer recalls. “I wanted to do something patriotic, to help in the war effort.”
He got an opportunity to do just that a month after graduating from high school in June 1942, when he got a draft notice.
“Because of my experience as a welder, I thought I wanted to be in the Army engineers, but that’s not how the Army does things. I wound up in the Army Air Forces,” Schaefer says.
After several months of training, he and the nine other members of his B-24 crew picked up their brand-new plane in Topeka, Kan., and flew it to Tunis, Tunisia. A week later, they headed from North Africa to the home base for B-24s at Torretta Field in Cerignola, Italy.
“Another crew flew the plane on its second mission, and it was shot down in the Adriatic Sea. The crew ditched it and got out OK,” he remembers, still relieved that he had not been on that bombing run. “The plane is probably still at the bottom of the sea.”
But he would face plenty of peril on his 14 combat missions in the skies over Europe, with the most dangerous occurring on what was his unlucky 13th flight.
“We were over Vienna, and I left the flight deck to man my .50-caliber waist gun, and I got stuck in the bomb bay. My parachute harness got caught in an upright on the catwalk,” he says. “We were carrying four 500-pound bombs. Three went out with no problem. I watched them hit the target, a railroad yard.
“The fourth bomb never let loose. It was right close to me, so I gave it a big kick, and it went out. It missed the target, but it went out, and that exercise of kicking must have freed my parachute harness. I was able to move around. I laid down on the bottom of the plane. I was pooped. My oxygen was running out.
“Then I saw the tail gunner signaling me to put on my intercom headset, and the pilot was telling me to get back to the flight deck. We were having trouble with the No. 2 engine. I told him I was pooped, and he said, ‘Get your ass up here right now. The No. 2 is running wild.’ I went up, and we feathered the engine’s prop into the wind to stop it from vibrating off the wing.”
With the engine stabilized, Schaefer remained on the flight deck until they landed back at the base.
“After we landed, we had our post-flight talk, and during it, I noticed there was a big hole where my .50-caliber waist gun was located,” Schaefer says. “I realized if I had been standing there, I would have been hit by the flak which had gone right up through the roof of the plane.”
That night in his tent, Schaefer prayed.
“I said to the Good Lord: ‘Get me out of this mess in one piece and I will let my life take any direction you want it to take.’ About two days later, I got the idea that I’d like to maybe become a schoolteacher.”
He flew on one final mission with more than 1,000 other planes, dropping hundreds of fragmentation bombs on German forces in northern Italy. Shortly afterward, the war in Europe ended.
Honorably discharged from the service in November 1945, he soon began attending Buffalo State Teachers College and earned an industrial arts degree.
“My promise to the Lord resulted in 38 years as a teacher and school principal in the Williamsville School District,” Schaefer says. “I was the first principal at Heim Middle School, for 20 years.”
Just a few weeks ago, he received some heartwarming proof that he had made the right choice by going into education.
“I was on an Honor Flight to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, and there was this woman volunteer who came up to me and said, ‘I remember you. You were my principal, and you told us at an assembly that there were 10 two-letter words you could live your life by, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’ She told me she became a teacher and she uses that line in her classes.”
When Schaefer reflects on his war service, he recalls that fourth 500-pound bomb he kicked out of the B-24:
“I like to think it landed in a farmer’s field about 20 miles outside of Vienna and caused a crater that filled with water that I hope became a fishing pond for some kids.”