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By MARK EVANS
STE. GENEVIEVE HERALD
American B-17 “Flying Fortresses” helped pound Germany into submission during the latter stages of World War II.
John Bergtholdt, who turned 100 Aug. 9, helped keep those B-17s flying as the Allies fought on to unconditional victory more than 75 years go.
Now a resident of Ste. Genevieve Care Center, Bergtholdt recently reflected on his days in the legendary 401st Bombardment Group.
The 401st operated out of Deenethorpe, in the Northamptonshire section of England, north of London.
Enlisting in November 1942 at age 19, Bergtholdt had grown up on a South Dakota farm, working on tractor and truck engines. It was a natural fit to ship the teenager to Sheppard Field, Texas and Burbank Calif., for a combined 13 months of Airplane Mechanic Tec. Training. He took advanced training in Great Falls, Montana, Tucson, Ariz., and at Wright Engine School in Burtonwood, England.
In October 1943 he joined the 615th Squadron of the 401st, in Deenethorpe.
He became a Tech Sergeant and crew chief, keeping the B-17s flying for some 250 missions.
The B-17 has gained an almost mythical status over the years, for managing to return crews safely to base, despite taking catastrophic damage from antiaircraft fire and enemy fighters.
Bergtholdt did not disagree.
“Yeah, they were pretty well able to do that,” he said.
Despite the defensive capabilities of the long-range bombers, it was dangerous work. The survival rate, according to the Air & Space Forces Association, for the pilots and their air crew in B-17s, averaged lower than 50 percent.
Bergtholdt recalled that it was hard, getting to know members of the flight crews who did not return from missions.
He considered himself fortunate to make it out of the war alive.
“I was glad to come back,” he said. “I didn’t think I would make it back. Too many of them died. I guess I was at the right place at the right time.”
Some buddies he remembers from those days include Ken Gibson, George Powell and Ed Singleton.
Bergtholdt did his part by keeping the big planes running.
“We kept them planes going,” he said, “making repairs, doing different things to them, to keep them in service.”
He said many of the planes were pretty well shot up when they returned from raids.
The 401st was sometimes called Bowman’s Bombers, after Col. Harold Bowman, who led the outfit from June 1943 to December 1944.
It was best known for devastating raids on Oschersleben in January 1944 and Leipzig in February 1944.
Bergtholdt was mustered out in July 1945. Asked if it felt good to return to the US at the end of the war, Bergtholdt replied, “Oh boy, you bet.”
A South Dakota native, Bergtholdt’s experience with airplanes led him to Remmert-Werner in St. Louis after the war. He was then sent to Perryville to oversee their conversions on DC-3s for civilian use. He stayed on as the company became North American Rockwell and finally, Sabreliner Aviation.
Since the war, he has remained active in 401st Bombing reunions.
“Sometimes you haven’t seen guys in quite a while, so we’d go from a long ways,” he said, referring to trips to reunions.