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Sixty years later, a quiet hero’s buddies finally hear his war story.

“Charlie,” yelled the bombardier of the B-17G bomb-bay doors are jammed open! See what’s wrong.” They had just Bugs Bunny Jr., “the finished dropping a load of food and ammunition on a low parachute run over France, and were flying at 500 feet and 155 knots. Hearing the exchange over the intercom, the crew knew they couldn’t keep up with the rest of their formation if the doors remained open. And flying alone through enemy airspace was a sure-fire way of getting picked off by German fighters.

Charlie—23-year-old Tech. Sgt. Charles E. Oder—looked down from his top turret gun position and immediately spotted the problem: The parachute lines from one of the food parcels had become tangled in the door-closing mechanism. With the unopened parachute dragging in the slipstream, there was no way they could shut the doors.

Oder edged along the very narrow catwalk over the open doors, took out his combat knife and leaned over the tangled lines. Balancing with one foot on the catwalk and one hand clutching the bomb rack brace, he looked down at the ground and trees zipping by just 500 feet below him. “Well,” he thought, “somebody’s got to do it.”

It was Oder’s 28th mission in Bugs Bunny Jr., whose crew had flown together in the same plane ever since their arrival at Rattles – den, England, in April 1944, with the 709th Bomb Squadron, 447th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. Their B-17 usually flew as the lead aircraft in their wing, typically taking the highest position in the flight. But even at 30,000 feet German anti-aircraft fire could easily reach them. They’d often returned to base with holes punched in their Flying Fortress, and on each mission they watched helplessly as squadron members were shot out of the sky.

Up to this mission, the only casualty among Bugs Bunny Jr.’s crewmen had been the co-pilot, whose foot was grazed by flak during an earlier raid. But if Oder made the slightest mistake now, he would be instantly sucked out the gaping doors. And since they were only 500 feet above the ground, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t wearing a parachute; it wouldn’t open in time anyway.

Oder would later recall thinking at that precarious moment of a previous mission, when one of the squadron’s other Forts had been shot down close by. Charlie had watched several chutes blossom as its crew bailed out. But he also saw one chute become entangled with the bomb-bay doors, after which the hapless airman was pulled down to a horrible death. It was a nightmare image he could never forget.

Leaning far over into the bomb bay, Oder was pummeled by the slipstream. The only thing between him and certain death was his desperate grip on the B-17’s bomb rack. He concentrated for what must have seemed an eternity on cutting the tangled lines. When he had finally finished, the bomb-bay doors closed beneath him. Everyone aboard breathed a sigh of relief. Bugs Bunny Jr. regained altitude and joined its formation, returning safely to base.

Fast-forward 60 years, to a diner in North Lewisburg, Ohio, Oder’s hometown. When the regulars gather for coffee most mornings, Charlie’s generally one of the crowd. But he’s the kind of guy who never talks much. Ask him a question and you’ll likely get a smile and a one-word answer—if you’re lucky. He’s known as a listener, not a talker. One recent summer morning as the regulars gabbed over coffee, the conversation turned to World War II, and one of the guys asked Charlie about his flying experiences.

Charlie took another sip of coffee and said, “Thirty.” “Thirty what?” someone asked. He replied, “I flew 30 missions over Germany and France.”

That got everyone’s attention. Then someone asked, “Were you ever scared?”

Charlie’s coffee mug smacked down on the table as he raised his voice: “Hell, yes, I was scared! Anyone who says he wasn’t scared is either a goddamn liar or wasn’t there! Those bastard Germans were shooting at me. They were trying to kill me!” He went on for some time in that vein, to the astonishment of all present. But after that outburst he went back to one-word sentences again.

Charlie Oder is from a large family, two daughters and seven sons raised by hardworking farmers. As America geared up to fight the Germans and Japanese, the draft took six of the Oder boys. Carl, the only son not drafted, had been injured in an automobile accident and was incapable of helping on the farm. Soon after his sons reported for duty, W.E. Oder was asked by a local newspaper how he felt about having to do all the farm work himself. “Food will win the war,” he replied. “The old farm must produce this year as it never produced before….I ran the farm alone last year and I can do it again….if the boys in the front line can fight and die, I ought not to complain about the extra work—after all it is victory we want, and that’s all that counts.”

My father, Ralph Westfall, was a World War I veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and also served as one of North Lewisburg’s air raid wardens. Hearing of Oder’s situation, he went to the draft board and demanded they return at least one of the Oder boys. They selected Herbert, the oldest, who probably shouldn’t have been drafted in the first place, since he was 40, partially blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. The Army had assigned him as a cook at a base in Texas. He was discharged and sent home to help his father. But the remaining sons—Frank, Kenneth, Burl, Leo and Charlie—served for the war’s duration.

After his 30th mission, Charlie was in – ducted into the 447th’s “Lucky Bastards Club.” His citation reads, “…for having this day achieved the remarkable record of sallying forth and returning no less than thirty times, for having braved the hazards of Hun flak, for bringing to Hitler and his cronies tons of bombs, for bending the Luftwaffe’s back; all through the courtesy of the VIII AAF who sponsors these programs in the interest of liberty loving people everywhere.” His 30 missions were all flown between April and August 1944. Discharged in October 1945, he returned home with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal (three Oak Leaf Clusters), European African Middle East Campaign (four Battle Stars), WWII and French Jubilee medals.

Oder went into the construction business when he got back to Ohio. Beginning as a carpenter, he worked his way up to project foreman. When he retired from that job he took up cabinetmaking, producing beautiful cabinets, tables and doors that are constantly in demand. The signs of his profession include a few missing fingertips; in fact, he has more scars from cabinetmaking than he received in the war.

After Charlie and the rest of his crew mates returned Stateside, Bugs Bunny Jr. got a new crew. On their second mission out they were shot down over Germany. No parachutes were seen.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.