Strawberry Blonde- George Kastner
I'm a third generation Californian. I was born and raised in Clovis, California.
My mother Georgia Bell Kastner died four days after I was born. My aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. J. Wise Brown, raised me. I graduated from Clovis High School in 1937 and went on to graduate from Fresno State College in 1941. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps in the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor. I received my wings and commission in August of 1942 and went to combat in September of 1942. I became a pilot in the 86 Fighter Bomber Group in the 12th Air Force. I named my A-36, "The Strawberry Blonde" after my wife Thelma who was a redhead. I flew from North Africa, Sicily and Italy and went to combat over cities Lengenya , Acena, Solano and Naples.
I remember one mission in particular, near the end of my service. I had the task of organizing a mission to bomb a 16-inch gun that retracted from Angio Tunnel during the day and fired upon Naples during the night. I decided to let my Clovis buddy, Bob Thomas, lead the mission, and I followed it with two other guys. We skipped bomb- gunned with two 500-pound bombs with delayed action. I was able to drop my bombs, but the Strawberry Blonde received heavy fire. I was headed down the mountain away from Angio Tunnel, when the engine in my plane came to a sudden stop. I tried to open the canopy to parachute out, but I was too low. I even tried to find somewhere to make an emergency landing, but there was no place to land, so I tried something drastic. I cut off the fuel to the engine and then turned it back on again causing the engine to backfire. Lucky for me, the engine started again. I flew over the Mediterranean Sea, back to Naples city.
You don't think much during the first ten to fifteen missions because you have never been in battle before. But after about 15 missions, when you start losing pilots, you wonder if you might be next; we, (the 86th Fighter Bomber Group), lost over a hundred and seventy four pilots. They were here one day and gone the next. When a member of the 86th was shot down, the other pilots and I would drink a cup of water and make a toast to our fallen comrade. I would spend a lot of time thinking about them that night, but the next day, I had to stop thinking about them all together. In war you can't go into combat thinking about all the other pilots who have been shot down. You just have to put it out of your mind and move on the best that you can.
I was one of the lucky ones. Out of the 83 missions I flew, my bomber group never made a toast in my honor.
During the war the Strawberry Blonde carried me through all of those missions; this was the record at the time. I received a certificate of valor from the 12th Air Force, and when I returned to the United States after the war, I became a base commander at Lafayette Air Force Base in Louisiana. I stayed there in the Air Force Reserve and retired a full Colonel in 1959.
Thelma and I have been blessed with two sons, seven grandchildren, and two greatgrandchildren. I started teaching American History at Clovis High School right after the war and eventually became Associate Superintendent for the Clovis Unified School District. After my retirement, they named a middle school after me in Clovis. My wifeand I make donations to Kastner Middle School to help the students there.