Brushes with Fame and Brushes with Death: An Oral History

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Rick Margulies has a long story with many fascinating details — a story that still haunts his dreams but that he’s rarely spoken of until now.

“I hope you’re sitting down.” That’s the first thing Wynnewood resident Rick Margulies, 94, said before he began to tell the story of his vaunted military service during World War II.
Indeed, his is a long story, with many fascinating details — a story that still haunts his dreams but that he’s rarely spoken of until now. His is just one story we’re telling this week to honor our veterans for Memorial Day.
My name is … Fredrick Margulies, Rick for short.
I was born in … Berlin, Germany, in 1921. About a year and a half later, I came to the U.S. My father was already here. We landed at Ellis Island. We went to Philadelphia, and we lived with my grandmother.
I joined the military … in 1940. A friend and I decided to enter the infantry — the 26th infantry of the first division that was called the Big Red 1. We arrived on Thanksgiving night in Plattsburgh, New York. The division’s commanding officer then was Theodore Roosevelt Jr. He was unlike his father. He was about 5-foot-7 and weighed about 110 pounds.
When I joined the service, my father said … “Rick, what are you going to do on 21 bucks a month? You never lived on 21 bucks a month. I’ll send you some money.” I said to him, “Don’t send me money; send me nylons.” We were in the nylon hosiery manufacturing business. So he sent me a dozen pair of hosiery the first time. They cost my father eight bucks a dozen, and I sold them for probably $10 a pair. I used to give the hosiery away to my crew, and most of the fellows they would go to London. I would hand them one pair of stockings for their friends. So, of course, my tent always had a line.
My first brush with fame was … Winthrop Rockefeller, the third son of John D. Rockefeller. I had a single bunk bed in the barracks, and a month later the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Rockefeller came to sleep on the upper bunk. We tried that for a week and it didn’t seem possible that I could get in and out of the bed without Winthrop’s backside in my face. So we switched bunks. I now had the upper bunk, and Winthrop had the lower bunk. It proved very successful. The whole unit transferred to Massachusetts, Fort Devens, where I became very close to Winthrop and wherever he went, I went. He had got a car, a little Oldsmobile coupe, and we were off and running. We used to go to Boston every month, and we’d visit his aunt at a fancy hotel.
I joined the Air Force because … I received a request from the U.S. Army Air Corps for gunners. At that time I was considered an armorer gunner. I was in D company, which was a heavy weapons company — machine guns and mortars. I applied and was taken into the Air Force. At that point, I was a sergeant and they wanted to strip me down to a private. But I decided I wasn’t interested in that [change]. So they took me as a sergeant. I was sent to Tyndal Air Force Base in Florida for gunnery training.
I worked at a prisoners of war camp … after Tyndal Field. I was assigned to an alien enemy internment camp at Tullahoma, Tennessee, where we had three units — one for German aliens, one for the army and one for food and supplies for the Germans. Every morning they would take a trailer to the food supply, pick up their food and return. I stayed there for about six months. The heat was unbearable. But one night I was invited to a synagogue in Nashville, where I met Dinah Shore and her family for dinner.
I met my crew … in Kansas City. It was a complement of nine: four officers and five enlisted men. All gunners. Because of my height and weight — I was 5-foot-7 and weighed about 118 pounds — I was selected to go into the bottom of a B-24, in the [ball-shaped] turret, which had two 50-caliber guns, and rotated horizontally 360 degrees and vertically 180 degrees. I had complete visibility, top, bottom and sides. You can’t get into the bottom turret of a B-24 while it’s on the ground. It is unlike the B-17. There are only inches from the bottom of a B-24 to the ground so you really have to get in almost on your stomach.
My next brush with fame came when … we went out to the plane one day to await the bomb run, and along came this Jeep. A gentleman got out and got into the plane. My friend John turned to me and said, “Do you know that man who’s sitting in the co-pilot’s seat?” I says, “Yeah, I think his name is Stewart.” He said, “Do you know who that is?” I said, “I know who that is.” He said, “Dummy. That’s Jim Stewart.” I said, “Who’s Jim Stewart?” He said, “Jimmy Stewart, the actor, you dumbbell!” I said, “Oh! I know him! I’ve seen his movies.”
Jimmy Stewart was … terrific. He was one of the best people I have ever known. We were very good friends, the whole crew and Jim Stewart. He was our command pilot, which meant that he controlled the whole group to and from Germany. He didn’t fly every mission with us, but we had him most of the time. Our trips took us to and from Germany, sometimes nine, 10 or 11 hours. Unfortunately, every time he got into our plane, we had fighters all around us, a couple dozen fighters at our plane every time we moved.
One of the scariest moments we shared was … one day we were going to Stuttgart. We were in the lead position again, as usual. The bomb bay doors opened but not completely. So Johnny Vowvalidis, my bombardier, yelled, “Rick, get in the bomb bay and release those bombs — the doors are open, be careful.” There was a walkway of about 12 inches wide, for when you had to go from the rear of the plane to the front of the plane. I walked from the turret all the way to the pilot’s compartment, which is where the bombs were stuck — and they were armed. They were incendiary bombs, which meant they were firebombs. There were usually four big panels and about five or six smaller ones on each one holding the bombs back from releasing them. They would only release when the bomb bay doors fully opened. As I reached across to John to give me a screwdriver to release the shackle on the bottom, which was holding the bombs up, Jim Stewart yelled, “Rick, be careful! No sparks or we all go down!” The wind and the suction was coming into the plane from the propellers — it was a prop ship, we didn’t have jets at that time — it just sucked the air into the bomb bay doors and you could hardly stand up, let alone bend over. There wasn’t any room for my knees really. Well, after a couple seconds I finally got the knack of how to open that thing up, which I’d never done before, and the doors opened and the bombs released. That was a very horrible experience. There were quite a few like that.
One of the most surreal moments was … when a complete tail assembly of a B-24 came floating between my turret and the plane behind me. It was like a kite. It just floated gently — with the tail gunner in it. I lost track of him after a while. I assume he floated down peacefully.
The best care package I got was … from my grandmother. She went to Famous Delicatessen, and said to [owner] Sam [Auspitz], “I’d like to send my grandson something.” He said, “Let’s send him two salamis.” Well, when those salamis got to Norwich, England at the 713th Squadron 448 Bomb Group where I was housed, you could smell them all the way to London. I took about a half hour and both salamis were gone.
After 30 missions, I didn’t go home because … someone said to me, “Rick, don’t go home.” I said, “What? Are you out of your mind? I’m getting out of here quickly.” He said, “Trust me. If you go home, I understand they give you 10 days at home and they send your ass to the Pacific.” I said, “I don’t swim that good. There’s no way I’m going to the Pacific.” So I went to Jim and I said, “Colonel, I don’t want to go home.” He says, “I don’t understand.” I went into a lengthy conversation with him and he said, “I’m going to put in what they call assigned but unattached. Why don’t you take my Jeep and go to London for a couple days.” I said, “That’s great, Colonel. Thank you.” I hastily went to London and spent about two weeks there. I got back to the base and in about a week I got bored stiff — there wasn’t anything I could do. So every morning I got dressed, picked up my little electric bunny suit, and went out on the line. And on the flight line I would raise my hand and say, “Here I am, professional gunner. Anyone need a belly gunner?” Well, when you’ve got a hundred airplanes going in the air, someone always needs something. So I flew 27 extra missions, which gave me a total of 57 combat missions over Germany. When I finished, Jim said to me, “I gotta send you home. I can’t keep you here any longer. You already flew two missions on D-Day, one in the morning, one at night.” So I got my Distinguished Flying Cross and left.
I was discharged … May 5, 1945. I spent five years, from 19 to 24, in the service of my country. I received a Legion of Honor medal a couple of years ago in Washington from the French embassy. As the ambassador passed the award to me, I said to him, “Merci beaucoup, monsieur, pour la légion d’honneur.” Everyone broke up. That was from French II at Central High School.
I think I am … a very lucky person. There was never anything that I wanted really badly that I couldn’t have. I hope everyone gets to be as lucky as I am. I’m 94, I have a couple things wrong with me, but you want to know something? It’s a lot better than a lot of guys out there. I’m lucky.
Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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