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War Was the Best Thing to Happen to Me

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World War II was the making -- and almost the unmaking -- of me.

There's the story of my plane being shot down and the subsequent award of a Purple Heart medal -- for a bump on the head. There is the story of how I wiped out most of the freshwater fish in Germany -- slight exaggeration. I'll get to those.

But first, you should know this: for me, going to war meant a quantum leap in the quality of my life. Otherwise, I might never have left a factory job -- screwing together big telephone switchboards for Western Electric in Newark, New Jersey. When, in 1943, I entered a training program for the Army Air Corps, my life started on a new trajectory.

I don't minimize the tragedy and sacrifice of the war. I had fliers sit by me at mess hall one day; the next, they were gone -- along with their planes -- their names to be added to the honor roll, their families to be sent the news they dreaded.

The risk of dying young was real. But so was the opportunity to transform your life. The training I received from the Army Air Corps allowed me to become an officer (First Lieutenant) and then, after I returned from the war, to receive an undergraduate education at Syracuse University at the government's expense. By the time I graduated with a B.A. in ­political science, I was on a path that would lead me to become a well-paid executive in New York City in the 1950s, living a life that I would have dismissed as a fantasy 10 years before.

It might sound odd, but the war was the best thing to happen to me.

It wasn't the safest thing, however.

On December 11, 1944, our B-24 bomber went down in the Adriatic Sea. The experience made me religious for the first and possibly the last time in my life.

The 15th Air Force flew out of Italy. We had it relatively easy compared to the 8th Air Force, which flew out of England. But our planes still got shot down. We had maybe 15 percent casualties. It was enough to keep you alert.

The two toughest targets for us were Munich and Vienna. On this day we were headed for Vienna. The city was heavily armed. They had batteries of four 88-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, so the shots were in sequence. Pum, pum, pum, pum. Puffs of black smoke far below. You couldn't hear anything. When you're enclosed in glass, as the bombardier is, you just see them. You'd wait for the fourth puff. You knew the guns meant potential death. They were frightening. And fascinating.

You need to understand, we were slow-moving targets. We flew B-24s. One of the uncomplimentary names for the B-24 was the "pregnant footlocker." It had a large underbelly, and a top speed of 160 miles per hour. We'd lose a race with most European sports cars now.

On that day we ran into some fighter opposition and two of our four engines were shot out over Vienna, which of course was in the grasp of German power at the time.

Now, B-17 bombers flew beautifully on two engines. The B-24 did not. With only two engines working, it wasn't a matter of whether we would crash, but when. Fortunately, we had a very able pilot. He kept us aloft for as long as he could, and then he announced we were going to ditch. That means a plane that's designed to land on terra firma is going down in the water.

We braced ourselves. I was initially pleased we were going to crash into water, which in my experience certainly seemed softer than land. That notion was sharply dispelled by the massive impact we felt as we made contact with the Adriatic -- by that time we were going 100 MPH. The force was tremendous. I momentarily blacked out.

When I came to, I was underwater. I thought, I'm not a bad swimmer. Funny the thoughts you have. I was 21 years old. I thought, I'm certainly not a good swimmer, but it would be odd if I drowned.

Then I stood up.

You see, I was still in the airplane, in three feet of water. You can drown in two inches of water if your nose is covered. But I had recovered consciousness. So I didn't have to swim to safety, I just climbed out. In fact, all 10 of the crew climbed out before the plane sank. That was fortunate because the B-24s floating ability was very poor.

The crew sprang the yellow dinghies, and we sat in them in the water. In December, the water is 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. So we sat in the dinghies for two hours until we were picked up by an Italian fishing boat and taken to land. An Army truck took us to Foggia, about 20 or 30 miles away.

I had suffered a bump on the head. It was treated quickly. But then they woke me up at 2:00 in the morning and presented me with the Purple Heart.

My head healed quickly -- I still have a little scar. But that wasn't the end of the story. You see, I developed the condition for which Preparation H was created. To put it bluntly, I had the piles. When I got back to the squadron, I had to go for treatment to the same clinic that looked after those suffering from venereal disease. Venereal disease was a major problem. There were signs all over. I must say that as a good officer I followed instructions where V.D. was concerned. Mainly because I couldn't get within arm's length of a woman.

The word spread, however, that Lieutenant Crandell had venereal disease because I went to the same place for treatment as the V.D. suf­ferers.

I dubbed it the immaculate infection.

Next time I'll tell you the story of missing Munich and killing all those fish.

By the way, my son wrote down a bunch of my stories in a book called Silver Tongue - Secrets of Mr. Santa Barbara. I highly recommend it as a sedative. Just take two chapters with a glass of water. You'll sleep like a baby.