Carl Gustafson always had this big grin on his face. He loved to tell jokes. He loved to tell stories. He loved the Beavers. And he loved the B-24.
I once asked him what made the heavy bomber he flew during World War II so special?
“It got me home,” he said simply.
It’s a tale a lot of WWII vets could have told and did tell. You went up in a massive piece of fantastically complicated assembly-line machinery, fought off fighters and flak and fog and fear and dropped your bombs. And then you flew back home, first to your base, and then back to your REAL home. If you were lucky.
In tons of ways Gustafson, who died Nov. 19 at the age of 94 in Corvallis, was lucky. An Oregon State College graduate, he lived the final 65 or so years of his life here, where he worked as a painting contractor and managed rental properties.
In addition to supporting the Beavers (OSU radio voice Mike Parker would regularly note when Gustafson disagreed with umpire calls at baseball games), Gustafson was a big backer of the Collings Foundation, which preserved vintage WWII aircraft and took them before the public. Corvallis was a regular stop on the tour.
Gustafson always participated, swapping stories with the other veterans on hand, posing for pictures in front of his beloved B-24 and telling stories about his service.
He loved to give backers of the “clearly inferior” B-17 a bad time. A couple of years ago at the 2018 Corvallis fly-in Carl shouted over to Jerry Ritter, whose father was a B-17 crew member, ‘Look, Jerry, they’re towing your plane in!” Ritter rushed to the fence … and realized he had been had.
I got in touch with Ritter, who edits a newsletter for Eighth Air Force veterans, when I heard of Carl’s passing.
Here is what Ritter had to say:
“I first met Carl in September 1993 when I took my first flight on the Collings B-17 (RIP) and worked with him for many years before he retired from the warbird tour. He was a great friend. Seems like just yesterday we had an 80th BDay party for him. I’ll miss trading wisecracks with him over which airplane is better.”
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Gustafson used humor a lot when telling stories about his WWII experience. He was the nose gunner, which means whatever happens … happened to him first.
The tail gunner on the 10-man crew was Jimmy Bennett of Oakdale California. Bennett, given his back-seat status at the rear of the plane, used to depend on Gustafson for information on what the crew was facing.
“He used to call me on the radio from the back of the plane. ‘Hey Gus, what’s it look like up there?’ I told him ‘I don’t think you want to know.’ ”
Gustafson flew all 27 of his WWII missions with the same 10-person crew. He was the final crew member to pass on.
And there were some harrowing moments along the way, with Gustafson noting dates and incidents with crystal clarity in a 2015 interview. Especially the three times his squadron bombed the Magdeburg area along the Elbe River.
“Sometimes we would get too close and the flak guns would be doing extra practice on you,” Gustafson said. “When we got back from a mission they would interview us and ask about flak. There were four levels: light, moderate, intense and intolerable.”
Magdeburg was intolerable.
"The three times at Magdeburg you could get out and walk on the flak."
That 2015 interview was conducted because Gustafson was about to receive Knight status in the French Legion of Honor. The medal was awarded by the French government at a ceremony at the Majestic Theatre.
Individuals such as Carl Gustafson, who left their homes and families to fight the Nazis, should not be forgotten. And it was poignant that a country that he helped liberate, France, also did not forget.