Honoring the Legacy of Rural Iowa’s Greatest Generation

As the world remembered Dec. 7, 1941, people in my neighborhood around Lake City were mourning the loss of a local farmer and honored veteran whose life changed forever after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As I heard of Gerald Dial’s passing on Dec. 6, I recalled how this salt-of-the-Earth Iowa farmer worked hard all his life, raising crops, livestock and a remarkable family. As I got to know Gerald through my career as an ag journalist, I’ll never forget the day in May of 2006 when Gerald was preparing to plant his 60th crop.

As I prepared to write an article of Farm News in time for Memorial Day, I interviewed Gerald, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force at age 17. Here’s the story of Gerald, a B-17 tail gunner and member of the Greatest Generation whose inspiring legacy lives on:

Aiming for Victory:
Lake City Veteran Recalls World War II B-17 Bombing Missions
By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

When the graduation speaker admonished Lohrville High School’s class of 1942 that their lives had changed after Dec. 7, 1941, Gerald Dial was up for the challenge.

“I wanted to go into the military because all my school mates had gone,” said Dial, 80, a farm kid who enlisted in the Army Air Force at 17. The train ride from Des Moines to Wichita Falls, Texas, for basic training at Sheppard Field marked the first of many journeys that would ultimately land Dial, who volunteered for gunnery school, in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. As a tail gunner and ball turret gunner, his 35 combat missions in a B-17 “Flying Fortress” over Germany, Austria, Romania and other eastern European nations to destroy railroads, bridges and oil refineries would earn him recognition for valor from the Lieutenant General of the U.S. Army.

“In air battles of great intensity, Gerald Dial has gallantly and repeatedly carried the offensive against heavy opposition to the heart of the enemy and has, by his unfaltering courage, earned the gratitude and praise of his fellow countrymen, as well as his commander.”

 

Preparing for war

Dial, who had two brothers who also served in World War II, recalled how the training his crew received in Sioux City before shipping out prepared them for combat in Europe. After completing his training at Sheppard Field and Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Dial was sent to Lincoln, Neb., where the military put together flight crews. When the 10 members of Dial’s crew were assembled, they were sent to Sioux City for additional training in the spring and early summer of 1943.

“We flew almost every day over the Dakotas,Nebraska and Kansas,” recalled Dial, who farms near Lake City and planted his 60th crop this spring. “Because the pilots were green and had to learn how to fly in tight formations, we lost more planes at Sioux City than overseas.”

Being stationed in Sioux City came with one big perk—Dial could catch a train to Manson and hitchhike home to see his high school girlfriend, Alice Ann, and his family. “Those were the days when it cost 15 cents to take your date to the show in Lohrville,” Dial recalled.

Movie dates quickly became a thing of the past when Dial and the crew were sent to Italy in the latter part of 1943. The crew’s operational assignment put them with the 99th Bomb Group at Tortorella, a few miles south of Foggia on Italy’s eastern side. The crew lived in six-man tents heated by an improvised stove (made from a 50-gallon oil barrel) that ran on 100-octane gas. “We lived in those tents all through the winter, but we were far luckier than the infantrymen who slept in the mud,” Dial recalled.

When Dial’s pilot, Pat O’Neil, and the crew flew their first mission 10 days after joining the 99th, they targeted a troop concentration near Bologna which was bombed from 20,000 feet. “We thought there was quite a bit of flak, although this was really a fairly mild run in comparison to what we found the next day over Blechammer on the German-Polish border,” said Dial, who always took Alice Ann’s ring with him on each mission he flew. “A terrific barrage put several holes in our plane.”

Before that first flight over Europe, Dial was promoted from a corporal to a staff sergeant. Air Force rules at the time specified that servicemen had to be at least a staff sergeant to fly in combat. “It had something to do with the fact that if we were shot down and captured, this higher rank would help us receive better treatment,” said Dial, a 59-year member of the Lake City American Legion.
It also reminded the men’s loved ones all too clearly about the danger the crew faced. At 18, Dial was the youngest member of his crew, which included three men whose wives had babies on the way. For Dial’s girlfriend Alice Ann (who married Dial in 1945), it wasn’t always easy to keep her mind on her home economics studies at Iowa State. “In my Delta Zeta sorority, four of us had boyfriends, husbands or brothers who were tail gunners. It was hard to see young guys on campus who’d come back from the war with legs gone and other injuries.”

 

Remembering a cold Christmas

For Dial, bombing missions (which typically started at 4 a.m. and wrapped up by 4 p.m.) were determined by the weather. The downtime created a little free time to write letters to loved ones and jot a few quick notes in the “My Service Diary” that Alice Ann’s father had given him before he left for Europe. In an entry dated Oct. 1, 1944, Dial wrote, “Sat around in tent and read. Played blackjack all day. Rained to beat heck the whole day. Tonight went into the Red Cross, wrote letters and had ice cream and cake.”

Dial would have plenty to write about after a bombing mission on Christmas Day 1944. The crew, who had to wear oxygen masks in the unpressurized bomber starting at 10,000 feet, also wore electrically-heated flight suits to protect against temperatures that dropped to 50 degrees below zero. As the mercury plunged, Dial’s suit failed to heat up. “Going to the target wasn’t so bad because the sun was shining into my position, but coming home I was in the shade as the plane’s radio picked up Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas,’” recalled Dial, “I vowed I’d never be that cold again.”

 

Coming home

After returning to the United States on a troop transport ship in May 1945, Dial became a gunnery instructor at Laredo Army Air Base in Texas. Because Japan wasn’t out of the war yet, Dial and his new bride knew there was a chance he could be sent overseas again. Both were relieved when the war ended in August.

“I got off the train in Jefferson, my folks picked me up, and within a week I was running the two-row corn picker,” said Dial, who picked corn through December and helped with hay baling, threshing and other jobs until he and Alice Ann had the chance to rent a farm west of Lake City in December 1946.

A few years ago this farm where the Dials raised their seven children and still live today provided a unique setting for a reunion of the five surviving members of Dial’s World War II crew. As old scrapbooks, photos and letters were pulled out once again, the words that Officer James Sutton wrote to Dial on Oct. 30, 1945, from the Laredo Army Air Field rang as true as they did decades ago. “Your contributions toward the victory for which we fought, and which, after almost four long and trying years, we so recently won, have earned the undying gratitude of our country.”

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