UPDATE:: Sadly, Mr. Katzman passed away on Nov. 7, 2021.
Read other veteran profiles in our Those Who Served series.
A Richmond Hill resident keeps memories alive of his days as a World War II fighter pilot in the famed Mighty Eighth Air Force by sharing that story with a new generation.
Harry Katzman moved to Magnolia Manor on the Coast about a year ago from Glennville to be closer to his daughter after the death of his wife Lydia. “Right now I don’t have much to do,” he said. “My main enjoyment is going out to the museum.”
The museum Katzman speaks of is the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, where on every other Saturday afternoon, the 96-year-old serves as a tour guide in the combat mission section.
Although at the museum he encounters fellow veterans and others from “The Greatest Generation,” a demographic that, unfortunately, is thinning with time, Katzman sees families, and especially young people who know very little about our past wars. It gives him an opportunity to educate youngsters from a first-person perspective.
“Young people now in high school never hear what happened in World War II or World War I,” he said. “Some are interested, but even if you talk to college students, they don’t know what went on.”
Katzman, who gets around using a walker, is mentally sharp for his age and incredibly articulate in recalling past dates and events.
He was born in Brooklyn, NY, the son of a World War I Air Force pilot. Like his father, his main interest was getting into aviation. “I wanted to become a pilot,” he said. He enlisted Nov. 14, 1942 into the Air Force at the age of 19, just months after receiving his pilot’s license.
“Eleven days after, while I was taking basic training, my brother called me up and said you have a nice letter from the president,” Katzman recalled. “I told him to thank the president, but I already enlisted in the Air Force. In other words, it was my draft notice,” he laughed. “Ha. I had beat ‘em by 11 days.”
Once active, Katzman would pilot B-24 bombers throughout World War II. He flew 24 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe as part of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.
It was on that 24th mission, Christmas Eve 1944, when Katzman and his fellow crew, whose mission was to bomb rail terminals in Frankfurt, Germany, were hit by anti-aircraft fire that damaged the B-24’s engines and led to casualties.
“Coming out of it, about 30 miles north, we thought we were out of harm’s way, but got hit,” Katzman said. “Didn’t know where it came from. Pieces of flak hit four of us.”
Katzman was injured just below his knee. “It’s like you took a razor, just tore right through,” he said.
While still in the air, a fellow crew member assisted Katzman. “He sewed me up and gave me a shot to deaden the pain.”
He further described the scene: “We had to drop out of formation. Can’t keep up when you get your engines knocked out. Two inboard engines of the B-24 were out. We were running on two engines The Nazis started coming after us. We were firing at them, they were firing at us.”
Katzman said three of his 10-member crew were dead; the navigator, bombardier and one other gunner.
“When you’re in a position like that, you start praying like hell,” Katzman said. “Somehow … get us out of here. And it happened. The man upstairs must have heard us.”
Katzman said fast P-51 Mustangs escorted them back home. “We were lucky they saw what was going on. Two of the Mustangs took us back to the English Channel.”
Katzman spent a month in the hospital recovering. He was awarded both the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross for that mission.
Katzman would remain with the Air Force and eventually retire in 1963, after 21 years.
Over the next years, Katzman would work in a variety of civilian jobs.
He got a call from the USO, asking him if he’d like to work for them. “I was surprised. I don’t sing or dance,” he joked. “They said no, no, no, this is for an associate director.” Katzman and his family went to South Korea for two years in 1964-66 for that job.
He served another two years in Bangkok, Thailand as chief of training for the Army and Air Force. He worked for the department of education for 23 years, sending him to such places as Fort Stewart, where he and his wife bought a house in Glennville.
He officially retired at age 67, but even then, he would spend time substitute teaching in Glennville public schools.
With Veterans Day next week, Katzman’s story is as timely and important as ever.
On the significance of the day, he reflects, “It means a lot. I won’t call ourselves heroes. We joined up to get the war over with. We went there, did our job and completed our job and won the war.”
As his voice softened and he wiped away a tear, Katzman couldn’t help but think about those fallen soldiers. “We left a lot of people behind. In the Eighth Air Force we lost 26,000 in action. There were 28,000 prisoners of war. This was out of 350,000 total. All these guys who fell could have been productive (in life)”
He says he often thinks about them.
“Yes, all the time. That’s why I talk about it at the museum. It all comes back.” However, he said, “When you talk about something, it’s therapeutic.”