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Doug Robinson: A WWII vet looks back, at last

Published: Monday, Nov. 11 2013 10:35 a.m. MST

Don Snarr shows his old flight jacket as he talks on Oct. 21 about his life as a bomber pilot in WWII and completing 35 missions.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MURRAY — Don Snarr survived the 35 missions over Nazi-occupied Germany. He survived the engine flameouts and the bullet-riddled fuselage and the near miss with friendly bombs and experiences so traumatic that he dropped to his knees when his plane touched friendly ground again.

He survived all that; he just couldn’t talk about it. For decades, he wouldn’t go there. The kids could take his leather pilot’s jacket for show and tell, but it was all show with very little to tell, because the old man just wouldn’t discuss the things he did and saw in the war. He didn’t tell his wife, he didn’t tell his seven children, he didn’t tell his siblings or parents.

When he got back to the States and the family farm in Murray, he got on with his life, but it wasn’t easy. Maybe he could refuse to talk about it, but that didn’t mean he didn’t think about it. There he’d be, in the University of Utah library trying to study, and the horrors of the war — the bloody bodies, the crumpled airplanes, the flak from the anti-aircraft fire — would appear in his mind.

“It was very difficult to concentrate,” he recalls. “I was still reliving the bombing flights and being shot at.”

Nowadays this would be called post-traumatic stress disorder and he'd be sent to counseling; in those days, men just dealt with it in whatever way they could manage. For 45 years, Snarr kept it all inside. Then a former member of his B-24 crew, nose-gunner Jim Anderson, called from Wisconsin to arrange a visit. Anderson sat in Snarr’s living room and the floodgates opened as the men discussed the war for the first time, their wives hanging on every word.

“That was the first time I heard about the war,” says Snarr's wife, Jean.

“I didn’t want to burden (the family) with it,” says Don Snarr. “Some of the things we saw were not things I wanted to share.”

Snarr is 90 years old, Jean 87. They are salt of the earth. They have been married 62 years. They have seven children, 25 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren with three more on the way. For 53 years they have lived in the same house, which Don built with his own hands on land that was once part of the family farm, surrounded by fields of potatoes, sugar beets and alfalfa. It was still a farm when he built the house in 1959 to start his family, but the government raised their property taxes nine-fold in a single year.

“We tried, but we couldn’t pay the taxes, so we were forced to sell off to developers,” he says. He shakes his head at the memory.

Snarr took a degree in electrical engineering and worked for the railroads. In retirement, he fills his days with gardening and church work. He serves as president of a Mormon branch at a local care center. He serves weekly in the LDS Church’s Jordan River Temple. He looks back on a life of service that, in many ways, began with the war.

A graduate of Murray High, he was a student at the University of Utah when the war broke out. Medical and engineering students were given deferments, but by the end of 1942 he noted that America’s air corps was being badly beaten and felt a call to duty. He and three friends enlisted. He qualified to be a pilot and by the time he finished training, the war in Europe had reached a tipping point. He traveled to England by sea, his ship zigzagging the Atlantic to avoid German subs, and arrived in July 1944, a month after the D-Day invasion.

“That was when the fun started,” he says dryly.

A tour of duty consisted of 35 combat missions, at least in theory. “At the rate they were losing pilots, it was almost impossible to complete a tour of duty,” he says.

Based in England, he flew bombing missions over western Germany, Holland, France and Belgium. His targets were transportation systems and factories for airplanes, ball bearings, tanks and munitions. The odds were stacked against the American pilots. They were fully exposed to anti-aircraft fire and German fighter planes, and if they didn’t get you coming in on the target, they could get you flying out, after the planes regrouped.

“Do that 35 times and the law of averages catches up with you,” says Snarr, who recalls one group losing 36 of 39 planes. “After the first mission and several after that, I got down on the ground and kissed Mother England.”

Close calls became almost routine. On one occasion, Snarr lost an engine and turned home. Before he reached England, three of the plane’s four engines were out. Because the problems had begun at a high altitude of 35,000 feet, Snarr had time to make a slow glide back to the base.

On another mission, a 75-millimeter shell knocked out the No. 3 engine. With the loss of power and speed, Snarr couldn’t keep up with the formation and fell behind. German fighters swept in for the kill, like wolves culling a sick sheep from the herd.

“They kept taking turns making passes at us,” says Snarr. “We called for a P-51 (fighter), and he scared them all away and escorted us home.”

Once on the ground, the crew counted 98 holes in their plane.

Says Snarr, “If you drew a life-size picture of the plane, including the nine crew members, then blindfolded someone, gave them a 50-caliber machine gun, pointed them in the general direction of the plane and told them to try to miss the crew, they couldn’t do it.”

The close calls kept coming. One day, the B-24s turned toward the target in a tight formation, but somehow one of the bombers wound up directly over Snarr’s plane. Flying wingtip to wingtip with other planes in the group, there was no escape.

“We were looking up at the plane above us and the bomb bay doors opened,” says Snarr. “We were helpless to do anything about it. They dumped the bombs over the target. The plane to the right of us took a direct hit and turned into a ball of flames. They were in our barracks. More bombs missed the nose of our plane by 20 feet.”

On another mission, Snarr’s plane was carrying three 2,000-pound bombs, but when they tried to drop them on the target only two of them would release — the third was frozen in place. The bombardier closed the bomb-bay doors and the plane was turned toward home, but as it descended the warmer temperatures at lower altitudes melted the bomb free and it went through the doors and landed harmlessly in a field.

The bombing sorties were scheduled around weather predictions, but those predictions weren’t always on target. During one mission, in which Snarr's plane was one of 2,000 in the air, they found themselves in a raging blizzard on their return flight to England. “We were told to disband and find a place — any place — to land,” says Snarr. “Can you imagine? Two thousand planes trying to land in fields and roads and whatever they could find in a snowstorm? Several planes crashed. One plane flew right underneath us. We were in the hands of God. We were actually able to land at the base.”

Like other Allied pilots, Snarr was unable to fly because of winter storms when the Germans began their famous Battle of the Bulge assault in a last-ditch effort to turn the war. When the weather cleared, Snarr was among those pilots who provided desperately needed support for ground forces pinned down by the Germans and freezing conditions.

“After we got in the air, we destroyed railroads and supplies,” says Snarr.

Finally, Snarr and his crew came to their 35th and final mission. It was considered a “milk run” — they would barely cross over the front lines and didn’t expect to draw any flak. “But we were flying a clunker that day and couldn’t keep up with the formation,” says Snarr. “Some milk run. We had to abandon the mission, so it didn’t count; we had to do it again.”

Their new 35th mission was no milk run; they were ordered to bomb the industrial center of Germany. To make matters worse, cloud cover made visibility so poor that they couldn’t see the target when they made their first pass, so they had to make a second pass, doubling their exposure to anti-aircraft fire and fighters planes.

“What chance did we have?” says Snarr. “I felt like we weren’t going to make it. We might have had a good chance in a fortified area with one pass, but not two. It wasn’t just a few gunshots. It was continuous (anti-aircraft fire) for 20 miles. We got shot up pretty bad, but we made it back.”

At the end of it all, Snarr marveled that he and his crew survived all 35 missions and didn’t receive so much as a scratch.

“If you believe the Lord wasn’t sitting on both shoulders, I will tell you differently,” he says.

Snarr’s war wasn’t quite finished. He was sent to the Pacific theater, where he was assigned relatively safe duty flying C-54 transport planes. What he learned later was that if the Japanese hadn’t surrendered, he was assigned to fly paratroopers to Japan for an invasion. As it turned out, the Japanese surrendered and Snarr’s first mission was to fly occupation forces from Okinawa to Japan and return with American prisoners of war.

“They had been badly treated by the Japanese, and most of them skin and bones,” says Snarr, who visited with the POWs before they boarded his plane. “It was terrible. They told us how they had been tortured and starved and how they survived. You can’t imagine how human beings can treat each other like that, cutting out prisoner’s tongues, pulling off fingernails, terrible things.”

That was the end of Snarr’s war. He flew home to the Murray farm and got on with his life of family, education, church and career, and for nearly a half-century kept his memories of the war and its horrors to himself.

Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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