Frederic Rubin was inspired to enlist in the military after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. His time as a lead navigator in the Eighth Air Force was an honor for the navigation connoisseur. During a conversation on March 27, at his home in Homosassa, Rubin showed off his model airplane collection. He picked up the hobby in his retirement, as it keeps him close to what he loves most: aviation. Now 96 years old, Rubin details his service in World War II.
Where were you born?
Kansas City, Missouri.
Did you grow up there?
No. I spent two years of my life there then we moved to Peoria, Illinois. I spent my early years up to my teenage years when I graduated from ninth grade there. Then, my dad got a job in Pana, Illinois as a creamery manager so we moved there and stayed for two years. Then, we moved to Champaign, Illinois. I went to school there for two years at the University of Illinois, and I graduated from Champaign High School. Then, we moved to Shelbyville, Illinois and that’s where my dad bought a dairy business. We bottled milk, chocolate milk, made cottage cheese, you know those kinds of things.
I got into electronics while I was working for my dad. It was when FM radio first came out, so I bought one. It lasted for about a month then went bad. I turned it over, looked at it and said “I can fix that.” Eventually, I got a first class license which allowed me to engineer any radio or television station in the United States.
In what branch of the military did you serve?
I served with the Eighth Air Force over in England. It was an honor being Air Force then, they didn’t make the Air Force until, I think, ’47, when it became a separate entity.
Do you remember when you first heard about the war?
I was quite a bowler at one time, I carried about a 195 average. I was over in Shelbyville, Illinois over at the bowling alley and I remember I missed a perfect game by one ball. That very day, it came in on the radio that Pearl Harbor was being bombed. I went home and told my dad that I wanted to enlist. He said no, he wouldn’t sign anything and I wasn’t old enough. He told me when it was time they would take care of it. It came close to draft time and he told me to take his car up to enlist with the Aviation Cadets. I was only one of two qualified for that. I got in the December of ’42 in Santa Ana, California.
When I first got into the Aviation Cadets they had qualifications: they gave us all exams for dexterity. I qualified for all three: pilot, navigator and bombardier. I made the mistake of asking what they needed most and I went to bombardier school in New Mexico. I washed out of that school because three weeks before graduation I computed an altitude wrong. They sent me back and I went to navigation school. After that I went overseas. When I got back, I got requalified then went to Lakeland, FL for pilot school. In the last few hours before I graduated I passed out. I had enough feeling to level the airplane out and idle back so if I hit the ground it wouldn’t be too bad. I finally went to the flight sergeant and they grounded me. I had, they’ve got four initials now, but at that time they called it combat fatigue. I couldn’t go on to basic, but I did graduate from primary.
When you first went overseas, where did you go? What did you think of it?
Somewhere outside of London. We had briefings and we waited for our assignments there. They told us not to complain about the beer. They had no refrigeration. Early in the morning there would be a cart drawn by a donkey with a milk can on it. People would come out there and ladle milk into their containers, and that’s how the milk was delivered.
Do you remember your first contact with the enemy?
The first mission I ever flew we went down to an air field in France, we were going to bomb that. We only got shot at over the coast of France. I didn’t see any airfield, and come to find out we had dropped our bombs on some big farm field. Later I found out that we were about 25 miles away from the airfield.
On our fifth or sixth mission we had our radio man shot in the leg, and he eventually lost the leg because we had to get back in such a hurry. That was a time when we came back alone.
What was it like being in one of those planes during combat?
Kind of scary. I’ll never forget the first time. Down in Munich, there was a fighter attack down there. The German fighter’s method was to fly parallel with you, then get out in front of you, turn around and come right at you head on. They had learned that our fifty caliber guns could only shoot so far and their cannons had a far greater range. The first time I saw that I thought they were blinking their landing lights at us, but it was those 20 millimeter shells firing at us. As the lead navigator, I was not permitted to handle a gun. My job was to keep us on course no matter what. That was when I really got scared because I couldn’t do anything about it.
One of the scarier times I had was flying over an assembly plant. When you’re on a bomber, you’re forced to fly a straight course. There can be no variation in altitude, no turning, nothing because you have to give the bombardier time to aim. Once the bombardier takes over, he has control over that airplane because the bomb site actually flew the airplane. I was flying with one bombardier once and we started arguing when I was showing him where the bomb site was and I just said “get up.” I had already washed out of bombardier school so I knew how everything worked. I set the bomb site for him and he sat there and bombed. Later on I got the Distinguished Flying Cross for that mission.
Another unique mission I flew was when we bombed Pennemünde which was where von Braun and all of his colleagues invented the rockets for the Germans. We bombed that and that was probably the most spectacular target I ever bombed in my life. It was just like sparklers going off all over the ground. There was nothing but smoke and fire, I had never seen anything like it in my life.
How many missions did you fly?
Thirty. When I first went over there it was twenty-five missions, but then we started to get fighter escort so the losses were less, but we still lost a lot of airplanes.
When I came into the group, I came into a barracks where six crews were missing. They were lost on the previous mission before I came in. I thought “oh man, what did I get myself into.” It’s a fact that the Eighth Air Force lost more people than anybody in the whole service including the Marines. Of the 110 people that went over in 1943, two survived their 25 missions.
Do you think the war had any impact on your personally?
I really don’t think so. I guess it made me a better manager. The experience of living in a community that is highly regulated, I think that teaches you something.
Do you have any stories about your time overseas?
There are a lot of good stories. My brother came over to see me at the base, and how he got there is a story because, well dad and I figured it out. He said “before you leave, we have to figure out some way to tell you where I’ve been.” And what we worked out was to use my initials when I addressed a letter. Instead of F.E., I used K.E., and the T.T., then E.R., then I.N., then G for Kettering, England so my brother then knew where I was at because everything was censored and you couldn’t tell anybody. He came up to visit and he was treated like a king up there, he was a private. He wasn’t treated like that in the army, he was treated like the rest of us, and most of us were officers. He got to go down through the officers club and eat the officer’s mess and he thought “man, I’m living in heaven.” We got him dressed up in a flight suit and all and got him on a B-17 on a practice mission. I went up with him 25,000 feet in the middle of December or January. He called up to the pilot and wanted to know what the temperature was and he said “54 degrees below.” You’re constantly working on staying warm; we had no pressurization, we had no heat, we had no bathrooms, it was just a heated suit and survival.
One of the biggest things in the military for me wasn’t military associated. After I graduated from navigation school, I was on furlough. I went home to Illinois to visit my folks, then I came down on the Orange Blossom Special out of Mattoon, Illinois into Tampa, Florida and MacDill Field was where I was at. It was 10 degrees below zero in Mattoon when I left and 84 degrees when I got off of the train. Then the highlight of the whole thing: one of my buddies from navigation school was there and he said they had met some girls. My other friend asked if I wanted to go out and I met my first wife then. That was love at first sight. I sent her an engagement ring from England and we got married when I got back.
Has anyone in your family served?
Yes, my dad and my brother.
How did your service affect your family?
I don’t think it affected us at all. The only thing that changed was my brother. We had a dinner with my wife and he came and used some foul language at the dinner table. Being around all of that language changed the way he spoke, but that was the only thing that changed.
Do you think your service affected you personally?
I don’t think so. I guess it made me a better manager. The experience of living in a community that is highly regulated, I think that teaches you something.
Were you still interested in aviation after the war?
Most of my life has been associated with navigation or aviation. I was with the Federal Aviation Administration and I became Navcommunit Supervisor, which had to do with all of the navigational aids. The communications we had, we had four remote sites with transmitters and receivers. During that time I went to the Bahamas, I’ve been to Bimini, Great Inagua. When you go down there, you can go up into the lighthouse and see Cuba and Haiti. I’ve also spent some time down in the Caribbean at Swan Island. That’s an isolated place, no one has ever heard of it. It’s 90 miles off of the tip of Honduras, the island is only a mile and a half long and a half mile wide. Down there, I was in charge of the island for the federal people. They had a crew of weather people, and we maintained a directional beacon down there, a radio beacon. We maintained all of the weather bureau’s equipment: all of the teletypewriters, the transmitters.
Did you have any other jobs after your service?
When I came back from overseas, I taught navigation. I was a flight instructor in San Marcos, Texas.
I worked for the post office for seven years in Tampa.
I also taught school. I taught electronics and American TV and Radio part-time at Tampa Tech. What a joy to teach where people pay to learn, let me tell you, that’s a pleasure.