Memorial Day 2022: A visit with my grandfather

Notes from World War II veteran, former Rhinelander mayor Joe Bloom speaking to the author

By Allison Joy
Especially for Star Journal

The cabin on the lake never really became my grandfather’s place. I think he’s pretty much into it, but Joe Bloom has a bum leg from an old war injury. It made it difficult, and ultimately impossible, for him to lead an active lifestyle. He gets along well, but not without a degree of perseverance. Though her grandchildren remember vividly the speed she used to climb the stairs when things got rowdy upstairs.

Grandpa was more comfortable in the front row of the basketball court, standing in front of a class of English students at Rhinelander High, or chairing the city council during his 12 years as mayor of Rhinelander.

No, the cabin belongs to Connie — a young army nurse cadet from Iron River whom he married in 1946. The two met while Connie was undergoing nursing training at the army hospital in Galesburg, Ohio. Joe is a bomber and returns from almost a year as a prisoner of war in Germany.

During the spring of 2020, I found myself hiding in the cabin much earlier than usual, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The ice melted and the loons were back. They were at the start of a territory battle with a pair of geese for the island in the middle of the lake. As expected, loon won.

I sat in Joe’s chair, a hard oak frame with heavy cushions, a lounger and backrest that made it easy to get in and out, while retaining that classy finesse not found in a soft chaise longue. Having just learned about the sudden death of a friend, I sat feeling lost and disconnected.

Even though Joe had died 21 years ago, a pile of his books remained beside his old chair. I picked up one called “Page One: The Great Events of 1920-1985 as Presented in The New York Times,” and was amused. I currently work for the small but mighty Iron County Reporter, located not far from the house where Connie grew up and remembering my grandfather’s passion for news (he wrote a column called “Bloom’s Eye View” for the old Hodag Shopper) gives me a bit of a boost of pride.

I opened the book and started turning page after page. Several yellowed sheets of paper came out, stapled together. “JOE BLOOM — POW” is typed at the top of the first page. I began reading the words my grandfather typed five years before his death, detailing war experiences of which I knew little before.

“It started on December 7, 1941,” my grandfather wrote. “The war that we anticipated, but hoped not to come, has come. My engagement began in January 1942 and lasted 56 months. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps…”

Reading his words, I could hear his voice and even feel the rhythm he used when preparing for some narrative oration.

Grandpa trained as a bomber in Roswell, New Mexico [see photo above]started with the B-24 before serving as bombers in the 10 man crew that manned the B-17, one of the 36 that made up the 390th Bomb Group.

“We were assigned to the European Theatre. Based in Framingham, England, we started playing to keep going against Hitler’s children… In all, my crew and I had a total of 16 missions.

On one such mission, Grandpa and his men landed on the African coast “with fuel left to stay in the air for another eight minutes. We’ve played it pretty close.”

The final mission targeted the heavily fortified seaport of Bremen, home to several large German Navy warships, including the Scharnhorst and Tirpitsz.

“During the explosion of the bomb, our ship was hit and we were thrown out of formation. The anti-aircraft bullet that hit us also left me in the left hip. Outside the formation, we were attacked by several German warplanes, and we fought desperately with them. I don’t know how many of them we got. I’m pretty sure I knocked out one.

“During the fighting, our right-wing gunners reported over the intercom that our right-wing was on fire. Although this is not confirmed, when one says ‘fire’, the next command should be ‘bail’. I grabbed my parachute and headed for the exit. I briefly checked the shroud tines on my channel. I also happened to glance at the altimeter and saw that we were over 18,000 feet off the ground. Just as I was leaving the ship, I counted to five and pulled my glide line.”

Grandpa landed in a field outside Bremen, along with the plane’s unharmed tail gunner. German civilians approaching.

“I said to him, ‘Tony, for God’s sake, run.’ He said, ‘No, Lieutenant, I’ll stay with you.’
“Some civilians have guns, and things touch and go for a minute. We know that Germany respects the Geneva Accords, which protected prisoners of war, but what these civilians will do, we are not sure.”

German soldiers appeared and dispersed the civilian mob, and Grandpa and Tony were loaded into a truck headed for a Bremen hospital.

“On the way, and as we entered the city, we were met by a British night bomb attack. We reached what we believed to be a bomb shelter, but the guards got out and locked the truck doors. They left us there and for the next hour or so, we could hear the bombs dropping, and looking outside, we could see the flares falling.”

Finally, everything was clearly heard. Joe survived the bombing and made it to hospital in Bremen, where he stayed for 11 months and underwent four unsuccessful attempts to remove splinters from his left hip, in which the joint was badly crushed. In May 1944, German doctors informed my grandfather that he was being praised for discharge.

“That was the best news I had, when he came to my room to tell me it was possible to send me back to America via the Red Cross. I can’t describe the feeling it gave me.”

He left the hospital in September 1944, first for Nuremberg. A fellow traveler, Andy, “was one of the worst cases I have ever seen.”

After exiting the B-24 as the top turret gunner, Andy’s parachute failed to open to just 15 feet above the ground, breaking both his legs and back and spine in two places and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I can remember the excruciating pain he was in when we traveled from Bremen to Nurenberg… They had to move him several times, and I can remember his reaction to the pain he was in when they moved him. One time, he said to me, ‘Joe, I don’t think I can stand being moved anymore.’ There’s not much I can say, but I know that he’s in a lot of pain. I did say, ‘Andy, you’ve come this far. Hold on a little longer. Remember that coming home includes a lot of pain.’ He said he would try. I believe he was one of the bravest boys I have ever known.”

Grandpa and a group of prisoners of war are eventually exchanged for their German counterparts on Rugan Island. He boarded the Swedish ship, Gripsholm, and after an early stop in Liverpool it was another 17 days across the Atlantic to New York.

“The doctor came to check on us,” Grandpa wrote of the trip, “and he immediately ordered a dose of medicine, including the new wonder drug, penicillin. I started getting those injections every three hours for seventeen days, and as a result, my infection started to heal.”

When he boarded the ship, Grandpa weighed only 117 pounds — compared to his normal weight of only 170 pounds. However, due to the food on board, “which is really a thing”, he arrived in New York weighing 155 pounds.

He arrived on American soil via a stretcher, where his mother was waiting for him. Eventually, he was transferred to Mayo Army Hospital in Galesburg where he would stay for 22 months and be operated on “about half a dozen times.”

“At Mayo, I met several people, including the nurse cadets. One of them is Constance Rawnick of Iron River, Michigan. Then, after leaving, I married her. That was 50 years ago. We have three children — two sons, Jim and Tom, and a daughter, Rosemary. That number increased by nine, because each of them had three children. We returned to Rhinelander, where I have held various jobs, including 12 years as mayor of this fair city.”

Connie ended her journey on this earth and returned to Joe on May 15 this year. Their kindness, courage, and thirst for adventure lived within those they left behind.

Sitting in Grandpa Joe’s chair, reading the words he had written 25 years earlier, was the closest I could come to talking to him again, to having him entertain me with a riveting new story. Looking across the lake, I felt him beside me. Looking forward, I can only hope that she and my grandmother find a way to visit me again.

From my grandfather I got my love of writing and from my grandmother, with whom I spent many summers, I got my respect for the wonders of the Northwoods. He saw beauty both rare and worldly. I would find it in the calls of loons, in the smell of burning cedar in the fireplace, in the sound of rain on the lake, and in the sunlight that pierced through the branches to light up the marshes. The forest is filled with it.

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