Harlan Jarvis flew 73 combat missions as an engineer gunner on the “Mad Russian,” a B-26 Marauder medium bomber in the 9th Air Force, 386th Bombardment Group, 553rd Bombardment Squadron in Europe. The six-man crew had trained for skip bombing missions in North Africa, an experimental technique where planes flying at 200 feet would skip their payloads—like stones skipping on water—toward their targets. With victory in North Africa, plans change, and the “Mad Russian” took its low-level tactics to Europe.
His first mission against targets in France in 1943 was a disaster. German anti-aircraft and fighter pilots shot down huge numbers of Marauders. After that, the Air Force adjusted its tactics and flew Harlan’s B-26s at 10,000-15,000 feet, high enough to escape easy shelling but low enough so as not to need oxygen and heated flight suits.
Close calls were many. On a raid on the u-boat pens at Kiel on the North Sea, enemy flak sprayed into the “Mad Russian” (the ground crews later counted 136 holes), one piece hitting Harlan in the chest. If not for his flak jacket, he’d have been killed. On that same mission, Harlan, as flight engineer, had taken off his parachute to check out damage to the plane. Tiptoeing on the catwalk, he stepped on the bomb bay doors, which flew open because their hydraulic lines had been shot out. Out Harlan flew.
Clinging to the catwalk by his fingers, Harlan looked down 10,000 feet below and screamed. Many long minutes passed before the co-pilot happened to glance back and noticed Harlan losing his grip. “Helluva way to make a living,” they joked after Harlan had been hauled back aboard.
A final close call came while returning home from a mission, when the danger seemed over and enemy fighters far behind. Close to the English Channel at 12,000 feet, an enemy Messerschmitt suddenly burst through the clouds and came within a few feet of the “Mad Russian.” Harlan looked over and saw the pilot: long blonde hair flying around the cockpit’s open window. “She was lost . . . and damn near rammed us . . . and I could see the look [of surprise] on her face. She darted back down into the clouds before I could get a shot.”
“We had the same airplane for 73 missions and the same crew. No one injured.” Harlan’s squadron, the 553rd, had numbers that added up to 13, so their patch had a black cat. Lucky 13, it turns out.
Oftentimes our older veterans are unable to attend our regularly scheduled oral history recording sessions held throughout the greater Pittsburgh area, so we often reach out to them and conduct our interviews in their homes or senior living communities. Such was our visit in January 2015 with WWII veterans Harlan Jarvis and Jack Watson of Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania.
Technically speaking, we never know what to expect during home visits in terms of sound or lighting conditions for our recordings. The world at-large does not make for a pristine recording environment: passing trucks, airplanes overhead, ringing phones, barking dogs, refrigerator motors, air conditioning vents—all distractions that get recorded along with our subjects.
We don’t live in a perfect world, of course, so we’ve learned to make due in any situation, such as on this day when Todd DePastino had the triple duty of conducting interviews while managing separate video and sound recording systems. Not an easy task for one person, for sure.