By JOHN BALABAN
As told to Chace Anderson
One time I was in the hospital. A doctor there asked me, “How do you guys do it? How do you get in an airplane to fly a mission… go through hell and high water with bullets flying all over the place? You may make it back, but some of your buddies don’t. And when you’re called on, you climb back in the airplane, get behind the controls and fly another mission. How do you do that?”
I told him I was trained to do that. To defend my country. And that’s what I did.
— John Balaban
Muscle Power and Brain Power
My father believed in muscle power, not brain power. Work on the farm was more important to him than going to school. That’s why I was about 17 or 18 when I finished the 8th grade. On the farm I did a man’s job as a boy for many years, going to school part time, going to school only when there wasn’t work to do.
But I finished all of high school in about three years instead of four, graduating when I was 21. I loved to learn, and that’s why I left home and the farm when I was 22. I got out of North Dakota and hitchhiked west, heading for some place where I could continue to learn.
I had four brothers and eight sisters. I was born somewhere in the middle of the 13 children in the fall of 1914 in Streeter, North Dakota. My father, Afanase Vasili Balaban, was Bulgarian and so was my mother, Dora Geloff Balaban. They were married and began a family in Russia, and came to the United States in 1913, a year before I was born.
There was a group of Bulgarian people who pooled their resources when they arrived in this country and moved as a group to North Dakota. My parents came to America looking for an opportunity. They didn’t ask, “When do I get a raise?” All they wanted was an opportunity.
In this country, my father was called Thomas, and he worked as a sharecropper. I was born on one of the farms, and as a boy always lived on a farm. Other than some sugar, salt, and a few spices, everything we ate came from the farm. My mother raised 1,000 chickens every year. She sold the eggs, but we ate the chickens, along with beef we butchered ourselves. My mother also raised vegetables in a very big garden. There were lots of mouths to feed in our house.
I think it was a good life, really, but it was hard work. My father didn’t believe in education; he believed in work. He worked very hard and expected his children to work hard too.
He raised wheat, barley, oats and other grains and was very good at what he did. He was in demand to farm other people’s land and often had 20,000 acres under cultivation.
Farming always came first to my father, and he kept me out of school when I was needed on the farm. If there was any time left after farming, I could go to school. The neighbors often had to talk him into letting me go, and I went a little bit every year. I took a lot of shortcuts, and I was pretty handy at learning. If you have to walk a long way to get to school and you don’t get to go very often, you don’t waste your time.
My family spoke Bulgarian at home; in fact I didn’t learn English until I went to school. We didn’t demand that teachers speak the language of students; teachers expected us to speak English.
My school was a small country schoolhouse, maybe 20 students in eight different grades. We walked as much as five miles each way, and in winter, if we went, a horse would pull a sleigh through the snow.
When I was 14, my father bought a threshing machine, one of those things that takes the grain out of the straw. I ran that thresher for seven seasons, from the time I was 14 until I was 21.
I had been born in Streeter, but most of my early years were spent in Robinson, North Dakota. When I was finally able to go to high school, I attended Robinson High, and I was in a hurry to graduate. They didn’t charge you to attend school in North Dakota if you were under 21, so I did all the course work very quickly and finished when I was 21.
I was the only one of my brothers and sisters to graduate from high school.
What Came Next
I’m almost 99 now, and I can’t remember many things. There are parts of my life that I have a hard time remembering. Some of that is age, and some of it, I think, is some PTSD.
I have always believed in brain power, and I have always loved learning, so at age 22, I left Robinson and hitchhiked to the West Coast. I wanted an education and knew I couldn’t make it any other way. In 1936 I found myself in San Pedro, California, where I joined the Army.
After basic training, I went to Fort Monroe, Virginia, for Coast Artillery School. At the time, our country was very worried about defense of the coast, and the school was very tough. Every minute of the day was accounted for, and they crammed about two and a half years of college-level work into seven months. We studied everything. It was like going to college.
All my life I had been interested in flying, but I didn’t have the required two and a half years of college work to become an aviation cadet in the Army Air Corps. I asked them to test me on my knowledge, and when they did, I passed and became a cadet.
I was sent to Muskogee, Oklahoma, to train as an aviation cadet at Hatbox Field. When I graduated from flying school, they gave me a commission as a second lieutenant in the Coast Artillery.
War Breaks Out
While training as a pilot in 1941, I forgot my sunglasses one day when we flew above the clouds, and the solid white up there almost burned my vision. I ended up in the hospital with my eyes bandaged. All I could do was listen to the radio, and that is where I was when I heard the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
I’m not too clear on everything that happened right after that. I believe I was stationed in San Antonio, Texas, when my eyes were bandaged.
I do know that when I was sent to Europe, I left for England on the RMS Queen Elizabeth to help coordinate and set up for when the airplanes arrived. I think Grafton Underwood Airfield was where we were originally stationed, and I became a B-17 pilot with the 97th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force.
Not a Drop of Blood
I flew 30 missions during the war as pilot of a B-17, and although at times we lost an engine and often returned with a plane full of bullet and shrapnel holes, I’m very proud that there was never a drop of blood drawn from any crew member on a mission I flew.
My very first mission was one of the most exciting, as we locked horns with the German fighter force. When we had first landed in England, we were told the German fighter force controlled the sky over Europe and that if we went out on daytime raids, we wouldn’t come back.
We didn’t pay too much attention to that. On my first mission 72 B-17s were sent to bomb a German submarine base on the west coast of France.
We really got into a scrap. We had 12 .50-caliber machine guns on our B-17s, and our gunners were highly trained and knew how to properly lead a target when shooting.
On that mission we bombed our target, lost only two bombers, and with the help of fighter protection from British Spitfires, we destroyed 60 German fighter planes.
Some people didn’t believe 60 fighters could have been destroyed. As it turned out, about that time the British were developing high-altitude bombers. Part of the research was to have high-altitude planes monitor missions and engagements with the Germans. About then, during a mission I didn’t fly, we lost four B-24s and claimed 108 German fighters destroyed. Well, the British observers had counted 110 fighters destroyed! That pretty well verified we had been counting accurately. They couldn’t call us liars. It was expected the Germans were going to rule the skies, but we kind of changed their minds.
On missions from England, I saw bombers go down from anti-aircraft artillery, and some of my buddies were in those planes. The Germans were very accurate with their anti-aircraft fire, and I determined they were using radar. I figured out what we should do and wrote a letter to my commanders suggesting we should monitor German radar and pick up their frequencies. We should then build equipment that would jam their signals and affect their accuracy. Others must have agreed because that eventually happened and it saved quite a few pilots.
Aviators made 50 percent more pay, but to collect it we had to fly a certain number of hours each month, and that led to my wartime injury. At our airfield there was an English pilot who needed hours and wanted to take a flight. A bunch of us crowded in to go with him on a flight around England. When he landed he skidded a little and hit a mound by the runway.
I knew right away that I had injured my lower back and went into the hospital for a time. But it wasn’t enough to keep me from flying; we were pretty well strapped in on our missions, and I could do what was needed.
Long after I left the Army I had surgery, and some of my hip bone was put in my lower spine. I was considered a disabled veteran.
Not all my 30 missions were flown from England. The 97th Bombardment Group was transferred to the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean.
To get there I remember flying out of southern England and around France to avoid German radar.
We headed to Gibraltar and then to North Africa. I have a hard time remembering all the places in North Africa, but I know we were stationed for a time at Biskra Airfield in Algeria.
A Traumatic Event
After flying a mission in North Africa, I parked my B-17, and my friend, another pilot, parked his a little ways away. The crews of both planes were tired, and as we often did, we slept in or by our planes. My friend and his crew slept on the ground under the wings of their plane, and I slept in the fuselage of mine.
While we slept, the Germans attacked the airfield, dropping bombs on both wings of my friend’s B-17.
I remember waking up and seeing this plane next to me about 20 feet in the air disintegrating in flames. Tracer ammunition and bombs from the plane were exploding all around us.
The next morning I went over to where the airplane blew up. The largest body part I was able to find was a leg from the ankle to the hip still in the pant leg of the high altitude flying suit. That was a shock that I never forgot. That put me in the PTSD category for awhile.
After the War
I don’t remember exactly when I returned from Europe. I do remember flying from West Central Africa to Brazil, through a bunch of small islands and eventually landing in Miami.
I was given a leave and headed for North Dakota and a very emotional visit with my parents. I have a photo from that visit, and I remember my mother being so happy to see me alive. To this day I’m happy that I’m still alive.
When I got out of the service I was in my early thirties and thought I would probably farm in North Dakota. That was about the time I met my future wife Claudine.
Claudine was a college student in California, but her father had come to North Dakota to be a minister in a place called Steele. She came out to see him, and one day she was in this little restaurant having lunch. The lady who ran the place asked her to take over the kitchen for a bit. I was there having a cup of coffee, and when she came over, she sat down and we started talking.
I remember she told me about her airplane and how she flew. When she finished, I reached in my wallet and pulled out a card that said I was a major in the Army Air Corps reserves. She looked at the card and then at me in my farmer’s clothes and said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
She was five years younger than I was and a very self-confident person. I liked that.
Her father wanted her to have an education and told her, if she wanted to marry me, she had to finish the university first. So she did that, and we were married on January 12, 1948.
Our son David was born in 1953 and our son Douglas in 1954.
I realized farming wasn’t going to work for me. The back injury I had suffered in England during the war pretty much stopped that. I can’t recall everything I did, but I do know how my career at Sandia began.
Working on Atomic Weapons
In 1953 a friend of mine, an electrical engineer, told me Sandia National Laboratories was hiring and that I should apply for a job there. Sandia was very strict about degrees; everyone seemed to have a master’s degree or a PhD. Even though I didn’t have a degree, I went over and applied.
The guy said, “You’re 38 years old with no credentials that tell me what you can do. You expect me to hire you?”
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “Why don’t you hire me for four or five weeks and let me show you what I can do.” He hired me for those four or five weeks, and it turned into 21 years.
Much of that time we lived in Pleasanton and I worked in Livermore. My job was to design and test circuitry for the fusing and firing systems on nuclear weapons.
A big part of our job was to develop missiles and help the Navy test them by firing them from different kinds of ships. My job was really to make the missiles work with live bombs.
I have a book called The Horned Shellback that chronicles the 1958 voyage of the USS Norton Sound, a WWII vintage seaplane tender that was converted after the war into a missile launching platform. I was part of the 1958 cruise that test fired three rockets carrying low-yield atomic warheads. The weapons were detonated high in the atmosphere, and the data collected by satellites contributed to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belt.
One of my responsibilities was often to arm nuclear weapons 10 seconds before they fired the missile. One time, I remember, we armed the weapon and pushed the switch to launch it, and the missile fizzled. We ended up with an armed nuclear weapon on the back of the ship, and I had to disarm it.
It had a nose cone made out of a type of fiberglass, and I had to take the nose cone off.
I got my Phillips screwdriver and started to take out one of the screws. Well the tip of the screwdriver broke off in the screw. There I was straddling the nose cone with an atomic bomb between my legs. With a drift punch and a hammer, I hammered that screw out and finished the job. I did it, as I often say, the way porcupines make love… very carefully.
That was an example where I had to control whatever fear I had. I think fear is a strange thing. If you let fear control you,
you can’t do anything. I’ve run across a lot of those situations. I learned to control my fear.
There was a time when I was working for Sandia that I went to the Veterans Administration and asked them to examine me because I knew there was something wrong. After the war I had tried a few times to go back to college on the GI Bill and get a degree. But I found it difficult then to absorb or retain knowledge.
I was also getting a lot of flashbacks. Most of them were from combat missions I had flown, and I wondered when they would end.
Once though, I was lying down and felt one coming on, so I let it come. I had a flashback, but in it I ended up on the farm in North Dakota instead of combat. The thing I remember about the farm in that flashback was the serenity; the serenity was enough to warrant attention.
I was told I had some PTSD, but I don’t recall if I ever had treatment for it. I know I was hospitalized for awhile in Livermore while I was working for Sandia, but I was considered disabled from my back, and maybe that was why.
Sandia retired me in 1973. They wanted to get a younger staff, and I guess they thought 59 or 60 was too old. They forgot about the fact you gained a tremendous amount of knowledge with time. They asked the older people to retire.
All my life I pretty much did whatever I made up my mind to do. If someone asked me to design something, I never asked myself if I could do it. I would ask how I would do it. Then I proceeded to do it. I often did things others either couldn’t do or didn’t want to do. That’s always been true.
After retiring I tried to keep busy. I liked to invent things, and I designed and built a tennis racquet stringing machine. I formed a company and hired some help. They came in and helped, but they also helped themselves. They took my design as their own.
Sometime in the early ‘90s, maybe 1994, Claudine and I moved to Tuolumne County, and we’ve been here ever since.
As I said, there are many things I have trouble remembering, then again there are some things that are very clear to me. We flew missions at about 25,000 feet, and at that altitude, you create a vapor trail. But so do bullets. There were so many bullets coming at the airplane I was in that at times it looked like a plain white surface from the vapor trails. That I can see today as clearly as I did then.
Yes, I’m proud of what I did in the war. I’m proud no crew member was every hurt on any of the B-17 missions I piloted. There may have been holes in the plane but not in the crew. I’m proud I served my country, and I’m proud that I was a major when I left the reserves.
When faced with tough decisions during the war and after it, I must have made the right decisions … I’m still here.
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
American Defense Service Medal
Army Good Conduct Medal
Air Medal (with oak leaf clusters; 1 for every 5 additional missions)