Robert Eugene Holmstrom was born in Two Harbors, Minn., on a cold night in January 1926. His childhood was spread all over the state, following his father’s work in construction and lumber yards, bouncing back and forth from St. Paul to the North Shore, sometimes living in a tent and eating whatever his family could hunt, grow or gather.
He glimpsed his first plane from a hill in Mounds Park in St. Paul and took a $10 flight in a Ford TriMotor all around Minneapolis and St. Paul. At 10 years old, he knew he wanted to fly. After graduating from high school, he worked packing meat for meals to feed soldiers. His supervisor was an Army major; they got to talking and Holmstrom enlisted.
“I still wanted to fly. So one of my days off, I grabbed a streetcar, went over to Minneapolis and went to the armory over there and I applied for the Air Force,” he said.
He turned 18 in January 1944 and was in the Army. After examinations at Fort Snelling, he was sent to Texas and Idaho for special training. He was blindfolded and taught how to put together a 50-caliber machine gun, the same gun he would man in the nose turret of a B-24 bomber flying over Europe.
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“You learned your machine gun like it was your right arm and you had to know how to put it back together and operate it and make it work,” he said.
When he arrived at Cheddington Airfield in England, what he saw confused him. The planes were painted black. He soon found out his mission was to be secret low-altitude flights over Europe at night, dropping spies, supplies and propaganda to aid the resistance on the ground.
The crew couldn’t talk to anyone about their missions, and no one but the navigator knew where they were going until they were in the air. A line of three fires with one off to the side would mark their drop site. They would deliver their payload and turn back toward England, dodging flak and enemy fire.
When the war ended in 1945, his plane brought medical supplies to a ruined Germany, and the crew made their first landing on the autobahn. But before Holmstrom could come home, he was made to raise his right hand and swear he wouldn’t speak of his missions for 40 years.
Members of Operation Carpetbagger have had reunions over the years, and Holmstrom went to Europe in November 2019 to visit sites from the war with other veterans. He is the only remaining member of his flight crew.
MPR News photojournalist Evan Frost and editor Mike Mulcahy spoke with Bob Holmstrom.
How did you get into the Army and what made you want to join?
Well, when I was … about 8, 9 years old, we lived right in Mounds Park, right above the St. Paul airport. And I used to sit up on the bluffs there and watch airplanes take off and stuff. And pretty soon I was grabbing a bicycle and I'd ride down to the airport and watch ’em do that. You know, take off and land. And so I decided then I'd sure like to fly, you know.
And at, oh, I think I was 10 years old, and got a chance to ride in a Ford TriMotor, a three-engine airplane … and we rode around St. Paul, Minneapolis, on a half-hour flight that cost $10 at that time. That was a lot of money.
My last year at high school at Harding [High School], I got a job down at Swift and Co. I was working for a major in the Army, checking food, and I was wrapping Boston butts.
The major was standing there watching so everything was sanitary, packed properly for the Army. And he got talking to me. We got to talking about the Air Force. And I thought, well, OK, I still wanted to fly. So one of my days off, I grabbed a streetcar, went over to Minneapolis, and went to the armory over there and I applied for the Air Force.
How did being in the Army change you?
Well, it changed me a whole lot. Our family was pretty tight. We never knew so many people. And then to get acquainted with people from all over the United States.
I was surprised, like people from Carolina would talk with their southern accent and people from Texas would talk different. And the black people were treated a whole lot different then they were up here in Minnesota. I was so surprised at the fact that they were so ... crucified, in a manner of speaking. It opened my eyes to what the United States was really like also.
When you got to England, what did you have to do?
Well, they didn't say too much about it. They’d give us some introductory flights because the navigator had to get reacquainted with the stars and stuff and learn the navigation system in that part of the country. So, we're flying it at night again. And OK, we're flying low. We fly high, but mostly low. OK, what are we flying low for?
We would fly for maybe six hours, eight hours, up to 10, flying all the way over to the Russian border. We could see Switzerland from 50 miles away lit up like New York City with all the bright lights. It was really something else, I tell you. In wartime, most of Germany and Poland and Denmark were all blacked out. The only thing you could see was fires from the bombs that the British had dropped during the daytime.
We never dropped a bomb at all. We did all humanitarian work. We supplied 350,000 underground people with whatever they needed to live with.
We'd fly in at night, 500 feet high or a little bit lower, at about 120 miles an hour, just above stalling speed so it wouldn't rip the parachutes off. And we get a signal from the ground with three fires in a row and one off to the side. And we dropped everything from gasoline to first aid supplies to machine guns, throw away pistols, hand grenades, dynamite of local railroad tracks, most anything they needed to live with. Even the British had made folding motorcycles.
Did you feel like it was an important mission?
Oh, yeah. And our propaganda was good, too. We knew we were helping people. You know, we never met any of them. If we were going to drop a spy, we never got to see him until we had the engines running. We were on a taxiway and a jeep would run up with the people and they would enter the airplane and that would be it. We couldn't talk to him. Nothing.
Where were you when you found out the war was over?
I was on my base in England when the war was over. We were still flying at that time, still flying missions. Because of President Roosevelt dying on that particular time, it was critical. We were sent on missions, extra ones. Everybody was flying to show them that because our president passed away, we weren't defeated and we still had good leadership, to send a message that we were still a fighting crew.
It was pretty exciting, really, you know, because then you could just relax a little bit. But we were still flying because we were then recruited to bring first aid supplies over to Europe. The people in the prisons were getting out. They needed medicines. They needed water. They needed clothes, needed bandages and all that stuff.
So, we would fly in and we couldn't land at most of the airports over there because we and the British had bombed them quite a bit. You couldn't land. So, we landed on the autobahn. And that was just a great big runway. It was fantastic.
Have you seen the country come together in any way like it did during the war?
No. Nobody comes together unless they're told or made to do it and they want to do it. If they don't want to do it, they refuse. They refuse. It's a lot different world. ... It used to be, “We did this. We did this together.” Now it's “I did this. I did this. Nobody helped me. I did it.”