Ora! History cover sheet
Interviewee:John Cooper Fitch
Tape#:66 A & B
|Place of Interview:
|433 Salmon Kill Road, Lime Rock, Ct.
|Date of Interview:
|July 13, 1988
Summary of Talk:Family, education, European trip, sailing for a year, Army Air Corps, WWII
experiences in North Africa, French Morocco, US assignment at Wright Patterson for experimental flying, Fighter pilot based in England, shot down over Germany and result.
Side B: Prisoner of war story, charcoal burning truck, farm in Brewster, New York, private sea plane, to Florida to offer flying service to the Bahamas, Grover Longing, Jack Kennedy, toy kits, sports car dealership in White Plains, sports car racing, Argentina’s Grand Prix, some of his father’s creations, family characteristics.
Property of the Oral History Project: the Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library, Salisbury,
Tape 66 A & B
This is Paul Rebillard speaking on the 13th of July, 1988, at 9:00PM. Tonight I am speaking with John Cooper Fitch who lives in Lime Rock.
|John, I’d like to ask you from hence comes the name Cooper?
|Your mother’s maiden name?
|Your father’s name was?
|Robert Vanderbilt Fitch. I don’t know why.
|He was an Indianian, was that right?
|Yes, he was a Hooser.
|And you were born in Indiana?
|You were born where in Indiana?
|In Indianapolis, August 4, 1917.
|August 4, 1917, so you are about to become 71 years of age.
|Right, pretty soon now.
|A well preserved 71. You’re slim and boney as most of the Fitch family were.
|That’s true. When people wonder why I’m thin, 1 tell them 1 worry a lot.
|Yes, it helps.
|Half joke and really half not.
|You burn the calories off fast. John, your schooling began in Indianapolis?
|Your college days were spent in?
JF:I spent one year at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I took an engineering course; I headed for
civil engineering because my grandfather had been in that business. There was some thought that I
might do it. I was not very focus on what I wanted to do at all, but when I got to Lehigh and went to those classes, I very quickly realized I wasn’t interested in the simplest kind of engineering. The mechanics of civil engineering were just terribly boring. I did get interested in literature, and I spent a lot of time in the library. I got interested in some of the English writers. Aldus Huxley and his brother I read a lot of, and I’m afraid that’s how I spent most of my time. Unfortunately I wasn’t taking English so I don’t know whether I was thrown out, but anyway I left after a year.
PR:You left. I gathered as much about the literature. I’ve read about you, John. Now after leaving
Lehigh, am I correct in saying that you went to Europe at that time, or soon after?
JF:Soon after. Yes, hard to remember now but I think I had some sense of what was happening in
Europe. In any case, I…
PR:Let’s refine that. This was what date, what year?
JF:1938 and 1939.
PR:’38 and ’39 so you had an inkling of what was coming.
JF:Well I guess by ’39 it was almost fate.
JF:I had a plan which I didn’t carry out. I was interested in Europe. I wanted to learn languages
there, so I had a plan. I had a little money, not a lot, enough to go to Europe and travel very simply for a short time. I was planning to buy a horse in Paris, and ride the horse to Rome. I knew by the time I got there I would know French very well and the French people and I would know Italian by perforce you know. I would be obliged to take care of this animal, and it would be a wonderful introduction as a means of making friends for the horse and me even more so. It didn’t happen.
PR:Sounds like a typical John Fitch exploit. So now we have you in Europe, and the war clouds are
gathering. You returned from Europe to the United States. What happened to you then, John?
JF:Before I left Europe, I had planned to go to the continent, but when I went for permits or visas
or whatever was necessary at the time, I was led to believe, I don’t think it was actually true, that I couldn’t go, because the so-called “phony war” was on. Poland -The Consulate made me think, I was only 20 years old or something at the time that I couldn’t go so I didn’t. I came back on a Japanese freighter, not a Japanese freighter, a Japanese passenger ship” Sushimi Amerigo”. We went on the same route coming back that the Japanese used going to Europe and England from an English port. This Japanese ship was sunk; it was torpedoed, the other one, the one that was coming to England on the same course we were going out.
PR:Another on route
JF:Yes. I had on board the MG magnet which was in the ’30’s… (interruption)3.
PR:So at any rate, you arrived back in the United States, then what happened to you, John when
you finally got back here?
JF:I was very impressed by what happened in Europe, and at that time I couldn’t see the end of the
war for 10 or 15 years here. Hitler was in control of the whole continent which had more people and more industrial capabilities than _did even. I didn’t see how the war was going to end. I had always been interested in sailing, and never got any of it, or had been in the water at all, Louisiana. I had a friend in Sarasota who was a retired sea captain, and I told him I would like to do some sailing. I didn’t know anything about boats, but would he try to find one that was suitable for sailing in the Gulf. The upshot was he secured a boat for me, a 32 foot schooner, centerboard schooner; it’s a very unusual configuration for a boat. Schooners are usually quite big, and they seldom have a centerboard, but this was a boat…
JF:Yeah, a 32 footer, but this was made for the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida and Louisiana coast
which are quite shallow. They have a shallow draft, and so I bought the boat and joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary which they were starting at that time, and learned how to do celestial navigation and all that. I sailed both from Sarasota to New Orleans. In a year I went solo along the coast, I sailed all the way and went up every river, the Sewanee, and I’ve forgotten the name…
JF:Yeah, St. John’s you know the territory. St. Mark’s…
PR:Yeah St. Mark’s. Alright now you sailed this ship for how long a period of time?
PR:One whole year
PR:That surprises me. OK you had to skip over this now. Well after your days as a sailor came to an
end, John, what did you do?
JF:I sold the boat to a cotton broker in Lake Pontchartrain, the yacht club there, near Carlsbad Key,
and I came back east where my family had moved. I wanted to get into the Army Air Corps. I had tried to get into the RAF; I had applied for it when I was in England, but they didn’t need anybody. They were engaged and they had plenty of pilots.
PR:They had more pilots than they had planes.
JF:Exactly, and they weren’t losing any at that time. So when I applied, I found out I had to have 2
years of college, or take an equivalent exam. I found a tutor, a tutoring class, not an individual tutor, but a teacher who taught the first two years, a very concentrated course. I took that course; it took a month, and took the exam out at Fort Dix or at Troy Bennett Field in Long island. I passed, and I joined the Army Air Corps in the spring of 1941.
PR:OK, now we have you in the Army Air Corps, where did you get your flight training, John?
JF:In Lakeland, Florida, primarily, in Albany, Georgia, secondarily and another base in Georgia.
PR:How long a period of time did this take? About three months?
JF:No, about nine months.
PR:Nine months, that was good training. It wasn’t a crash course at that time.
JF:No, it was from the spring in April until December, and we had completed our training and were
put on, given leave for a few days. I came to New York; I went with my step-father and a friend of his to the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia. I was in uniform, and as we were leaving the game, the guards came to everybody in uniform and said, “Report to your base right away.” Pearl Harbor had happened that day. It happened during the game. (Dec. 7, 1941)
PR:I recall that.
JF:They didn’t tell anybody at the time. I reported back to Albany, Georgia, and turned right
around. We were assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey which is quite near New York City. There were 12 pilots assigned to a separate squadron, it was not in a group. Usually a squadron is with two other squadrons in a group, but this was a separate squadron. We were assigned there, and we were assigned to A-20s which was put in aircraft which we had not been trained on. We made the transition very well. We had only one incident when one of our pilots came in and landed. We couldn’t get dual because the airplane just had one pilot a piece, a flight bomber.
PR:I was about to ask you. It was a single pilot plane even though it was a twin engine.
PR:Were these Pratt & Whitney engines at that time?
JF:Yes, they were radial engines.
PR:I probably worked on some of those engines.
PR:OK now we have you a pilot, and I assume you had soloed for some months. You were a
qualified pilot after a nine month period.
PR:And this is 1941, Dec. 7th, what were your orders at that time?
JF:We were defending New York City; we were on patrol. We went out to mid Atlantic as far as we
could go; it was very short range. We had small tanks of gasoline.
PR:About 4 to 6 hundred miles.
JF:Yeah, we’d go about less than 3 hundred miles.
PR:Out, yes that’s right, so you had to have a little reserve. Did you ever run into any incidents on
JF:No, I don’t know how effective we would be; we had light machine guns and a couple of depth
bombs. That’s all we had.
PR:Well, they probably would been sufficient had you ever run into any aircraft, enemy aircraft or
light trawlers or boats.
JF:We were put on alert a few times. There was one time there was almost an armada reported as
coming towards the East Coast, but it did not materialize.
PR:OK so we now have you in the Air Force, still on this side in the USA. I believe that you went
back to Europe about that time.
JF:Yes, we were there just a short time. We were the first combat unit from the States to go to the
European theater. We went to England, and we went by ship. Our aircraft were not capable of…
PR:No, so your aircraft went on ship. Did you go on the same ships as the planes were?
JF:No, the planes were misshipped. They went to Russia by mistake, so we didn’t have our aircraft.
We went on the Queen Mary, and went alone. We didn’t go in a convoy.
PR:Because they could go so fast.
PR:Because of the speed. Ok so you went directly to England, and I gather that there at some time
you got planes of your own.
JF:Yes, we borrowed some Gypsy Moths from the RAF which is practically a kite. It is a simple,
slow aircraft just so we could keep out hand in. In two weeks we got some planes, and then we started attacking air fields and submarine bases along the French and Belgian coast. The RAF told us that our aircraft were unsuited for that kind of duty for they had tried it, but our commander didn’t take their word for it. We attempted to do it, but it was not very successful. Our aircraft was very…
PR:I was about to ask you, you ran into a lot of trouble there I guess with the flack and ground fire
of one form or another. Were you opposed in the air at that time along the French, British and Belgian coasts?
JF:We didn’t see very much of the German fighters, anti- aircraft. We would come in at low levels.
We’d come in right at wave top, just as low as we could get because our aircraft were not, didn’t have two stage superchargers, and we couldn’t fly at any altitude at all. About 12,000 feet we’d lose power.
PR:What speed were these craft able to obtain?
PR:200 or so?
JF:Oh they were 300, very fast.
JF:And we would come in, and we always surprised them because they couldn’t pick us up on
PR:They had no radar. Alright so now after patrolling that coastline for some length of time, what
happened next, John?
JF:We joined the forces that invaded Africa. We landed in Africa. I got an unusual assignment. All
my fellow pilots flew there, and son of a gun I was in charge of our grounding operation, so I went by boat. I had 150 men and I don’t remember how many vehicles, but quite a few about 30 vehicles with our spares and tools and all our equipment. We landed at Oran. After a few days, I have forgotten how long it took us to get there, but the French were resisting at that time, and it was an interesting time. They were firing on our ships; they did not know whether they wanted to work with us or against us at times. Everybody landed. I went to the headquarters. An officer who impressed me was in charge of the North styles; he was a colonel. He later became the chief of the NATO forces. I came in and saluted of course and asked for orders. He asked what I had, and who we were and so on. He said, “Well, Lieutenant, (I was a lieutenant at the time) I can’t tell you where your outfit is. I don’t know where your planes are.advanced troops. It is up to you to find them.” Logically they would be near the front
lines because they were short range planes. He said, “They are not here at our base, so go find them.” so I got out some maps and took off. Everything was pretty loose, you know. Communication was terrible.
You couldn’t get any information about anything. I finally found our outfit. We lived in dugouts. We lived half underground. We used 5 gallon fuel cans as our fuel base; we didn’t have tanks underground, or even above ground,
PR:So when you refuel these planes, you had to run out there with 5 gallon cans and pour them in?
JF:Yeah, and the empty cans made kind of building blocks.
PR:They filled them with sand and…
JF:Yeah about three high, and we’d dig out and fill them, and we had about three feet deep.
PR:And it would stop bullets, too.
JF:We had about six feet, we put planks, and we had perforated metal that we would put on the
ground for runways because if it rained, everything turned to mud. It didn’t rain often, but if it did, we were just stuck so we had all these perforated planks. We used them for roofing, and tarpaulins, and whatever to put on the top. We lived in these damned things. We were constantly within fifty miles of the front lines all the time. We kept moving all the time.
PR:So you got into action inthe air there?
JF:Yes, and Goring’s yellownosed squadron was there, Fulk-Wolf 190’s, very, very capable in all
PR:Yes, very dangerous
JF:We made the same kind of attacks because we couldn’t do anything else.
PR:Was this before Montgomery got into North Africa to spell Rommel?
JF:They were there in the beginning where their moves from Alexandria from Egypt across,
towards where we were in Algeria and Tunisia. We were right at the Castrian Pass because the site of one of the big battles. I remember being terrified; the tanks would sometimes move through our bivouac, and we were literally sleeping on the ground. We had to move around so much. These tanks would come crashing through.
PR:You were scared that you were going to get run over.
PR:So now this was before Montgomery and British friends got Rommel on the run? Were you
there during that time?
JF:Yes, we were there when Rommel was forced back towards Tunisia.
PR:How long did that take for Montgomery to really put Rommel on the run and get him out of
North Africa, a period of how many months?
JF:I think it was about three months.
PR:About three months. It was a pretty bloody affair. So now you are in North Africa and you’re
out, John. What happened to you when you left North Africa?
JF:Well, we secured, our armed forces secured North Africa. There were lots of German and Italian
prisoners floating around in big camps nearby. Our outfit had then been over for some time and was returned to the States. I got another unusual assignment. The whole outfit went back to the States except for me. I stayed on to train the replacement pilots. I was assigned to a base at Rabat in old French Morocco on the west coast of Africa. I was there for a year. The replacement crews and aircraft would arrive in Morocco, and myself and the other pilots would give them final tactical training before they would go to Italy and Sicily.
PR:Did you accompany our forces up through the Italian campaign and up through Sicily?
JF:No, I followed them in smaller…! wrote to, I had seen in England the RAF use of what they called
“flying circuses”, and aircraft identification was very difficult and quite poor, but the RAF had found that if they had the captured aircraft and that crews could see them, see them on the ground and in the air, then it helped a great deal.
PR:They could more readily identify them.
JF:Yeah, right. So I wrote to General Doolittle, who was then, I think he was 13th Air Force, and
asked for permission to assemble some captured aircraft that were being captured in Sicily and Italy at that time. He gave his OK. So I got another pilot and two mechanics, and we flew to Sicily and Italy. We found a Messerschmitt #110. My crew chief and I went over it very carefully and it was booby-trapped to start with, and we got those out, and we didn’t have any instructions on that airplane at all. We had to figure out everything and it was quite different. The phase engines were fuel injection and their balance had been changed. They had taken some guns out of them, and the balance was off so we just taxied. We wouldn’t take off; we’d get going as fast as we could and try to get a feel for the balance so if the tail was light. If the tail started to come up too much, we’d put some weight in the back and make another run until finally it felt just about right. Then we took off, and we had it all painted up with red and white stripes and tail and great big stars, but still…
PR:You couldn’t change the configuration.
JF:No, we had to run from everybody. They were chasing us and shooting at us.9.
PR:So you had a bunch of these planes at a point where your pilots learned to identify.
JF:I don’t know what happened after I got back. When I came back to our base, the landing gear
was stuck; it wouldn’t come down. I pushed all the buttons I could find, and shook it and did everything. I couldn’t get the gear down, so I stayed up until most of the fuel was gone and crashed landed. I’ve got some pictures of that because it took quite a while to run this fuel out right over the base, so somebody got out a camera and got some pretty good pictures of it when it landed.
PR:Were you able to land this on grass or on the tarmac or where did you land it?
JF:A typical North Africa base, just sand, well packed sand, soft sand. It made a decent runway, but
very dusty and dirty. It worked fine. When I got back, I found my orders to return to the States from there, so I didn’t stay. I wouldn’t know what happened with this project.
PR:It was useful, I’m sure. Ok so now you are back in the United States one more time, and you are
still in the Air Force. Now what happened to you, John?
JF:Well, I wanted to get into fighters; I couldn’t make the transition into it right away. I had to take
an assignment for the States, and I preferred to go to Wright Patterson where all the experimental work was done for the Air Force. I was there for quite a short time. I did some interesting flying. One of the assignments we had was to fly P51’s at war emergency power at high altitudes until something broke, until the engines failed or whatever happened, happened.
PR:We used to call it running to destruction.
JF:Yeah, right. So I went up quite high about 28,000 feet or close to thirty, and flew back between
Dayton and Cincinnati. At those high altitudes you could go back and forth very quickly. I mean you just got on course, and you’d be there pretty quickly running at full power at high altitude. I don’t know what the ground speed was.
PR:Four to five hundred miles an hour.
JF; Yeah, I think it was. We had a phenomenon; we experienced some supersonic… Some parts of the airplane were into the barrier. It would cause them to flutter, and shake, and the controls would get very peculiar feeling; they wouldn’t respond right.
PR:That was little understood at that time.
JF:No, no we didn’t know what was going on. The failures I had were always that the engine just
quit. It was overstressed and finally threw a rod or something happened to it.
PR:But you were close enough to a landing field so that you could limp in.
JF:Yes. Well, not with power; we could glide in.
PR:So this went on for a period of time, and I know that you had some more experiences, so I want
to get into those. Now you are qualified as a fighter pilot. You went back to England. How did you get back to England, John?
PR:By ship again and your planes were carried over on another…
JF:Well, no they were… I joined a group there, I mean an existing squadron; I was assigned to a
PR:An American squadron?
JF:Yes, it was the 4th fighter group in the eagle spot. When I had…
PR:Now to clarify things, John, what year was this?
JF:This was 1944.1 just missed the invasion which was disappointing.
PR:It was disappointing, but now you still had work to be done. What did you do about it?
JF:Oursponsored 55th group escorted bombers to Germany. We flew all in daylight; the bombers
would take off before daylight. It took them a long time, they had to load, get up to altitude. Depending on the time of year, in wintertime it would not be light until quite late and it got dark early. So we were restricted to six hours of flying time. We escorted bombers to bases all over Germany.
PR:You penetrated how far into Germany with that type of operation?
JF:To Berlin. It was incredible that fighters could escort bombers that far. The RAF couldn’t do it,
the Luftwaffe couldn’t do it. The P51 was the only one that could.
PR:You not only had to escort them that far, you had to get back.
PR:And the P51 did it.
JF:The P51 did it. It was just phenomenal.
PR:Now you ran into a bit of trouble on one of your flights when you were escorting bombers. Will
you tell me something about that?
JF:Our orders were at that time, getting towards the end of the war, February, 1945, German
transport was still key to their ability to move troops and munitions and forces around the country. We were told to; we had the option to go for what they called targets of opportunity. When we had
escorted the bombers back into what was called at the time, “the safe area”. It wouldn’t be all the way to the Channel; it wouldn’t be to England, of course. While we still had enough fuel left, we were allowed to leave them, and we used the time for transport mainly trains and trucks. Any evidence of…
PR:What kind of, how heavy was your armament, John? Are these 30 caliber cannons, or what
caliber were these cannons?
PR:50 caliber cannons which had quite a wallop. You could destroy a train.
JF:Yes, oh yeah. Well, the locomotive is all I ever went for; you know that’s the most valuable unit
in the train. If you destroy the locomotive, the trains aren’t going to be moving. I had been successful in hitting the high temperature boiler, and that just didn’t leave the locomotive with a few holes and big tanks, but it blew them up so that they couldn’t be repaired.
PR:So that was that for that train.
JF:Yeah, on this particular day, February 20th, 1945, I made two passes; you are not supposed to go,
it is only sensible to make one really because of the flat cars; they have flat cars with anti-aircraft on them. I thought well these people are not shooting straight. The burst was way off, and they couldn’t hit me. I had missed this high temperature, high pressure boiler twice and I came back the third time. Just as I was about to pass over it, they let go and I had a direct hit in my engine. I was going pretty fast, I had no speed to pull up, but the engine quit of course. I started burning, saw flames coming back through and a lot of smoke and oil. I scrambled out of the plane, went out, tried to get out on the side. Supposedly when you jumped from a single engine plane, when the prop’s dead, it causes the plane to skid, and it skids to the left. So the air stream is on the left side, and after years of getting out on the left side, I instinctively went out on the left side, and I should have gone to the right. With the oxygen tubes and the microphone, headphone wires and the parachute and the and the G suit connection. We had a pressurized suit to keep us from blacking out at high speed turns; it had bladders for the legs and stomach. All this junk and I got so tangled up trying to get out then, I just broke free the last instant and didn’t wait for the chute to, didn’t wait to slow down because I knew I was very near ground. I couldn’t see half way out, but I could hear the wind velocity and the frequency sound increasing. I knew I’d been very close to the ground so I didn’t wait at all; I pulled right away and it’s a good thing I did, and the chute opened, and I was looking at a big fire on the ground, heard an explosion and it was the plane! It was right there, drifting down. Luckily I landed on the side, I couldn’t do anything. I was banged up. I had hit the tail of the plane getting out. When the breath is knocked out of you, you don’t have any strength; you can’t do anything. Luckily I just drifted by and it was a good thing because close by after 20 minutes or some length of time, I got out of the chute and harness and crawled off into the edge of the wood, a pine wood. When the people came with axes and pitchforks, and I found out later, was an all too frequent welcoming committee, they didn’t find me. They saw my chute. By this time the fire had spread, and there is my chute burning, and they said oh well he’s gone. He’s gone completely. I was
sitting there off in the bushes. After a while, this would be late afternoon, I had an escape kit, maps and compass. I knew where I was, but I was about 100 miles from the Rhine which was the dividing line at that time. I did cover considerable distance that night.
PR:Was it moon light or dark?
JF:It was moonlight, and there was snow on the ground…
PR:which helped your vision.
PR:Were you clothed well enough so you weren’t cold?
JF:I was for most of the time; sometime toward dawn I realized I was getting too cold and I
wouldn’t be able to make it, so I carefully approached one of these little farm villages. In the ancient times the farmers returned to a walled village for protection. These were not scattered farm houses, but assemblies of houses, like a farm village. After careful, quiet approach startling some dogs into barking and then waiting for them to quiet down, I got into the village, got into a big barn-a huge barn. It was about 4 stories high, and I went up into the top level of this barn and went to sleep. The next day I lifted a tile in the roof and looked down to the ground below. There was a commotion in the village, and I looked down and they were searching everywhere, all the sheds and the barns. Apparently they were looking for someone from the air crew; there were air crew coming down all over Germany at that time. We had 1,000 bombers all over Europe, and lots of them got shot down. I don’t know what caused the alert, but they were suddenly, maybe it was me, maybe they found some foot prints or something but in any case, the search went on. A nice little German fellow, a farmer, came up to the top of the barn where I was. He saw me there and not in the least threatening or anything, he said, “Come with me.”
PR:Were you hungry?
JF:I had some candies and things, concentrated food in this escape kit. He sort of escorted me
down; he walked down the stairs in front of me, not like he was frightened at all, and we went into his kitchen, sat down, his wife and kids came out, 8-10 years old kids. They gave me some bread and some milk, and I showed the kids some of the things I had, some trinkets in the kit which depending on where you were, the trinkets could be useful. After a while some folks came; they were older men who were too old for the service or who were invalided out or something, and they asked me to come with them. The whole village was following along; looking at the “yager fluger” they called me, fighter pilot. We went to the burgermeister’s house up there, and a couple of dignified town father types in black fedoras and ties came in, and they asked me for my passport which I thought was pretty amusing. One of them spoke French and I spoke a little French and we talked about this. They thought I was British for some reason. I told them no I was an American. This was all very fine, but the room- a big room in the
burgermeister’s house was full of people, it was a big room lots bigger than this, two or three deep all around the room looking at the prisoner. I had a very bad time when the burgermeister arrived; he was probably chosen because he was a Nazi SS burgermeister who had set up this. He came in, and he was furious with the whole thing. I don’t know what he was saying but he was shouting at me and pointing and talking to his people. I think he was complaining that they were not, didn’t show the enmity that should be shown. They were opponents to the Fatherland, and it was very hairy there for a while. He actually hit me several times.
JF:Finally it was night and these two elders of the town intervened. I put my arm around one of
them and got behind the other one. I told them that I had been seen parachuting and that people knew where I came down, and the war was almost over which everybody knew. They should protect me because I was a legitimate prison of war, and I had given them my serial number and everything that I was supposed to and to protect the people in this village from retribution if I should disappear. They should do something about this guy, and they did. They and some other people joined in and half pushed and half cajoled this fellow out of the room. That was the worst moment I had in the whole thing. That night a single fellow, a man, who had no English, we went hiking through the countryside and we were quite near Nuremberg. We came into Nuremburg and walked through the city which had been devastated, burning and buildings were falling down in the streets, and vehicles couldn’t go through, just people walking. I was a novelty of course and collected crowds along the way. Some were unfriendly, but most were not. At one point I was very tired and he allowed me to sit down on a stoop of a house. A lady came out and brought me some bread and some milk; offered it to me. I was very glad to get it. Then we stopped off at an office; it was an SS office. He telephoned and disappeared for a few minutes. These fellows were a real mean bunch; I mean they were very threatening. He came back and took me in tow again. We went on through on the edge of the city there was a Luftwaffe base. There I was put into a locked area with a lot of other…
PR:A secure compound
JF:There were about 15 other air crews that had been picked up here and there and were now in
the hands of the Luftwaffe. The next day we were put on a truck; it was a charcoal burning truck. It had a big kind of stove behind the front fenders; it was about that big around and that tall and a stack on it. They put wood in it in the bottom, and they kind of cooked the wood and burned the gas in the engine. It was not very powerful and slow. We bumped along for most of that day; a couple of times there had been a lot of aircraft overhead. At one stage we were stopped and waiting for the stove to cook up some more coal gas or wood gas to burn in the engine, and there’s some aircraft flying around, war planes, a couple of these birds flew over a row of trees and all the guards ran away. They thought they were fighters.
PR:So now where were you imprisoned?
JF:I went to a base; I think the name of it was Oberusso, and it was an interrogation one, put into
solitary confinement, told that we had a good guy and a bad guy interrogating me. This is the technique that they use; police use this a lot too. The good guy very sympathetic; “Oh the colonel couldn’t have said that or he doesn’t understand, we wouldn’t do that sort of thing.” The colonel was telling me when I went to meet him, he would, he had a little toaster, and we were starving. We were deliberately, scientifically starved. He’d toast some bread, we’d talk and he’d have some coffee. He said, “Well, unless you can identify your outfit by telling us some particulars about the personnel and your locations. We know all about this. We don’t need your people on a knowledge basis.” And they did. When we were based in England, we would hear over the radio Axis Sally, or whatever her name was, would tells us that she was going to have a visit tonight and she would name people in our group, first squadron. “Well, about 10:00 tonight I’m going to have a visit by Gls.” And by golly they’d come; these pilotless flying bombs came over. They knew an awful lot. This colonel said, “Well, you just have to tell us who some of the people are in your outfit, where you were, and something about it or else we’ll turn you over to the Gestapo where there are lots of deserters and spies floating around the country, and for all we know you are one of them.” So this went on for weeks.
PR; In the meantime you are not being fed too well?
JF:No. I’d tap on the wall and talk through the wall to a Canadian fellow. We were both careful in
case the other was a plant of some kind. We didn’t discuss anything about military matters, and a note was passed to me going to a latrine watch. A fellow gave me a note, gave his name and his rank and his serial number, and he said, “They are going to kill me. I know they are going to kill me, and I just want somebody to know that I was here at this time.” Let’s see, after that I was again put in charge of a group of people, and we were put on trains; we were put in box cars to go to a regular prison camp. This went on for a couple of days, a lot of waiting on sidings and slow movement. We were not high priority, baggage that’s all, and finally got to a base. We were there for a few days, and they put us out on the road. They were marching us south; we were marching through Bavaria down towards Munich. We understood that Hitler’s plan was to take thousands of prisoners up into the mountains and hold us as hostages so he could barter and make some better deal for Germany. That didn’t happen. We were put into another camp, and General Patton’s Army came through and liberated this camp that I was in. It was very interesting most of these prisoners who had been in prison for a long time, and they had wonderful clever ways of getting information. Each of several people carry some small part of a radio, and at certain irregular times, they didn’t do regular times, they would meet together and put these parts together and they would listen to the BBC. Then they would get the word around, and we knew a lot about what was going on. That’s how we knew we were going to this redoubt; they called it, to be hostages. We knew that General Patton’s army was nearby, and his son-in-law was in our camp. We thought he would have some incentive to liberate it.
PR:Which he did, evidently. So General Patton came to the rescue and you were liberated from
camp. What happened to you then, John? Were you mustered out at that time or soon after?
JF:All prisoners went to rehabilitation camps which were not much better than the prison camps I
was in. They had names of cigarettes. One was Lucky Strike; one was Camel and so on. We were there a few days to get medical examination and to identify us properly as we had no identification, or proper uniforms anymore and half of them were sick or injured and hadn’t been treated. After we were there for a few days, I went back to my base in England in Devon which was a real kick to do to see all my friends there. We had left only about two and a half months or so before. Incidentally I met one of my old squadron mates who had gone down in Africa. He’d been in prison for three years.
PR:Alright John have we got you out of war now?
JF:Yeah, then after I was at my base for a while, a few days, under the International Geneva
Convention and Regulations, if you are a prisoner of war, you are really not suppose to reengage in any war. You’ll be shot, so we are a very low priority. We were put on a LST, landing ship, tank landing ship, and went across the Atlantic in one of these darn things. It took three weeks. Luckily the weather was great; the ocean was like a mill pond.
PR:What a break!
JF:Yeah. We were very fortunate.
PR:So your three weeks on the water, where did you land?
JF:We landed in New York.
PR:New York. You are back on terra firma. Are you first lieutenant John Fitch? No, you’re a captain.
Where did you become a captain, in England?
JF:Let’s see, after I came back from Africa.
PR:I see. You became a captain then. So did this end your service in the (Air force) when you came
back on the LST?
JF:Yeah, I was on leave then for a relatively short time. This was in August when the Atomic bomb
was dropped on Japan. That was pretty much the end of the war then. After being checked off medically and every other way, I was released, and my family had moved to Brewster, New York during the war. My step father had rehabilitated a dairy farm in Brewster Mount Eagle farms which is now a big industrial complex. But this was a very pleasant place for me to return to.
PR:Nice to come home to, I guess John.
JF:Yeah, I worked on the farm two months and enjoyed doing that very much. My father who’s
still in Indiana asked me if I would like, I had expressed an interest in having a private small sea plane. He said, “Well, I’d like you to have one.” So he gave me the money to buy it. It was $5,000, a Terra-Craft. It even floats. I found it along the river near Pittsburg. We went out to see it. I was shown the sea plane,
it was called. He said, “Well it looks as if you can fly it alright.” So we bought it and flew it back to New York with it, picking my wet spots very carefully. I didn’t know much about flying this…
PR:Just out of curiosity, where did you land in the New York vicinity?
JF:I landed in the East River. There was a…
PR:Did you have permission to do this?
JF:Oh yes, there is a sea plane base on 23rd Street on the East River. Near the farm in Brewster my
friend was kind of a New York intellectual type, but had some good ideas, Harold Conning. He had built a dam, created a small lake, and built some very simple cottages, no plumbing, no electricity, very simple for his kind of intellectual types and friends in New York. He rented them for a ridiculously low figure. This little lake was a dog leg. I found I could bank the Terra-craft up on one float, get around the corner, I could get in and out of this little lake; so that was my base up there.
PR:You mean you could both take off and land by this trick.
JF:Well, landing was easy; it was a very short run. In fact I could land on either oneof the legs.But
to take off you had to use both legs; you had to get around the corner.
PR:After you finally got to the corner, you really had to give it the gas to get off.
JF:We went off to Indiana where Len and my father lived on White River, northofIndianapolisin
Williamsville. He loved to borrow it; he lived on the river there for many years. He’d land in the river and just taxi right up the front yard.
PR:Ok, so now you’re messing around as a civilian, flying around the sea plane, didn’t you have any
serious thoughts in your head at this time, John Fitch?
JF:Oh yeah, I thought the air age had arrived, and I wanted to be in on it. I mean a civilian use of air
craft, so I went to Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, between Palm Beach and West Palm Beach is Lake Worth there. I made arrangements with a fellow who had a sea plane ramp at Lake Worth, and offered flying service for a time to go out to the Bahamas, wherever they wanted to go. But it seemed the air age had not really arrived. He had a couple planes, and he’d do the same thing, some larger ones for flying in the Bahamas. But that didn’t pan out. It was not a good business. There had been quite a bit of flying in that area of Palm Beach people, who had flown before the war, but oddly enough they soon stopped because they had all gone into flying, the ones who were fliers during the war, and when they got back, they didn’t pursue it. Although I did meet Grover Longing there; he lived in Palm Beach. He’s the Grover Longing who built the Longing Amphibian, and that fascinated me. Here was a man who learned to fly from the Wright brothers. He had worked for the Wright brothers. He was the first aeronautical engineer in the world. He had gone to Columbia, and proposed to them that he take a
course in aeronautics, and they said, “We don’t know anything about that.” He obviously did know something about it. He set up the course and if you take it, you’d be the first aeronautical engineer there is. He had a place there (West Palm Beach). He was quite interested in flying, although he was pretty much retired then. But I got into that group of people there; among them the Kennedys who lived right near him. I got to know them. I knew Jack Kennedy before he got into politics. That was interesting; he was asking all his friends and acquaintances about what he should do. ‘I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need, and I’m thinking about going into politics. It’s kind of a dirty game.” which it was at that time.
PR:It still is.
JF:Yeah, among others I’m sure, and urged him to do it; he would be a person who could make a
difference. Then I came back to the farm, and I thought I would make some toy kits for young children that they could assemble, make little wagons. So I made up some kits for wagons and small things.
PR:All pre-made, ready to put together?
JF:Yeah, wheels that turned, axles, and panels that they could put together, very simple things
made for quite small children. I flew around looking for places some wood turning mills up in New Hampshire and made some of these things, but that didn’t work out too well. So when I have been in England for the war, just before it broke out, I went to a road racing event at Brooklins. That’s when I got hooked on road racing; I really wanted to do that. When the first sports cars began to come into this country, I became a dealer for them. I went to White Plains where there was a quite sizable sporting goods store; a man by the name of Yeager owned it. I made a deal with him. I had an MG, a TC, a very tiny car, not a lot bigger than this table. They would fit in his doors in his shop. I’d like to sell these cars, and I don’t have a place to sell them. If I can sell them out of your place, I’ll give you a commission. So we made that deal. I sold a few, a very few, and rented a garage of my own, and got some more cars that started coming in; Austin 840’s, Renaults. That began to build up, and I got a better garage right on a main street in White Plains. I took on Reilly and Jaguar and Willis. I had Willis, too, whatever cars were being imported. I entered races with my TC MG as soon as I started in 1948-1949 at Watkins Glen. This TC was quite a small engine, fired not very fast, so I built a car. I got some Fiat parts and some Crosley-Hotshot parts, and some midget racing parts, an engine particularly, with an English Ford V8. You know the small one 11Z liters? They adapted that to racing for midget cars and it was well developed. It produced dependable 100 horse power: I didn’t want to try to stress the engine any more than the chassis or the weight. It was a very light car up to create its performance. It did well; it was a good car. It won races at Watkins Glen; that and running MT, and races, I got Bruce Cunningham to drive his cars which of course was very big time. About this time also General Peron who owned Argentina at the time, Evita, he was a great supporter of sporting events. He invited a group of Americans to Argentina for running what they called the Grand Prix, the Argentinean Grand Prix. This was reserved for a particular class of car, but these were sports cars. I had a friend, an Englishman, who
raced Tom Paul, and he had a very fast car, an Allard. He had recently wrecked it, and his sponsor was getting him a new one. I made a deal with him.” I’ll fix your car, if you’ll let me drive it in Argentina.” So we made a deal. I got some chains and jacks and pulled it back into shape; it was pretty well bent up. I got it running, and then we all went to Argentina for the race down there.
PR:You won the race with this old beat up thing which you put back together?
PR:Well, John Fitch, before this tape runs out, we’ve got you back on the ground now. We’ve got
the end of the game that you are known so well for, the automobile racing business. I have to ask you one question. Your name is a household word; John Fitch, every school boy knows the name John Fitch even better than the steamboat. You’re known as John Fitch. What effect has this had on your life, if any, this connection with the famous Fitch family and the famous John F itch? Did this have any effect on you as a young man, a mature man?
JF:I think it has an effect more and more on me as a mature man. Actually when I was growing up,
most of my life, Robert Fulton was the inventor of the steamboat, John Fitch wasn’t.
PR:Yet we know definitely that he invented the steamboat in 1785.
JF:Yes, that’s true. Now it is being taught in schools that that was the case.
PR:So it did have an effect on you.
JF:Well, I was aware of it, but I was also aware that I had what my father had, a kind of an
exploratory turn of mind, if you will, something like that. I liked to make things, try to create things. My father is thought to have built one of the first, if not the first, closed bodies on an automobile. He was always fascinated with them too. He built some interesting things. He built some interesting houses; he was a builder of houses. He built a very unusual boat on the White River that I mentioned. He built a huge shallow draft paddle wheel boat with a bus body on it. It sounds cumbersome but the bus body was set down into the hull. It was not a bad looking boat at all. It had a walkway around the side, and ladders up to the roof, and a rail around the roof and a big school bell on the bow. He had an organ which he played very well, and he was kind of a Pied Piper. He had an ice cream making machine that the kids would come in and crank, melted ice, made it cold then. I don’t know if I told you this, but he had a tough time with that boat. He built it with a great deal of time and effort, and the day after he’d launched it, he came out to the dock and it was sunk. He solved that problem very completely, and finally he put a row of oil drums around this walk around the whole perimeter of the thing strapped to a, they fitted under the ramp very nicely. It would never sink again. In fact he really tested it once. It was during a flood, he was taking a party of people down to look at the dam where the water was just flowing over at a great rate. As he was making the turn to go back up the river, the engine quit. The boat went over the dam and no one even got wet. It was quite a drop.
6 or 8 feet?
JF:Yes, it was. Apparently the water, there was so much water going over that it kept… It didn’t
catch on anything. His biggest problem was getting back up over the dam.
PR:Right at this point before we finish this tape, I want to ask you for posterity you come from the
famous Fitch family, a family known for its inventions, do you attribute this to genes that run in the family? To what do you attribute this enormous success of the Fitch family in many, many fields?
JF:I think it’s in the genes. Yeah, I think it is built-in. It just happens; it doesn’t necessarily happen
with every generation, but it is in the strain. It pops up. 1 think many characteristics skip generations. They don’t follow directly, but they seem to be there.
PR:Now going back through the years, I mean hundreds of years; this extraordinary succession of
success did not always follow the inventive line. It followed all sorts of lines: politics, business, and your forebears I am speaking of. They were in England; they were Lords, Sirs, Knights, soldiers, lawyers, and doctors. There is a tremendous strain of intelligence and dedication in your family. Do you feel this?
JF:Yes, I am aware of it and proud of it, and hope it carries on.
PR:I am sure it will. Now we have covered your early life; now you have gone through a war. This
war, I don’t think it had a very great effect on you because you don’t seem to be any more serious now than when you left for that war. But things did change in your life; now we’ve gotten you back here. We’ve gotten you on the road, and you are racing cars for which you became very famous. I know we are at the end of this tape, John that is why I am running off here to prepare us for another tape.
PR:If you understand.
PR:Because we don’t have time to get into your road racing exploits because there is too much to
be told. So at this time I think we’ll just call it quits for this tape. Very, very soon we’ll start another one.
PR:We’ll talk about your automotive genius and the success you have had with automobiles. Is that
alright with you?
JF:That’s alright with me. I thank you for undertaking this project.
PR:Thank you, and good night.