Back and Forth: A WWII book with local stories

While waiting for an appointment downtown recently, I ran into a man who called my name, introduced himself to me and the stories began.

Phil Goplen, a 2nd lieutenant and bombardier in World War II, spent a lot of hours in the air, completing 33 missions bombing Germany's munitions factories.

That B-24 carried a crew of 10 and Phil sent me a letter listing the dates of the missions with this final note: "This ended my career as a combat Bombardier with 228 hours of combat flying time. We were extremely fortunate as a crew, all finishing our 33 missions without serious enough injuries to warrant a purple heart."

Today Phil Goplen is retired, age 92 and a resident of Zumbrota. His love of telling World War II stories continues at every chance he gets. He entered bombardier training at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, on May 12, 1943.

He also did gunnery training in Harlingen, Texas because when he wasn't on a bombing mission he was in the seat of the nose turret. He graduated from Bombardier School on Dec. 4, 1943, the same day he married his sweetheart, Elsie, nearly 70 years ago.


In our brief visit, Phil said he met his wife on a "flip of a coin." It seems he and a couple other lads had an evening free with the question "What do we do? Shall we go to a movie or a dance down the street?" The coin landed "Heads" and they went to the dance. Phil recalls "We were just standing there and watching dancers when this pretty girl came up to me and asked if I'd like to dance with her. "We did and that led to marriage."

Phil sent me a book titled, WOW Anthology of B-24/8th Air Force/World War II stories by Ralph Welsh, Pilot 2nd Lt.

The book includes more than 65 bomber crew narrations on their most memorable combat missions and other war-related stories. The soft-cover 433-page book has a photo of the 10-man crew on the back. Phil Goplen is in the back row, 3rd from left.

For the front cover author Welsh wrote"Destruction was not all one day. This B-24 was attacked by Me262 jet fighters, very close to the end of the war. Only one crew member survived, though that, in itself must have been a miracle."

Why the book was named "Wow"? Ralph writes in the prologue "I look for WOW's in my life. The everyday mundane things are fine, but to experience something that automatically makes you exclaim "Wow" is a shot of adrenaline. In these air battles, there were many WOWs. When Phil and Ralph got out of the service in 1946 as reserve captains, they went their separate ways, Ralph to Seattle and Phil to Houston, Texas, losing touch with each other many years.

Being in the Air Force Reserve, both Phil and Ralph were recalled for radar work as instructors. When that duty ended, Phil set foot in a B-47 as a Radar Bombardier Navigator, where he spent the remainder of his Air Force career. Phil retired July 30, 1965, and came to Rochester where he worked for Gopher Aviation. Ralph Welsh went to San Francisco. Years later they found each other on the internet. Phil contributed to the book with his description of two missions on D-Day in 1944, and of his most perilous situation on any mission.

During the 1962 Cuban Crisis, when Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev had guns on Cuba pointed toward Miami just 90 miles away, Phil told me he and others in the Air Force reserve set on the tarmac at Houston Airport, B-47's loaded with bombs, engines at full throttle, ready to bomb Moscow if Cuban guns started firing. President John Kennedy gave the message to "back down or else." The crisis ended, the planes' engines were shut down and America breathed a sigh of relief for a "WOW" book review, go to "" and scroll to anthology.

At 7 p.m. on Jan. 13, Phil Goplen will present "U.S. Air Force: Korea and the Cuban Missile Crisis" at the Scott Hosier Veterans Round Table at Assembly of God Church in Rochester.


Next week: We built a 30-foot poured concrete silo in 1947.

Harley Flathers is a longtime Rochester-area broadcaster and historian. Got a comment for Harley? Send it to or to Harley at Post-Bulletin, P.O. Box 6118, Rochester, MN 55903. His column runs on Thursdays.

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