As a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War Two, Frank Klum survived two separate train crashes, sailed across the Atlantic on the RMS Queen Mary, was bombed by German aircraft in North Africa and Europe, served with an Olympic Gold medalist, went six weeks without a shower while living in foxholes in Tunisia and witnessed Mount Vesuvius erupting while in Italy.
Klum, a Clermont resident since 1998, is 97 years old and aware of the fact that WWII veterans are becoming a scare commodity, which is why he wanted to share his story with Clermont News Leader readers.
Klum was 18 years old when the Army accepted him, two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and he was soon sent to Missouri for recruit training and Fresno, California, where he joined the 97th Bombardment Squadron of the 47th Bombardment Group. Born in a logging camp in Pennsylvania, Klum’s path to seeing the world was just beginning.
It was while traveling from Fresno to Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma that Klum experienced his first train wreck. Fortunately, only the troop train’s freight cars derailed “and ended up in a heap,” as he recalled, and he safely made it to his next destination.
Next up: Greensboro, North Carolina; Fort Dix, New Jersey; and in September 1942, a ride aboard the RMS Queen Mary to Glasgow.
“On the way, we had to change course because of German U-boats,” Klum said. “There was a gal who broadcast for the Nazis, and she said they sank the Queen Mary while I was on it.”
The vessel instead successfully zigzagged across the Atlantic, changing course every seven minutes until it finally docked on Sept. 11, and Klum next traveled to England. While based outside London at Rougham Airfield for a few months, he witnessed his first German bombings from afar when London was attacked.
Klum found himself in Africa when his squadron landed at Casablanca, Morocco, to support the Allied North African campaign. In Algeria on Christmas Day 1942, the young soldier experienced his first bombing raid by Germans. There was more to come in Thelepte, Tunisia, where Klum spent six long weeks living in foxholes and dodging bombs and bullets.
“We were the furthest advanced Allied troops, and we got bombed and strafed all the time,” he said. “The Germans had air superiority at that time.”
While checking on the squadron’s planes one day, Klum had to jump inside a spare engine’s container when a Junkers 88 Luftwaffe airplane flew at him, not more than 20 feet off the ground.
“I could see that pilot’s face plain as day,” Klum said. “I still remember his face.”
Foy Draper, who won the gold medal for the 4x100 meter relay at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, “was one of our pilots, and sadly, he was one of our first casualties in Thelepte,” Klum said.
Rationed one canteen of water per day in the Tunisian desert, Klum needed that water to drink. When they were pulled out of Thelept and relocated to Algeria, he finally had a shower, and he still chuckles when telling about how his shirt literally fell apart when he tried to take it off.
Klum was eventually transferred to the North African Tactical Bomber Force and stayed in Tunisia until July 1943, when he next found himself in Sicily.
The invasion of Italy was brutal, and one grim night when everyone was told “to hold positions at all costs,” Klum said he “made up my mind I was not going to be captured. I gathered as much ammo as I could. And that night, nothing happened.” They established a beachhead at a cost, with some 3,000 casualties in just one day, Klum said.
While in Italy, Klum was NCO in charge when his boss couldn’t be reached, and Klum had to make a decision how to respond when a mission response came back as “not confirmed.” He sought out the colonel of the 5th Army Intelligence, who “came up with a new target, type of bombs and so forth. We encoded the information and sent it to HQ, and it came back ‘confirmed.’”
Klum paused. “I saved a mission,” he said. “Best thing I ever did.”
It was also in Italy where Klum experienced the 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius: “Every time it belched, it was like an earthquake.”
The mountain played a role in the war, too, as one night Klum received a call from a commander of a bombing outfit located outside of Pompeii. The commander wanted to ask the general if they should evacuate, but the general didn’t want to deal with the nighttime call and told Klum to have him call in the morning.
“First thing in the morning, they see about three feet of ash on the runway and covering 40 B-25s. They were all damaged. If they’d evacuated, they would’ve been safe,” Klum said.
Specializing in end coding and decoding, Klum hadn’t been on an actual bombing mission, though he’d been traveling with and supporting the pilots who did those missions all along. Aug. 15, 1944, he flew his first and only mission, which was to bomb a bridge in southern France.
“I have 4.5 hours of actual combat time,” Klum said. “I was observer on the plane.”
After Klum served overseas for two-and-a-half years, he was sent home. On his way to Pittsburgh to be discharged as Staff Sergeant in 1945, Klum was in his second train crash, this time in West Virginia, when another train side-swiped the one he was riding while crossing a bridge. Again, he suffered no harm, but he did have to wait a few days to continue his journey.
A few months after the war, Klum re-enlisted. He retired in 1962 from Pine Castle Air Force Base in Orlando. The father of five then got a job with the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked in the Orlando area for 22 years. His wife of 64 years died in 2011, and three of his children also have passed. Klum’s other two children and grandchildren live in central Florida.
Klum believes it is important to share his memories of World War Two, so people get to hear the history firsthand. He’s spoken to sixth-grade classes about his experiences, and he is active in the Clermont Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 5277.
“He is remarkable,” said Bob Farrell, VFW Post 5277 Quartermaster, who helped set up this interview.