Edward “Ed” Tanner
U.S. Army Air Corps
World War II (1941-1945)
5 Air Medals
Edward “Ed” Tanner was born in Macksville, Kansas, on December 31, 1920. Moving to Yuba City, California, as a young boy, Tanner gained plenty of experience working with his father at their bakery and farming at their ranch in Danville. Before entering the war, Tanner was definitely aware of what was happening. There was “quite a bit of knowledge and discussion about events that might affect you in some way,” as Tanner said. After attending high school in Yuba City and going to Yuba Junior College for one year, he decided to join the local National Guard unit for fear of being drafted earlier on in the war. He enlisted in February of 1941, two months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Expecting to serve a year of duty to his nation, Tanner ended up serving four eventful years.
Initially, Tanner served in the army infantry in California in the National Guard unit. He later applied to take pilot training and was accepted into the air corps as an aviation student in March of 1942. Tanner chose to transfer into the army air corps because he wanted to fly airplanes, and “frankly,” he added, laughing, “the infantry is no place for a human being.” He didn’t experience any basic training at boot camp like draftees did, but he did have a military specialty: he was a baker at the base. He stayed in active duty in the air corps until May of 1945 and later as an air corps reserve officer for over twenty years. He now belongs to the American Legion.
For Tanner’s first assignment while serving in the infantry, he was assigned to a squadron at Camp San Luis Obispo where he and the others in the squadron drilled and trained together. There, he was ranked as private first class. “A private first class,” he stated, “was required to get up in the morning to be counted and then clean up the place. We did whatever [the commanding officers] made us do.” He expected his time at the camp to be an enjoyable experience; he knew most of the people there, and joining the National Guard “kind of eased [him] in.” Tanner remembers playing games such as basketball, baseball, and football at the assignment. He also recalls going to town on weekends to see if they could pick up a few girls. When asked what the food was like, Tanner declared that “you ate whatever they gave you; it was pretty good.” Because of his baking specialty, he was assigned to the kitchen and was free to cook and eat whatever he wanted. He even taught other companies how to bake. There was an adequate amount of supplies, but “things came on so fast that this country really wasn’t prepared…so a lot of the equipment was out of date, and they worked real hard to get them up to date.”
At the time, he was living with his parents in Yuba City, and when he moved away for pilot training and the air corps, he was still able to communicate with them. He remembers sending one or two letters every month, but they were always edited due to high levels of security. “The last thing you wanted to do was write…about a mission you just went on; that would get you in lots of trouble.”
Despite its perks, Tanner over did not enjoy being in the infantry, so he applied to the air corps. He was accepted and began his eight months of pilot training in Santa Ana. “I wanted to learn how to fly an airplane and do all these wonderful things the air corps does. That was pretty good motivation.” Looking back on it, he wishes he and the other pilots had more training, but because of the lack of time, they weren’t very well educated in their field. He considered most of the training “on-the-job.” After various pilot training schools, such as his primary school in Santa Maria, Tanner was expected to perform fighter pilot duties related to what he had learned through lectures and flying practice.
Proving to be a capable fighter pilot, Tanner was then deployed to many countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sardinia, and Sicily. He served internationally throughout his service in the army air corps in the combat unit.
Tanner believed that some of the officers in his unit were rotten, but most of them were quite good. The general morale of his unit was very good, and he liked most of the people he served with, especially those in the air corps. He felt that as a whole, they were very effective. “One can always do better,” he said. “When you’re part of an enormous unit, it may be very important, but individually, it’s kind of insignificant.”
On his leave, Tanner and his friends “would go into town, drink a lot of beer, and chase a lot of women,” he said, laughing. “But you didn’t fool around in foreign countries.” He reminisces of the times he spent with his fellow personnel, but he kept in touch with his friends for a long time, particularly those who were in prison camp with him, where he spent most of his service. “We all had one thing in common: the fact that we were there, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere.”
Tanner’s prisoner-of-war camp experience was by far the toughest part of his service. He was captured in Italy and sent to a prison camp in northern Germany for a little over one and a half years. He was flying in escort of “some B26 bomber,” bombing Italy, and there he got into an altercation with some German 109 aircrafts. He and another pilot fighting against the Germans crashed in midair, landing in a random woman’s backyard. “We wrecked two perfectly good airplanes,” Tanner recollected. Immediately, they were captured. The Germans took Tanner into the woods and took his gun and escape money and food from him. Next, they took him to his comrade and sent them to jail. They were then sent to Florence, Italy, for a week and taken by train to Germany for their main interrogation. At the prison camp in Germany, Tanner feels that he and the other prisoners were treated fairly decently. The Red Cross supplied each person with a food parcel once a week. He claimed they always had enough to eat and were even allowed to play sports. “We did a lot of crazy things,” he said as he explained a story about the other prisoners and him digging tunnels to escape. Once caught, the officer in charge treated them nicely, congratulating them on their mining skills rather than punishing them.
There were many American Jews in the camp, too, and looking back, Tanner feels they were treated no differently than the other prisoners. “It was nothing like a concentration camp,” for the concentration camps treated the Jews much more harshly. “Once, they segregated all the Jewish boys out, but after that, they didn’t do anything to them.” They were transferred out into different units; it was scary, but nothing ever happened.
After all that he had been through in the war, Tanner was finally released from service in 1945. “After I came home from overseas, I stayed in the air corps for a while. It was pretty obvious then that they had more people who knew what to do, so I left. It wasn’t very eventful.” More people had joined the air corps, and they had more experience than Tanner felt he had. Therefore, Tanner decided to stay in the air corps reserve but in inactive duty. Finally, in 1945, he received his separation papers at Camp Beale and was allowed to return home.
Upon his arrival home, Tanner felt his fellow Americans treated him very nicely. “When I was released, I came on a ship into New York, and there was the Statue of Liberty. I’ll never forget that. It took thirteen days to get to New York. [At the airport] they had a big band playing ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ Funny how you remember little things like that,” he said with a smile and his eyes gleaming.
Following his release, Tanner received additional education and found a new career path. He was employed as the manager of a cotton gin near Fresno. Not satisfied, he moved to Marin County and worked for the California Public Utilities Commission in the transportation division. He also enrolled at Golden Gate College and took a number of courses related to transportation. Tanner also managed to take a trip to Hawaii with his wife, whom he married in February of 1943 right after he got out of pilot training. He later became the proud father of two sons and enjoyed raising them.
Looking back on his war experience, Tanner reflects on his general feelings. “When you go out on a mission,” he said, “you’re always scared to death, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. The idea is to get there, get out, and go home…[but] companionship makes a big difference.” He recalls performing in plays with his comrades. He laughs when admitting that he had to play all of the female roles due to his hairless legs.
Overall, Tanner believes the war made him grow up a little bit. “When you get in a situation like that, you learn things, but I don’t think you could say that it changed me. It’s all part of the learning process.” When asked if he thinks the war was justified, he answered, “There’s never a justification for war….What’s the purpose of it? [Everyone] is just as nice as anybody else….I was one among thousands of other people, and I didn’t have any special thing that happened to me that didn’t happen to most of them.”
When asked what Americans should remember about World War II, Tanner said, “Remember that we got involved in it; remember what we didn’t get out of it what we thought we would. [However], we learned a lot that helped us in civilian life.” He recommends that those who wish to serve in a war should pursue it. “I think it’s a good experience for a young person to get away from home and learn to live and get along with other people.” In closing, Ed Tanner’s fatherly instinct shone though his final words of advice. “Behave yourself,” he advised in a witty manner.
Interview by Gabriella Aversa and Kathryn Khalvati on July 20,2011.