John Oliver Buslee, known to family as “John Oliver”, “J Oliver”, or “Jay” was born June 24, 1923 in Maine Township, Cook County, Illinois to parents John and Olga Gruenfeld Buslee. In this post, I’ll refer to John (the father) as “John”, and John Oliver (the son and WWII pilot) as “Jay” in an attempt to avoid confusion between father and son.
Jay’s father, John Buslee, was the “Buslee” in Neumann, Buslee & Wolfe, Inc., self-described as “Merchants, Importers, and Manufacturers” of essential oils, based in the Bauer Building on West Huron Street in Chicago, Illinois. Neumann, Buslee & Wolfe occupied half of the Bauer Building while the Shure Brothers microphone company occupied the other half. The 1930 census describes John’s profession as a chemical salesman, and by the 1940 census he was labeled a salesman of essential oils.
While both John and Olga were born in Illinois, John’s parents were both born in Norway, and Olga’s father was born in Germany. Olga’s mother was Jay’s only grandparent born in Illinois. One of the Buslee family stories is that John’s parents’ last name was originally Andersen or Anderson. Fearing difficulties in America with so many named Anderson, John’s father decided to take a new name based on the place he was from in Norway, possibly the county of Buskerud, and came up with Buslee as his and his wife’s new last name. John’s father’s death certificate lists his full name as John Anderson Buslee, lending some truth to the story.
Jay was the youngest of John and Olga’s two children. His sister, Janice Elizabeth, came along first, about three and a half years before Jay. Janice was married to Gene D. Kielhofer on September 25, 1943. Gene was a pilot in the Navy, serving his country in the South Pacific flying NATS, Naval Air Transport Services. Janice had both a brother and husband to worry about in the war.
In his youth, Jay attended Maine Township High School (now called Maine Township High School East) in Park Ridge, Illinois, where he was president of the German Club, vice-president of the Rose Cassidy Chemistry Club, a member of the M Club, and played baseball and football. He graduated in 1941. He then attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison for two years before enlisting in the Army Air Corps.
Jay enlisted in the Army Air Corps in mid-April 1943 (sources note conflicting dates of April 9, 17 and 19). He enjoyed a last dinner out with his father before heading to Union Station for the train ride to Nashville. Union Station was a busy place during WWII. As many as 300 trains and 100,000 passengers, many of them soldiers, passed through Union Station every day during the war.
The Classification Center in Nashville, Tennessee was the first stop in the training program in which Jay would earn his wings. This was the stage where Jay would be classified to train as a navigator, bombardier, or pilot, and lasted about a week. By the end of the week, Jay was selected for pilot training.
From his classification in Nashville as an Aviation Cadet Pilot, Jay was sent to pre-flight training in Santa Ana, California. Pre-flight training for pilots, navigators, and bombardiers lasted ten weeks and was divided into two parts. The first six weeks was a short version of boot camp, dealing mostly with physical conditioning and military training. The next four weeks covered academics, including everything from the mechanics and physics of flight to refresher courses in mathematics and physics, which the cadets were required to pass. Practical applications of their knowledge came next through the instruction of aeronautics, deflection shooting, and thinking in three dimensions. Evaluations were performed through flight simulators and ride-alongs with a pilot-instructor. The lucky ones that passed were given Cadet Wings and were promoted to pilot school.
Pilot school was rigorous and not every cadet made it all the way through the pilot training program. Washing out was not uncommon. Aviation cadets who washed out of pilot training were sent to navigator school or bombardier school. Navigator and bombardier schools were no walk in the park either. Washing out of those schools usually meant heading for gunnery school.
Anxious to see their son and help him celebrate his twentieth birthday, Jay’s parents headed to Santa Ana for a visit. It was near the end of Jay’s pre-flight pilot training and Jay was selected as one of three boys promoted to primary pilot training at Sequoia Field in Visalia, California. Mr. and Mrs. Buslee arrived in Santa Ana only a few hours before Jay was to be transferred to Sequoia Field for his primary pilot training. Luckily, the transfer was put on hold, allowing Jay to spend the night with his parents at their hotel.
Used to enduring the cold winters in the Chicago area, Jay loved the warmer climate and being close to the desert at Sequoia Field. Here Jay learned to fly in a two-seater training aircraft. His quarters were nice, too, and air conditioned. Meals were a treat, with the boys dining at tables of eight with white table cloths. He was happy to find he was not required to do any guard duty or K.P., as those tasks were performed by civilian guard. The boys in primary pilot training at Sequoia Field only had to concentrate on one thing – learning to fly. Three weeks after his twentieth birthday, on July 15, 1943, Jay made his first solo flight.
Next stop was Jay’s basic pilot training at Minter Field in Bakersfield, California. At Minter Field, Jay learned to fly in formation, fly by instruments or aerial navigation, fly at night, and fly for long distances, all required training for a future B-17 bomber pilot.
After finishing his basic pilot training, Jay went on to advanced pilot training at the Army Pilot Training School in Douglas, Arizona, where he earned his wings and commission as a Second Lieutenant on January 7, 1944. Only cadets who graduated at the top of their class were graded as second lieutenants.
Classified as a multi-engine pilot, Jay continued his transition pilot training in multiple-motored bombers in Roswell, New Mexico after taking a short furlough. Transition pilot training normally lasted for two months.
Jay finished the final phase of his pilot training in Ardmore, Oklahoma, where the original Buslee crew was formed, and all the boys bonded as brothers as they prepared for combat duty.
Training alongside Lt. John Oliver (Jay) Bulsee in Ardmore were the other members of his original crew, which included:
Co-pilot Lt. David Franklin Albrecht from Chico, California
- Navigator Lt. Chester A. Rybarczyk from Toledo, Ohio
- Bombardier Lt. Marvin Fryden, also from Cook County, Illinois
- Engineer/Top Turret Gunner Sgt. Clarence B. Seeley from Halsey, Nebraska
- Radio Operator/Gunner Sgt. Sebastiano Joseph Peluso from Brooklyn, New York
- Tail Gunner Sgt. Eugene D. Lucynski from Detroit, Michigan
- Ball Turret Gunner Sgt. Erwin V. Foster from Elmira, New York
- Waist Gunner Sgt. Lenard Leroy Bryant from Littlefield, Texas
- Waist Gunner Sgt. George Edwin Farrar from Atlanta, Georgia, (my dad)
At one point, the boys thought that they would not be going to England, which eased their minds, as they knew flying bomber missions from England was very risky and posed the greatest threat of running into flak. By the time they were ready for combat, they found that they were going to England after all.
The Buslee crew was assigned to the Eighth Air Force, 384th Bombardment Group, 544th Bomb Squadron, and were soon on their way to the Grafton Underwood Air Station in England. They would fly together as a crew in what they thought of as their own plane, a B-17. When my dad described it to his mother, he wrote that “it only has twelve hours on it and guns all over
it.” The boys were not allowed to divulge where they were heading, but were allowed to write home once they reached England.
On their second mission on August 5, 1944, with Jay still in training but handling the controls of the famous flying fortress known as the Tremblin’ Gremlin, the Buslee crew was hit by flak during their bomb run over an airfield in Langenhagen, Germany, north of Hanover. All but two of the crew were injured. Luckily, Jay’s injuries were minor. The most major injuries were to engineer and top turret gunner, Clarence B. Seeley, whose lower right leg was pierced by a jagged piece of steel, and to bombardier, Marvin Fryden, who was hit in the chest below the left shoulder. Fryden was able to release his bombs on the target before collapsing.
Jay was later quoted as saying, “It was popping all over the place during the few minutes we were on the bomb run. By the time we made our turn away from the target, more than half the crew had been hit and suffered injuries of varying degrees.”
The pilot who was training Jay, Lt. Arthur J. Shwery of Janesville, Wisconsin, was hit above the eye, leaving Jay in charge for the return trip to England, a return trip that was harrowing considering the condition of the ship. The right inboard motor was hit and was lost. The radio compartment was riddled with holes and the radio equipment destroyed. The only thing that saved the radioman, Sebastiano Peluso, was the fact that he was bending over when the flak hit his radio compartment. The trim tabs that control the plane’s balance were shredded. The hydraulic brake system was shot out. Part of the oxygen system was lost and the men up front had to use emergency supplies or tap other lines. The left inboard engine went out as Tremblin’ Gremlin reached the English coast. With no brakes, Jay thought he was heading for a rough landing, but he managed to bring the plane in on the concrete landing strip and slide it off into the grass to reduce the speed of the uncontrollable wheels. Ground crews counted more than 100 flak holes in the fort.
Back in England, Marvin Fryden died in an Army hospital in the arms of his friend, the navigator, Chester Rybarczyk. Everyone else on the Buslee crew had a few days off to decompress before their next mission on August 9 except for Clarence Seeley, who took until October 2 to heal from his leg wound. Arthur “James” Shwery, who had trained Jay on Jay’s first two missions, also flew again on August 9, and only had four missions to go until he completed his tour and returned to the states. He must have felt lucky to escape with only a cut above the eye so close to the end of his service.
After the harrowing mission of August 5, Jay was ready to take over as pilot and completed a total of sixteen missions with his last mission being mission 201 on September 28, 1944 to Magdeburg. It was this mission that Jay and his crew in Lead Banana were involved in a mid-air collision with the James Brodie crew aboard Lazy Daisy. Jay and seven of his crew mates on the Banana lost their lives in the collision and subsequent crash. Six lives were lost aboard the Daisy.
Like the other boys that lost their lives that day, Jay was originally buried in the Ostingersleben Cemetery near the crash site. He was later interred in the Netherlands American Cemetery in the village of Margraten. More than four years after his death, he was brought home and re-interred February 3, 1949 at the Saint Joseph Cemetery in River Grove, Cook County, Illinois. Today Jay is interred in Building 1, Tier C, Crypt 2, alongside his parents and sister, Janice, and Janice’s husband, Gene.
Thank you to Craig and John Dale Kielhofer, sons of Gene and Janice Buslee Kielhofer and nephews of John Oliver (Jay) Buslee, for sharing family stories and photographs.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014