LIMA — Earl and Harvey Hefner grew up on a farm just outside Lima. When war enveloped the United States in the the early 1940s, the brothers knew their time to serve was coming. Earl, the older of the two, had thoughts of enlisting.
Like many others, he didn’t get the chance.
“We both got drafted. We had to leave all the farmwork to my father,” Earl Hefner, 89, said. “I was going to enlist but the draft papers beat me.”
Hefner entered the U.S. Army Air Forces and eventually found his way to North Africa and and into combat in Italy with the 12th Air Force. He served as a mechanic and a bellygunner on a Douglas A-20 attack bomber.
Hefner and his unit flew more than 50 missions, including time on the island of Corsica, before being sent back to Italy’s Po Valley. Commanders added 10 more missions to help the 5th Army, which was concerned with German getting tanks across the river.
Hefner said he can still vividly remember those missions.
“It’s just like yesterday, I can still see all that. We released the bombs and blew that bridge all to blazes,” Hefner said. “I was in debriefing and the intelligence officer asked if we got it. He said, 'That’s strange. The 5th Army said you didn’t do a damn thing.’ I said, ‘We took out the bridge you told us to.’”
The intelligence officer said the crew was going to go back again. Sure enough, when the crew got to the location, there was the bridge. So for a second time, Hefner’s A-20 zeroed in and bombed the bridge. Like the first attack, there was no resistance from the Germans on the ground. Another debriefing came and the officer said the bridge was still there.
Hefner said additional intelligence work determined the attacks had been targeting a decoy bridge the Nazis were allowing to be photographed and then sinking following the attacks. Hefner’s squadron was told to move their target just a bit up the river.
“We started in again and all of a sudden the Germans realized we were going to hit the bridge they didn’t want us to hit. Then the searchlights came on and I could see every rivet inside that airplane,” Hefner said. “I swung my gun around and laid it onto them and out went the light. All of a sudden this other searchlight was coming around and the upper gunner took it out. The ack-ack [anti-aircraft artillery] was really pouring on. It was the 59th mission and I figured this was the end of us. The ack-ack was just vicious.”
Harvey Hefner, 88, was drafted into the Army about a year after his older brother, entering the service in 1944. He was sent for training in Florida and would have ended up in Europe like his brother.
“I got sunburned while I was in Florida, wound up in a hospital,” Harvey Hefner said. “My outfit went to Europe and I ended up in Okinawa. At least I went where it was warm.”
He got to Okinawa after the brunt of the ferocious fighting on the island was over.
“We were kind of the cleanup effort,” he said. “You could still get shot, it was dangerous, because there were a lot of Japanese soldiers still there.”
Even all these years later, the brothers’ travels in opposite directions around the world don’t seem real, they said.
“It doesn’t seem like we’ve been halfway around the world,” Harvey Hefner said. “It’s like a dream.”
Their experiences, however, changed them. The brothers used to go hunting with their father before the war.
“After I came back from the Air Force I never hunted again,” Earl Hefner said. “I knew what a duck felt like with someone shooting at them.”