|Al Rollins as a cadet in the Army Air Force. Family photo.|
It was Christmas Day, 1944, and B-24 bombers were heading for Innsbruck and the freight yards at the head of the Brenner Pass, the German’s life-line to Italy.
We were flying cover for them. The Fifteenth Airforce hit that track almost every day, and it was lined with flack guns from Austria to Milan. The [planes] never came up, but the flack did, as heavy over Innsbruck as anything we had ever seen except Vienna. We lost a lot of bombers that day, and several were crippled.
What you’re reading is short story, but there’s no doubt that the writer was there, and there often, in the skies above Germany during World War II.
Alfred Rollins is 91 now, living with his wife, photographer Helen Jones, in a first-floor apartment in West Ghent. He’s had a long and eventful life, including nearly 10 years as president of Old Dominion University at a time of great change there, the mid-1970s.
Rollins is mild-mannered and admits to being somewhat of a pacifist, but that didn’t stop him from flying 50 combat missions – and causing quite a bit of destruction. The thing was, he was also patriotic, and he believed that Hitler had to be stopped.
“My experience in the war was feeling that I had to be supportive of my country,” he tells me, seated in a corner chair near a window looking out on Westover Avenue. “I might be a pacifist, but that was a private matter. I had to volunteer and be supportive of my country.”
Rollins was born in Presque Isle, ME, in 1921, son of a fundamentalist preacher. Soon after, the family moved to Hartford, CT, and that’s where he grew up. He graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, in 1942, just after Pearl Harbor. Rather than wait to be drafted, he joined the Army Air Force and went into training as a bomber pilot.
With luck on his side, he survived long enough to advance from co-pilot to pilot, and then squadron leader.
And, at 20,000 feet, with flack bursting all around him, he was, like everyone else, frightened.
“I think you’d have to be insane not to be frightened,” he says. “Scared silly. But if you’re an officer, particularly if you were lead pilot in the group, you had to fight down your own fears and act the part of a leader, and so you find yourself working against your own fears; you had to stick your jaw out and go ahead.”
He made it through the war and went back to school on the GI Bill, eventually getting a PhD in history from Harvard. He was vice president of academic affairs at the University of Vermont when ODU named him president. He retired in 1985, taught history for awhile, and then, in the early 1990s began writing short stories.
His Christmas Day story involves a P-38 pilot escorting the big bombers, several of which are hit on that mission over Innsbruck. The pilot gets the go-ahead to stay with one of them.
I soon picked up a damaged B-24 with both right-side engines out. No fire, and he was holding steady, but it didn’t look as if he would clear the Dolomites to get home. . . .After a while, I dropped flaps to slow down and stay with him.
We made it over the mountains, and those boys steadied into a course for the British fighter field just north of Falconara and just over the German lines. They got there, but they couldn’t have had more than three or four hundred feet off the deck. They lunged onto that steel track runway and ground to a halt among the litter of crippled planes blocking the end of it. I knew my fuel was low. I couldn’t make it home, so I banked around and came in after them.
He never published any of the short stories. But they helped sort out his feelings about the war.
For years, Rollins lived with the guilt of having dropped bombs on German cities. “My second wife knew about my guilt about being a bomber,” he says. “We took a trip to Europe and she insisted we go to Innsbruck, which I had talked about because I bombed Innsbruck on Christmas Day. The area I once bombed was now a beautiful green park-like area.
“Years later, my guilty feeling receded.”
Next week, Rollins takes the helm of the fledgling Old Dominion University, where huge challenges and opportunities await.