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Veterans Remember: Joe Degen dropped bombs on Germany, Austria for the 15th Air Force

World War II Veterans Remember By Tim Stanley

It sounded at first like Joe Degen was about to tell a joke.

“There were two Jewish guys, me and another. Then there were three Catholics. The rest were Protestants — five of them … ,” the Tulsa resident began.

But what followed, it turned out, did not involve anyone walking into a bar.

Rather, Degen, who served with a crew of 10 on a B-24 bomber in World War II, was telling a story — the story of how a group of guys of different beliefs and backgrounds could come together in the face of daunting odds to do a job.

Of course, as Degen pointed out, that doesn’t mean there weren’t funny moments. In fact, one such moment provided a good illustration of their interdenominational spirit.

On every mission, Degen said, one of the Catholics, the co-pilot, had a special ritual: Before boarding the plane, he would kneel and say a prayer.

But on one occasion, “we had been delayed and were in a hurry. And this one time he didn’t pray.”

The pilot, Degen’s fellow Jew, noticed the omission. He stopped the co-pilot before he could climb aboard.

“He told him, ‘Go back and say your prayer,’ ” Degen recalled.

The co-pilot obeyed. With what lay ahead of them on a typical mission, Degen added, laughing, the pilot “knew we needed all the help we could get.”

50/50 chance

A typical mission for his crew — members of the 15th Air Force, 465th Bomb Group — looked a lot like the first one, said Degen, who served as bombardier.

It was on Sept. 10, 1944, and their target was an oil refinery in Vienna, Austria.

Fresh on their minds was something they’d been told by the more experienced airmen.

“The fellas told us if you went to Vienna or Munich (Germany), it is best before you go to tell them what to do with your (personal effects). Because there was only a 50/50 chance of coming back,” Degen said.

Those cities, he added, were in the heart of areas still heavily defended.

The mission would be a success, even though, with the cloud cover, Degen couldn’t see the target.

But he saw everything else, and today the images are still with him.

It was his first time, he said, to witness flak — anti-aircraft fire from enemy guns on the ground — as it exploded in the skies all around.

Also on full display was what the flak was capable of.

“I saw planes on fire,” Degen said. “I saw parachutes going down. They looked like balloons at first, then I saw the legs kicking underneath.”

Degen’s bomber made it through. But when they arrived back at base, “we counted over a hundred flak holes in the plane.”

The first of 48 combat missions Degen would be part of, this eye-opening first outing didn’t faze him.

“We were there to do a job,” he said. “And I trusted my pilot. I never thought about it. I knew I would come back.”

Having a good pilot could make all the difference.

Degen remembers the first time he met his, Lt. A.A. Zalk.

“I had just imagined the pilot of a B-24 would be like 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. Well, Zalk was a little fella,” he said.

“My heart dropped,” he added, laughing.

It didn’t take Degen long to change his mind, though. Zalk was a skilled flier and natural leader who on a mission “demanded and required 110 percent of every man.”

It was a big reason why, within just two weeks of arriving at their base, “we were a lead crew,” Degen said.

‘Give ‘em hell’

As a Jew whose parents had immigrated from Eastern Europe, Degen, a longtime Tulsan and 1941 Central High graduate, was aware of how the Jewish people were suffering under the Nazis.

But he wouldn’t know the extent of it until after the war.

“All the time I was overseas we never heard anything about” the concentration camps and other horrors. “We would’ve had our hands up first” to do something about it, he said, if they had known.

As it stood, they focused on the targets they knew.

“Give ‘em hell. When they stop, we’ll stop,” Degen said of his feelings about dropping bombs.

Based at Pantanella airfield in Italy, Degen’s crew flew its missions to sites in Italy, Germany and Austria.

On the face of it, his job as bombardier was simple.

“I loaded ‘em, I fused ‘em and I dropped ‘em.”

The B-24s flew in tight formations, wings almost interlocking, to ensure a concentration of bombs hitting in the targeted area, he said.

Most of the targets were factories, refineries, railroads or other facilities.

Their chief obstacles, he said, were the weather and enemy flak.

Degen has records of his missions and the targets written in pen on a yellow legal pad. As he runs his finger down the page, each entry jogs a memory.

Like the multiple occasions when the plane was too impaired to make it back to base.

In fact, it happened on just his second mission, to bomb a jet factory in Munich. On the return, with one engine out and running low on fuel, they had to land in Ancona, Italy.

Another time, it was on a small island off the coast of Yugoslavia.

That one was especially tricky, he said. The plane’s brakes were out and they had to improvise.

“The pilot asked the gunners to tie parachutes to the gun mounts and when we hit down, to deploy them,” Degen said.

The plan worked. The plane stopped on land.

“It was better than going into the Adriatic,” he said.

On only one mission did Degen not deliver his payload.

The target was a factory, but as they approached it, a big red cross painted on it suddenly came into view.

Supposed to signify that it was a hospital, “it could’ve been a trick, but I didn’t know,” Degen said. “I told the pilot I was not going to drop the bomb.”

They found out later that they had been off course. So the building may very well have been a hospital.

“I didn’t want to take that chance,” he said.

‘Not one scratch’

More than 70 years later, a day doesn’t pass that Degen doesn’t think about his war experience.

Even the mundane task of taking a shower is a reminder, he said.

“When I adjust the hot water, the slightest movement to the left or right makes a big difference,” he said. “Every time I do it, I think of those bombsights.”

As bombardier, Degen took control of the aircraft when nearing the target, guiding it by the bombsights.

It required a steady hand — not too much to the left or right, he said. “It was just like in the shower.”

Degen finished his service as a first lieutenant. He brought home a number of decorations, including a Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals.

“I feel like I did the right thing,” he said of his decision to serve his country. “I’m very happy everything turned out well.”

Back in Tulsa, he joined and would go on to run Degen Pipe & Supply Co., an oil equipment company founded by his father, Harry.

Degen and his late wife, Sylvia, were active members of the city’s Jewish community and raised two daughters together.

When he thinks back to the war, Degen still marvels at how lucky he and his crew mates were, making it through unscathed.

“Not one scratch. No one wounded. We were very fortunate.”

Undoubtedly the skill of his pilot had something to do with it. But Degen can’t discount the role of his Catholic co-pilot.

“Those prayers helped, I guess,” he chuckled.

Bird Creek spill lingers: EPA, oil producers continue to seek resolution after 2 years

Two years after a mystery saline spill killed turtles and fish in an upper Bird Creek tributary in Osage County, just over a hill from the prized Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, resolution to the problem still is pending and entities involved with the spill aren’t saying much — at least for now.

The spill now is in the negotiation phase, the legal phase, a don’t-say-anything-outside-the-settlement-meetings phase.

The spill was first reported Aug. 14, 2016, on the Chapman Ranch. Livestock were moved away from the stream on the ranch and downstream. Out of an abundance of caution, the city of Pawhuska chose to change water sources from Bluestem Lake, which is near the creek, to its old source at Pawhuska Lake — a change that apparently still has not been reversed. Landowners downstream continue to keep livestock away from the creek — which flows intermittently depending on rainfall.

EPA and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials initially suspected a case of illegal dumping from a county road bridge over the creek during high water and that the contaminants concentrated as the water level dropped (a locked gate now blocks entrance to that road at the ranch property line).

Inspectors could find no evidence of saltwater having run overland from any nearby production sites to indicate a spill.

However, after more heavy rainfall, salinity persisted in the creek and landowners expressed frustration with a lack of action on the part of EPA, Osage Nation and Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine a cause or clean up the site. The following spring, then-EPA Director Scott Pruitt visited the site with other EPA officials and vowed there would be action to try to solve the mystery.

From past reports, indications are that a plan for the stream could be in the making through the settlement process. Whether the mystery behind the source of the saline that turned a clear water stream into hot brine (some readings at the base of the stream neared 100 degrees) will ever be known for sure, or agreed upon, is hard to predict.

A spokesman for oil producers Warren American Oil Co. LLC, Jireh Resources LLC, and Novy Oil & Gas offered this week that, “we can say settlement discussions are ongoing.”

Environmental Protection Agency Region 6 spokesman David Gray said in an email, “settlement discussions have been fruitful however a final settlement has not been reached at this time.”

Official legal proceedings remain active on a parallel track.

In July last year, the EPA issued preliminary findings from the work promised by Pruitt and asked the producers to voluntarily shut in their wells. Those requests were based on contamination readings from the streams that, they assert, indicated that increased pressure from nearby injection wells had reached a sort of maximum capacity where all seven of the relatively nearby wells were contributing to the problem. Oil-well injection water was said to be seeping up through the ground and into the creek drainage.

In a public hearing last October the producers attempted to debunk the theory of over-pressurized geologic formations and pointed to evidence from their own experts, as well as a neutral third-party consultant from the University of Tulsa. Their information indicated a “one-time event” but did not specify what might be the source of the contaminated water.

Pumper trucks were brought to the stream to remove saline water and monitor whether the salinity did indeed recharge while the nearby wells were still in production.

TU professor Kerry Sublette, who has consulted on cleanups worldwide, began overseeing a project to pump out the most contaminated sections of the creek, not only to clean up the creek but to test the one-time-event theory.

It is not clear whether that work is continuing or if it is a part of the settlement talks at this time. Sublette, the EPA and producers would not comment on the status of that effort.

The legal side of the process continues from December 2017, when the EPA finalized its report and formally ordered the wells shut down.

Producers objected to the order and filed suits of their own in January of this year.

Federal officials are responding to those suits now, and the producers and EPA officials continue to have settlement talks.

“The DOJ on behalf of EPA, has responded to the court regarding the complaints filed by Jireh and Warren, and will respond to the complaint by Novy this week,” Gray added in his email. “The responses defend our original order and existing administrative record which outlines our findings as we continue to prepare for trial should our settlement negotiations fail or the court sets a hearing date.”

Political operatives think negative ads work, so we're likely to see more of them

From the scurrilous (and, in retrospect, sometimes weird) charges exchanged by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the early days of the union, to whisper campaigns about the ethnicity of Abraham Lincoln and Warren Harding, to today’s grainy images, voice-of-doom narration and often out-of-context quotations, negative campaigning has been a part of American politics.

But many observers say it has all but taken over. In 1960, researchers report, only about 10 percent of political advertising was considered negative. In the final two weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, less than 5 percent of Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s ads featured positive messages about the respective candidates.

Voters say they hate negative ads, but campaign consultants insist they work — especially in close races.

Which is why we’re likely to see more of the same in the days leading up to the Aug. 28 Republican gubernatorial runoff election between Mick Cornett and Kevin Stitt.

The real mudslinging began a little over a week ago when an independent expenditure group supporting Cornett released an ad questioning Stitt’s business ethics.

Stitt admitted his mortgage company had accumulated a few “minor infractions” over its 18 years of existence, called on Cornett to denounce the ad and released one calling Cornett a “never-Trumper” — a pre-election opponent of President Donald Trump — who opposed building a wall along the border with Mexico.

Saying he was “furious,” and that his record as mayor of Oklahoma City had been besmirched, Cornett countered with an ad in which the charges against him are refuted with the phrase “Bull, Stitt.”

Stitt, who has put more than $2 million of his own money into the campaign, was able to counter with yet another ad claiming Cornett had gone negative.

Interestingly enough, there is a lot of disagreement about whether negative campaign advertising works, and if it does, why.

Surveys abound in which people say they don’t like negative ads, but some studies suggest the negative messages tend to stick in the brain longer than positive ones. Even so, it is not clear those images actually influence voter behavior.

Some studies suggest the main effect of negative advertising is not so much that it changes opinion as it causes people not to vote at all. There is evidence this is particularly true of Democrats, who, according to the literature, seem to be less likely to block out messages that challenge their beliefs.

Negative advertising can backfire. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising nationwide, has suggested Hillary Clinton’s “policy-free” attacks on Trump’s fitness for office played a part in her 2016 loss.

Of course, negativity can be in the eye of the beholder. The Cornett campaign says its original ad was in response to Stitt’s claim that he should be governor because of his record in the business world.

Stitt’s side says it was only responding to false information spread by Cornett.

“Down in the polls, Mick Cornett decided to attack my company and our 1,200 employees,” Stitt said in a written statement. “I’m proud of the homegrown success of Gateway and our employees. Gateway is a resounding success story. ... More than 360 mortgage companies went out of business during the economic crisis, but Gateway emerged stronger, maintaining its license in 16 states and growing into 24 more states and the District of Columbia.”

Referring to Cornett as a “bully,” Stitt repeats his claim that his opponent did not support Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign and is weak on immigration.

Cornett’s spokesman, Will Gattenby, said none of that is true.

“Our opponent is intentionally misleading voters about Mick’s relationship with President Trump and his stance on immigration,” Gattenby said. “The truth is not only did Mick vote for President Trump, but only Mick has been to Trump Tower to meet with then President-Elect Trump. Only Mick has been to the White House multiple times to meet with President Trump and his administration over issues including immigration, asking the administration to address the issue of border security and ensuring that Oklahoma’s capital city is not a sanctuary city.

“It is ironic that the only thing our opponent can seem to find to criticize Mick about is a complete fabrication.”

Arguably, kernels of truth have sprouted into exaggerations on both sides of the fence.

Stitt’s company has been guilty of infractions in an industry that became notorious for shady dealings over the past decade. Gateway’s problems, though, seem to have been more like speeding tickets than DUIs, and Stitt said it stopped selling mortgages — the area that caused the most trouble nationally during the 2008-2010 financial crisis — in 2011.

Cornett did express reservations about Trump during the 2016 campaign. He has said he doesn’t think a wall is the best way to control illegal immigration. But he seems to be in good enough stead with the president to be invited to the White House several times and asked to serve on a task force.

Stitt wants voters to believe he’s more conservative than Cornett, but Stitt has no public record to compare.

Arguably, Cornett’s campaign took a risk with the “Bull, Stitt” ad, but Gattenby said the reasoning behind it was simple.

“Our campaign advertisements are meant to be memorable and to drive a message,” he said. “In this case, the ad is clearly memorable because it is funny, and the message includes refuting false but serious claims made by our opponent.”

Republican attorney general hopefuls lend their campaigns considerable amounts of cash

OKLAHOMA CITY — Both men seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general have put a considerable amount of money into the race.

Tulsa attorney Gentner Drummond is hoping to unseat Attorney General Mike Hunter in the Aug. 28 primary runoff.

The job pays $132,825 a year.

Hunter has put in at least $450,000 in loans.

Hunter said it is frustrating that it has gotten so expensive to run a race, but it takes money to get the message out.

Drummond has put in at least $1.5 million in loans.

Drummond has criticized Hunter for taking money from special interests, such as the attorneys he hired to represent the state in a lawsuit against opioid makers.

“He sold the office to political insiders and special interest groups,” Drummond said.

Asked about loans to his campaign, Drummond said “I have put in substantial sums. I am not bashful about that.”

The race got off to a rocky start and has stayed that way.

Drummond was a surprise candidate who went on to challenge the candidacy of Hunter, who has worked out of state but maintained a residence in Oklahoma.

The State Election Board kept Hunter on the ballot.

From there, both have traded barbs in commercials and debates.

Gov. Mary Fallin appointed Hunter on Feb. 20, 2017, to fill the unexpired term of then Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who resigned to become EPA administrator, a job he recently left amid various investigations.

Hunter served as first assistant attorney general under Pruitt until Fallin tapped him for Secretary of State and special legal counsel.

“I and my team worked very hard in this job to represent the people of this state,” Hunter said. “I think we have done some important, meaningful things on their behalf. I think our record commends itself to being rehired or hired for a full term.”

He cites his work on behalf of ratepayers before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the filing of a lawsuit against opioid makers and refocusing of resources in the areas of consumer protection and criminal justice as his successes.

He said he worked with the state auditor to uncover and help the public understand the financial mess at the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

Drummond said he wants to make the Attorney General’s office transparent, starting with a performance audit to determine where dollars are being wasted and areas where it is overstaffed.

Drummond said he would renegotiate the contract for outside counsel in the state’s lawsuit against drug makers, reducing what the attorneys could collect in fees should the state prevail.

Drummond earned a bachelor’s in agriculture economics from Oklahoma State University and a law degree from Georgetown. He served as a legislative assistant to former U.S. Sen. David Boren, D-Okla. He was a captain in the U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm. He is married with six children.

Hunter is a former member of the Oklahoma House and past secretary of the School Land Commission. He was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Council of Life Insurers and chief operating officer with the American Bankers Association. He served as chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and is a former general counsel for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Hunter holds a bachelor’s from Oklahoma State University and a law degree from the University of Oklahoma. He is married with two children.

Hunter secured 44.46 percent of the vote to Drummond’s 38.45 percent in a three-way race in the June 26 primary.

The winner will face Democrat Mark Myles, an Oklahoma City attorney, on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.