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The Final Mission of Bottoms Up

A World War II Pilot's Story

Dennis R. Okerstrom

Publication Year: 2011

On November 18, 1944, the end of the war in Europe finally in sight, American copilot Lieutenant Lee Lamar struggled alongside pilot Randall Darden to keep Bottoms Up, their B-24J Liberator, in the air. They and their crew of eight young men had believed the intelligence officer who, at the predawn briefing at their base in southern Italy, had confided that their mission that day would be a milk run. But that twenty-first mission out of Italy would be their last.


            Bottoms Up was staggered by an antiaircraft shell that sent it plunging three miles earthward, the pilots recovering control at just 5,000 feet. With two engines out, they tried to make it to a tiny strip on a British-held island in the Adriatic Sea and in desperation threw out everything not essential to flight: machine guns, belts of ammunition, flak jackets. But over Pula, in what is now Croatia, they were once more hit by German fire, and the focus quickly became escaping the doomed bomber. Seemingly unable to extricate himself, Lamar all but surrendered to death before fortuitously bailing out. He was captured the next day and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner at a stalag on the Baltic Sea, suffering the deprivations of little food and heat in Europe’s coldest winter in a century. He never saw most of his crew again.


            Then, in 2006, more than sixty years after these life-changing experiences, Lamar received an email from Croatian archaeologist Luka Bekic, who had discovered the wreckage of Bottoms Up. A veteran of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Bekic felt compelled to find out the crew’s identities and fates. Lee Lamar, a boy from a hardscrabble farm in rural northwestern Missouri, had gone to college on the GI Bill, become a civil engineer, gotten married, and raised a family. Yet, for all the opportunity that stemmed from his wartime service, part of him was lost. The prohibition on asking prisoners of war their memories during the repatriation process prevented him from reconciling himself to the events of that November day. That changed when, nearly a year after being contacted by Bekic, Lamar visited the site, hoping to gain closure, and met the Croatian Partisans who had helped some members of his crew escape.


            In this absorbing, alternating account of World War II and its aftermath, Dennis R. Okerstrom chronicles, through Lee Lamar’s experiences, the Great Depression generation who went on to fight in the most expensive war in history. This is the story of the young men who flew Bottoms Up on her final mission, of Lamar’s trip back to the scene of his recurring nightmare, and of a remarkable convergence of international courage, perseverance, and friendship. 


Published by: University of Missouri Press


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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-x

This is the most terrifying part of publishing: acknowledging that the writer is not the lone ranger in the process, while fearing that someone who contributed will be left ...

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pp. 1-4

World War II was the age of death from above. Although in the earlier glob-al war now called World War I stirring aerial combat among nimble fighters and the occasional bombing attack on cities were widely reported, the war of the 1940s was breathtaking ...

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Chapter 1: Over Udine, Italy 1200 hours, 18 November 1944

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pp. 5-14

The eight-day, wind-up clock crowning the instrument panel ticked to the top of the dial, the slender white reed of the second hand stark against the flat black of the face. The instrument, one of scores jammed into the flight deck of the heavy bomber, measured out the lives of the cockpit crew in quarter-hour dollops; ...

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Chapter 2: Krvavici, Croatia Fall 2005

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pp. 15-19

The Istrian peninsula of what is now called Croatia juts into the northern head of the Adriatic Sea like a shark’s tooth. At a crossroads of ancient trade routes, it has seen its share of violence and blood but today it is a natural gem, a bucolic ...

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Chapter 3: The 1930s, Faucett, Missouri

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pp. 20-30

William Urvie Lamar parked his Model T Ford outside the Bank of Faucett, a small, nondescript brick building on a dirt street that was the only thorough-fare in the small, northwest Missouri town. Faucett in the early 1930s was ...

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Chapter 4: 1941–42, You’re in the Army Now

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pp. 31-43

Lee worked at delivering ice the summer of 1941, and that fall, with a bit of money for school but none left over for flying now that he had completed the CPTP, he entered the University of Missouri. He found a room in a large house in ...

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Chapter 5: The Crew, Hometown, USA

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pp. 44-56

It was a monumental task, this training of young men for the business of war. Armed conflicts had been occurring since the Paleolithic era, when bands of early humans clashed violently over territorial rights and hunting privileges. But progressively,-...

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Chapter 6: Overseas at Last, Summer 1944

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pp. 57-64

The war had been raging for nearly five years, but clearly it was not over. Many millions would yet die, cities would be laid waste, lives would be ruined and ways of life altered forever. But there was a sense, finally, that the endgame was now being played. The Nazi ...

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Chapter 7: Spinazzola, Italy

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pp. 65-72

The flight to Marrakech was through dismal weather, cloudy with bouts of rain that lashed the fuselage and pelted the small windscreen. The Liberator yawed and pitched through the turbulence while the two pilots held onto the yoke and the ...

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Chapter 8: First Combat, September 1944

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pp. 73-85

Sleep came late, long after midnight. This day would bring the first combat mission, the first true test of all of the training, of the equipment, and of them-selves. After dinner in the officers’ mess hall, and an evening of letter writing, card playing, and reading, the ...

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Chapter 9: Finally. . . Mission Countdown, 20–24 September 1944

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pp. 86-92

Lamar listened to the briefing officers as they described the mission, the tar-get, weather, expected opposition. He noted the times for start-up, takeoff, assembly, and entry at the Initial Point, the position at which they would begin their bomb run. Finally, ...

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Chapter 10: It’s Not All Combat . . ., October—November 1944

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pp. 93-100

The Darden crew had started flying their combat missions in the number seven position, often called “tail-end Charlie,” at the extreme back end of their box. They flew about as close to the other aircraft as they had practiced back in the ...

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Chapter 11: Mission after Mission after...

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pp. 101-128

“It was bad, Skippy. I can’t get the sight of it out of my head.” Bernie Sturtz, the little tail gunner for the Darden crew, always had an unobstructed view of where the bomber had been. He was often kidded about going into battle back-wards: “You always ...

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Chapter 12: 18 November 1944

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pp. 129-137

It was 3a.m., and the faithful Corporal Cutler was gentle but insistent as he “Lt. Lamar, sir. Time. Breakfast at 3:45.” He stood back, and when Lamar threw the blankets back and swung his feet onto the cold tile floor of Casa Mañana, he moved ....

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Chapter 13: What Hath God Wrought? : Faucett, Missouri, 02 December 1944

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pp. 138-143

When Samuel F. B. Morse, a sometime art professor and inventor, petitioned Congress for the award of $30,000 to construct a telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore, he had begun a revolution in communication. In 1844,...

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Chapter 14: “Vor You, Der Var Iss Ofer”

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pp. 144-150

Bottoms Up was in the last few seconds of her life as an airplane. Running now on just two engines, with her controls shot away and headed for earth at 180 mph in a great sweeping left turn, the huge bomber was soon going to become ...

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Chapter 15: Interrogation and Isolation

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pp. 151-160

The wooden door on cell 88 slammed shut with a haunting echo, followed by the metallic clicking of a lock that mocked all thoughts of freedom. Lamar listened as the footsteps of the German guards rattled off the walls of the long hallway, ...

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Chapter 16: 8 December 1944–1 May 1945, Kriegieland

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pp. 161-170

For the next four-and-a-half months, Lamar and his fellow prisoners at Stalag Luft I assumed new identities in a new land. Prisoner 6424—formerly known as Lt. Edgar Lee Lamar—left the community of human beings and became a Kriegie, ...

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Chapter 17: 30 April–20 June 1945, Purgatory

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pp. 171-182

Lamar and the rest of the nine thousand prisoners of war at Stalag Luft I had been liberated by the Russians, but the meaning of freedom took a while to sink in. The routine of twice-daily roll-calls, of brutal consequences for small infractions, ....

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Chapter 18: Home at Last

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pp. 183-187

Lt. Lee Lamar, twenty-four years old, bomber pilot and ex-POW, arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 20 June 1945. He left for Camp Sheridan, near Chicago, the next morning, where he would be processed and then given leave. He planned ...

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Chapter 19: Olathe, Kansas, 2006

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pp. 188-191

In the summer of 2006, I was preparing to teach a new course at my university on the history and literature of World War II in the air. My nephew, Kevin Brown, phoned to suggest that we attend an air show at New Century Airport in Olathe, Kansas, ...

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Chapter 20: The Crew, Their Stories

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pp. 192-197

For several decades after Lee Lamar’s impromptu car-hood reunion with bombardier Don Reynolds, the pilot had often thought of the rest of his crew, the men who were little older than boys with whom he had trained and faced death. What had ...

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Chapter 21: Short Focused

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pp. 198-203

In the months leading up to our trip—grandly dubbed our “expedition”—we had largely focused on the story of Lee Lamar, expanded it to include the others in his crew, and then had gone beyond that to the air campaign in Italy. Each week ...

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Chapter 22: The Real Work

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pp. 305-215

During that hectic spring and summer of 2007 leading up to the trip of a life-time for many of us, it seemed that there were a thousand details to be covered and a constellation of issues to be resolved. I made some changes in the list of scholarship ...

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Chapter 23: Pula, Croatia, August 2007

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pp. 216-229

We drove through the dark streets of Pula, winding past the first-century Roman amphitheater, up narrow, twisting roadways clearly not intended for automobiles, finally stopping before the Hotel Galija to unload tired traveers and their luggage. It was nearly midnight, and ...


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pp. 231-244


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pp. 245-247


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pp. 249-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272676
E-ISBN-10: 0826272673
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219480
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219489

Page Count: 266
Illustrations: 20 illustrations, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1