Tom Oliver in 2009

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"Fearless leader": War Shapes Life of Accomplishment

A silver saber hangs above the mantelpiece in Tom and Nancy Oliver's Rapid City home. The blade - crossed with the scabbard - is more than just a decoration.
    "My father graduated from West Point in 1913," Tom Oliver said. "The graduating class of 1913 had a tradition of giving a silver saber to any son of a class member who also graduated from West Point."
    By May 1944, the 21-year-old West Point graduate and first lieutenant had piloted enough missions in his B-24 for the 15th Air Force based in Italy that he considered himself a veteran. What was to come next would test him even more.
    On May 6, 1944, Oliver had to fly a different plane. His "Fighting Mudcat," named after the river-dwelling catfish, known as a survivor, was out of commission.
    Near the end of a bombing mission over the Ploesti oil fields, Oliver and his crew suffered heavy fire from German fighter planes and flak from the ground. The entire crew bailed out and Oliver landed near the picnic table of some Yugoslavian peasants. Three weeks later, Oliver's parents received the telegram stating that he was missing in action.
    "There were so many soldiers being killed or going missing, they only had time to send out telegrams," Oliver said. He still has the original telegram, dated May 24, 1944.
    Oliver was taken in by the Chetniks, a group of anti-Communist Yugoslavian guerillas led by Gen. Draza Mihailovic.
    "We didn't know about it at the time, but the British supported (Prime Minister Josip Broz) Tito. There was no Allied mission at Mihailovic's headquarters," he said.
     Communicating was difficult, but Oliver soon met a Chetnik who had lived in France and knew some English. Eventually, Oliver was reunited with much of his crew, as well as other American and British airmen who had been shot down over the region. The decision was made to trek the 150 miles to Mihailovic's headquarters. During the journey, the men would see bombers from the 15th Air Force flying overhead.
    "We'd hear a faint buzz and then really start to hear it. We'd look up and there they were, flying in formation. The formation would be a little looser on the way back and we knew we'd get a few more men. Nobody will ever see that sight again," he said.
    Oliver estimates that there were 150 airmen on the ground in Yugoslavia at the time he was there. It became important to get a message out to the Allied forces so that the men could be rescued. While he had been assured that messages had been sent from Mihailovic to the exiled Yugoslavian government in Cairo and then passed on to the British, Oliver wanted to be sure and requested to speak with Mihailovic himself.
    "I was a first lieutenant and as far as I could tell was the highest-ranking American there. So I told the Chetniks I was the commander of the Americans and wanted to send a message," he said.
    Not all of the men agreed. Some were afraid that any message sent would be intercepted by the Germans and they would be captured. Oliver was more confident in their chances of survival.
    "If there was something the Germans wanted, they would have been there," he said.
    A coded message was sent using Mihailovic's radio and was subsequently picked up by a British signal squad, although they didn't know what to make of it.
    "I met the son of the head of that British signal squad," Oliver said. "He showed me the message log that had my message on it. They said it looked like a message from somebody who had been overseas too long."
    The message was passed along and proved to be genuine. On Aug. 10, 1944, the evacuation of the downed airmen began. Oliver's entire crew made it home safely.
    "Tell about Smitty," Nancy Oliver said.
    "Oh, yes," Tom Oliver said. "Edgar Smith was our tail gunner. When he jumped, he hit his head. He was able to pull his ripcord and complained of a sore neck. We kept telling him to have more racchia (a plum brandy). Turns out he had a cracked vertebra. Best that we didn't know. The Chetniks didn't have any way to treat him and taking him into a city with a medical facility would have been just like turning himself in to the Germans."
    Tom Oliver worked at a variety of jobs following his time in the military. He earned a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a professor at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology from 1967 to1980.
    "I swim at Mines about four times a week," he said.
    Working at the School of Mines introduced Oliver to a group similar to the men he served with.
    "It's a tight-knit group of buddies. They all look out for you," he said.
    Some of his friends even helped build the home the Olivers live in now.
    "He built this house after we lost our other home in the flood," Nancy Oliver said. "It was the biggest Lincoln Log set you ever saw."
    Tom Oliver has kept in touch with many of the people he met during his military service, including one of the Chetnik guerillas, a British airman he met on the ground and his fellow crewmember, Frank Bartels.
    "We talk to Frank on the phone a lot," Tom Oliver said.
    "He always says, ‘Is fearless leader there?'" Nancy Oliver said.
    Retirement has given the Olivers the opportunity to travel and meet people, including meeting the guerilla named Kent in Geneva, Switzerland.
    "I've been to a West Point reunion and we went to Washington and saw the World War II memorial," Tom Oliver said. "It's an impressive sight. I know there's that Honor Flight, but I've never signed up for that."
    The Olivers will spend Veterans Day at home with their dog, General Beauregard, and perhaps have lunch with family. For Tom Oliver, the day is like many others. If something does come up, he'll face it and solve it, just like he did in Yugoslavia in 1944.
    "It's just the way I was brought up. You have to ask, ‘What do we do to solve this problem?' and not spend so much time trying to prove it's not your fault," he said.
    With a hint of humor, Tom Oliver sums up his life with a wooden sign on the wall opposite the saber given to him by his father's classmates: "Never question the engineer's judgment."

Written by T.J. Tranchell for the Rapid City Journal, Wednesday, November 11, 2009



Closer look at one of his bombing missions during WWII