Tales of the Old, Bold Pilots

In Oceanside, California, veteran fliers swap stories over breakfast.

The Old Bolds outside their favorite eatery in Oceanside, California. (Courtesy Tommy Head and Klaus Thiele)
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“We didn’t fight for the Nazis, we fought for Germany,” says Kurt Schulze, former Luftwaffe Oberleutnant and longtime OBPA regular. Now retired after a career in southern California real estate and banking, Schulze flew 23 bombing missions to England. As a young navigator in a blitzing Dornier Do-217 night bomber, he crossed the darkened English Channel, flying low to evade Britain’s rudimentary radar and night fighters. “Then came London,” he says somberly. “Balloons and searchlights and bombing. It was not a great pleasure. As you know, war is hell.”

His tenure as a navigator ended when Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering ordered every available pilot into a fighter. Soon he was flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109G in the far north of Finland. After downing a Russian fighter, Schulze was swarmed by two others, and he crash-landed in the remote, frigid terrain. Rescued by German mountain troops and returned to his base at Petsamo, he was summoned by his commandant. “The old man put a bottle of booze on the table, and I was flying again that afternoon. He told me those were the two best things to overcome getting shot down.”

Answering an alarm one bright Sunday morning, Schulze arrived just in time to see the legendary Bismarck-class battleship Tirpitz capsize after being bombed by British Lancasters, which had fled the scene only moments before. Later, two training squadron commands fizzled as the Luftwaffe ran out of fuel, and he received the good news that he was assigned the JG-51 squadron in Gdansk, Poland. The bad news: The city was under siege and, as he landed, Russians were already shelling the airport. “We couldn’t even fly our planes back out. We had to load them on trucks and drive them,” he says, chuckling grimly. “By the time we reached Germany, I told myself, ‘The war is lost.’ ” He made his way to Norway and briefly led another squadron as the Third Reich collapsed.

Initially captured by British forces, Schulze was interrogated by an American Army Air Forces captain, “who put a pistol on the table and showed me photographs of the concentration camps—the first time I had seen anything like that.” He soon joined 700,000 German POWs held by the French. Two years later, he returned to Germany as a civilian, and in 1953 immigrated to the United States with his wife and son, pumping gas for a dollar an hour. Today at Old Bold breakfasts on misty Oceanside mornings, the lines between former adversaries have long since been dissolved by camaraderie. “These are all my good buddies,” Schulze says.

There’s nothing unusual about pilots getting together to gab about flying, Heather Steele reminds me. “But what’s unique about the Old Bold Pilots is that so many show up every week. And the way they look out for each other and care for each other. There’s a mutual respect not only for other Allied pilots but for the Luftwaffe pilots they flew against.” The demographics of the OBPA range from World War II pilots to a Korean War contingent to the not-so-old Vietnam vets. The World War II roster is declining dramatically. “So, if we as a nation want a chance to meet these guys and know them and honor them,” she says, “now is the time.”

That would be 7 a.m. every Wednesday at Denny’s.

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