92-Year-Old WWII Lansdale Veteran Sifts Through Memories and Mementos

From the age of 10, John Biermann knew he wanted to fly.

He grew up on a 40-acre farm on the outskirts of Cincinnati. In the 1920s, with few landmarks near the city, the patchwork pattern of the fields provided an ideal navigation point for planes passing overhead. As a boy, when Biermann heard the drone of motors in the sky, he would race outside and wave frantically to passing aviators.

Eventually, the greeting was returned: The pilots dipped their wings in acknowledgment.

John BiermannThat encouragement from above only stoked his passion as he grew to be a teenager. "I wanted to be a Navy aviator," Biermann recalls. "The war was on, and I wanted to fly. My mother said no. She wanted me to go to college. So I went to college for a year."

He attended the Salmon P. Chase College of Law as a Business Administration major, but the draft had made fellow male students rare. "There was one other guy and me; everyone else was girls. But I wasn't interested in girls. I wanted to fly."

Eventually, the Navy came calling, in the form of a 1943 postcard. "It said that on a certain Saturday night at the Gibson Hotel, the Navy would be looking for aviators. I finally talked my mother and father into going down with me. Recruitment officers showed movies and talked, and when they were done, one said: ‘We have an airplane downstairs on a trailer. If anybody wants to see if he can fly it, come up and take a ticket.' I ran up and got the second one. Which upset my mother."

The rudimentary simulator to test potential flyers was little more than a fighter cockpit, rigged to respond to the controls. Biermann watched the first potential flyboy take a shot and fail miserably.

Then, it was his turn.

"I got in, and I did everything they asked me to do," he says. "What I didn't tell them is that I had gotten my start in aviation at about 12 years old."

Biermann explained that his observation of air traffic to/from Cincinnati sparked in him the drive to research the art of flight. Armed with a stack of books and magazines from the local library and improvising with a common sink plunger, he conquered the beginnings of the stick control needed to competently operate a plane.

John Biermann's artifacts on display

John Biermann's artifacts on display

After performing admirably in front of the Naval recruiters, Biermann exited the simulator.

"They asked me, ‘Where did you learn to fly?' And I said, ‘In my kitchen!'"

It was enough: He was in. Formal training followed in Detroit, and after months of instruction in the classroom and the cockpit, Biermann was deployed as a naval photographer in the South Pacific.

But unbeknownst to him, the clock was ticking. By August 1945, the U.S. had sealed its victory over Japan, and after just 58 Hellcat missions for Beirmann, he learned the news of V-J Day. "I had just gotten back from leave in Mexico and was in Pensacola, Fla., trying to catch up on sleep. All of a sudden, there was cheering and yelling and commotion outside. I looked out the balcony window of my room, and the streets were packed with people celebrating. When I could finally figure out what was going on, the news reached me: The war was over."

The first thing Biermann said on learning that the global conflict had concluded, at least in the Pacific: "Well, I'm out of a job."

Not quite. Although he entered the public sector in the postwar years, Biermann remained in the Naval reserves. Eventually, he made a career for himself in the Philadelphia office of the FBI, where he stayed for 28 years.

John Biermann's ArtifactsBiermann's role in the "Greatest Generation" has fortunately been preserved in painstaking detail. "My father was in the antiques business," he relates, and that background taught him the value of preserving treasures from the past. As a result, Biermann kept and maintained dozens of artifacts from his time in the service.

Among stacks of photographs, newspaper clippings and flight manuals, he still has log books of his training days, dating back to 1943. Instructor notes, in scrawled pen, note errors: "Approach to the carrier was erratic and too fast; wing position needs work."

His packrat tendencies have proven a boon to historians, writers and preservationists, including those at the Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Museum. Biermann's flight suit and other donated mementos are on permanent display there, along with cases dedicated to every major U.S. conflict that followed the Second World War.

This weekend, as communities mark Veterans Day, a visit to the Wings of Freedom Museum is one of a number of ways to honor the sacrifices of those Americans who served - especially WWII veterans like Biermann, whose numbers continue to dwindle in the passage of time. The museum's hours are Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free (donations accepted).

Biermann had his share of rough landings. Fortunately, he walked away from all of them.

Other services and commemorations for Veterans Day - including a full day of programming at Valley Forge National Historical Park - are listed here.

The lovely fall weather and the area's ties to the military make Montgomery County, Pa., the perfect spot to treat your special serviceman or -woman to a weekend getaway. A list of accommodations is on our website.