Stories of V-E Day: Wendell Galbraith and Bill Pellegrino

By: Brian Louwers | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published April 29, 2015

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Editor's note: This story was included in a full-length C & G Newspapers feature commemorating the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe. The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945. Metro Detroit residents graciously shared their stories in interviews conducted between January and April 2015. Click here for more V-E Day stories from our coverage area.

Wendell Galbraith, 90, St. Clair Shores

Vito “Bill” Pellegrino, 90, St. Clair Shores

Wendell Galbraith and Vito “Bill” Pellegrino met in middle school in Detroit in a swim class they both hated. They were drafted together in 1943, left for war together, and spent just a few days together at an induction center before fate sent them in different directions.


Both men eventually found themselves in the Air Corps. Pellegrino, an Italian, went to England, where he served in the 8th Air Force as a ball turret gunner on a B-17. Galbraith, whose ancestors hailed from the United Kingdom, went to Italy, where he joined the 15th Air Force as a radio operator on a B-24.


Needless to say, the work in both places was incredibly dangerous in those days.


“The worst place you could be in World War II was inside of a bomber,” Pellegrino said. “If we’d known what the casualty rate was, we probably would have changed our minds. We went in there on guts, I guess. It was not a pleasant way to fight a war.”


Pellegrino recalled how most of his crew was lost on a training mission in early 1945, while he and three others had orders to remain on the ground.


“January 5 was the day that four of us were standing down, while the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radioman and engineer were being checked out,” he said. “That’s when I found out that we had a midair collision and they had all died. The experience was something you’ll never forget. It was the same as if it happened yesterday.”


Pellegrino flew nine missions before the Germans surrendered. When he heard they did, he went off to celebrate.  


“On V-E Day, for some reason our high command decided that this was a celebration for the British, period,” Pellegrino said. “Well, hell, I’d been keeping that pub open for a long time, donating our money.”


He recalled riding bikes down the runway and leaving the airfield through a hole in the fence on the way to the pub.


Pellegrino said he was working his way through his typical 10 pints of “mild and bitter” when a military police officer pulled up on a motorcycle and the pub’s American revelers packed into a closet.


“You could see all the mugs on top of the piano,” he recalled. “You didn’t have to be a detective to know what was going on.”


Pellegrino said the MP drank a beer and left without further ado.


He eventually was sent back to the states to get ready for possible action in the Pacific, but was later discharged.


For Galbraith, the war in Europe ended much differently.


He said there were no pubs or warm hospitality near the airbase in Italy, where the living conditions were much more rustic but the missions were no less dangerous.


Galbraith recalled how he bailed out of a burning bomber on his 24th mission: a treacherous run over the Heiligenstadt marshalling yards in Vienna on March 22, 1945.


“It was the focal point for their Eastern Front transport system, so that was a terrible target,” Galbraith remembered.


Moments after the B-24 released its load of 40 100-pound bombs, an anti-aircraft burst ripped into the plane between the fuselage and the third engine, killing the gunner in the top turret.


“It was like somebody hit you in the side of the head with a baseball bat, the concussion,” Galbraith said.


Given the choice between certain death and leaving the plane through the burning bomb bay, Galbraith chose to jump through the flames. He suffered second-degree burns as he rigged his parachute and bailed out at 25,500 feet. It took him 35 minutes to reach the ground, which was crawling with angry Austrians and German troops.


Of the dozen men in the plane, 10 made it out.


“That city was boiling down there. I thought, ‘They’re not going to like me,’” Galbraith said, recalling his descent.


To make matters worse, he broke his ankle when he landed in captivity.


He was a prisoner of war until the Germans abandoned Vienna ahead of advancing Russian assault troops. With relations between the former allies already starting to fray, he fell under Russian control on V-E Day.


“The Russians never said anything to us,” Galbraith said. “The one answer they gave was, ‘If you want to get out, you can walk to Odessa.’ Do you know where Odessa is? It’s on the Black Sea, and none of us were ambulatory.”


With the only news from the outside world coming in from civilians, Galbraith’s fate remained uncertain for 10 more days, until a medical convoy was allowed in from Linz to take the group of wounded Americans out on May 18, 1945.


Wendell Galbraith and Bill Pellegrino remain close friends and were interviewed together. They both bought homes with their wives in St. Clair Shores in 1955, where they raised families. Galbraith and his late wife were married for 66 years and had two children. He retired after a career as an auto industry financial analyst. Pellegrino taught special education in Detroit and St. Clair Shores. He and his wife have been married for 61 years and have seven children and seven grandchildren.

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