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South Coast veteran remembers what it was like battling Nazis three quarters of a century ago

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KCLU News Photo
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World War II veteran Len Zerlin with his home museum in Thousand Oaks.

97-year-old man flew three dozen combat missions over France and Germany during World War II.

His brown leather flying jacket hangs on the outside of a cabinet, ready to go. But, it’s been more than seven decades since Len Zerlin of Thousand Oaks wore it in combat.

Time hasn’t dimmed the nearly 98 year-old-man’s memories.

He flew three dozen missions over Nazi occupied Europe during World War II. Zerlin admits he wonders why he survived, when so many of his friends didn’t.

"I don't really know. I was thankful I was able to do so," said Zerlin.

Zerlin grew up in Brooklyn. He had just graduated from high school when the December 7, 1941 attack plunged the United States into war against Japan, German, and Italy.

He volunteered for the Army Air Force, which is the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force. Zerlin was a tail gunner in a B-26 bomber. In 1943, his unit was deployed to England, to fly combat missions over Nazi-controlled France, and Germany. Crews were expected to fly 25 missions, but losses were so heavy the number kept getting upped.

"We were losing 20% per mission. That's one out of five," said Zerlin. "We were losing so many men, they increased it to 30 (missions). When we didn't have enough men to cover it, they increased it to 35."

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Photo courtesy Len Zerlin
Len Zerlin as a young man during World War II.

Zerlin says perhaps the most memorable day was June, 6, 1944, which was D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France. He says they got the wakeup call at 2:30 in the morning. He flew two missions over the invasion beaches, strafing German positions to try to keep reinfocements from reaching the beach areas.

His plane was hit numerous times by gunfire, and some members of the crew died. Zerlin says unlike other crew members, he didn’t carry a gun in case they were shot down, and had to bail out to safety. He says two of his friends who were shot down were killed, and he assumed their was no point in carrying a pistol.

The Thousand Oaks man says many of friends never made it back home. Zerlin says one of his best friends died on what was supposed to be a routine bombing mission just two weeks before the end of the war.

Zerlin admits he wondered why he survived when so many friends didn’t.

He moved to the Conejo Valley more than a half century ago, and had a long carrer in the electronics industry. Zerlin and his wife had two children, which has led to more than a dozen grand, and great grandchildren before she passed away.

Most of his fellow veterans are now gone. He’s the last survivor from his plane’s crew.

He has what amounts to a World War II museum in one of the bedrooms of his Thousand Oaks home. There’s his helmet and goggles, gloves, and even a bomb site used by one of the bombers.

He points out a picture which shows him with more than a dozen other veterans from the Conejo Valley. They used to meet up at a restaurant to literally share their war stories. Sadly, he’s also the last survivor of that group.

But, Zerlin says he’s grateful he survived the war, and was able to have a good life and a wonderful family.

And, Zerlin says Veterans Day, November 11 has a double meaning for him. Not only is it the day he, and all Americans remember those who served, and especially those who paid the ultimate price.

November 11, 1945 was the day he was discharged from the military after his two years in combat.