Joe Randerson is a charter member of what Tom Brokaw so famously calls “The Greatest Generation.” You’d never guess his age if you just happened to see him riding by on his motorcycle, but he was born around 1922, and grew up during the depression on an 80-acre farm about five miles south of the capitol building (a farm long since engulfed by the spreading city of Austin. The family moved into town in 1939, and Joe graduated from Austin High School in 1940. He entered the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship in 1941, and played for the famous coaches, Billy Disch and Bibb Falk, for whom Disch-Falk Field is named. When he bought himself a motorcycle in 1942, Coach Disch asked him, “Do you want your scholarship? Or do you want that motorcycle?” He chose the scholarship, and gave up the idea of riding a motorcycle for more than 60 years.
His life was interrupted by World War II, and he was called into active military service with the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943. After several months training, he was sent to Madna, Italy, where he flew a P-51B Mustang, escorting bombers and strafing enemy supply lines. Among the 17 missions that he flew was a bombing raid on the Romanian oil fields of Ploesti, where American bombs did such damage that the Germans had to leave. As the German forces retreated across eastern Europe, Randerson’s 306th Fighter Wing, of the 52nd Fighter Group, began to strafe the trains carrying troops and equipment. Flying low over the railroad on September 3, 1944, Randerson scored a direct hit which blew up a locomotive. Unfortunately, his plane was struck, either by debris from the explosion or by small-arms fire, and he had to ditch it in a riverbed near Tresnjevia, Yugoslavia.
Randerson was badly burned before he could get out of his airplane, and it was only with the help of two Serbian farmers that he was able to escape. He remembers dreaming that a tree had grown up around him; when he awoke, he was between the rafters in the loft of an old barn. His head, chest, arms and legs were badly burned, and for quite a few days he was unable to see. A woman named Nada Mihailovich nursed him slowly back to health, changing and washing his bandages daily; her son fanned the flies away from Randerson’s sores. Nada’s husband was the nephew of General Draza Mihailovich, the Chetnik resistance leader who was eventually executed by the communists after the war; the couple helped save many downed pilots in 1943 and 1944.
Nada was well-educated, a graduate of Belgrade University who could speak 11 languages.Unfortunately, English was not one of the 11, and communication was difficult. Also, medical supplies were scarce, and when the pain got so bad that Randerson begged her to kill him, she could only pour whiskey down his throat and hope for the best. Somehow, he survived.
Randerson became somewhat of a celebrity during his two-month stay in Yugoslavia. He recalls one day that an old man who wanted to see an American walked 75 kilometers to bring him a chicken as a gift. He was moved by the gesture, but unable to eat the chicken. When the Russians arrived, Randerson was taken to meet their general, but no one seemed to know what to do with the injured pilot. Nada’s husband eventually was able to put him on an English airplane, which took him back to Italy. He recalls nearly freezing to death on the flight, and says that a fire at the airport where they landed “was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen.”
Back with the Americans, Randerson was de-loused and admitted to the hospital where he underwent major skin grafts and was treated for gangrene. Rigorous therapy helped restore the use of his arms and legs, and after just two months (despite looking terribly disfigured), he was allowed to go back with his unit. Six months later, he was flying again; he flew 32 more missions before the war ended.
In 1946, after a bittersweet reunion with his parents (he had not told them about his injuries), Randerson went back to UT. He played baseball again in 1947 and 1948, even as he gradually recovered from his burns. In the meantime, Nada’s husband had been shot by the Russians, but she and her two children had managed to walk hundreds of miles to a British camp for displaced persons in Germany. In 1949, the three (Nada, Dan and Vera) were brought to Austin, where Joe’s parents gave them an enthusiastic welcome. Nada attended a business school in Galveston, where she earned the highest grades in the school’s history, then married a Serbian immigrant in the oil business there. Dan and Vera both went on to successful careers.
Joe Randerson graduated from UT with an engineering degree in 1949, bought a new Mercury, and got a job in Victoria. While working as an engineer during the day, he played semi-pro baseball at night, making so much money that year that he gave his Mercury to his father and bought himself a 1950 Lincoln!
After a few years in Texas, Randerson took a job with a company based in Pittsburg, building factories in different cities around the country. He came back to Austin in 1999, but the city had grown and changed so much, he decided to move to the Hill Country. Here in Llano, he decided to indulge his old dream, and bought himself a motorcycle at age 85. He still rides it.
“I think I’m the luckiest man in the whole wide world,” he says. “The good Lord has been watching over me; I’m healthy, and I’m doing what I want to do.” This is the kind of man that inspired Tom Brokaw’s admiration. All Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Joe Randerson and the others who make up the “Greatest Generation.”