Biography of Eugene T. Carson
Lt.Col, Flight Engineer/Gunner, 560th Bmb Sqdn, 388th Bmb Grp, 8th AF/327th Sqn, 92nd Bmb Grp
Copyright 1999 Eugene T. Carson, All Rights Reserved
What a golden opportunity it is to be asked to introduce my twin brother and his story. He has written a book of an era gone by; it tells of a brief time in our history. It is a book about those who lived and shared during a brief but intense air war and for those who want to know about the era. My brother, Gene, recalls moments of terror, relief, elation and exhaustion often in the same paragraph as he relates his experiences as a tail gunner and a flight engineer of a heavy bomber flying over Germany in World War II.
It is fitting for me to dwell a moment on the man and a bit about his boyhood fascination with aviation which I too shared. Much of our fascination was whetted and brought to an edge by reading pulp magazines of the old Streets and Smith variety. Our heroes were G-8 and his Aces, Bull Martin and Nippy Weston as they battled against the Hun over the skies of the Western Front. We built 'rubber-band-powered' Spads and German Fokkers launching them from the third floor attic window. Often the Fokkers would be set ablaze to make sure G-8 and his men were winning the battle.
We were about 10 years old when we experienced a real airplane ride. A cousin of our Mother owned a small flying service. During the County Fair at Leighton, Pennsylvania we managed to get a sight seeing ride in his Waco biplane. From then on we were hooked, our feet never belonged on the ground.
As you read this book you will see more than words. You will undoubtedly note how my brother, Gene, demonstrated a ready imagination as he made his transition from the kitchen to the airplane. He paved his road to success by taking full advantage of existing opportunities, many of his own making. Whenever the Army Air Corps left the door ajar, Gene, always the consummate opportunist entered in a flash.
Gene's ability to manage opportunities existed during our childhood. He could talk me into anything and often did. I recall nearly being electrocuted when he unscrewed a light bulb and had me insert a horseshoe magnet into the bare socket. "To recharge the magnet," he said. His inquisitiveness also managed to heat up the world when, while seated on the throne, he used a strike-anywhere match on the toilet seat. The toilet seat of ancient manufacture was covered with celluloid, a highly flammable material. Why he was not equally torched could only be attributed to his consistent ability to escape his manufactured situations.
Growing up with my twin brother was a lesson in living, never dull and never a doubt he would be there if I needed him. At about age ten I suffered a broken leg in a sledding accident and he managed to pull me over some very sizable hills for a five-mile trip to safety. His deed always comes to mind when I see the picture of a boy helping his brother with the statement, "He is not heavy, he is my brother." These words define my brother Gene in every respect.
On the night of Victory in Europe we managed to meet in London. I had been released from POW status in Germany where I had heard many tales about a 'second tour gunner' called "Wing Ding" and his exploits. Many of the less than fortunate associates of my brother who joined me as POW's thought I was my brother, Gene. Knowing my brother, I had no trouble believing their stories.
When I was shot down my situation was reported as killed in action. Gene, having completed his combat tour, was safe in the United States. He volunteered to return to Europe to fly another tour either to avenge me or to look for me. We finally met on Victory in Europe Day at the Rainbow Corners USO Club, Piccadilly Circus, London, through the kind assistance of Adele Astaire, Gene's good friend and a grand lady. Adele, the sister of none other than Fred Astaire spent many hours of volunteer service at the USO. I came home. Gene, satisfied by our reunion, went to North Africa.
I remained in the Air Force. Gene went to the Army and became a paratrooper. Our travels and military service put us in touch in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. We stood together in Texas and saluted the casket of my son 1st.Lt.John Harvey Carson, a Marine Company Commander, who had fallen in Vietnam. After we laid John Harvey to rest we tended to the business at hand, serving our country. We went to Vietnam; it seemed only proper to do our tours.
I hope you enjoy the book. Gene has written it from his heart. It is truthful and honest with humor and tragedy. As he says, "It was a nasty business we were in." I am honored to have this chance to briefly introduce a brother I love. He proved himself to be a great warrior and a fine gentleman.
----- John W. Carson
Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.)
I was a tail gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 Flying Fortress. I flew out of England with the 8th US Army Air Corps.from 1943 to 1945. My twin brother, John W. Carson was flying with the 15th Air Corps out of Italy. On December 20, 1943 he was reported killed in action when the "Eager Beaver", a B-17 on which he was flying as radio operator, suffered a direct hit from flak while in the vicinity of Athens, Greece. He was on his 28th combat mission.
I went to Mitchell Field, Long Island, New York when my overseas tour of duty had been completed. Around the end of February 1944, I was in New York City attending a Wings Club dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where I was being honored as a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. During the evening I was offered an opportunity to make a telephone call to my mother. She informed me of the report of my brother's death. My reaction to the news was disbelief. I told her I did not believe the report and promised to find John. Not wanting to rain on the parade, I told no one during the evening. The next day was different. It marked the start of my search for my brother. Nothing else mattered. Each day I had a goal to be one step closer to my return to Europe, back into harm's way. My love for my brother and my promise to our mother was of first priority.
This story is dedicated to those who flew and to the ground crews who made the flying possible, to those who survived and to the many others who did not. It is also dedicated to another group; those who lost loved ones in the great air war and to the men and women who today wonder what it was like for their fathers, brothers, grandfathers and uncles to fly during the world's greatest air war.
I write so those who were never there will have an opportunity to know and understand what took place. But most of all, I write because it was real and it happened. It happened long ago and soon there will be no one left to write about it except those who were not there, and they will never be able to tell it like it was.
CHAPTER 1 - THE GREAT AIR WAR
I no longer hear the roar of the engines, the chatter of the guns and the savage bursting of the flak. The smell of cordite and the fumes of gasoline no longer curl into my nostrils. The great air war of World War II is history. However, there are nights and there are days I find myself reliving moments of a now historic era. The memory returns as if a realistic dream and once again I find myself a member of a B-17 crew. My eyes search the sky for the Luftwaffe; flak rattles our B-17. I see aircraft fall, both theirs and ours. Too few parachutes dot the sky. I slowly come to the realization, I am here and it is now. The records of the 8th Air Force list more than 47,000 casualties with over 26,000 deaths.
There were short missions and long missions. But there never was an easy mission. Each mission however short or long was filled with danger from the onset to the end. The final bell tolled for those involved in on-ground explosions, crashes on take-off, the all too frequent mid-air collisions, crashes during flight and crashes on landing. In some cases death came from friendly fire and errant bombs dropped from one of our own aircraft flying at a higher altitude onto one of our aircraft at a lower altitude.
A bomber's crew, although a team, was largely dependent on the skills of its pilot and copilot. When it came to ordinary airplane handling skills, there were great pilots and mediocre pilots. But the pilot who could hold a bomber in tight formation while flying into flak thick enough to walk on was without question a great pilot. And so too were those pilots who held steady in face of the Luftwaffe's unrelenting, vicious and intense fighter attacks as they came ripping head on through the bomber's formation with machine guns and cannon blazing. It took courage and self-discipline for a pilot to hold the aircraft in formation under such circumstances. Not all pilots had such courage. For the bomber pilots such courage and self-discipline were mandatory prerequisites.
How do I know of these things? I was there; I flew with fellow aircrew members and with some of those great and courageous pilots. Only twice was it my misfortune to share the cockpit as a flight engineer when the pilot or copilot failed to measure up. In both cases the man in the other seat demonstrated the superb skill and courage necessary to save both aircraft and crew.
During my first tour, while flying as a tail gunner, it was my good fortune to fly with pilot Otis C. Ingebritsen and copilot Edward J. Meginnies, men of skill and courage. Both were second lieutenants and not long out of flight school and B-17 training. Otis Ingebritsen, known as 'Dingle' had recently taken over the crew at Dyersburg, Tennessee after the original pilot had been killed in a crash while flying with a friend. He keenly felt the pressure of being new to the crew. However his professional approach tended to give others confidence. I never heard him raise his voice. Ed Meginnies, known as 'Mac' was a reluctant B-17 copilot. He had been trained as a fighter pilot and resented being thrust into the cockpit of the B-17. However, he put his dream aside and became part of the team. His moves in the cockpit were sure and positive; it was as if he had become a part of the airplane.
Our crew was assigned to the 560th Squadron of the 388th Bomb Group. We started and nearly completed our tour as a crew. Soon after our first mission we changed flight engineers. Sergeant Harold L. Pepper left our crew and was replaced by Technical Sergeant Charles "Chuck" Allred. On January 5, 1944 our bombardier, Michael J. Chaklos was killed when a piece of flak penetrated an artery in his groin. His loss, so near the end of our tour, had a deep impact on the crew. Suddenly, a friend was gone. Today, Mike is at peace in the cemetery at Madingley, England.
The odds were stacked against completing a tour; 450 combat-crews passed through the 388th Bomb Group during the war. Of these 141 crews failed to make it. Some were killed in crashes; some were killed on missions. Others were prisoners of war and in rare cases some had evaded capture. Records also indicate during its first 100 missions the 388th Bomb Group lost 83 crews. The Group's next 206 missions had a loss of 58 crews.
One period, October 8, 1943 through October 14, 1943 is indelibly and forever stamped into my mind. During those four days the 8th Air Force suffered a loss of approximately 142 heavy bombers, a total of 1,420 officers and men. It was as if the brass residing in higher headquarters had found a need to make a point by castrating the ability of the Germans to continue waging war. We were the pawns used in a great effort by the disciples of strategic bombing to prove their point. Today as I reflect on history I give little thought to what was correct. I only appraise my own good fortune. For surely, I went to the circus and I was allowed to see the elephant and come home to tell about it.
For those of us who flew against the pilots of the Luftwaffe and the superb antiaircraft gunners of the Third Reich, the clock ticks on as our final days draw ever closer. But we have memories, memories enough to tell a thousand tales. Tales not unlike what you read here. There are tales of skill, courage, and daring, memories of trying to survive as well as memories of fun times between the flying and the dying. Combat airmen lived and died in a much cleaner environment than did the ground combat soldier; at the end of a mission, if fortunate, we returned to a hot meal and a clean bed. We had no foxholes or bunkers in which to take shelter. There was only the thin skin of our airplane to protect us, a skin you could punch a hole in with a screwdriver. If our thin-skinned airplane suffered battle damage the crew might be fortunate and have sufficient time to enjoy the option of a parachute jump into enemy territory. But such a jump almost always meant prison camp and possible death. A successfully completed mission found some of us, like Pavlov's dog, waiting for a calming shot of whisky at the de-briefing room. Sometimes it took more than one drink and sympathetic intelligence personnel quietly violated regulations.
We named our aircraft after ladies, places, animals, people, and things. We drank a lot of warm beer, learned to drink tea, danced the hokey-pokey and courted the ladies of the land. We experienced the warmth and friendship of the British people, enjoyed the wonders the country had to offer and invented a few new wonders of our own as we took in the friendly sights and nights of Piccadilly Circus as spectators and participants. There was the Windmill Theater. It never closed, and the friendly Rainbow Corner Club near Piccadilly Circus where Fred Astaire's sister Adele worked tirelessly as a volunteer.
We lived a good life between missions. But on most mission days we awoke to the predawn dampness with full knowledge of what was to come. We were about to face a formidable enemy. As I reflect back I know I was scared and with good reason. We were up against some of the world's finest fighter pilots and extremely accurate antiaircraft fire. Each mission was flown with full awareness it could be a final mission. There was no certainty of a tomorrow and like many others I lived for today.
People speak of courage. I am not really sure about courage. Under moments of stress when it seems as if there are only seconds left to live strange things take place. Who can give you courage or train you to know exactly what to do when a burst of flak punches a softball size hole in the windshield and fragments spray throughout the cockpit area? Who can prepare you to do what is necessary when severed oxygen and hydraulic lines ignite with unbelievable intensity next to a box of flares? I'm still not sure it's courage when you conquer intense pain from wounds and continue to fight for survival. Such are not moments calling for courage; they are moments demanding action. There is no time for courage.
The need for courage comes the next day. It comes the day after you have returned to your barracks where you found the empty bunks already stripped of personal effects and property. There is no trace of the personal effects of the prior occupants. You endure a long and lonely night of bad dreams and sleep fitfully with interrupting thoughts. You know you are going again at dawn; it is then when there will be a need for courage.
Breakfast at the mess hall usually consisted of an abomination known as powdered eggs, a type of canned meat known as Spam and "SOS", a dish consisting of gravy and any kind of meat the cook could find, spread on toast. It was commonly known by the rather vulgar title as, "shit on a shingle".
Fear is controllable, but sometimes there is an excessive need to use the latrine. It is also possible for your mind to cause your body to revolt and your breakfast may not set well leading to a painful knot in the area of the solar plexus. You manage to burp; there is some relief. The pain continues, but now you feel better and participate in some of the pre-briefing pseudo-bravado banter exchanged by those in the room.
You are in your seat when the briefing officer pulls the curtain aside to show a long red line indicating the route to the target. You listen intently as you are told what to expect on the way to the target, over the target, and on the way home. This is when there is a time for a silent prayer. It is also a time to search deep to find your courage.
CHAPTER 2 THE BOY WHO WENT TO WAR
I cannot write the story unless I introduce you to the boy who went to war. It is almost unbelievable, but the calendar indicates on January 4, 2000 more than three-quarters of a century had passed since I first saw the light of day. I look back with few regrets.
However, my body bears the scars of earlier eras and feels the pain of Purple Hearts, some not too well done parachute jumps and more than a few youthful indiscretions. The story I am about to relate took place a long time ago, long before many of you were born.
It was 1938. My twin brother, John and I were thirteen years old when we were accepted as students at the Hershey Industrial School, Hershey, Pennsylvania. In those days the school was known as 'HIS'. It was a school for white orphan and half-orphan boys.
Acceptance was based on the needs of an applicant's family and a student's qualification as determined by testing. We were excited with the news we had been accepted. It was at Hershey I learned to milk a cow, chop corn, harvest fields of grain, make hay, cut the early morning asparagus and look at the rear end of a pair of mules moving from one end of a field to the other.
The environment of the school was structured to teach ethics, high morals and integrity. Today the school still teaches ethics, high morals and integrity, but it has a different name and to some extent different philosophies. It is now called the Milton S. Hershey School. It has assets in excess of $5 billion and accepts boys and girls of all races. Unfortunately modern labor laws preclude having students perform the farm work which instilled in us the work ethic.
John and I shared a room at a farm unit known as Arcadia. It covered more than 350 acres of land, had a herd of about thirty Holstein cows, some horses and mules. Meals were served family style and the food was of the best quality. The students at Arcadia ranged in age from thirteen to seventeen.
The environment was ideal. However, like any new venture, there was the trauma of change and the pain of homesickness. We were leaving our real home and moving into a more disciplined environment where standing was determined by a pecking order.
I learned about pecking order my first night at the home. We were sitting in study hall with about twenty other boys. Without warning something crashed onto the right side of my face. I was on the floor, sitting on my rear, looking up. Blood streamed from my split lip and nose. Standing over me was an older student; Robert is enough of a name. In his hands he held a volume of the Book of Knowledge. Robert struck me without warning or reason. When I asked him why, he said, " To teach you your place." I said nothing more. I licked the blood from my lip and sniffed to stop my nose from bleeding. I had learned my place. But in my heart I made a vow. I would get even.
A word of caution is in order here. No one should draw a conclusion from one such experience. To the contrary the school was a wonderful place. I would have to say my time at Hershey represented some of the finest and most formative years of my life.
One of the main goals of the school was to prepare students for a vocational trade of their choice. My brother John elected to take auto mechanic training and I decided to learn the bakery trade. This resulted in my being transferred from the farm called Arcadia to a unit known as Oakleigh, located on the outskirts of Hershey. My bakery training took place in a new model bakery with the finest equipment. Milton M. Hunchberger, a long time professional baker, was our instructor. I recall his words, "Gene you are a fine baker, but unless you change your attitude you will not live to see your twenty-fifth birthday." Mr. Hunchberger was not always right.
Next door to the bakery, in the same building, was a small candy shop where all sorts of candies were made. Mr. Hershey was a frequent visitor to our shops. Our training programs called for two weeks in the shop and two weeks in class. John's auto-mechanics classroom was located in the shop section of the main high school building high on the hill overlooking the city of Hershey.
The bakery was located in Hershey at one end of the Ice Arena next to Hershey Park. The sports arena, ice arena swimming pool and ballroom were all within spitting distance. In those days I had a trumpet and was taking lessons much to the frustration of the music teacher. I would often slip out of the bakery and go to the ballroom to the listen the big bands during their rehearsal. All of the great names played there. Among some of the well known playing Hershey were the Dorseys, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller and a host of others. They were all willing to sign a boy's autograph book, but I found Glen Miller to the friendliest of all.
The other diversions were the sports arena where the midget cars roared around the quarter mile track to the delight of the racing fans and the ice area where the hockey team Hershey Bears held forth. I doubt if there could have been a more exciting environment for a teen-age boy.
My route to and from the home where I lived with twenty-five other boys took me through the park and past the zoo. One of my games was to annoy a huge European Red Deer when he was in rut. The monster would come crashing into the fence as I teased him. If the fence had ever given way I would not be here to write these words.
My other interest was to be expected of a maturing youth. In the summer the park filled with pretty young female visitors. I think I was about fifteen when these visitors became more interesting than the European Red Deer.
Her name, like so many others, has long since been forgotten. But she came from Philadelphia and was of Italian descent. She was a gorgeous creature and she captured my heart. It was from her I received my first electrifying kiss and came to a realization; girls had soft and curvaceous bodies. Then like the leaves of autumn on the maple tree my youthful teacher disappeared back into the depths of the city from whence she came. I was heartbroken for several days.
To this day one of my early misdeeds comes back in my memory to haunt me. A man named Charlie worked in the candy shop as an instructor. He must have been fifty or so years old. One day I accidentally dropped a large steel sheet pan. The pan struck the tile floor with a tremendous crash. Charlie jumped and cursed me for making the noise. He claimed World War I had given him bad nerves. I thought it funny and frequently dropped a sheet pan just to see Charlie jump and hear him swear. If Charlie were alive today I would fall on my knees and beg his forgiveness, because now, after three wars, I understand why Charlie jumped. I too have found I do not care for unexpected loud noises. Unfortunately, for Charlie my awareness came too late.
At the end of about three and a half years of school I was an accomplished baker capable of taking my place in any commercial firm at a journeyman level. The school's program allowed students to take pre-graduation employment several months prior to graduation. I was offered a job as the dough man at the Pennway Bakery in Annville, Pennsylvania only about an hour's drive from Hershey. As dough man it was my responsibility to mix the bread dough and have it ready for final production each day. The work was done late in the afternoon and early morning.
At first I enjoyed the work and fulfilled my responsibilities at the bakery without difficulty. But soon after our June high school graduation I found my thoughts were constantly about my brother John who was already in military service. I too felt a need to serve our country. Come with me now and share those memories and stories of another time and place.
CHAPTER 3 - HOT DOG FRANK'S
Across from the Pennway Bakery on Main Street was a small restaurant built in the style of the diners so popular in those days; a cash register was located to the left near the front of a long counter. Aligned along the counter was a row of stools. On the right side, against the wall, there were a number of booths. The cuisine was for the most part fast food, sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs. The owner, a Greek immigrant known only as Frank, called his restaurant "Hot Dog Frank's". It was a favorite between class gathering place for students at Lebanon Valley College. Frank became somewhat of a surrogate father figure to his young customers. In his feigned gruffness there was always a word of advice and a friendly ear listening to problems.
While not at work at the bakery, I was a steady customer at Frank's. Probably, because I had been fatherless since I was one year old, Frank became a person to whom I turned for advice and counsel while devouring hot dogs smothered with sauerkraut, onions, and mustard. The beverage of choice, at a nickel a cup was Frank's black coffee. Frank had his own philosophy on how to run a successful business. It was simple; never let anyone else touch the cash register. Frank made it a point to collect and ring up every sale. He called it "the Greek system".
Just after midnight on November 6, 1942, I stood for the last time on the floor of the bakery. The war had been going on for almost a year and we did not seem to be winning. I felt a need to serve my country and thoughts of enlisting had often crossed my mind. However, the owner of Pennway Bakery, Harry Hunter, was quick to point out the need for bakers and claimed they were essential. I had come to the conclusion I was only essential to Harry Hunter.
The aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air as the final loaf started its rounds through the huge oven. I looked around the bakery and thought of my twin brother, John, now in the Army Air Corps, training to be a radio operator on a bomber crew. John had been in service for about five months, having left the day after our high school graduation. I recalled how mother cried when John told her he had enlisted and was leaving for service the next day. I also thought about the reason for her concern.
Our father, Thomas W. Carson, originally from Beckley, West Virginia, died from the after effects of phosgene gas poisoning suffered during World War I. His early death at about age 27, left our mother, Esther H. Carson, with twin boys only one year old. Mother never remarried. Every day she took time to look at our father's picture hung on the wall above the fireplace mantle. She often told us, "Your father always said he never wanted you boys to be soldiers." She cried on high school graduation night when John told her of his enlistment as she had undoubtedly cried when Tom Carson died. Again, her tears were to no avail. The country was at war. My twin brother John had heard the bugle call. Now I too was hearing the echo of the bugle.
I removed my apron and took one last look around the bakery; according to the clock on the wall it was nearly midnight. I decided to walk over to Hot Dog Frank's. I wanted to talk to Frank and was sure he would be alone because it was closing time. As I entered Frank greeted me, saying, "Hey it's closing time."
I responded, "I know Frank but I need to talk." I barely had time to sit down before Frank placed a hot dog, and a cup of coffee in front of me. "I want to talk with you," were magic words to Frank who though a good listener was also a dispenser of volumes of sage advice.
"What's your problem?" Frank asked.
"Frank, you know my twin brother is in the Air Corps. I am thinking of enlisting too," I said.
Frank asked, "What's keeping you? Are you really going to go or are you going to let Harry Hunter talk you out of it?"
"No Frank, I made up my mind," I replied.
Frank paused for a moment while wiping the counter, lifted his head and slowly let his eyes meet mine. "When are you going?" he asked.
"Today, this morning Frank, I'm going to catch the early bus."
Frank nodded his head in agreement and said, "Then you should go." He continued with a caution, "You better not tell Harry Hunter though, he'll try to talk you out of going,"
Frank came out from behind the counter and refused to accept payment. He embraced me in much the same way European men embrace their fellow men and muttered, "Come back boy, come back." I felt a lump rising in my throat and started to hurry out of the door.
"Wait," Frank growled. He went to his cash register, removed something and thrust it into my jacket pocket and pushed me out of his restaurant. I did not look back. The emotion of the moment had taken over. I did not want Frank to see the tears in my eyes.
I left Hot Dog Franks and walked toward the old bridge across Swatara Creek. On arriving at the bridge I moved with care down the slippery narrow path to the edge of the stream. There was, in those days, and may still be, a large flat rock under the bridge over Swatara Creek. I spent some of my last hours as a civilian sitting on the large flat rock. The gentle gurgle of the rippling stream and the peace and quiet of early morning had lulled me into a tranquil mood. Time came to a standstill; my thoughts seemed to have ceased. The sound of splashing water brought me back to the here and now.
In the dim light it was possible to see swirls in the shallow water as a large trout chased minnows in search of a meal. An eerie shadow accompanied by the soft rustle of wings swept under the bridge not ten feet from where I sat. It was a large barn owl also in search of food. The owl swerved, swooped low near the edge of the stream. It grabbed something and with a few flaps of its great wings magically moved across the stream to gracefully land on a branch of the huge Elm tree on the far bank.
As I watched the owl the chill of the early November morning became noticeable; frost was beginning to form. A pink glow in the eastern sky announced the arrival of a new day.
I got up from my seat on the rock and slowly walked back to my bedroom above the Pennway Bakery. The grass and the now slightly frozen ground crunched under each footstep. Back in my room I wrote a brief note to Harry Hunter, apologized for my unannounced departure and asked him to give my clothes to the Salvation Army. I packed a small bag with a change of socks, underwear, toothbrush, my rarely used razor, locked the door and left. On my way out I slid the room key and note under Harry Hunter's office door. I thought of my mother and hoped she would not be too distressed when she learned of my enlistment.
The day had barely started when the bus to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania arrived. I climbed on, paid my fare and moved to the rear to sit in silence. I put my hand in the pocket of my jacket and pulled out money. Hot Dog Frank had given me $20! After such a generous gift I knew I had to pass the physical and be accepted. I could never go back and face Frank as a failure. I had a strange feeling as if a door had closed and another door was about to open. I prayed I would measure up to whatever challenges might be ahead.
CHAPTER 4 - THE BUGLE BLOWS
The processing station at Harrisburg was the epitome of military efficiency and offered cultural shocks for which I was unprepared. First, we were weighed and measured, then our eyes, ears and nostrils were checked. The examination room was filled with naked men; their bodies were of all shapes and sizes. I had seen naked males before in high school during showers at the gym. This was different. Some of the men were twice my age and twice my size. I was embarrassed and intimidated by my nakedness.
I shuffled along from station to station until I was in front of a doctor seated on a stool. The examination became more personal. "Turn your head to the right and cough," the doctor directed as he probed my groin in the area of my testicles. He continued, "Turn your head to the left and cough." The doctor's next command was even more personal. "Turn around, bend over and spread your cheeks," he said and continued to examine me. The probing was unpleasant, but my grimace was more from embarrassment than discomfort. He asked a few brief questions which I promptly answered. Then apparently satisfied there was no evidence of a disqualifying physical problem or a social disease, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I was elated. I had passed my physical!
Someone gave the order, "Everyone get dressed and move into the next room." I hurried to comply. The entire procedure was accompanied by intense feelings of a need to do everything properly and as quickly as possible. The group, about fifty in number, moved into a large room without chairs. As we left the physical exam room a second group was entering. My thoughts were reminiscent of a visit I once made to a slaughterhouse. Little did I then know or understand the accuracy of my ominous observation. The new room was sparsely decorated. It had two prominent features; the American flag and a lieutenant with shoes shined to a high gloss. The brass on his uniform sparkled in the lights.
The lieutenant directed the group to line up and ordered, "Take one step forward, raise your right hand and repeat after me." I do not remember his exact words. But I do remember hearing him say, "Welcome, you are in the army now. Everyone outside and get on the buses." Everyone left the room and boarded the buses under the careful supervision of uniformed personnel. Our destination was to New Cumberland Station, a short distance from Harrisburg.
New Cumberland was our first introduction to the United States Army. All of us, new recruits, still in our civilian attire, were hustled off the buses to a constant officious barking of orders from an assortment of nondescript low ranking non-commissioned officers. It was as if someone had turned on a switch. We were suddenly subjected to the control of those who seemed to delight in exercising authority. Again there was an urgent feeling of the importance to quickly comply with orders lest some fearful calamity take place. Everyone fell out to march. We marched, albeit with great awkwardness, to where the uniforms were to be issued. The first item issued was a duffel bag. As we moved through the line each man announced his size to the clerk. The clerk in turn would issue the item based on what size he, the clerk, thought was appropriate. When it came to getting fitted for shoes it was different. Feet seemed to be considered a primary source of travel for a soldier and the fitting of shoes received more careful attention.
Somewhere during all of these procedures each man was assigned a serial number and dog tags were issued. Along with the serial number came strict orders to remember the serial number or there would be no food or pay. Dog tags were to be worn at all times. Someone noticed a difference in serial numbers. A draftee's number was not the same as the serial number assigned to a volunteer. Volunteers immediately assumed a superior attitude. Surely a volunteer was in the Army because they wanted to serve their country. The draftees were there because they had no choice.
My first few days in the service were especially difficult. Until then the only person I ever shared a room with was my twin brother. Now there were fifty to sixty men in the barracks; cots were only a few feet apart, everything each man owned was in a duffel bag hanging on his bunk. Cigarette smoke hung like a huge cloud throughout the room. Sleep was elusive and the night seemed to drag. The silence of the night was frequently interrupted by the sound of snores, coughing and someone releasing a window-rattling fart accompanied by a series of raucous laughter and comments. Sleep, when it finally came, was of short duration. It ended with a banging of trash can lids, the shrill of a whistle and shouts of, "Everybody up, off and on; off your ass and on your feet!"
The latrine, spotlessly clean, but humbling, continued to provide a crude introduction to military life. About a dozen toilets were lined up in a row along one wall. Partitions were nonexistent. Latrine etiquette required a quick flush follow each bowel movement. Needless to say, not everyone practiced such a fastidious routine. Along another wall there was a trough, about fifteen to twenty feet in length. It served as a community urinal. For sure, privacy had no part in the life of the enlisted soldier. Wash basins were in the same room along yet another wall. Each man lined up and took his turn to shave and perform necessary ablutions. The time allotted to shave and brush one's teeth was limited. Fortunately my beard did not yet require the daily attention of a razor. Proper etiquette at the wash basin required the user rinse the basin when done; again, the manners of some men were far better than the manners of others.
Our stay at New Cumberland lasted three days; long enough to get shots, sore arms, see a few training films, learn important army do's and don'ts and stumble around in a pitiful effort at close order drill. Then with duffel bags slung over shoulders it was onto a train. Our luxury train consisted of coach cars left over from the 1920 era. The cars, long ago retired, had been pressed back into service as troop transports. No one told us recruits where we were going or when we would get there. We were not allowed to get off the troop train until it arrived at the final destination. Rumors ran rampant. Someone knew someone who knew exactly where the train was going, when it would get there and what would take place after it got there. In truth no one knew anything.
"Jesus," muttered Bill Gleason from Middletown, "at least they could tell us where we are going." Someone responded, "What difference would it make if you knew where you were going? You would still be going there." Harry Gaspar, a draftee from Harrisburg said, "I think we are going to Florida. They are training troops there."
The trip to wherever took more than three days. There were no accommodations for sleeping. It was either sleep sitting up or on the floor in the aisle. Some of the older men quickly took over an area and engaged in a nonstop poker game. Tempers flared as the old coal burning locomotive chugged, stopped, waited, and chugged on. Stops were for other trains to pass and for coal and water. Soot permeated everything; nostrils, pores and clothing. Approximately three days after departing from New Cumberland the train stopped outside of Jacksonville, Florida for coal and water.
"I told you guys we were going to Miami Beach for training," boasted a guy who had been dubbed "Oracle" because he seemed to know everything. Late the next day the train did arrive in the Miami area. The sun was shining, the weather was warm and no one objected to leaving the train. We traveled by bus to our next destination, the 38th Street Hotel, at Miami Beach. The hotel was like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Semi private rooms, showers, good food, and the warmth of Florida during the winter. We felt like tourists on a vacation of thirty days while the army converted us from civilian to soldier. The daily routine rarely varied. It was lectures, close order drill, more lectures, training films, the rifle range and training films. We soon learned to march in unison while singing ribald songs to keep cadence.
I had been at the hotel for about three weeks and was in the orderly room one evening, hammering away at about thirty-five words a minute on the office typewriter. The First Sergeant came in and asked, "What are you doing?" I expected him to berate me for being in the orderly room. I honestly told him, "Writing a letter home." The next day I was called out of formation and assigned to the orderly room. My basic training had ended. I was placed on special duty as a typist. Overnight I became a part of the detachment and moved out of the section of the hotel where the trainees were quartered. In my ignorance of military procedures I was of the opinion my new inside connections would in some way enable me to fulfill my desire to fly.
My new status entitled me to a weekend pass. Although my pass was limited to fifty miles I planned to stretch it and visit my mother who was living at Fort Myers, approximately 140 miles north via the Tamiami Trail, through the Everglades. Friday evening I caught the city bus and rode to the outskirts of Miami. Across the street from the last bus stop there was a small diner. It reminded me of Hot Dog Frank's. Be it nostalgia or hunger, I decided to go in and get something to eat before starting my trip to Fort Myers.
Immediately upon entering the diner I noticed the occupants were all civilians. I came to the conclusion because regulations prohibited the wear of civilian clothing by military personnel. All occupants were in civilian attire. Another thing struck me as strange; there were no women in the diner, only men. However their friendly welcome and many invitations to come and join them eased my apprehensions. I smiled and opted to sit alone at the counter. Almost immediately a rather robust individual got up from one of the booths and joined me. He placed a friendly hand on my shoulder and introduced himself and offered to pay for my food.
His greeting was warm and friendly, "Hi, soldier, my name is Bill, your money isn't any good here. I am buying. What would you like to have?"
Bill's friendly offer surprised me. I thanked him and ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. He asked me what I was doing this far out of the city and where I was going. When I told him my destination was Ft. Myers to visit my mother he gave a low whistle.
"Do you know it is 140 miles across the Everglades," Bill asked and added, "How do you plan to go there?"
"I am going to hitch-hike up the Tamiami Trail," was my response.
"How would you like a ride?" Bill asked and offered to take me there if I would ride with him on the buddy seat of his Harley-Davidson.
"Sounds good to me," I told him and proceeded to eat my cheeseburger and fries. I quickly finished eating and Bill suggested we should get started. As we left I thought some of the comments made by other customers were unusual.
"Hey you got a good one Bill," and "Be good to the soldier Bill."
We walked outside; Bill wasted no time. He kick-started his bike and directed me to get on the buddy seat behind him. We headed north on the Tamiami Trail, destination Fort Myers. We rode up the highway for about fifteen minutes. I looked back; down the Tamiami Trail, the lights of Miami were only a glow in the sky.
Without comment, Bill brought the Harley to a stop on the side of the highway. He told me to get off so he could check something. I dismounted. His next move was unexpected. He tried to kiss me and touched me in a way I could not misunderstand. His intentions were clear. He was interested in some sort of a sexual encounter. Despite having gone to an all-boy school I had never before experienced or even heard of two males having such a relationship. For certain, someone had omitted an essential part of my education. My heart was pounding. There was no doubt in my mind. Bill was not going to take me to Fort Myers. I was confused and scared. My mind was racing, filled with thoughts of how to escape from my predicament.
"Wait," I told Bill, "You are being so good to take me home, I think I should tell you something."
"What is it?" Bill asked.
I replied, "Well, I think I am all right, but I have to take shots for two more weeks."
My good friend Bill stepped back. There was no further conversation other than his cursing. He fired up his bike, spun it around and headed for Miami. The once friendly Bill and his motorcycle were quickly disappearing. What moments earlier had been a promised ride to Fort Myers was now only the sound of a Harley Davidson moving ever farther away with tail-lights fast fading in the direction of Miami.
I stood there for a moment, laughing as I watched Bill disappear. I congratulated myself for quick thinking. Then I evaluated my situation. I was alone, 10 miles away from civilization, with Everglades on all sides. I still had about 130 miles remaining on my journey to Ft. Myers.
I decided to walk until someone came along and gave me a ride. I'd taken only 30 or 40 steps on my journey when a sound reached my ears; it was a new sound, one I had never heard before. Despite the newness of the sound my mind identified it in a flash, rattlesnake! At first I stood still. Then ever so slowly, I started to back away from the sound. I had moved not more than 10 steps to my rear when I heard, for the second time in my life, another rattlesnake. Or had the first one circled around me? I froze in place and tried to decide what to do. The rattlesnakes did not attack but the Everglades mosquitoes did. They had found a free meal. I remained in the middle of the highway, swatting mosquitoes for what seemed hours. I was no longer certain my trip to Fort Myers was such a good idea.
Then out of the darkness, from the direction of Miami, I saw the lights of a vehicle and heard the whine of tires on the macadam roadway. I firmly planted myself in the middle of the Tamiami Trail. The driver had a choice. Either run me down or stop and pick me up. He stopped. It was a bread truck making a delivery to Fort Myers. When he asked me how I had gotten so far out on the Tamiami Trail I told him I had been walking hoping for a ride. The trip to Fort Myers was uneventful. I slept most of the way. We arrived at about five o'clock in the morning. My mother was, of course, happy to see me. She insisted I let her take me back to Miami Beach. I agreed only after I was sure she had enough gasoline ration stamps to afford the trip. She remained in Miami a few days and used her ever-present portable Singer Sewing Machine to alter my uniforms. By the time she returned to Ft. Myers she had me looking like a real soldier and had earned a goodly sum tailoring the uniforms of other basic trainees.
CHAPTER 5 - LIFE IN THE KITCHEN
Basic training for my group was nearly complete. I was busy typing personnel records and awaiting for my orders to aerial gunnery school. My patience had grown thin. I did not want to spend the war on Miami Beach typing personnel records.
"Hey Carson," the First Sergeant said, "you are going to Buckley Field, Colorado." I was excited. At last I was going to a real air base. My joy, however, was to have a short life. The orders to Buckley Field were orders to Cooks and Bakers School.
"Cooks and Bakers School," I howled. "I don't want to be a cook. I want to fly. This has to be a mistake," I protested. "I put in for aerial gunnery school." It was no mistake. The army had decided. I was going to be a cook! I was about to leave sunny Florida and head for Denver, Colorado in the middle of winter. I complained, begged and objected without success. I was soon on a train headed for Denver, Colorado.
My second day in class at the school did not go well. A S/Sgt. Fitzgerald was in the process of teaching a class on baking. I knew his presentation was incorrect. I made a mistake. I stood up and told him he was wrong. Surprise! Neither the Army Air Corps nor S/Sgt Fitzgerald had an interest in what I thought. My daring to express my thoughts resulted in a quick assignment to determine how well I could scrub pans and mop the floor. I spent the next three days scrubbing, mopping and thinking about methods of getting out of the kitchen.
At the end of my third day I was called into the office of the lieutenant in charge. He proceeded to lecture me on my poor attitude and advise me of the availability of the stockade for malfeasant students. I replied, "Sir, I don't know the meaning of malfeasant. But I do know S/Sgt Fitzgerald doesn't know enough about baking to teach other people how to bake." The next afternoon I was called to the lieutenant's office again. The mess sergeant, S/Sgt Fitzgerald and a couple of other instructors were there. The lieutenant asked me where I learned to bake. I told him about my training at Hershey and my experience at the Pennway bakery. My fate was sealed. Almost all of my time from then on was spent teaching the instructors and the students the art of baking. I never learned the first thing about cooking.
I had very little interest in how the Army Air Corps would feed the troops. I was not happy; I wanted to fly. However, my flying at Buckley Field was limited to flying around the kitchen and into Denver at every opportunity. Most impressive and longest lasting in my memory was the intense cold of Colorado and a telephone operator.
The notice on the bulletin board announced a dance at the Service Club. Harry Wallace, one of the other students, talked me into going. "Some of the girls are really attractive," he said as he and several others prepared to go. We caught the base bus and on arrival at the Service Club received a warm welcome from the hostesses. Harry was right; some of them were attractive. I was standing around trying to decide whether or not to stay when a lady wearing a tag marked, "My name is Millie" approached me. "Why aren't you dancing?" she asked. I laughed and told her, "I have two left feet." She immediately took my arm and led me to the dance floor and found out I did indeed have two left feet. She suggested we sit down and talk; I readily agreed. Millie explained she was one of the chaperons for a Denver hostess club. We talked for a while and she asked, "Do you ever come into Denver?" "No," I responded, "I don't know anyone there." Millie told me she was a telephone operator and gave me a number where I could reach her if I ever came to town. I thanked her and put it out of my mind.
I was off duty the weekend following the dance and decided to give Millie a call. She seemed happy to hear from me and told me how to find her house. I stopped at the Base Exchange and bought a box of Whitman's Samplers and followed instructions. Millie met me at the door and acted as if the box of candy was the greatest gift in the world. I soon learned she was a spinster, nearly twice my age and a senior supervisor at the Denver telephone company. Millie was adamant; she insisted I stay and have dinner with her. She opened a bottle of wine she had been saving "for a special occasion," she said.
After dinner we sat in front of the fireplace and drank the last of the wine. The evening turned both romantic and a little late. Millie suggested I stay overnight. "You are welcome to use the guest room," she said. I showered and went to bed. I woke up aware of someone in the room. It was Millie. "I wanted to be sure you had enough blankets," she said. However, it ended up with Millie not the blankets providing a welcome respite from the bite of Colorado's winter winds. Sunday morning Millie asked me to go to church with her. We went to church where Millie introduced me as her nephew from back east. I continued my regular visits to "Aunt Millie" until mid March when my time at Cooks and Bakers School came to an end.
I graduated from Cooks and Bakers School. But I had a narrow escape. The school authorities at Buckley Field decided to keep me as the baking instructor. Fortunately they had a priority requirement to send a cook to Hamilton Field, California and were unable to keep me at Buckley Field. I was promoted to Corporal and transferred to Hamilton Field.
I was excited to get orders assigning me to Hamilton Field, California. "Now," I thought, "there will be a chance to fly." Millie was not so pleased, in fact she was heartbroken. I suggested she come with me. However, her maturity and good judgment prevailed. We had a tearful farewell at the train station. I promised to remember the many things she taught me and tenderly kissed my "Aunt" Millie goodbye. She complained, "I will never find another one like you. Who will keep me warm at night?" I again suggested she come to California. But Millie told me she loved me too much to make such a mistake.
CHAPTER 6 - HAMILTON FIELD
Filled with anticipation I proceeded to Hamilton Field without delay. On arrival I made my way to the squadron orderly room. The stench of cigar smoke permeated the area. The origin of the foul odor was soon apparent. As I entered the orderly room I noted a cloud of cigar smoke. The smoke seemed to be dispersed by vibrations from the gravel voice of First Sergeant James Welch. "Are you Carson," he asked. "I am Carson," I said as I eyeballed the body of the man with the bear of a voice. He could not have been more than five feet tall. Yet, something about his manner demanded respect.
Not wanting to waste time I told First Sergeant James Welch of my desire to fly. He leaned back in his chair, rolled his cigar around in his mouth and grunted. Then he leaned forward and fumigated the area with his cigar smoke, laughed and said, "Get the flying crap out of your head kid. You are a cook; your place is in the kitchen."
About a week after my arrival at Hamilton Field on a cold and rainy predawn March morning I had my first taste of combat. The air raid alarm sounded at about 0300 hours. Everyone was required to draw a weapon and ammunition and head for the defense perimeter located somewhere in the hills surrounding the base. There would be no Pearl Harbor here!
Believing an attack was immanent I was excited and eager to respond. I quickly put my raincoat on over my skivvies and slipped on shoes without socks. Someone thrust a rifle with ammunition into my hands and told me where to go. I donned a steel helmet and headed for the hills. On arrival I found a pre-dug foxhole filled with water.
On a cold and wet March 1943 morning I prepared to die from hypothermia or be slaughtered by invading Japanese. The Japanese failed to materialize. I was freezing and had to run in place to keep warm. To make matters worse I could not recall the password. In my panic and the excitement of the impending "invasion" the password had fled from my mind. I was compelled to remain on the hill, cold and wet, until daylight. I firmly believed I would be shot as an invader unless I could produce the password. The lesson of the day was not wasted. I had learned to dress properly and never forget the password.
It did not take long to discover San Francisco was a wonderful city with abundant opportunities for recreation. However, most of the city recreation cost far more than I could afford and much of the free stuff appeared to be like my experience with Bill, in the Everglades. I was not inclined to such relationships. Therefore, to supplement my income I found part time work as a short-order cook in the Staff NCO Club. Things were going well. I baked a birthday cake for Captain Harris, my squadron commander, and discovered the flight line.
It was at the flight line I found my major source of recreation without putting a demand on my wallet. Various pilots were always coming and going. Most of them were willing to take along a passenger. However there was a problem. Most of the aircraft did not carry spare parachutes and regulations required each passenger to have a parachute. A solution to this problem was unexpectedly offered.
One of the regular customers at the short order bar of the Staff NCO Club was a Staff Sergeant Thomas from flight line supply. He overheard me telling one of the other cooks about my problem. Sgt. Thomas called me aside and offered me a deal. He would "lend" me the necessary equipment. My side of the deal was I in turn would present him with "courtesy" short orders and draft beer. My desire to fly took precedence over all the honesty my grandfather had ever tried to instill in me. I gave Sergeant Thomas the key to my locker. The next morning all of the essential equipment was in my locker. A pair of goggles, a helmet, A-2 jacket, flight suit and a seat pack parachute. I had no difficulty in convincing myself the use of the equipment was within the scope of regulations. I am not sure how I rationalized giving the away the club's beer and food in exchange for the equipment.
Although a cook, I was quickly transformed into the most realistic fake aircrew member in the United States Army Air Corps. My duties in the kitchen became an acceptable chore. Those duties were the price I had to pay in order to fly.
My trips took me all over the Northwest and various parts of California. I flew to the Mojave desert area where I was able to visit my twin brother, John, a Staff Sergeant and a genuine air crew member. We shared a wonderful evening. John protected my ego and his friends never knew his brother was a cook. Every opportunity found me at the flight line off on unauthorized flights around the country. These were often enhanced when a friendly pilot allowed me to get a little "stick time".
Unfortunately the aerial joy riding proved to be my undoing. On numerous occasions my return ride back to Hamilton Field failed to materialize in time for me to report for duty on my kitchen shift. Time and time again mess sergeant, Master Sergeant Murray chewed me out on each absence and warned me about joy riding. "Carson," he said, "You're a damn good cook and you can make sergeant if you just stop the screwing around with those airplanes." I could not stop. The need to fly was too great.
It has often been said, "If you take a pitcher to the well too often it will be broken." My pitcher broke on a ride back from a short trip. We were south of Monterey and east of Carmel, California at about 4,000 feet in an AT6. The engine started to run rough; it coughed, emitted smoke and lost power. The pilot looked back. I erroneously interpreted it as a signal to jump. When he banked hard to the right, the canopy was already open; I went out. There was no initial sensation of falling, just quiet. After a drop of a few hundred feet, while falling face down in a spread eagle position, I pulled the ripcord. The opening shock was not unpleasant. I could see the canopy billow out above me. To the side at a lower level I saw the plane with flaps and wheels down headed for a meadow. My parachute had a slight oscillation. Below I could see the lush carpet of grass. My parachute continued to oscillate. I was swinging like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Contact with the ground came as a thud while I was at about ten degrees from perpendicular. The lush carpet of grass was a myth. Underneath the surface was as hard as a paved street. The shock of landing was painful. I was badly bruised and hurting. Off to one side I could see the airplane. The pilot had successfully landed before I hit the ground.
My return to Hamilton Field was in a military police vehicle, destination, to the office of my Squadron Commander. First Sergeant Welch, chewing on his ever-present cigar greeted me at the door of the orderly room. "Carson, you look like shit. This time your ass is grass," he snarled. He then told Captain Harris, "Carson is here, Captain." "Send him in," bellowed the Captain. I entered, saluted and squeaked out my name and stood there, at rigid attention, trying my best not to shake. As I recall my appearance and presentation fell far short of being the epitome of a proper soldier. The "old man" was having none of it. He was talking court martial on charges of AWOL, wrongful possession of government equipment and a host of other violations for which I could be locked up. He wanted to know how I came into possession of aviator's equipment. I told him it had been left in my locker by mistake and all I did was use it. The First Sergeant interrupted, "Bull shit, you're lying!" He continued, "Captain this cook has been flying all over the place. The Mess Sergeant tells me he has been late for work about a dozen times." No doubt, the Captain knew I was lying, but I was not about to admit it and he was not going to force the issue. He ordered, "No more flying. You are restricted to the base until I decide what to do with you." I returned to the kitchen, crushed, awaiting further action. I was hoping he might favorably remember his birthday cake.
CHAPTER 7 - WING DING
Word of my experience spread around the squadron. Someone hung the nickname "Wing Ding" on me. I continued to cook and work my spare time job while waiting for my bruises to heal. I was sweating out the expected loss of my corporal stripes. About two weeks later I was told to report to the orderly room. First Sergeant Welch greeted me with his usual cloud of cigar smoke and said, "Carson, I don't want any eight balls in my outfit. I wanted the Old Man to bust your ass. Instead he is shipping you out. Your restriction is lifted." "Where am I going?" I asked. It was then I learned my next duty station would be MacDill Field, Florida without loss of stripes.
Someone told me there was a gunnery school at MacDill. In an instant my thoughts and plans turned from the kitchen to the air. While waiting for my travel orders I made one more trip into San Francisco where I committed a deed I would live to regret. Five dollars paid for a tattoo. I sat in stoic silence as the tattoo needle hummed and buzzed. Blood mixed with various colors of ink and seeped to the surface of my upper arm. Slowly but surely my new nickname, "Wing Ding" was emblazoned on my arm.
With the fresh tattoo on my arm still healing, I packed my B-4 bag, a gift from Staff Sergeant Thomas in appreciation of my silence. There was one more mission to accomplish before I left Hamilton Field. The latrine for the orderly room was at the end of the barracks next to the orderly room. In front of one of the urinals was a small box. Everyone knew this box was not to be moved. It was there so First Sergeant Welch could stand high enough to use the urinal. I checked with care to make sure my taxi was waiting and there was no one else in the barracks. Once I was sure the area was clear of other persons and my taxi was standing by, I smashed the box. Within a moment the evil deed was done. I hoped the first sergeant would not have to take a leak until I was long gone. I headed for the San Francisco Rail Transportation Office. I was on my way to Tampa, Florida.
This time there were no 1920 era railway coach cars. Transportation was via Pullman complete with porter, dining car and waiters. It was almost more than a country boy could tolerate. Such opulence was totally unexpected. But it paled in comparison to what was coming.
Sergeant William R. Barnes was already comfortably settled in the roomette of the last car of the Pullman. I soon learned he had been in service less than a year. He was on his way to Chicago to attend radio school. We were sitting in our room, waiting for the train to depart when we heard the sound of girls talking and laughing. We poked our heads out of our room looking for the source of the sound. To our amazement and pleasure the other occupants of our Pullman were all young ladies, about forty in number. They were on their way to Hunter College in New York to become WAVES. Bill Barnes and Gene Carson wasted no time in working out a schedule to allow us to share the roomette with maximum personal privacy.
The trip from the West to the East Coast of the country was made with minimal sleep. I now appreciated "Aunt Millie" and her wisdom. I shared the moments of the trip with Naomi, a beautiful girl of Mexican ancestry. We were madly in love and spent our time in either the roomette or on the observation platform of the last car.
Bill Barnes was scheduled to leave the train in Chicago. I was scheduled to change trains in Chicago and go from Chicago to Tampa, Florida. Bill Barnes detrained as scheduled. But, an appropriate monetary donation on my part convinced a friendly porter of the need for two young lovers to remain together for the longest possible time. My journey to Florida was by way of New York and from Chicago on I had the roomette to myself. When we arrived in New York I said goodbye to Naomi. We made promises of an enduring and everlasting love. I never heard from her again.
During our great trip the ladies on the train had treated Sergeant William R. Barnes and Corporal Eugene T. Carson like the experienced veterans we were. Bill Barnes had almost one year of military service and I had five months. But, the potential WAVES had none and I could see no reason to tell them of my limited combat experience. I was sure they would not be interested in my defense of Hamilton Field against a mythical enemy on a cold, wet March morning while attired in skivvies and a raincoat. The train ride was a train ride of train rides; a train ride to remember. I spent the trip from New York to Tampa, Florida recovering from a state of near exhaustion.
My assignment to MacDill Field was cause for excitement. I found I had joined a squadron flying the B-26 Martin Marauder. In addition there was an aerial gunnery school in operation at MacDill. I was certain I would be able to fly. Unfortunately the military did not see it my way. I again found my flying limited to the kitchen.
Uncured by my previous experiences, I was like a hound dog on trail. The flight line was soon located and I immediately resumed my practice of wangling rides with various pilots as they flew training flights up and down the coast. I managed to have myself assigned as a cook on the night shift. With my days free I boldly reported to the Gunnery School and attended every class I could sneak into. I quickly found the skeet range and spent hours blasting away. My skill at the skeet range became well known and I was soon making more money shooting competitive skeet than my military pay. A few goodies from the mess hall bought me all the practice shooting time my shoulder could tolerate. My schedule in the kitchen was carefully planned to preclude any conflict with gunnery school and my shooting activities.
Everything went well until one afternoon a pilot erred in judgment and crash-landed his B-26. The question of why Corporal Carson, a cook, was on the flight became an item of interest. I was again ordered to stay away from the flight line and the gunnery school.
I had no difficulty in obeying the order restricting me from the flight line. The next day my squadron was transferred to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I was on my way, off on another train ride. This time there was no Pullman car and there were no attractive young ladies. I rode in the mess car as one of the cooks.
I had enough! Upon arriving at Myrtle Beach I made up my mind. I was going to fly and nothing was going to stop me. I sat down and carefully wrote a letter to the President of the United States.
"Dear President Roosevelt,
I am a widow as the result of my husband dying from phosgene gas poisoning suffered during World War I. I have twin boys. One of them S/Sgt. John W. Carson is serving at Rapid City, South Dakota as a member of a bomber crew. My other son is at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It would give me great peace of mind if my sons could serve together. Please send Eugene T. Carson to the same unit as his brother so they can fly together."
Most respectfully yours,
Esther H. Carson."
Of course "Mother's letter" did not inform the President the other son was a cook. I also made sure there was no return address on her letter. I saw no need for anyone to bother Mother with petty details. Approximately two weeks after I had mailed "Mother's letter" I was told to report to the orderly room, "The Captain wants to see you," the messenger said. I left the kitchen and made my way to the orderly room and reported to the First Sergeant. He immediately ushered me into the Captain's office. I saluted and stated my name.
The Captain politely invited me to sit down and asked me if I would like something to drink. Being interested in getting to the point of our impending conversation, I declined. Then he said, "Carson, I don't know whom you know or who knows you, but you have Presidential Orders sending you to Rapid City, South Dakota, without delay by the first available transportation." I sat there with a dumbfounded look on my face. When the Captain asked me what I knew about the orders I told him I had no idea of the why or wherefore. The Captain then commented, "This is very unusual." I felt an inner relief when he dismissed me from his office.
The next day I was again riding in a Pullman, this time alone, on my way to Rapid City, South Dakota. The first leg of my trip took me as far as Chicago where I was supposed to change trains and continue on to Omaha, Nebraska and then to Rapid City. Chicago was swarming with attractive and interesting young girls. It did not take me long to decide to spend a couple of extra days enjoying the city. Those few days soon became two weeks and I was almost out of money.
Technically absent without leave, and nearly broke, I boldly made my way to Fifth Army Headquarters and went to see a finance officer to get a partial-pay. In those days each soldier was issued a small temporary pay book folded to about the size of a pack of book matches. I presented my pay book and found my initial contact was met with coolness. However, when I presented my Special Orders, the lieutenant's attitude changed. I received prompt attention and a partial-pay of $50.
I said goodbye to a really nice student nurse named Pauline, and a girl named Beverly who was planning on going to medical school. Both young ladies were the beneficiaries of all the lessons I had learned from "Aunt" Millie. They in turn did their part in broadening my education. Sadly, I said goodbye, boarded the train and headed west.
During a slight waiting period in Omaha, Nebraska the military police stationed at the Rail Transportation Office made a routine check of my orders. They had never seen a corporal traveling on Presidential Special Orders before and eyed my special orders with some suspicion. I played my game to the hilt and refused to tell them why I was traveling on such unusual orders. In truth, there was very little I could have told them. For sure I was not about to discuss secret information such as "Mother's" personal correspondence with the President of the United States. After careful examination of my orders they were still not satisfied. But when one of them noticed a pay record dated a day before from Fifth Army Headquarters they backed off. Fortunately, they paid no attention to the nearly thirty days it had taken me to travel from Myrtle Beach to Omaha. I decided it was time to count my blessings and be on my way.
It was dark when the train departed Omaha on the way west. I walked back to the observation platform of the last Pullman car and watched the lights as we passed by. I was alone and deep in thought. My thought was I would still be a cook when I arrived at Rapid City. My past experience convinced me they would not let me fly. I would remain in the kitchen, a cook. Such a prospect was unacceptable. I took my orders out of my pocket, reviewed them in the dim light. I read each line with care, searching for anything alluding to my status as a cook. Seeing no such disclosure, I left the observation platform, returned to my baggage, removed my service record and went back to the observation platform. Once there I used my Zippo lighter and proceeded to burn my service record page by page. I watched the charred pieces blow away into the night like a thousand fireflies. When the destruction was complete I swallowed hard at the boldness of my actions. I was about to adopt a new life and hoped it would get out of the kitchen and not into the stockade.
CHAPTER 8 - THE REPLACEMENT
When I reported for duty at Rapid City, South Dakota the clerk asked for my records. I told him, "The gunnery school is sending them." Thoughts of being discovered never left my mind. But, I had made my bed and now as my grandfather used to say, "had to sleep in it". Not being assigned to a crew, I was given temporary duty in the orderly room as a clerk typist. When my twin brother saw me he shook his head in disbelief of what to him was an impropriety. Again, much to the credit of his brotherly love for me he never told anyone. However, I suspected he was embarrassed over my actions. I barely had time to meet his wife, a Chicago girl, the former Dorothy Sphinkas before he and his crew departed. I did not see him again until the end of the war. Two weeks later I was sent to Grand Island, Nebraska as a replacement aircrew member. I could almost feel my wings growing! I was going to fly!
There were no duties to perform at Grand Island. I had only to watch the assignment board in case of a crew assignment. While waiting I either prowled the flight line, looking through the B-17s or spent time in the armament section where I repeatedly took apart and assembled the fifty-caliber machine gun used on the B-17. My time during the evening hours was spent dating a nice young lady named Virginia.
On Virginia's eighteenth birthday, at her suggestion, I bought a pint bottle of blackberry brandy to celebrate. While seeking a place of seclusion we walked out to the golf course and became romantically involved. After a few drinks Virginia became a most sensual creature. I offered no objections.
Later, while I was walking Virginia home, a deputy Sheriff pulled up along side of us in a Ford coupe. He turned his spotlight on us and asked us where we had been. I told him we had been sitting on the golf course. Then he saw the grass stains on my knees and elbows. He ordered us to get into his car. Virginia sat between us. The deputy noticed Virginia had been drinking and asked her age. When she replied, "Eighteen, today is my birthday," the deputy accused me of statutory rape and read me the riot act about it being a felony to furnish liquor to a minor for immoral purposes. I had genuine visions of going to jail.
Virginia began to cry; she became ill, turned her head toward the deputy and threw up on his lap. It was a mess. Perhaps it was the blackberry brandy I had consumed or maybe it was my sense of humor. Suddenly my apprehension disappeared. There was the deputy with hamburger, fries and blackberry brandy all over his lap. The odor inside the deputy's small coupe was enough to gag a maggot...My sense of humor kicked into high gear; I laughed. "She puked on your lap," I said. The deputy, a man with a limited sense of humor did not comprehend my levity. He stopped the car, said something about damn aircrews and ordered, "Get your ass out of my car." Virginia started to follow. The deputy told her, "You stay, I'm taking you home." She called me the next day to tell me she had gotten home without trouble but was thinking it might be a good idea if we were to get married. I promised to discuss the subject with her and we made a date for later in the week.
I checked the assignment board the next day and learned I now belonged to 2nd Lt. Otis C. Ingebritsen's crew as a tail gunner. Upon receiving the information my first act was a trip to the Post Exchange. I bought a pair of aircrew member wings. When I returned from the Post Exchange I found Lt. Ingebritsen and other members of the crew waiting for me. It may have been paranoia, but I felt there was immediate suspicion and apprehension on the part of the crew as they gave me the eye. Lt. Ingebritsen asked me, "What do they call you?" "Wing Ding," I replied and immediately regretted my response.
Fortunately nothing more was said and I was sent to supply to draw the necessary equipment. Before I could again date or call Virginia we were gone, on a train headed for Patrick Henry, a staging area at Newport News, Virginia. We waited there, restricted to the base for about two weeks and then shipped out with other B-17 crews on board one of the most miserable ships imaginable. Bunks were crowded above each other, four or five in a vertical space where there should have been one. The food was barely edible and what went down remained down with difficulty. Rather than go below decks to our assigned quarters I elected to sleep on deck. I was constantly searching the sea for signs of submarines. There were no submarines and therefore no torpedoes. We arrived in Liverpool, England without incident.
The other enlisted members of the crew had been together for most of their training. Other than myself only Lt. Ingebritsen was new to the crew. He had replaced the crew's original pilot who had been killed in a crash while flying with another pilot. I was the latest addition to the crew. With the exception of the flight engineer who was a buck sergeant, they were all staff sergeants. They were constantly pressing me for information as to why I was only a corporal. I kept my silence. There was nothing I could tell them. However, my initial welcome was not exactly with open arms. I could sense and feel their suspicion about the stranger on the crew. "Who is this guy with the nickname of Wing Ding and why is he only a corporal? Who was this screw-up? Had he been reduced or was he not worthy of promotion?"
Two things helped to change their attitude. We went to the skeet range and I easily shot several near perfect rounds; everyone wants a gunner who can shoot. Later in the day outside the enlisted service club a couple of guys ganged up on our ball turret gunner, Stanley Gajewski. Stan was not doing well at all. He might have been the world's greatest ball turret gunner, but after having a few beers he was doing a crummy job of fighting. In short order he was down and out of it. I could fight. Fighting was my bag. I had been earning money, $25 under the table, for each fight at smokers during my last few months of high school and five months prior to entering service. I enjoyed the fights almost as much as I enjoyed the under-the-table money. Stan needed help. I stepped in, all one hundred forty pounds of me, and took on both of them. It did not take much. I kicked one guy in the family jewels and cranked a couple of good right hands into the midsection of the other guy. The fight ended almost as fast as it had started. The next day I found I had "joined" the crew. Charlie Grannis the right waist gunner, was the oldest enlisted man on the crew. He made the announcement, "Fellows, we have a tail gunner!" No one ever questioned me again.
Special Orders No. 205, Headquarters 12th Replacement Control Depot, dated: September 9,1943 listed crew No. 60 as:
2nd Lt. Otis C. Ingebritsen, pilot
2nd Lt. Edward J. Meginnies, co-pilot
2nd Lt. Rensler L. Pomeroy, navigator
2nd Lt. Michael J. Chaklos, bombardier
Sgt. Harold L. Pepper, flight engineer
S/Sgt. Hubert H Windham, waist gunner
S/Sgt. William D. Pross, radio operator
S/Sgt. Charles J. Grannis, waist gunner
S/Sgt. Stanley F. Gajewski, ball turret
Cpl. Eugene T. Carson, tail gunner
We were assigned to the 385th Bomb Group as a crew and trucked to our new unit. It was well after sundown when we arrived at our destination. Pleased to be at the end of our journey we climbed down from the truck only to be told to get back on board. There had been a change to our orders; we were being assigned to the 388th Bomb Group, 560th Squadron.
We were off again on another truck ride to a place known as Knettishall, home of the 388th Bomb Group. Shortly after entering our new barracks we learned the reason for the change of orders. The 388th had flown its first mission on July 17, 1943. In less than two months they had suffered a loss of twenty-three crews, 230 men either killed, missing in action, or prisoners of war. A few had managed to evade capture. We were the new cannon fodder.
In my mind there flashed a picture of the day I took my physical to come into the Army. I saw the second group enter the room as we walked out of it. Just like animals entering the slaughterhouse. I quickly turned off the picture.
It would be nice if I could say we were welcomed replacements. Such was not the case. The older crews treated us with indifference. Someone made a suggestion we not get too comfortable and implied we might not be around very long. We were to soon learn the reason for the apparent unfriendly attitude. We were taking the place of their friends who had been shot down and they were not interested in making new friends. It hurts to lose friends.
We received a basic orientation including some of the things to do and things not to do. Such as don't shoot at your escort when and if you had an escort. I think we flew five practice missions prior to our first combat mission. Being unfamiliar with high altitude flying I did not know how to dress and watched the others with care.
Our first combat mission was set for September 26, 1943. During the interim I was promoted from Corporal to Staff Sergeant. The crew helped me wet down my new stripes. Somehow we all made it back to the barracks where we continued the celebration despite the protests of other occupants. My illustrious military career had now covered a span of about eleven months. The bunk tag was still swinging, but I was flying. I had successfully jumped from the frying pan into the fire. A fire with the potential of getting hotter each day as it was took me farther and farther from the kitchen.
There are two very lonely places on a B-17; the positions of tail gunner and ball turret gunner. Both positions were cramped and both were cold. In the tail the gunner was on his knees, a great position if there was a need for prayer, which was often. There wasn't much room to move around, only enough space to put a pair of spare gun barrels and a couple of extra boxes of ammunition and a parachute. On the right side of the aircraft if you are looking forward, between the gun position and the tail wheel, there was a small escape door to be used in the event of an emergency.
In the ball turret there was even less mobility. The ball turret gunner rode in a fetal position, peering out of a circular window between his feet. His guns were mounted along side of his head. The average ball turret gunner was small, but very few were small enough to carry a chest pack into the turret. However most ball turret gunners wore a parachute harness while inside the turret. If it became necessary to bail out the gunner would turn the turret until the guns pointed to a downward position. He could then exit into the waist area, snap on his parachute chest pack and bail out through the waist door. In the event of an emergency the ball turret gunner's escape could depend on assistance from the waist gunners. On our crew Stan Gajewski knew such assistance would be available from waist gunners Pop Grannis or Windy Windham. If they could have built someone to ball turret size specifications, Stan would have fit the mold. He was of the right size and he had the ability to ride in a cooped up position for long hours and he could shoot. He never complained. On more than one mission he came out with the cheeks of both buttocks frost bitten. But he never missed a mission.
In the event of a fighter attack, reliable gunners in the tail and the ball turret could mean life or death to a bomber crew. Luftwaffe pilots would take bold chances to put the tail gunner out of action. With the tail gunner out of action they could press their attack with a great chance of success. Many of the dedicated ball turret gunners claimed the ball turret was one of the safest positions on the B-17. I never thought so. The ball turret was too claustrophobic and cramped for me. Records indicate a rather high casualty rate for both tail gunners and ball turret gunners. The ball turret was a smoother ride than the tail. In rough air tail gunners needed to have a strong resistance to airsickness.
Left and right waist gunners added to the protection against fighters moving in from the left or right side to place fire on the engines. We had Charlie "Pop" Grannis, a former barnstormer and air show parachute jumper covering the right side. He was all business and had a habit of repeatedly checking his equipment. Hubert Windham was a quiet country boy from Mississippi. Most of the time "Windy" had very little to say. He never allowed his face to reveal his thoughts until the day he shot down a fighter. The fighter seemed to have lost air speed and for a moment pulled up alongside our B-17. "Windy" reacted in a flash and blew him out of the sky. With a kill in the bag "Windy" turned his attention to the pilot. He expressed satisfaction when he watched the German's parachute open.
Bill Pross was not one of the world's best shots. But he was an outstanding radio operator. I always had my doubts about the ability of radio operators to effectively use the radio room gun. The common expression was they could only hit the tail and their own antenna.
The engineer Sgt. Harold L. Pepper had been a buck sergeant, a lower grade than anyone else on the crew except for me; however he too was promoted to S/Sgt. prior to flying his first combat mission. He only flew a few missions with the crew before they noticed he was not functioning as part of the team. The other enlisted members of the crew objected to him remaining on the crew and complained to Dingle, our pilot. Being new to the crew I was not included in the crew's protest. However I was quick to note the immediate replacement of S/Sgt. Harold L. Peters as our engineer. I was determined not to be replaced.
Our copilot Ed Megginies was a frustrated fighter pilot. He detested being stuck on a B-17. However, he performed his duties flawlessly. In the nose our navigator Renslar Pomery was the epitome of propriety and dignity. He was meticulous in everything he did. His partner in the nose, bombardier Mike Chaklos was the only man we lost in combat. Ironically the loss of Mike Chaklos took place on a mission where we had flak of comparatively light density.
All of those who flew, no matter what their position, had bail out procedures etched into their mind to the point where the procedure would have been automatic. It could be no other way. There was no time allocated for decision making. A successful exit and survival frequently became a matter of seconds. It was either exit or become trapped in place by centrifugal force. A moments delay, a pause in acting could result in a terrifying ride to certain death in a rapidly disintegrating airplane.
CHAPTER 9 - COMBAT!
On September 26, 1943, Second Lieutenant Otis Ingebritsen and crew prepared to fly their first combat mission. It was the 388th Bomb Group's 24th combat mission. Immediately after lunch we proceeded to the Briefing Room and watched intently as the curtain was pulled back. There was a sigh of relief throughout the room as the old hands recognized the target. We were going to hit an airfield at Rheims/Champagne, located approximately fifty miles west and slightly north of Paris. The briefing officer noted the rather late take-off time of 1445 hours and reported the mission would last only five hours from take-off to landing. Antiaircraft fire was predicted as light and fighters were not expected. Nevertheless there were butterflies in my stomach.
We were trucked to our parked B-17 where we, as a crew of ten nervous and scared individuals, followed a ritual destined to become our routine. Pilots, Lieutenants Ingebritsen and Meginnies, along with the Ground Crew Chief, Master Sergeant Paul Irelan and our Flight Engineer Pepper carefully checked the airplane. Our navigator, Lieutenant Pomeroy, nervously went over his maps and charts; bombardier Lieutenant Chaklos repeatedly checked the bomb load, the racks and his bombsight. In the radio room Bill Pross attended to his radio and made sure he had all the necessary frequencies. Gun barrels were inserted; ammunition was checked. Each member of the crew was busy, doing and redoing, anything to keep the mind occupied. Waist gunners, "Windy" Windham and "Pop" Grannis repeatedly checked their guns while Stan Gajewski gave the ball turret a final power check.
I crawled into the tail, knelt in position and shot down a couple of imaginary fighters just to make sure I had the procedure properly established in my mind. This would be a big day for me. It would be my first high altitude flight.
With preliminaries out of the way attention was turned to the blue, electric heated suits, a type of heated long underwear made of material much like an electric blanket. These blue bunny suits were worn under our sheepskin lined flying gear and were effective in keeping us warm when in good working order. I carefully watched the others and as unobtrusively as possible emulated their actions.
However there was one final necessary act to be performed before climbing aboard. We all moved off to the side of the aircraft and in almost comic routine emptied our bladders. The lack of adequate facilities onboard the aircraft and the fact we might be otherwise occupied during a moment of need was reason enough for this somewhat odd preflight procedure.
Our ground crew chief, M/Sgt. Irelan gave us one final word. "Bring my airplane back," he said and then stood by with fire extinguisher in hand as one by one the engines coughed, smoked and roared. Each was checked at full power. This was important. The failure of an engine at take-off was always an emergency. Failure of an engine during take-off with a full load of bombs could exceed the emergency category with disastrous results. A green flare arched over the field. Our first combat mission had started!
2nd Lt. Otis Ingebritsen felt a deep sense of responsibility as he moved his B-17F off the hardstand and out onto the taxi perimeter. Countless times before he had followed identical take-off procedures. But this time it was no drill. Practice time was over; this was real! On board was a full load of bombs; he was about to fly his first combat mission. He was the pilot, the airplane commander; the onus of command weighed heavily. The fate of the crew and the aircraft belonged to Otis Ingebritsen. It was not something he could share.
On September 26, 1943 in the cockpit there was formed an unbreakable bond. No words other than those of the checklist needed to be uttered. The momentary meeting of eyes of pilot and the copilot said more than either man could have vocalized. It was a look of understanding. It spoke volumes in its silence. They were exchanging their loyalty and faith in each other. Together they would fly and together they would survive. The 388th Bomb Group had already lost twenty-three crews during its first two months of operation. Ingebritsen and Meginnies were determined not to become crew number twenty-four.
The march of B-17's along the perimeter took on the appearance of clumsy creatures creeping in trail toward the runway. Take-off was in timed intervals with a brief pause at the runway for a final power check then line up, tail wheel locked and down the runway. Lift off came at about 110 to 115 miles per hour. With wheels up the once clumsy ground bound creature became a thing of elegance and beauty. The climb continued; the aircraft circled and became part of a formation. Oxygen masks went on at between 8,000 and 10,000 feet. The group tightened up the formation. Far below, the English countryside appeared to be a painting. The coastal area and the English Channel came into view. The B-17's slowly continued their climb to 23,000 feet. Within the airplane the tension and fear in the heart and mind of each untried warrior was concealed by an outward and disciplined calm.
A formation of B-17's flying in a clear blue sky is a thing of beauty. But even a thing of beauty can have a flip side. It was also a formation of flying machines, each with a cargo of death, destruction and ten men. Ten men far from home flying in the hostile environment of high altitude and sub zero temperatures over equally hostile territory, waiting for an opportunity to deliver their cargo of death and destruction.
Otis Ingebritsen, known to the crew as Dingle gave the order, "Test fire all guns and keep a sharp look out for fighters." The ship shuddered as weapons were given a warm-up burst. Ten pair of eyes nervously searched the sky for distant telltale dots of Luftwaffe fighters as the formation of bombers, marked by condensation trails, progressed across the sky unmolested.
At high altitude personal warmth and oxygen become matters of major concern. The blue electrically heated suit worn under the sheep skin lined leather clothing was wonderful when it worked. But it had a nasty habit of burning out and giving the wearer the equivalent of a "hot-foot" at whatever location the short circuit might be located. The hapless victim would immediately disconnect the electrical plug and pull the material of the suit away from the body at the burnout location. The remainder of the ride would then be without heat. Oxygen at high altitude is a basic and essential need if life is to be sustained; therefore care had to be taken to ensure the mask fitted properly and the connection was firmly in place. It was possible for the hose of the mask to become disconnected with fatal results.
When the formation crossed into France slightly below the Belgium border sporadic flak began to make its appearance. The flak increased in density as we neared the target area and appeared in black bursts. Each burst spread out and appeared to be an octopus shaped figure. When red flame was visible in the center it was too close for comfort and offered its own sound effects. The impact on the airplane came as a dull thump, or sharp crack, depending on the nearness of the burst to the airplane. The sound was not unlike gravel thrown against a tin building. The proximity of the airplane to each burst determined the aircraft's reaction. The nearer the burst the greater the bounce and reaction of the airplane. There was no place to hide; no place to go to seek protection from the shards of metal spewing from each explosion. We were exposed targets.
As the formation turned and started the bomb run the flak could be counted on to intensify. When the bombardier announced, "Bomb bay doors are open," there was an increased feeling of vulnerability. This was closely followed by a psychological feeling of relief when the bombardier called out "Bombs away," a call which was further accented by a significant surge of the bomber as it was relieved of the extra weight. On this particular mission, old hands reported the flak as meager. However, sixteen of the twenty-one aircraft suffered flak damage. Luftwaffe fighters, as predicted, failed to show. The trip home was uneventful. It was a good day for a new crew. Unfortunately it did not tell us what was in store in the future. We were scheduled to be up early the next morning.
There was no need to awaken me on the morning of September 27th. I was awake, lying in my bunk wondering where we were going. I rolled out and stumbled to the latrine. I wanted to get there early to avoid the crowd. Having a bowel movement while sitting next to another person was extremely alien to me. I quickly finished my morning routine and headed to the mess hall. I was hungry and ate a hearty breakfast of square (powdered) eggs, accompanied with SOS and Spam. I washed it down with several cups of black coffee and thought of my last cup of coffee at Hot Dog Frank's. I wondered what Frank would say if he could see me now.
At the briefing the target was identified as the port area of Emden, Germany. We would approach the target via the North Sea and bomb from about 25,000 feet. Cold is not a good description of temperatures at 25,000 feet; it is colder than cold. Take-off was at 0730 hours and there was much to be done in a relatively short time. Guns and equipment had to be checked. Time passed quickly and we were soon rolling down the runway, seasoned combat veterans of one mission about to fly our second.
The tail of a B-17 provides minimal opportunity for conversation other than to respond to the oxygen and other mandatory checks. Being of a gregarious and loquacious nature I needed a little more social interaction than what was afforded in the tail gun position. In order to compensate I devised my own significant greeting to let the rest of the crew know all was well in the tail. Although ungifted in music I had learned to whistle the first few notes of Chopin's Funeral March. It was our second mission; we were at about 22,000 feet and the coast of England was disappearing behind us. I whistled the first few notes of the dirge. The response from the cockpit was immediate. Copilot Ed Megginies instinctively knew who did it. He yelped, "Wing Ding, this is serious business, knock it off. I don't want to hear the funeral march." Lt. Meginnies heard it again. He heard it almost every mission and he squawked every time he heard it. I ceased whistling after Mike Chaklos was killed. Somehow it seemed to be inappropriate.
There were twenty-three aircraft in our formation when we took off to fly our second mission. Seven of those aborted the mission for various mechanical reasons leaving us with only sixteen aircraft. The 96th Bomb Group was flying as the low group. Our bombardier, Mike Chaklos reported clouds over the target plus ground haze and an effective smoke screen. Flak was meager and we had P-47 fighter escort to and from the target. However, they would only be able to engage the Luftwaffe for a limited time because of their relatively low fuel capacity. Mike reported the bomb bay doors were open and in about thirty seconds gave the words, "Bombs away". The plane gave the usual lurch as it discharged the cargo of bombs. We were at about 26,000 feet. Bill Pross, our radio operator, reported the bomb bay as empty. I breathed a sigh of relief and noticed discomfort in my lower intestines.
My hearty breakfast had turned into a belly full of gas. The pain became intense. The more the pain increased the more I regretted my gluttonous breakfast. However my problems were soon replaced. Despite our fighter escort twenty-five to thirty members of the Luftwaffe made their appearance. Although most of the attacks were directed at the low group of the 96th, we had our share.
A single Me109 came down in a curving attack on our tail. I gave him a short burst. At the time I was wearing a steel infantry helmet, without a liner, over my issue leather helmet. The vibration of my guns caused the steel helmet to jiggle down over my eyes. I could not see! I shoved the steel helmet up, clear of my eyes and fired another short burst. The steel helmet again jiggled down over my eyes. This time I grabbed it and tossed it to my rear. Then my guns jammed. I had no choice; I lifted the only piece of armor plate in the tail, dove under and cleared my guns. It must have been a healthy move because at the same time all of the accumulated gas in my intestines was released in one long blast. I remember hoping I had not crapped in my pants. Luckily it was all gas.
Whether it was the nerves of first battle or a full bladder from the extra cups of coffee, I don't know. But I had to urinate. I mean I had to urinate now, not later! Fighters or no fighters, immediate action was required or I was going to pee in my pants. There was no way I wanted to sit around in wet pants with a shorted out electrical suit and frozen urine. I could not bring myself to urinate on the floor of the tail gun section. Fortunately a lull in the action allowed time to recover my discarded helmet. I reached to my rear and found my helmet and then began the arduous procedure of trying to locate my penis buried under layers of clothing. I finally found it, shriveled though it was from the intense cold. I began the process of extraction. I dug it out from beneath the multiple layers of clothing and cautiously exposed this most important item of personal equipment to the forty degrees below zero temperature. I proceeded to piddle in my steel pot. There was no splashing of the urine. Every drop froze immediately.
"Bandit at six o'clock high," Bill Pross, our radio operator calmly stated over the intercom and added, "Get him Wing Ding." It was either another Me109 or the same one returning. He was making a diving approach on our tail. I could not stop peeing any more than I could have flown without wings. Having grown up a country boy in areas where there were severe winters I knew well the consequences of having bare skin touch metal. Whatever part touched would immediately become frozen and attached. It sure as hell was not going to be what little bit was left of my foreskin. I held myself with one hand and fired with the other. Tracers streaked into the fighter's left wing. He peeled off and I piddled in peace. Having finished, I tucked everything inside of my flying gear and mumbled some incoherent nonsense. Suddenly I felt faint and dizzy. A glance to my side revealed the problem. My oxygen hose had somehow disconnected. I fumbled with the connection and while bordering on the edge of passing out managed the reconnection. I immediately recovered.
I heard the chatter of what I presumed to be the top turret guns and saw a departing fighter as he moved from our front to our rear announcing his arrival by decorating the sky with what looked like Christmas tree lights as he used his cannon. He disappeared in seconds. But not before putting three holes in our vertical stabilizer not far from where I was perched. Each hit echoed with a quick thump. It was over almost as quickly as it had taken place. I sat there awed at what had transpired. I responded to the oxygen check and continued to search the sky. Our escort was now all around us. I noticed my helmet contained a block of yellow ice.
Satisfied we were out of danger, I suddenly felt tired. I tried to relax as I continued to scan the sky for tell tale dots. My thoughts drifted back to boyhood days at Woodland Road, Mt. Pocono, Pennsylvania to a time when I was about eight years old. The month was late July or early August. Grandfather's cider barrel sat on a frame under a tree. There was a spigot on the bottom of the barrel and a cork on top. A hose ran from the cork to a gallon jug of water sitting along side of the barrel. We all knew the importance of keeping the end of the hose fully submerged. If air had entered the fermenting apple juice Grandfather would have had vinegar, not cider. I knew it was forbidden to touch the cider barrel. But thirst and temptation ruled the day. I took a soft drink bottle and filled it with cool hard cider. I drank it.
The impact of hard cider on my juvenile system was almost instantaneous. My head began to spin, I felt my bowels rumble and wisely headed up the hill for the outhouse. I was only halfway there when the enemy struck. Our Rhode Island Red rooster descended on my back. He flogged me mercilessly; I fell down and yelled for help. Grandmother came running, stick in hand. She took one look and recognized my problem. I had lost control of my bowels and had thrown up. "Why, you've been in your grandfather's cider barrel!" she said. She took me by the scruff of my neck to behind the house where the outside well pump was located. There she stripped me of my clothing and pumped cold well water on me. Something brought me back to the here and now. I shivered, opened my eyes and found my electric suit was unplugged.
I looked down and saw the coast of England. We were rapidly descending. In about thirty minutes I heard Stan Gajewski report the wheels were down. Dingle, (Otis Ingebritsen) our pilot greased the bird on the runway and we taxied to our hardstand. Only twenty-three missions remained. I was looking forward to a shot of whisky at debriefing. We were told we would not fly another mission for at least three days. But we were required to spend a major part of those three days reviewing aircraft recognition patterns. Someone had taken a shot at one of our P47 escorts.
October 1st the word came down. There would be a briefing at 1000 hours October 2nd. Take-off was scheduled for 1300 hours. We were relieved not to be rousted out during the wee hours of the morning. Rumor had it we would be flying on a short mission. A milk run as someone put it. Already I was beginning to feel like a veteran, ready to take on the entire Luftwaffe if necessary. Fortunately, for once in my life I kept my opinions to myself.
At the briefing we learned our target was a return to the port area of Emden. The route would be out over the North Sea and across the West Frisian Islands. Occupied Netherlands would be on our right as we turned in toward Emden in the vicinity of the East Frisian Islands and prepared to make our bomb run. The North Sea had already been marked in my mind as an evil place. Down in the North Sea by parachute would be death from hypothermia; a ditching would require extreme skill on the part of the entire crew in order to survive. It was not one of my favorite places.
Fighter escort was promised to and from the target area. However, as before they would not have much time remaining if they were to engage in combat. The distance from their base in England to Emden came close to stretching the fighters' productive time in the sky.
For me there was one major variation in my preflight routine. I paid attention to what I ate and to how much I ate. Otherwise my preflight routine did not vary from our previous two missions. Copilot Ed Meginnies, was heard to say, "I just want to get through this and go home to eat Mom's apple pie." Otis Ingebritsen, "Dingle" as always appeared to be as solid as a rock. Lord knows what turmoil must have been boiling inside of his head. Mike Chaklos, our bombardier seemed a little tense as he went over his equipment. Rensler Pomeroy, the navigator and the oldest officer on the crew was, as usual, all business. He was a man of true dignity.
We were up to about 23,000 feet when Dingle gave the order to test fire the guns. For a brief moment the ship shuddered with the vibration of our fifties. "Short bursts only, don't waste anything," he ordered. I decided it was time to whistle. There was no delay in Mac's response, "Damn it, Wing Ding, I told you no more!" Someone laughed and Dingle ordered us to knock it off and pay attention.
We were tagged onto the 96th Bomb Group. They were flying as the lead and high group. As we approached the target things were screwed up. Some of the aircraft of the lead group started to drop bombs three and four at a time. Our group dropped its bombs and then noted the 96th was making a second bomb run. Procedure required the formation to stay together. Mike reported seeing only their lead plane and four others drop bombs during the second pass over the target.
For one of our crews the second bomb run was expensive. Although the flak over the target had been meager, Lt. Felece's aircraft was hit by flak during the second run. He feathered his number one engine and then fire broke out in number two. They were last seen leaving the formation. All were reported killed. Flak may have been meager, but not for the Felece crew. They were flying their fourth mission.
As we again crossed the Frisian Islands on our way home there were a few more bursts of flak. The Luftwaffe never appeared. Dingle set us down at Knettishall, our home base, at approximately 1900 hours. We now had only twenty-two missions remaining. At the debriefing the mission was determined not the success it should have been. The analysis was the target had not been hit.
Starting with our fourth mission we had a new engineer. The enlisted members of the crew expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of our engineer and Technical Sergeant Charles "Chuck" Allred joined the crew. October 4th found us scheduled to go to Frankfurt. Take-off was about 0730 hours. Therefore we were up well before dawn and Dingle had the dubious pleasure of a misty morning take-off.
Out of the twenty-six aircraft taking off carrying incendiary bombs, eight turned back because of either mechanical problems with the airplane or a physical problem of a crewmember. We were flying with only eighteen aircraft. The standard joke was, "Every time they mention briefing my sinus starts to seeping." However, a severe sinus problem was no joking matter at high altitude. We were again following the 96th Bomb Group. After-action reports indicated we bombed not Frankfurt, but a town named Saarbrucken located ninety-five miles south of Frankfurt. Our route home was over the European coast between Calais and Dunkerque. Flak was minimal and we landed at our base at 1430 hours. Again the Luftwaffe had failed to show. Copilot Ed Meginnies complained, "Damn it Wing Ding, it is bad enough without you whistling the funeral march."
My mind was made up. I wanted to move to where the airplane was being flown. I was tired of looking where we had been. I wanted to see where we were going. There was only one way. I had to become a flight engineer, a position for which I had absolutely no training. I went to see our ground crew chief, M/Sgt. Irelan and asked for his help. He told me to come and see him whenever I could and he would teach me. I think at the time he looked at me as an extra pair of hands to help out with the dirty part of the maintenance. I had been helping him for about a week when he told me he had something for me. Paul Irelan handed me a three-ring binder. It was clearly stamped RESTRICTED. I opened the binder and found it was a technical manual for the B-17G. "This came out of one of the hanger queens," he said, making reference to a no longer air-worthy bomber now being used for spare parts.
I treasured the manual and from then on spent hours reading the thick volume. Each day M/Sgt Irelan would quiz me on what I had learned. He was a patient and thoughtful man. His pride and joy was his B-17. No one ever lavished more care on an airplane. I recall his insistence on having us leave "his" airplane as clean and neat as it was when he "loaned" it to us each day.
CHAPTER 10 - HOW ARE THINGS IN AFRICA
Mail call brought a welcomed letter from my twin brother, John who was flying as a tail gunner with the 96th Squadron, 2nd Bomb Group, of the 15th Air Force. He wrote:
The flight from the United States was uneventful, but exciting. We buzzed Milwaukee, Wisconsin the home of our navigator, Jack Drummond and went to Bangor, Maine, then on to Newfoundland. What a desolate country this is! We had to wait for favorable weather and winds then we departed for Preswick, Scotland. Morale was high as we left Scotland for Casablanca and on to our new station near Tunis.
Our base leaves much to be desired. We live in tents and use slit trenches for latrines. Every now and then there is great joy when the portable shower unit shows up. I have been to Tunis. We explored the city and found some places with good meals. But you cannot be sure of what you are eating. We even unearthed an ice cream store. However, the medics quickly put it off-limits for sanitary reasons. Someone said they were using camel milk.
One of our favorite off-duty recreations had been roaming around the old German ammo dumps. We took the live 88 rounds, propped them up against a bush and detonated them with a well-aimed rifle shot. The other day we laid a trail of powder to a dump and tossed a match into it. Our game was nearly a disaster; we barely made it to safety. I decided to end such foolishness. Sort of reminded me of when we were kids and set off the railroad torpedoes and dynamite caps. It is a wonder we were not blinded or did not lose our fingers.
As a new crew we were assigned to fly with experienced pilots prior to flying with our own pilots. We were on the same airplane we flew over from the States, Julie A, but we had the operations officer, Captain Patrick Train as pilot. Our first mission caused me to wonder about the wisdom of deciding to get into this business. We went up along the coast of France. The fighters, FW190s and Me109s lined up on our tail. I think I went blind with fear, or maybe I was so damned busy I could not recall a thing. It sure took the shine and glamour off of my wings in a hurry. We were constantly running into flak and both the Me109s and FW 190s kept hitting us. They are great adversaries. I found myself really busy on the bomb runs. I was either trying to keep the fighters out at a safe distance or praying.
Things I have learned are don't waste ammunition; carry extra ammunition and spare gun barrels; shoot in short bursts and shoot to kill.
There is a rumor we will be moving from Tunis up to Italy soon. I hope so. The living conditions in this area are miserable. Take care and be careful,
A second letter dated September 16, 1943 arrived soon after the first one.
Things were rough yesterday. We lost Julie A, the airplane we brought from the states. We were again flying with Captain Train. We made two trips, one in the morning and again in the afternoon in support of the troops taking the beaches at Salerno. We were elated because these were going to be what you call milk runs.
The morning was no problem. On the afternoon mission we were twenty or thirty minutes from the beach when we lost our number four engine. Captain Train elected to increase power and stay with the formation.
All went well until our return trip. As we arrived at the coast of North Africa we lost power in our number three engine. This left us without power on the right side. At the time we lost the second engine we were over a B-26 base and probably should have landed, but Captain Train decided he could make it to our home base. All went well until we were on our final approach. It was nearly dark. We were cleared for immediate landing.
Then came the unexpected; someone cut us off. We had to go around to avoid a collision with the other aircraft. The situation was still under control until we lost engine number two. There was no way we could continue to fly on one engine. I had moved from the tail to the radio room. When I looked out all I could see was the lights in those adobe buildings getting closer each second. The crew from up front had joined us in the radio room and assumed crash positions. Captain Train managed to belly land going up the side of a hill. It doesn't take much to persuade men to move quickly to get out of a crashed aircraft. Eight of us exited through the radio room hatch. The pilot and copilot, both big men, squeezed out of the side cockpit windows just as engine number three burst into flames. Our engineer, looking out for his airplane, as he always did, reentered through the waist door, obtained a fire extinguisher and put out the fire. No one was injured but Julie A was now only fit for spare parts. I guess sometimes even a milk run can be dangerous.
Take care, hope you are enjoying London,
CHAPTER 11 - A BIG WEEK
October 8, 1943 was the start of what was to be known as a "Big Week". The word was the 8th Air Force would make a maximum effort. The late briefing and take-off was to our liking. Someone noted the red line on the briefing map was growing longer with each mission. We where headed for Bremen, Germany. Our route would take us out over the North Sea across the East Frisian Islands where we could count on being used for target practice by the antiaircraft gunners and then past Wilhelmshaven and down to Bremen. Our group was selected to lead the parade for the 45th Air Division with the 96th Bomb Group tacked on as the low group.
The briefing officer advised there would be moderate fighter opposition and intense flak. He was partially correct. Just prior to the target area about thirty-five FW 190s came up to greet us. They pressed their attack until we entered the target area; there we encountered the heaviest concentration of flak we had seen to date. We were savagely hammered by what seemed to be never ending explosions of antiaircraft fire, accompanied by sounds much like someone throwing gravel against a tin building. My hand was on my parachute as I bounced around inside the tail. There was no place to go, no where to hide. There was only one choice. Sit there and take it. I waited, almost impatiently, expecting any second for our airplane to become a ball of fire and black smoke. It did not. We flew on.
We had a new antiaircraft defense system and were using it for the first time. A hole had been cut on the left side of the radio room and a chute installed. Inside the radio room were boxes of aluminum foil. The radio operator was supposed to disperse the foil to throw off the enemy radar system. As we approached the target area there was a half-hearted dispensing of the foil. Then as the flak intensified the foil started coming out of the chute like a stream of water. Despite our predicament, I had to laugh. Whether or not the foil was effective was immaterial. It gave the radio operators something to do other than sit there and be shot at.
We put twenty-one aircraft over the target and twenty-one aircraft came home with flak damage. The Luftwaffe also paid a price; three of their fighters were confirmed shot down. Our route home was much the same as our route in. The lonely gunners on the East Frisians had their usual target practice. My dislike for them increased in proportion to their apparent increase in accuracy. We all well knew any kind of a serious hit while heading back to England would have meant ditching in the North Sea, a procedure with poor survival odds. The remainder of our trip home was uneventful. Dingle eased us down in his usual style at about 1740 hours. We returned home veterans of five missions. We were alerted to be ready to fly again the next day.
The charge of quarters rousted us out around 0330 hours October 9th. Even at breakfast the word was out. We were headed for a long ride. Rumors were put to bed shortly after daybreak during the briefing. A low gasp filled the room as the curtain drew back. The red line seemed to go on forever out across the North Sea, over Denmark then the Baltic Sea along the northeast coast of Germany to the Gulf of Danzig and on to the port city of Gydnia. Lord, what a long ride! We would be carrying a maximum fuel load of 2,780 gallons.
During our ride out to the airplane the usual chatter was noticeably absent. The length of the mission and its proximity to Berlin was heavy on our minds. Following the usual preflight routine we were soon airborne. This time there was no circling. We headed directly out over the North Sea for the coast of Denmark, climbing all the way.
As we crossed the Danish coast the flak, although not intense was unusually accurate. This same accuracy was repeated again along the German coast. As we turned into the Gulf of Danzig a heavy smoke screen began to appear over the target area. The lead bombardier found an opening and released the bombs. Three direct hits were reported on the liner Stuttgart with others falling in the dock area. We headed for home. On our return trip we encountered more flak over Denmark. Everyone gave a sigh of relief as it ceased.
I was relaxing in the tail, eating a frozen Milky Way candy bar when trouble became apparent. To our rear there appeared a formation of aircraft. I knew they could not be escorts and called out, "Bandits at six o'clock". All hell broke loose. The Luftwaffe was everywhere; about thirty-five or twin engine and single engine aircraft pressed the attack with vigor. I fired short bursts, trying to be accurate. My guns worked perfectly without jamming. I thought I scored hits on several of the fighters attacking from the rear of our formation.
Below our position the leader of the low squadron, Lt. Nagorka in Iza Angel was in serious trouble. The right wing was on fire and they were going down. Only six chutes came out before the airplane blew up. Trouble continued and Lt. Kinney in Gynida left the formation with fire in the #3 engine. Then the action ended as if someone had waved a magic wand. The fighters were gone. It was almost 1830 hours when we returned home. We had been in the air for ten hours. I was looking forward to my shot of whisky and the evening meal.
On landing we received the bad news. We were going again the next day. But there was good news. Take-off would not be early. I whistled my dirge for Ed Meginnies as we left the debriefing tent. He complained and shook his fist at me. I cautioned him, "Sir, you are not allowed to threaten an enlisted man." Ed laughed, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Wing Ding this stuff really scares me. All I want to do is get home and eat Mom's apple pie." I again whistled for him. He took a swing and deliberately missed.
Ground crews often worked through the night to repair the damage and get us ready to go again. Their ability to affect repairs overnight under what were nearly impossible conditions was amazing. They never let us down. They were there waiting long before it was time to take-off and they were there long after we returned from a mission. In short the ground crews were incredible. There was nothing quite so sad as watching a ground crew pick up their equipment and move reluctantly away from the hardstand when their airplane failed to return.
October 10, 1943 started out as a rather relaxed Sunday. Briefing was not scheduled until 0930 hours. But when we got there none of us liked what we saw. We were going to Munster as the lead of 2nd Combat Wing of the 1st Air Task Force. Flying with us would be the 96th, 385th and 390th Bomb Groups. Our route would cross the Dutch coast and the Zuider Zee north of Amsterdam and then angle down toward Munster. We were told, "Some fighter opposition is expected." Take-off was scheduled for near noon.
Trouble started early. Both our lead aircraft with Colonel David and our deputy lead aircraft with Colonel Satterwhite were forced to abort the mission for mechanical reasons. The lead was passed to the 96th Bomb Group and the 388th moved to take over the low Group.
"Some fighter opposition is expected," turned out to be an understatement. The opposition started at the target when we were jumped by a mixed bag of Luftwaffe fighters. The Me210's were hanging back, just out of range, sending rockets and cannon fire into our formation. I lined my sights on a Me210 and said to myself, "Got him" as I saw the smoke belch. Seconds later I realized not only had I not "got him" but he had fired two rockets arching toward our B-17. Fortunately, either my annoying fire or his aiming error caused the rockets to fall short of our formation and explode. Grandmother would have washed my mouth out had she heard my expression at the sight of the rockets. "Holy shit," followed by other socially unacceptable language escaped my mouth as I watched in disbelief.
Lt. Williams from the 562nd Squadron of our Group was hit by flak just after bombs away and left the formation. The Luftwaffe moved in for the kill. Sensing the futility of trying to survive, Williams must have hit the alarm bell. There was no hesitation. The entire crew bailed out. A tough way to go as they were on their seventeenth mission, eight short of the magic twenty-five missions needed to complete a tour.
The 390th took a real beating. They lost eight aircraft. Only sixteen parachutes out of what should have been eighty were observed. Two airplanes went down with either wing or engine fires. Rockets hit two more and one of those collided with an adjacent B-17 in a fiery explosion. Bodies and parts of the two airplanes blew everywhere. It was hard to watch. No matter where I looked there were either fighters or B-17s going down; the 96th lost one and the 385th lost two aircraft. We enjoyed a brief respite from the fighter attacks as we crossed "Happy Valley" an area at the north end of the Ruhr Valley where we experienced more heavy and accurate flak. Then the Luftwaffe returned and hammered away until our arrival back at the Zuider Zee. We landed at 1703 hours. All of our seventeen returning aircraft had suffered battle damage. I had my shot of whisky at the debriefing and put my gear away.
On learning we were not flying the next day I wrote to my twin brother in Tunis, North Africa and a letter to my mother. I told our mother I was the squadron cook and how John was flying in a relatively safe part of North Africa.
Monday, October 11, 1943 started out as a quiet day. The sun kept threatening to make an appearance and I purchased a necessary item of transportation. As a bicycle it did not look much like what we had at home. The brakes were on the handlebars and it came equipped with a very uncomfortable seat. But, it beat walking.
Just before dusk I peddled my way to the local pub, not far outside of the main gate. When I walked in I was politely greeted and as I looked around the pub noticed a dart game in progress. There were no other Americans. Most of the patrons were well past middle age. I sidled up to the bar and quietly ordered a beer. It arrived in what appeared to be a large mug. As I put my money on the bar someone asked, "Yank, you flying from the base?" I nodded my head while taking my first sip of beer. I was about to make a comment about how warm it seemed to be when my money was pushed back towards me by an attractive woman. "This one's on me Yank," she said as she raised her own glass and uttered, "Cheers." I wisely withheld my comment about warm beer and soon found myself engaged in a game of darts. I lost.
Quite a few beers later, I decided to return to Knettishall. I said goodnight and prepared to ride off in the dark. I started in what I thought was the general direction of the base. I fell off my bicycle. Probably the result of my having consumed too much English beer. I heard a voice ask, "Are you alright Yank?" It was the woman from the bar who had paid for my first beer. She had followed me outside and asked me if I knew which way to go. I told her I was not sure. She offered to help me. As we walked she asked me if I was flying in the morning. I must have told her no and kept on pushing my bicycle. I was in no shape to ride.
I woke up to the smell of real fried eggs and tried to decide where I was. It was 0840 hours; my clothes including my skivvies, were neatly folded on top of a chair next to the bed. I soon learned my benefactor's name was Barbara. She was in her late thirties, a widow without children. Her husband had been a sergeant in the RAF. She looked at me, smiled and said, "My, you are a young one aren't you!" She then served me breakfast and sent me on my way with a caution, "Cheers, take care."
It was 1030 hours on Tuesday when I passed the military police at the main gate and headed for my barracks. Fortunately we had the day off. I changed clothes and went to the armament shack to inspect and hand load ammunition. Then I checked and oiled my guns. They had become an important part of my life.
I rode out on the flight line to where our airplane was parked. We had been assigned a new B-17G and the chin turret had already been painted in a replica of the famed Flying Tiger's motif. We had named her Tiger Girl. I walked around the tail, found several different colors of paint and proceeded to paint a large target on the left side of the fuselage near the tail gunner's position. I then wrote in large letters, "Shoot Here Jerry". I stood back and admired my handiwork, climbed on my bicycle and returned to the barracks. No truer ever were the words: "Idle hands soon find trouble."
Tuesday, October 12th was a typical English day; it was misty, not much sun and idle time. I found myself wishing we were flying. No sooner had my thoughts settled in than our engineer, Chuck Allred, told me we were flying a practice mission at 1400 hours. A practice mission meant doing everything we would do for a real mission except carry bombs. Guns and ammunition had to be on board and in position. We could not take a chance and fly without protection. Take-off was at exactly 1410 hours. We formed up and flew for two hours and returned to base. The sun was approaching the horizon as we touched down. I decided to forego the beer, the dart game and the possibility of fresh eggs in the morning. I went back to the barracks and met two new crews who were coming in as replacements. They had a lot of questions and I tried to be nice and answer them. I did not want to give anyone the welcome we had received. Also, I wanted to write a couple of letters, one to my mother and one to my brother.
Wednesday, October 13th I got up and went to the armament shack and again checked my ammunition and weapons. As I was leaving the shack to go out to our airplane the ground maintenance officer collared me. He ranted and raved about my desecration of government property by painting a target on the side of our airplane. We had a few words and I let my mouth overload my ass. I told him to go screw himself. He insisted I was going to clean the target off the airplane and I told him I would do so when he started to fly as a tail gunner and had the paintings taken off all the other aircraft. He presented his case to Dingle to no avail. The "artwork" remained and I never heard another word about it.
I was outside of our hut, working on my bicycle. It was in my mind to make a trip to the pub; Chuck Allred must have read my mind. He approached me and cautioned, "Wing Ding, don't go anyplace tonight. We are getting up early tomorrow. They are loading extra fuel." Chuck was right. We were up early. I looked at the crummy weather and thought the mission would be scrubbed. We had the usual breakfast of square eggs, Spam and SOS. I ate with caution. Being shot at was bad enough, but being in discomfort while being shot at did not make much sense. The word in the mess was the mission was going to be a long one. The answer came from the horse's mouth when the briefing room curtain was pulled back.
Schweinfurt! "Oh, Jesus no, not again," came from the back of the room. "Holy Mother of God, this is my last mission," came yet from another corner. The line stretched on and on deep into the heartland of Germany. "This is a very important mission," the briefing officer droned. "Germany's ball bearing works must be destroyed." He continued to deliver his message of what we could expect. He assured us we would have fighter escort almost to the border of Germany and they would pick us up again as we returned. However, we would be without fighter escort for over four hundred miles. There was minimal talking. Everyone knew it was going to be a rough ride. We were scheduled to put up twenty-two aircraft and be the low group of the lead Combat Wing of the 2nd Air Task Force. The 96th Bomb Group would furnish the lead and high groups.
The day started off poorly. There was a crash on take-off. Lt. Swift, pilot of Hard Luck, had almost reached flying speed when his No. 3 engine caught fire. Smoke came from the tires as he hit the brakes. A crash was eminent. Lt. Swift ordered, "wheels up." The copilot responded and the take-off of Hard Luck became a controlled crash. With its full compliment of crew, bombs and fuel Hard Luck skidded onward with sparks flying. It came to a stop just short of a wooded area. The crew miraculously escaped their burning aircraft without injury. Take-off for the group was delayed until safety procedures could be applied. All aircraft were then diverted to another runway and the area cleared in anticipation of the explosion. When it came it was spectacular.
The formation climbed up through the cloud cover. We were in clear skies and out over the English Channel. However, with one take-off crash and five aborts for mechanical failure we were quickly reduced to a formation of sixteen aircraft. I think we had been in the air about forty-five minutes before I sensed a problem. I was busy checking my gear and test firing my guns. Something did not seem right. It was not. My parachute was missing. In my mind I visualized my parachute bag sitting on the ground at the hardstand! We were now 23,000 feet and over one hundred miles from our base.
I sat at my gun position trying to decide what to do. I knew if I reported my parachute as missing Dingle would turn back, probably abort the mission. It is not possible to describe my thoughts. Terror would be a grossly inadequate description. I could not bring myself to tell the crew. All I could do was hope for the best. I am sure I sneaked a few quick prayers in for good measure. I felt weak and afraid. Then I heard a female voice clearly state, "Trust me." I quickly checked my oxygen to be sure I was not suffering from anoxia. My connection was in place. A sense of calm came over me.
What would I do if we were hit and the crew had to bail? My plan was probably ridiculous but it was the only plan I could think of. I would try to make it to the cockpit and fly the crippled bird back to England or crash land. Good plan or not, there were no options. My basic thought was a simple, "Oh Jesus!"
We crossed Belgium, and near the German border our fighter escort gave us a final apologetic waggle of wings and turned back. The Luftwaffe arrived on the scene moments later. Obviously they had been waiting in the wings for our escort to depart. The Luftwaffe attack came with unbelievable ferocity. They outnumbered us at five to one or more. I watched in amazement as they lined up and barrel rolled through the other formations with guns blazing. I could only assume they were doing the same to our group as fighter after fighter went streaking past the tail. They offered no opportunity for even a quick shot. Others, JU88's lagged behind our formation, out of the effective range of our guns and lobbed rockets into the formation. Again and again I watched the Luftwaffe line up on other groups and fly head on wing tip to wing tip. Their courage was unquestionable. They came in six at a time; diving and turning in attempts to draw fire while another fighter tried to make the kill. From the beginning of the first fighter attacks the Luftwaffe stayed with us. Long before we arrived over the target the sky was filled with a host of bombers and fighters going down in flames. Some were falling out of control with crews pinned in by centrifugal force and still others were exploding with bodies and debris falling through the formations.
Parachutes were everywhere. Many were engulfed in flames and seemed to melt as the canopy blossomed over the jumper leaving him to become a free falling body. B-17s and Luftwaffe aircraft were going down and exploding. The ground below was marked with blazing debris and the black smoke from the rubble of aircraft wreckage. Through some miracle all sixteen of our aircraft made it to the target. The scene was one of carnage beyond imagination. It was strangely not frightening; the intensity of the action left no time for alarm. However, despite my calmness I was satisfied the end was near.
As we started our bomb run the fighter attacks eased and intense flak took over. To our rear and off to one side a B-17 took a direct hit. A wing came off and the airplane went into a flat spin. Although I knew my plea was without meaning and could not be heard, I found myself urging the crew to get out. There were no parachutes. Within ten to fifteen seconds after the initial hit the bomber was converted from what had been an airplane into thousands of particles as it exploded.
We dropped our bombs and turned for home. The intercom was a constant chatter as the crew called out Luftwaffe fighter locations. I knelt in silence. I had nothing to say. My tail guns were doing my talking in short nasty bursts. No one had to tell me there were bandits at six o'clock and there was no need for me to report their presence. The Luftwaffe was all around us. I was up to my rear end in empty shell casings. We were being mauled. I watched the decimation of the formations below and around us. I could not see how we were going to make it home. There was however a strange calmness and a feeling of someone was watching over me.
When we reached the Belgium border I searched the sky for sign of our fighter escort. They were not to be seen. Our escort was weathered in, still on the ground in England. The Luftwaffe continued to have a field day. Shell casing piled deeper at every gun position. All gun positions were complaining about being short of ammunition. Although I had quietly carried extra boxes on board before take-off each of my guns had fewer than one hundred rounds per gun remaining. Almost every round had been needed.
As we left the coast of Europe the Luftwaffe disappeared. I bent forward, rested my head on the window and began to shake and cry uncontrollably. I stopped long enough to take a deep breath and say, "Thank you God." I could not tell to this day from where came the voice with the words, "Trust me." But in my heart I knew I had not been alone in the tail. I regained my composure and my courage returned. I whistled and Ed Meginnies responded. "Damn you Wing Ding, I am going to tape your mouth shut." No one else on the crew said anything. They were happy to be alive. We peeled off and landed at 1830 hours. The ground never looked better. Three of our sixteen aircraft were forced to land at other locations.
As I climbed out of Tiger Girl, M/Sgt. Paul Irelan our ground crew chief announced to everyone, "Wing Ding forgot his parachute." Dingle asked me if I had known it was on the ground. I answered, "Yes sir." He looked at me, shook his head and walked away, saying, "Now I know why they call you Wing Ding." Chuck Allred, our engineer commented, "Wing Ding, you're either crazy as hell or you've got balls."
At the debriefing I tried to convince the intelligence officer of a need for a second shot of whisky. When one of the crew told him I had flown the mission without a parachute, I was quickly given the requested second shot and asked if I wanted another. I shook my head, no. The whisky burned all the way to the bottom of my empty stomach. I was yet a little on the shaky side. The word was it would take at least three days to bring the Group's aircraft up to operational standards.
After cleaning up and storing my gear I headed for the shower. As usual there was no hot water. I quickly soaped my body and rinsed, got dressed, hopped on my bicycle and headed for the pub. I thought, after surviving what I had just been through I should have a beer. When I walked in the door someone called out, "Barbara your Yank is back." "I thought you might have been done in," she said. "You look a little shaky Yank, was it a bad one?" someone asked. I took a long sip of beer and nodded my head. "You blokes should fly at night," an old pensioner advised. He then added, "Jerry can't find you then."
One beer later I left the pub with Barbara and still later made my way back to the base. Overhead I could hear the droning of engines and saw spotlights spearing the sky. I collapsed on my bunk and fell asleep with my clothes on. When I woke up it was around midnight; I was shivering. The fire in the stove nearest my bunk was out. I pulled a blanket over my clothes and slept past breakfast.
I rode my bicycle out to the hardstand to look at Tiger Girl. I crawled into the tail gun position and sat there for perhaps thirty or more minutes. I was afraid to tell anyone about hearing a voice. If I did they would surely send me to the Flight Surgeon for treatment. I shared time with the ground crew and examined the patches they had put on to cover our battle damage. Satisfied, I moved forward and sat in the copilot's seat and re-flew the mission in comfort.
CHAPTER 12 - THE GOOSE AND OTHER THINGS
As I was about to enter my barracks I heard the unmistakable sound of a honking goose. I looked and saw someone coming toward me with a large white goose under-arm. I recognized Jimmy Barnes another tail gunner. "Jimmy, what in the hell are you doing with a goose?" I asked. "Gonna eat him, WingDing," he said. "I'm sick of eating mess hall junk, canned meat and powdered eggs."
At first I did not believe him. But when he got his knife out his intentions became clear. Fortunately those of us who were country boys knew enough to take the goose outside for the decapitation ceremony. The goose, honking in protest, died hard; blood squirted everywhere. The now headless goose twitched and kicked his last.
Once the goose was dead and dry plucked the question of cooking came up. Being the only one with any real cooking experience I was tempted to volunteer for the job. I decided against volunteering. I was out of the kitchen and I was going to stay out of the kitchen. One of the gunners was dispatched to the mess hall with instructions to come back with the largest frying pan he could find.
The goose was cut up and prepared for cooking. Chopped goose would be a good description. Smokey, the waist gunner who had been sent to the mess hall returned with a large pan and one of the cooks. The cook brought half a dozen nice size real potatoes plus salt and pepper. We agreed to let him share in our feast in exchange for his expertise. The stove was stoked to full blast. Our chopped goose soon became frying goose. The aroma had us all drooling.
However, we were soon to learn the drool-producing aroma of the cooking goose was an illusion. When it came time to eat the goose we found the old gander was as tough and chewy as a piece of shoe leather. Only those with strong molars were qualified to chew the old bird. Our age brackets so qualified us and before sunset there was nothing left except bones. A crewman quipped, "The goose was cooked."
Rather early on the morning of October 16th we had visitors. A British constable, accompanied by a farmer came to our barracks. The officer apologized for bothering us and explained the purpose of his visit. He was looking for a family pet; a large white goose. Jimmy was the first to speak. "No goose around here," he said. I could not help but notice how his quick denial brought forth more than a little interest from our Sherlock Holmes type visitor. "You gents don't mind if I just look around a bit?" he asked. Of course no one objected.
Sherlock was not on the case long before he spied a few feathers in a corner of the barracks. He picked them up and with meticulous care put them into an envelope. He soon found other evidence when he strode outside to the decapitation site. "I say gents, the goose must have been visiting here," he said wryly and fixed us with a stern gaze. We could see he was not buying our story. But we were staying with it. How could we tell them we had killed and eaten a family pet? Then, as they were about to leave the constable glanced above the door. There, on the outside, above the door, spread out like a huge fan were the wings of the late goose.
The farmer's eyes followed those of the constable. He stared at the wings. For a moment he was silent, then he spoke, "Oh, I say lads, you know, the goose, his name was Oliver, he was a family pet." I think we were truly ashamed of our act. A helmet quickly made its appearance and was passed around. Eager eaters became eager donors. The farmer left with enough money to buy a dozen geese. He was smiling at our generosity and telling the constable he had no hard feelings. The case was closed.
It was too late for breakfast so I went directly to the armament shack and worked on my guns. I replaced my old gun barrels with new ones and spent the several hours checking the ammunition I would be using the next time we flew.
The notice on the bulletin board indicated a group of ladies, members of the WAAC (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps) from 8th Air Force headquarters would be touring the base and visiting the service club. Stan Gajewski, our ball turret gunner decided to go and see what real American speaking girls looked like. Having enjoyed a good service club experience while at Denver I was in favor of having a look see. Chuck Allred told us not to waste our time. "Bunch of bats. You can't do any good with any one from the WAAC," he said. Perhaps I was still remembering my train ride from San Francisco with the soon to be WAVE candidates. Chuck's admonitions were ignored. Stan and I showered; put on our best "Class A" uniforms and peddled our bikes to the service club. The band was playing and there were about twenty members of the WAAC there. I quickly noted they were under what appeared to be control or supervision of the more mature members of their outfit.
One young lady in particular interested me. She was a beautiful girl, younger than most of the others. She stood out like a bright star. Her name was Genevieve Marie; she came from a dairy farm in Minnesota. I spent the evening talking with her. I was captivated. She was clean, wholesome and as fresh as the early morning dew. I fell in love. I had to see her again. But how could it be arranged?
Since we were still standing down on October 17th I decided to find out how to travel from Knettishall to Pine Tree, the headquarters where Genevieve was stationed and make it back in time to fly. I worked out a deal with the sergeant who drove the message center Jeep to and from Pine Tree. He agreed I could ride with him as a passenger on his trips to and from the headquarters. The courier Jeep would leave our base at about 1730 hours and start back at about 2230 hours. The schedule was like clockwork. I could rest on the return trip by sleeping. The safety belt would keep me from falling out of the Jeep.
Needless to say, my first unannounced visit was a genuine surprise to Genevieve. However, I was well received and it soon became obvious Genevieve felt the same way. Our instant love seemed to be glowing and growing. I tenderly gave her a goodnight kiss on the cheek and caught the courier Jeep back to Knettishall in time to get ready for a mission.
The 388th was to provide 22 aircraft for the mission of October 18th to Duren, Germany. This would be my ninth mission. Take-off time was scheduled for 1043 hours. The group would form and leave the English coast at approximately 1400 hours. We were to bomb from 29.000 feet, it was cold beyond description. Eleven aircraft aborted our formation for various malfunctions before we ever crossed the English coast. Three more aircraft aborted after we had departed the English coast. We were now down to a formation of eight operational aircraft.
Dingle's voice came over the intercom. "I need help in the cockpit. Chuck and Mac have both passed out." Dingle was making reference to our engineer and our copilot. We were at 29,000 feet. The temperature was between 48 to 52 degrees below zero. The intense cold had caused the bomb bay doors to malfunction. They had to be closed if we were to keep up with the formation. Chuck Allred, our engineer had used a portable oxygen bottle and proceeded to the bomb bay. He cranked the doors to the closed position and attempted to return to the cockpit. His oxygen supply exhausted, he collapsed as he crawled into the cockpit. Without a thought for his personal safety, copilot Ed Meginnies climbed out of his seat and gave his own oxygen supply to the stricken engineer. Chuck had not even had time to recover before Ed too collapse on the flight deck. Dingle had no choice. We were flying in formation and he could not leave the controls even for an instant. He could only watch in anguish as his flight engineer and copilot remained inert on the flight deck. Chuck, now with fresh oxygen, a gift of life from Ed Meginnies who had surrendered his own oxygen responded. He quickly reconnected the stricken copilot's oxygen and helped him back to his seat. The act was a typical demonstration of the personality of Ed Meginnies. He never gave thought to his own safety when he surrendered his life-giving source of oxygen to save the engineer.
Fortunately we were recalled while over Belgium. This was truly a milk run. There were no Luftwaffe fighters and no flak. We landed at Knettishall at about 1630 hours. Returning to base with us were many complaints about frostbite. The cold had been intense and had taken a heavy toll.
I caught my ride to Pine Tree and went to the WAAC day room where I was to meet Genevieve. Instead of Genevieve I was met by a bevy of older WAAC women. They asked me, "What are your intentions?" "Will you be nice to her?" "Genevieve is innocent and a good girl, she does not know about aircrew members." I weathered the interrogation by the self appointed guardians of Genevieve as they assured themselves her virtue was to remain intact. I convinced the ladies of the WAAC detachment of the absence of ulterior motives on my part. They were satisfied. I was in love. After stern warnings they allowed me to visit with Genevieve. We shared a wonderful evening by the huge fireplace. Later in the night when I departed it was Genevieve who led the way. She wrapped her arms around my neck and passionately kissed me goodnight. She whispered, "Please be careful when you fly."
October 20th the Duren, Germany mission was back on the board. Take-off was again set for around 1030 hours. This time we would form up and again fly over the target at 29,000. We were doing much better than we did on October 18th. We started out with nineteen aircraft and only three aborted. Our P38 escorts were with us to and from the target area. Flak was meager. There was no battle damage.
We returned and landed around 1600 hours. It was a mission to enjoy. Even an easy mission was fatiguing work. We were usually up early and then flew about seven hours at high altitude while on oxygen. Eyes ached from staring into the bright blue sky searching for the Lufwaffe. After landing I learned we were not to fly again until November 3rd. I quickly showered and caught my ride to Pine Tree. Genevieve was waiting. I spent the evening wrapped in her arms watching the embers of the huge fireplace. When it came time to catch the return courier ride to Knettishall, I told Genevieve I was not flying again until the first week in November and asked her to go to London with me. She agreed to go. Shameful as it may have been my thoughts were lustful.
CHAPTER 13 - LONDON
Genevieve met me in Thetford and we caught the train to London. I do not recall how long it took to make the trip. But I do recall the touch of her hand as we sat together in the compartment. Time passed quickly as it can easily do when you are with someone you love. Before either of us expected, we were in London. A taxi took us to the Barclay Hotel where we registered with the clerk. He gave us separate but adjoining rooms.
Once in my room I removed my jacket and necktie, brushed my teeth and gave a gentle tap on the door adjoining our rooms. Genevieve had already changed to a dress. It was the first time I had ever seen her in other than a uniform. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Passionate feelings surged through my body. I wanted to touch her and feel her close to me. I resisted the urge and hoped she was not too observant.
We were surprised by a knock on the door. It was the maid wanting to know if we would like to have tea. "It's tea time now," she said. I gave an inward sigh of relief. The change of pace was needed. Tea and some little cakes arrived quickly. I just as quickly tipped the maid and sent her on her way. We sat around a small table and shared. Tea never tasted better.
Typical of the English weather a mist blanketed the city giving the impression of evening arriving before its time. In a distance Big Ben added an eerie resonating deep bong to mark the hour. The moment was overwhelming. I was in a hotel with a beautiful woman in one of the world's most renowned cities. The tea and cakes had served only to whet our appetites. But for the moment our minds were not on food nor were they on Big Ben.
I held Genevieve close enjoying the sweet scent of her hair and the touch of her hands. One moment we were kissing passionately and the next we were on the bed. I felt her body cling to mine. I touched her and she gave a little shudder and asked, "Wing Ding, what have you done to me?" I looked at her and smiled. It was then I saw the tears in her eyes and asked her what was wrong. Her answer shocked me. "Wing Ding," she said, "I have never been alone with a man before. Until I met you I always thought I would go to a convent." She then added the final blow by saying, "I love you so much Wing Ding. I would do anything for you." She was trembling with emotion.
Genevieve Marie might as well have been wearing a chastity belt. What a terrible time I elected to become stricken by my conscience. Genevieve was there, in my grasp. I had only to make the move and she would have surrendered. But I could not. Nothing she had said or done had left me physically impotent. I suffered mightily with my desires. My love and respect for this beautiful woman was sufficient to cause me to desist. I could not take advantage of her. I knew she would still be a virgin when it came time for us to leave London. I held her in my arms and told her of my love. She quieted, then ceased trembling and fell asleep in my arms. I quietly crept back to my room, put on my pajamas and tried to sleep.
I fell asleep only to be awakened by the sounds of the air raid sirens. Not too far away there was the explosion of bursting bombs. A nearby antiaircraft battery was hammering away. I knocked on the door between our rooms. It opened immediately. Genevieve rushed to me saying, "I'm afraid, please stay with me." I noticed she had changed into a nightgown, one of those flimsy things girls wear. It was apparent she was not wearing anything underneath the flimsy thing. Bombs at the moment were not really on my mind. We foolishly went to the window and pulled the protective curtains aside and watched the search lights probe the sky in a crisscross fashion. I took her back to her bed and she asked me to stay. I slept with Genevieve wrapped in my arms for the next two nights.
The remainder of our pass was spent doing all of the military tourist type things. We visited The Tower of London, Big Ben, The Wax Museum and a show the name of which is long forgotten. Our two nights in London ended quickly and we were soon on the train headed back to our units. Whether it was my respect for Genevieve or fear of the bevy of biddies in her outfit, I will never know the reason for my almost out of character conduct. In my heart I knew dear sweet Genevieve was not meant to be mine. I also knew from where she worked she would have knowledge of when I was flying and her prayers would be with me. Perhaps those prayers were reward enough.
CHAPTER 14 - BACK TO THE KITCHEN
My three days in London with Genevieve left me in a quandary. British beer was beginning to taste better. My thoughts turned to the local pub. I had not been there for nearly two weeks and felt a need to visit my British friends. Even though it was getting dark as I left the base I opted for the short cut across a farm field, down a narrow lane. When I came to the fence I lifted the bicycle over the steps of the stile and started across the field. It was getting darker now and the path was difficult to see. Several times I found myself off the path risking a collision with the rocks of a stone fence.
As I approached the pub I could hear the sounds of the accordion and voices raised in song. I parked my bicycle in front of the pub and entered. The music stopped. Everyone stared. The same old pensioner who had suggested we should fly at night broke the silence, "Yank, we thought Jerry had done you in for sure," he said. I saw Barbara sitting in the corner. "She's been waiting there every night, Yank," the bar keep told me and at the same time handed me a beer. I went over to where she was sitting and noticed she was crying. She said, "I thought I lost another one. Wing Ding, where the bloody hell have you been?" I could not bring myself to tell her I had been to London with another woman. "You know you should not ask such questions," I told her. She apologized and asked me, "Do you have to go back to the base tonight?" I told her I did. We sat and quietly enjoyed our beer. The accordion was again squeezed into life and once more happy voices echoed throughout the pub. I remained at the pub with Barbara for about one hour. She then leaned over and asked me to go home with her for a little while. With Barbara I had no problems of conscience. I quickly agreed. Several hours later I headed back over the short cut to the base. It was too dark and too risky to ride so I walked and pushed the bicycle.
As I neared the mess hall area my stomach growled, telling me I had skipped the evening meal. I peered into a window of the mess hall and saw no one. It appeared no one was working. I found the door unlocked and entered the kitchen. It was the first time I had been in a kitchen since leaving Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I boldly turned on a light. It did not take long to discover food. I helped myself to a few squares of peach cobbler and was busily eating when I heard voices.
I put the sheet pan down and grabbed an apron and a cook's hat. Five officers, all slightly inebriated, came through the unlocked back door. They asked for something to eat. At first I refused and told them I would get in serious trouble if I fed them when the mess was closed. One of them thrust a few pound notes in my hand. The others also chipped in. "What the hell," I thought, "I cannot let them go to their quarters hungry." I recovered the sheet pan of peach cobbler and told them it was all I had. They thanked me profusely and took off with their loot, the entire sheet pan of peach cobbler. I waited until I was sure of their departure. Then I removed the hat and apron and beat a hasty retreat.
Several days later as we were leaving a briefing Dingle said to me, "Wing Ding one of the navigators tells me there is a cook here who is a dead ringer for you. You don't have any relatives in the group, do you?" I shook my head indicating I did not. Our navigator, Renslar Pomery, suggested I check and see if I might have a relative in the group. Although I agreed Lt. Pomeroy's suggestion was a good idea and indicated I would check, my thoughts told me they already knew the answer.
My late night sale of peach cobbler netted me almost five pounds in English money. I considered a repeat performance. However, the risk of someone recognizing me was too great. My arduous escape from kitchen to the world of aviation was not yet a faded memory and I had no desire to return to duty as a cook.
CHAPTER 15 - BACK IN THE AIR
November 3, 1943, we were about to fly our eleventh mission. It was to be a late take-off of around 1000 hours. The target was Wilhelmshaven. When it was announced we would be fully escorted by P-47's a short cheer went up in the briefing room. However, we remembered their absence on our return from Schweinfurt and hoped for the best. Preflight preparations were the same as always. Flak was predicted as meager except for over the target.
The mission was exactly as predicted. Fighters never appeared and though our altitude was only 23,000 feet the flak was too low to bother us. Of course I whistled and of course Mac complained. The only thing different was Dingle laughed. We returned to Knettishall at 1615 hours. Everyone was happy to have enjoyed what we had to class as a milk run.
When the word was passed listing November 4th as a no mission day I decided to go to Pine Tree and see Genevieve. The sun had set by the time I located the courier. The driver, usually the same Sergeant each day, would always listen eagerly to my stories of the missions. There never was a need to embellish them. The truth was far more exciting than fiction. Upon arrival at Pine Tree I found Genevieve waiting. She embraced me with all the love and passion in her heart. She gave a little shudder, held me close and said, "Wing Ding you make me feel so good." We again sat in front of the fireplace in the lounge of the WAAC day room with arms wrapped around each other. She was strangely silent and finally asked me, "Wing Ding, can we go to London again?" Her question came as a surprise. Even more surprising was when she told me she wanted to return to the Barclay Hotel. Her words lingered lustfully in my mind during the long ride back to Knettishall.
The briefing officer's pointer traced the red line across parts of Holland and Belgium to the Ruhr Valley, a place called Gelsenkirchen, the site of an iron foundry on the Dortmund River. His voice droned without emotion, "You will be engaged in the destruction of a very important iron works and marshalling yards."
We were the lead group and started out with twenty-nine aircraft off the ground around 1000 hours. Six of our aircraft returned to base early for various mechanical problems. We were over the target at 28,000 feet with twenty-three aircraft. It was bombs away at 1333 hours. The mission was not exactly successful. We might as well have been hauling nickels (leaflets). We missed the primary targets, the iron works and the marshalling yards.
Flak over the target was intense and nearly every aircraft took a hit. Flight Officer Bohne flying My Devotion in composite lead with Major Chamberlain lost two engines to flak. By the time they reached England the other two engines were running rough and the left wing was severely vibrating. Flight Officer Bohne determined the situation out of control. He ordered his crew to bail out. They all landed safely. But the fire from their crashing bomber ignited a large stack of straw; it burned until the following morning.
2nd Lt. Bramwell, flying his seventh mission in Flak Suit was hit on the way in to the target. They pulled out of formation, dropped their bombs and headed down with their number one engine on fire. Bramwell determined Flak Suit would no longer survive. He gave the order to bail out. Three members of the crew, bombardier 2nd Lt. J. J. Maiorca, flight engineer T/Sgt. H.C. Johnson and right waist gunner S/Sgt. G. Watt evaded capture. The radio operator and the tail gunner were both killed. The others ended up as prisoners.
2nd Lt. R. M. Walker and his crew were on their third mission in Pistol Packin Mama. They fell behind soon after bombs away and started down with bomb bay doors still open. Engine number two was feathered and number three was smoking as they started down. Eight chutes opened. But it did not go well for the ball turret gunner. His parachute opened prematurely and became entangled with the tail. He rode Pistol Packin Mama to the ground. The right waist gunner apparently never left the airplane and was killed in the crash.
We faced almost ten days of crummy weather. Even our practice missions were curtailed. I made the most of it by managing a three-day pass to London. My first destination was Rainbow Corners USO at Piccadilly Circus. I had been in the club for only a few minutes when I heard a lilting voice ask, "What are you looking for sergeant?" I looked and saw a most attractive lady, petite in size and perhaps in her late thirties. She introduced herself as Adele Astaire Cavendesh the sister of Fred Astaire. Rapport was immediate. Adele took me under her wing and clucked like a mother hen. She warned me about all the places where I could get into trouble and cautioned me to avoid them. Little did she know how her warnings would serve only as a guide; I checked out all the places on her forbidden list. I did however heed her warnings about the Piccadilly Commandos. I enjoyed seventy-two hours of luxury, great stage performances and the stories Adele told about Hollywood and the people she knew from the world of make believe. She also introduced me to a former ballerina named Flip who worked at Rainbow Corners and lived alone. Flip was a remarkable lady with an even more remarkable body and calluses on her feet from dancing.
When I left London the weather was the usual pea soup mist. It clung to the ground and was so dense even Big Ben sounded like a muffled gong. It was no different at our base. I had a choice; go to Pine Tree to see Genevieve or to the pub. I decided on the pub and Barbara. The ability of the courier to stay on the road in the miserable weather caused me concern. Taking my chances at 25,000 feet seemed to be less of a risk than sleeping in a Jeep zipping over a fog shrouded narrow road. I had finally located most of the big rocks on the short cut route to the pub. I had also learned to limit my intake of beer. This I found improved my ability at darts and anything else I wanted to do. In addition it made the ride back to the base less of a challenge.
The patrons of the pub never seemed to change. My arrival was usually greeted with the announcement, "Cheers, our Yank is back." They made me feel welcome. The accordion player would squeeze out the same songs night after night. I never joined the singing until after several beers. It was some sort of a balance. I had to drink enough beer to stifle my inhibitions to a point where I would sing. I did not realize how close our relationship had become until one evening they presented me with a set of my own darts. It was then I knew they cared. I was deeply moved.
We were up and flying on November 13th, headed for Munster. The weather was some of the worst we had ever seen. By the time we reached mid-channel it was apparent the mission would be scrubbed. The groups were in disarray; formations were badly confused. Fortunately a recall was sounded. We returned to Knettishall happy to be able to get back on the ground in one piece. I often thought about the stories of the early airmail pilots and how they flew in marginal weather. Well, for certain the 8th Air Force pilots did them one better. Many of our take-off and landings were on the negative side of marginal.
We were up early on November 14th. I found myself hoping it would be better than October 14th; at least I would have my parachute with me. The charge of quarters rousted us out at about 0300 hours. When we arrived at briefing we learned our destination would be Bremen. The red line led across the English Channel then over the Zider Zee and to Bremen. Plans called for us to put up 22 aircraft. We were to fly as the high group of the 45th Combat Wing.
The group was off the ground by 0750 hours with the exception of Lt. Simon. He blew a tire on take-off. Quickly they switched to B-17 LiL one and were off the ground at 0831. It has oft been said, "If you are going to have a bad day there isn't much you can do about it." This was obviously a bad day for LiL one. They were searching for the group when at sixteen thousand feet the propeller on engine number four ran away. The engine was shut down. However the propeller failed to feather and continued to rotate like a windmill, causing severe vibrations. LiL one shuddered as if it would come apart. In fact it started to come apart. The cowling and engine cover on engine number four ripped off. The entire aircraft continued to shake dangerously. Lt. Simon determined the aircraft could no longer be controlled and was unsafe to land. The alarm bell sounded throughout the bomber. The crew needed very little encouragement to leave their vibrating aircraft. All ten men hit the silk. B-17F 42-30213 LiL one became history. One of those bailing out was the navigator, 2nd Lt. R. L. Gudgel from Spokane, Washington. Bob Gudgel was on his seventh mission when he learned how to operate a parachute. He landed with minor injuries.
Two more of the twenty-one aircraft taking off from Knettishall experienced propeller trouble and were forced to abort. Lt. Paul Swift, who had skillfully saved his crew when they crashed on take-off with a full load of bombs on the Schweinfurt mission experienced a loss of oil pressure and was unable to feather the propeller on engine number two. He returned to base without further difficulty. Captain Chaffin, flying as deputy lead, aborted from 27,000 feet when the prop on engine number four ran away and would not feather. He had descended to 7,000 feet when the number four engine burst into flames. He prepared to ditch in the English Channel and sent out the emergency message. Then a relatively rare event took place. His aircraft was struck by lightning and further radio communication was not possible. Despite the problems he landed successfully. The remaining eighteen aircraft continued to Bremen where they found minimal flak. Approximately fifty Luftwaffe fighters made one pass at the group but disappeared with the appearance of our escort.
An explanation about the extensive mechanical problems is in order here. It would be a grievous error for anyone to get the idea our ground crews and maintenance crews were sloppy. This was not the case. The 8th Air Force was growing and critical equipment items such as spark plugs and generators were at times in short supply. Additional ground crews, the life-blood of an operating air force had been hastily trained. Then too, the airplanes themselves were in a constant state of modification, improvement and repair from battle damage. Not enough credit can be given to those on the ground; they kept us in the air. Their skill made the difference. Because of their dedication our aircraft were ready to fly.
Our fourteenth mission to Rjukan, Norway was classified as secret. We bombed the heavy water project where the Germans were working to develop a nuclear weapon. Take-off and departure were unusual. We were off the ground with minimal visibility at 0630 hours. The weather made it difficult to form up. One aircraft lost power in engine number two and aborted. Another lost the formation when we entered clouds and never did rejoin. As we flew over the North Sea we ran into icing conditions. The tail of one B-17 iced up causing severe control problems. They dropped out of formation, dumped their bombs at sea and turned back. The group was left with seventeen aircraft to complete the mission.
Although we were flying low, at only 12,500 feet, the combination of moisture and intense cold caused the lead bombardier's bombsight to become frosted and he could not line up on the target. The deputy lead took over and we made a wide turn to set up a new bomb run. Bombs were away at about 1150 hours. Two enemy fighters were seen. One ME109 came up behind the formation and fired two rockets. I bit down hard on my frozen Milky Way and fired at the rockets. Both rockets moved through the formation and exploded at a lower altitude. The fighter then made two passes. His 20mm guns hit one aircraft without wounding anyone and did not inflict major damage.
There was good news at our debriefing. Dingle told us we had one more mission to fly before we were to go to the Flak Home. We would spend about ten days in an English mansion with servants and breakfast, lunch and dinner served by staff. Clean sheets and real beds all promised a short but memorable life of luxury.
We would then have only ten more missions before our tour was completed. We were now a veteran crew. We also knew we were flying on borrowed time. Anything over ten missions put a crew into the borrowed time category. Using the estimated loss rate of four percent per mission and a tour of twenty-five missions it was not difficult to come to a "luck running out" conclusion. Skill in the use of algebraic equations was not essential for figuring the odds. We all had the experience of seeing crews go down near the end of their tour.
Upon hearing we would not fly the following day I decided it was time to head for the pub. I peddled my bike with care through the field. I had by now learned the location of almost every large rock and small stone along the route. On arrival the usual patrons greeted me with warmth. The accordion whipped out a version of "Roll Me over In the Clover" and Barbara raised her glass and called out, "Cheers." Someone handed me my darts, which they kept at the pub, and challenged me to a game. My ability compared to the regular dart players meant the Yank was buying the beer. I don't think many of those in the pub even knew my name. To them I was known either as Wing Ding or Barbara's Yank, the guy who brought candy for their children and cigarettes for the others. The pub keeper called time and Barbara and I left the pub. I pushed my bicycle as we walked together. I was looking forward to a soft warm bed and Barbara.
We were prepared to fly to Gelsenkirchen on November 19, 1943. However there was a change in plans. Dingle told us we would be going to the Flak Home earlier than scheduled. The officers would go to their rest home and the enlisted men to a different location. I am ashamed to say I do not recall where it was located other than it was in the southern part of England. We were flown to a location nearby and then transported by a truck. The mansion itself was huge. Each man had his own room. The rooms were heated and equipped with large soft beds. At night the bed was turned down and in the morning a butler came to announce breakfast and a schedule of the day's activities.
Much to my delight I discovered the young maid who was assigned to my room was more than a little friendly. I am sure she had gone through prior interludes with my predecessors and would continue with following replacements. But for a young tail gunner, nineteen years old she was a remarkable tonic to relieve my combat fatigue. I spent ten days in recovery.
On our return to Knettishall we were in for a shock. Our ground crew chief, M/Sgt Paul Irelan met us and told us Tiger Girl had gone down on November 26 while on a mission to Bremen. The pilot had been 1st Lt. G. E. Branham. He and most of his crew were on their nineteenth mission. The Command Pilot on the mission was Captain Jerome Davidson; for him it was his seventh and final mission. Just after bombs away, at approximately 1217 hours the formation had made a sharp turn to get out of the flak pattern. Two incendiaries dropped from the 96th Bomb Group flying as high group and struck Tiger Girl. One caught her on the left stabilizer and the other struck near the waist door. The tail came off. There were two parachutes. One was the radio operator, T/Sgt. F. P. Grande who was on his 14th mission. The other was the navigator, 2nd Lt. Bob Gudgel who was on his 8th mission and second parachute jump in the month of November 1943. Things did not go well for Lt. Gudgel. While descending he was struck by antiaircraft fire and subsequently had his leg amputated by the German doctors. Tiger Girl, B-17G number 42-3555 became history at 1220 hours, November 26, 1943.
CHAPTER 16 ON BORROWED TIME
The loss of our airplane, especially the way it was lost and the loss of friends was disturbing. Almost everyone flying on Tiger Girl had been near completion of their tour of twenty-five missions. Again in our mind was the approximate four-percent per mission loss ratio. We were now flying on borrowed airplanes and on borrowed time.
From November 26 until December 11, 1943 it appeared as if we were never going to be able to complete our tour. Weather and some commitments to drop leaflets occupied the group's activities. However on November 29th the mission was to Bremen. Of the twenty-nine aircraft taking off four aborted the mission for mechanical reasons or a physical problem of someone on a crew. The realities of high altitude hazards were accentuated. S/Sgt. Raymond Wilbur, engineer on Lt. Ramsey's airplane died from anoxia. Another friend was lost when the pilot was forced to ditch on the return route. S/Sgt. J. P. Riley flying on his twentieth mission had filled in as ball turret gunner on a crew flying their first mission. He and seven others did not survive the ditching.
Our fifteenth mission did not come until December 11th. We flew as part of a task force to bomb the shipyards at Emden. From the onset the mission was plagued with bad weather conditions. Shortly before we reached the target the Luftwaffe hit us causing a loss of five aircraft. One of those was from our group. Six parachutes were observed before their airplane blew up. Of the thirty-two aircraft over the target seven had flak damage. To add to the problem our bombs fell short of the target area. We would have done as much good if we had never flown.
I cleaned my equipment and once I was assured there would be no mission the following day I caught a ride with the courier to Pine Tree and shared a few very happy hours with Genevieve. I spent the evening wrapped in her arms. She seemed more passionate than ever and again asked when we could go back to London. I promised her we would go as soon as possible. I said goodnight with Genevieve holding me tightly until the movement of the courier Jeep forced her to let go.
December 13th marked our sixteenth mission. We were steadily getting closer to the magic number of twenty-five. After take-off we formed as part of the low group and headed across the North Sea flying south of Heligoland Island and entered the continent flying over the Kiel Canal headed for the Kiel naval yards and ship building center. The Luftwaffe made a half-hearted attack. But it was deadly for Lt. Cwiklinski, navigator on Lt. DeJean's crew. A 20mm cannon round burst in the nose killing him. The intense flak over the target area was magnified when the lead aircraft could not get the bomb bay doors open. We made a second run on the target, giving the antiaircraft gunners on the ground a second bite of the apple; we were the apple. Out of the forty-three aircraft making the bomb run only six escaped battle damage. We were fortunate to get off without heavy losses.
I do not recall why we did not fly several missions during the last part of December. It could have been aircraft maintenance or some other operational reason. We seemed to be hanging around with nine missions to go. Counting to the end was definitely not good for crew moral. I managed to stir things up. I found a source where I could buy carbide stones. Some may recall the old acetylene lanterns once used by miners and others to light their way. Such lanterns or lights burned the acetylene gas generated when water was added to the stones. I took a bottle and combined a few stones and water. Next a condom was placed over the top of the bottle. In short order there would be a large balloon filled with explosive acetylene gas. The condom-balloon was then rolled under the bunk where another gunner was relaxing while reading the Star and Stripes or just dozing off. A smoldering cigarette rolled under the bunk to join the inflated condom would quickly result in a puff of black smoke and a whoosing sound. The recipient would invariably react as if his airplane had been blown up. Curses filled the air while those in on the joke would laugh uproariously.
During the next ten days I almost wore out the bicycle riding to and from the pub. I had developed good relations at the mess hall in exchange for showing one of the cooks how to bake really good cake. This enabled me to get a variety of hard-to-come-by items. These things and my own candy and cigarette rations gave me a good source of Christmas items for my friends at the pub.
Christmas Eve was special. I caught the courier and went to Pine Tree to see Genevieve. We spent a wonderful evening in front of a huge fireplace. The world could have come to a stop. Neither of us would have noticed. We were oblivious to all activities other than our cuddling and loving. Genevieve suddenly gave a little gasp,
"Oh," she asked, "What have you done to me to make me feel like this?" I did not reply. I only held her closer and thought about what I would like to do but should not do. A repeat trip to London was steadily becoming more appealing.
Our seventeenth mission was scheduled on December 30, 1943. The target was the I. G. Farbenindustrie Chemical Works at Ludwigshaven. The 388th would furnish aircraft for both the "A" and "B" flights. Aircraft were off the ground between 0815 hours and 0850 hours. Following a rendezvous with the 45th Combat Wing five of our airplanes aborted for mechanical reasons.
The group ran into severe prop wash over the target causing a near mid-air collision. The B-17 of Lt. A. W. Carlson went out of control, rolled over and broke in half at the radio room. There were only four parachutes seen going out and opening. Shortly after bombs away My Day piloted by Lt. Comelia had a fire in engine #3. He put his B-17 in a dive and was successful in extinguishing the fire. But the propeller on the #3 engine failed to feather and twisted off severely damaging the nose section. My Day, now alone and crippled became food for the Luftwaffe. They quickly attacked and knocked out engine #2. The crew fought on, steadily losing altitude. As they crossed the coast, well under a thousand feet, My Day was again struck by flak. There were no options remaining. They were forced to ditch in the English Channel. Air Sea Rescue responded to their call for help. Even so, a combination of the impact on ditching and hypothermia cost six of the ten-man crew their lives.
CHAPTER 17 - WE LOSE MIKE
On January 4, 1944 we flew our 18th mission. I celebrated my twentieth birthday by returning to Munster. When we arrived at our airplane our copilot, Ed Meginnies was conspicuous by his absence. Dingle was in his seat, warming up the engines and doing preflight check when a Jeep came to a screeching halt near the right wing tip. A grinning Ed Meginnies ran from the Jeep and climbed on board. We did not learn until later the reason for Mac's late arrival. On his first solo flight Ed Meginnies had worn a pair of polka dot shorts. Considering them a good luck charm he carried them with him and wore them on every combat mission. On this particular morning, upon arriving at the briefing, Ed Meginnies discovered he was not wearing his lucky shorts. He implored the operations officer to lend him a Jeep to rush back to his quarters to retrieve and don his good luck underwear. He had worn those shorts on every mission. They were never washed between missions; he feared washing his luck away. Perhaps not too fastidious, but a good luck charm for sure.
Take-off at around 0700 hours was completed in the usual poor visibility. We formed up and never saw the ground again until we returned around 1300 hours. Our fighter escort was excellent and the Luftwaffe wisely avoided paying us a visit. But the flak gunners were busy. They picked us up at our altitude and direction from Rhine on the Em River and tracked us on to Munster. Although the flak was not especially heavy it was accurate; 30 of our 36 aircraft suffered damage. Five were hard hit. Another friend, tail gunner, Dennis Tobias received serious head and chest wounds from flak. I could feel the "borrowed time" noose drawing ever tighter.
Despite knowing we would have an early take-off the next day I caught the courier Jeep to Pine Tree. I had considered going to the pub but did not want to drink and did not want to take a chance on not being present for the mission. The courier Jeep rattled along, driving on the wrong side of the road by American standards. The sergeant driving paid little attention to the hazardous mist hanging over the road. When we arrived at Pine Tree I found Genevieve and some of her friends had planned a surprise party for me. Although I would have preferred to be alone with Genevieve I could only express my gratitude and hope for a chance to be alone with her. Such was not to be and I soon found myself shivering as the courier Jeep bumped along the narrow and winding return trip to Knettishall.
The heavy fog challenged the driver. He ran off the road twice and I began to think I would not make it in time to be ready for the 0630 hours or earlier scheduled take-off. I securely buckled the passenger side safety strap to keep from falling from the moving Jeep. I tried to sleep. Sleep did not come and I had visions of missing the mission. We arrived at Knettishall at 0400 hours. There was barely enough time for me to change clothes and make it to the mess hall and then to briefing.
When the briefing officer pulled back the curtain I was pleased to note our destination was to be Bordeaux, France. "An easy target," I thought, "and a good way to complete my nineteenth mission." Someone said it would be a milk run. A milk run it was not. Dingle, flying deputy lead, had us off the ground around 0730 hours. We were bombs away at approximately 1035 hours with moderate to intense very accurate flak. Our B-17 rolled and shuddered in reaction to a near burst of flak. A moment later our navigator, Pomeroy spoke on the intercom. "Mike has been hit," he said, making reference to our bombardier, Mike Chaklos. At the same time we were busy with a combination of FW 190's and ME 109's making persistent and deliberate attacks coming in at the front of the formation and diving down toward the rear. Their approach and departure was so quick there was little opportunity for a shot. They stayed with us for about fifteen minutes. The uninitiated may view fifteen minutes as a short time. It may well be a short time, but it is not a short time when you are under fighter attack.
As we approached the Brest Peninsula a new group of dedicated Luftwaffe pilots challenged us. They were mostly interested in crippled B-17's, but they also came at us from the tail. I was satisfied to see my tracers dance on the wings and fuselage of several of the attackers. However, there was no way I could make claim for a confirmed kill. It was a case of close but no cigar. Other gunners were also on the targets.
Our lead aircraft was hit during one of the head-on fighter attacks. There was a fire in the cockpit. Colonel David, Group Leader took over the controls from the wounded pilot, Captain Bailey. He dove out of formation and put the fire out. The bombardier, Captain Bartuska moved into the copilot seat to assist Colonel David. At 10,000 feet they again came under intense fighter attack. The gunners knocked down four fighters and the others gave up the chase. Nine of the ten men on the crew were treated for wounds.
Navigator Pomeroy again spoke on the intercom. "I think Mike is dead, there is no response," he said. His words ran through the crew like a bolt of electricity. Mike had been close to all of us and now the odds had taken their toll.
Sioux City Queen left the formation with one propeller feathered and was immediately jumped by fighters; they shot up the tail. Seven chutes were seen. We were to learn later the ball turret gunner and the copilot died of wounds. Both waist gunners were taken prisoners and six members of the crew evaded capture. Later reports told of the price of their evasion. Lieutenant LaForce lost one leg and Lieutenant Plytynski lost both legs while crossing the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The so-called "milk run" had been flown at a high cost. There were four dead men and sixteen wounded by flak or fighters. I had only six more to go. But for Mike the tour was over. He would go to the American Cemetary at Madingly.
CHAPTER 18 - BACK TO LONDON
For reasons long since forgotten we did not fly again until January 21st. I took advantage of the interlude and decided to go to London. I went to see Genevieve and learned she would not be able to get a pass. Rather than sit around the base I decided to go alone. The ride from Thetford to London promised to be somewhat long and lonely. I climbed in a compartment and was pleased to find it was already occupied by a chubby but attractive WREN, the British equivalent of our WAVES. She told me her name was Penny and she was stationed in London and had been home to visit her mum.
Never having before met an American she displayed some initial shyness. This soon departed as the train rolled through the countryside. By the time we arrived in London Penny had convinced me she should spend the final day of her leave showing me the sights of the city. The day was so enjoyable we extended it to the morning. I made it a point, partly out of sentimental reasons, not to go to the Barclay Hotel. Breakfast at Oxford Circus was my treat. I bid Penny a cheerful goodbye as she left to report for duty. Her parting comment was, "Cheers, love, remember a bad penny always shows up."
London in those days was filled with military personnel from all types of services and a horde of ladies known as Picadilly Commandos who haunted the streets at night in search of customers. Their special tactic was groping prospective clients in hopes of creating a business-like atmosphere. It was said the average was about twenty gropes per block.
Arguments and brawls were not uncommon. One such donnybrook took place near Picadilly Circus. Just off the street, down a flight of stairs were men's toilets. At times the facilities were crowded and one had to wait their turn. I was in the lavatory in the process of waiting my turn to use the urinal. Four of the dozen or so spaces were occupied by military personnel dressed in kilts. All was quiet and orderly until six Australians entered. One of the Australians seemed to be in a hurry. He pushed his way to the front of the line. He took his swagger stick and poked it up under the rear of the Scott's kilt and loudly said, "You ladies should go someplace where you can sit down and pee properly." The Scott who had been the recipient of the swagger stick turned about and proceeded to urinate on the Aussie. The battle was on; I hurried up to the street and stood outside in the cold with all thoughts of having to use the toilet facilities a distant memory. The sounds of the donnybrook subsided. Up the stairs and out of the lavatory came the four kilt-attired Scott's. They were adjusting their kilts. I cautiously returned to the lavatory. It was immediately obvious who had prevailed. The Australians did not look too good.
Having survived the battle of the lavatory I decided to go to Rainbow Corners and see if Adele was working. When I arrived she greeted me warmly and chastised me. She told me Flip, the ballerina to whom she had previously introduced me had been asking where I was. Adele lectured me for not being more considerate. "Flip has been wanting to see you again," she said. I told Adele I would be back in a couple of hours and took off to see the show at the Windmill Theatre. My next two days were spent with Flip at her apartment. She danced for me.
CHAPTER 19 - SIX TO GO
When I reported back to Knettishall on January 11th I found we were not scheduled to fly. Jimmy Jones told me I had lost two friends. S/Sgt. Zaskiewicz, a ball turret gunner and S/Sgt. Brinker, a tail gunner had gone down on a recalled mission. We compared notes and found we each had six missions left on our tours. I told Jimmy about my feelings of borrowed time and reminded him about Lt. Eccleston and his crew. On December 20, 1943 they had taken off to fly their 25th mission. They were last seen going down in flames shortly after bombs away. All were killed. Jimmy laughed and commented as to how he had long been on borrowed time. In one of his early missions while flying as tail gunner on Gremlin Gus he escaped death. Gremlin Gus, flying in bad weather, after dark, scraped a hill. When it crashed shortly thereafter on another hillside, Jimmy Jones was not on board. He was in the broken off tail section, dazed but relatively uninjured, in the dark and on foot.
Since we were not scheduled to fly for nearly ten days I spent my time either peddling my bicycle to and from the pub or taking the wild night ride from Knettishall to Pine Tree and return. Genevieve never failed to remind me she was praying for my safe return from each mission. Barbara on the other hand was much more matter of fact. Her view was she would lose me no matter what. Either I would be shot down or I would return to the United States. Fortunately neither lady knew about the other. This arrangement was within my control. The outcome of the final six missions was not.
The mission to Calais, France on January 21, 1944 marked our twentieth mission. It was also our first mission since the loss of Mike Chaklos. I could not help but remember how Mike appeared when he was removed from our airplane. He had only one mark on his body. He had been struck in an artery in his groin. The wound, although mortal, appeared to be no more than a small dot about the size of the end of a little finger.
The run to Calais gave me cause for apprehension. We flew the mission at only 12,000 feet. Broken clouds at the target made accurate bombing difficult. As a result there were several bomb runs while the lead bombardier did his aiming. Fortunately there was minimal flak and no fighters. It ended up as one of those missions you would not want to miss. Credit for a mission flown was obtained at a very low price.
The weather was absolutely crummy for the seven days following our trip to Calais. I didn't mind. I found myself balancing my desire to complete my tour and a return to CONUS against leaving England. Some of my ties had developed into rather pleasant emotional circumstances. I again set up my routine of riding the courier Jeep to Pine Tree and spending time with Genevieve. When it was not convenient to make the trip to Pine Tree there was the pub and Barbara. There was a difference. With Genevieve it was passion and desire; with Barbara it was more physical.
January 29th found us headed for an early morning briefing. The red line on the briefing officer's map indicated our route would be over parts of France and Belgium on our way to Frankfurt on the Rhine. We had an early morning take-off for our twenty-first mission, the kind Dingle liked so much, climbing blindly through the overcast until we broke out in the clear weather. Five of the group's aircraft aborted for mechanical reasons. The bomb run was made at 24,000 feet utilizing PFF (radar equipment). Fighters attacked some of the other formations, but left us alone. Flak was low and off to one side of the formation. However, Mary Ellen, B-17 #42-32856 was hit by flak while over the target. They left the formation and did not make it back to England. Two more friends were lost when the airplane went down. Ball turret gunner T/Sgt J. L. McCullough on his 13th mission and tail gunner, S/Sgt. M. O. Moore, on his 14th mission were killed. I was beginning to have my doubts. There were four missions left to fly.
My doubts were further reinforced on January 30th. We were not flying but as was my custom I went to the flight line to watch the group as they returned from Brunswick, Germany. According to reports the flak had been moderate to intense over the target area. F/O M. P. Bianchi had to leave the formation. One propeller was feathered and another had failed to feather. I learned I had lost another friend, tail gunner, S/Sgt. J. H. Marshall. Also killed was the right waist gunner, S/Sgt. E. S. Wolf. Both were on their 13th mission. My thinking was ridiculous; in my mind I had the thought they had gone down in my place while I beat the odds. As hard as I tried to dispel the thought it continued to nag me.
Our twenty-second mission to Frankfurt on February 4th clearly defined the cold weather and minimal visibility problems we faced. The winter weather was miserable. Most of our departures found the pilot's eyes locked onto the instrument panel. It was not uncommon for the visibility to be limited to the wing tips as we climbed to the clear skies at altitudes of 10,000 to 15,000 feet. Temperatures were cold beyond description and frostbite took a heavy toll. Intense cloud cover obscured the targets and most of the bombing had to be done using radar. At best the accuracy of our effort on each such mission was questionable.
Colonel David flew the lead on the Frankfurt mission in a Pathfinder equipped airplane. As we approached the target he lost power in the #1 engine. The problem was exasperated when the propeller would not feather and eventually froze. To add to their troubles, the bomb bay doors failed to open. Colonel David had no choice. He was forced to leave the group and return alone. The deputy lead, also flying a Pathfinder equipped B-17 assumed the lead and continued with the mission.
Flying over the Ruhr Valley was sometimes necessary. It was also an open invitation to the German antiaircraft gunners to have target practice. February 4th was their day. The flak over the Ruhr was intense and accurate. The German gunners demonstrated their skill. Almost every one of our aircraft suffered battle damage.
B-17 #42-31781, piloted by Lt. DeJean received a direct flak hit on the right wing slightly before bombs away. The damage was severe. They went out of control and flipped upside down; the right wing was in flames. They were last seen going down in flames. They were still out of control when they entered the heavy clouds at 16,000 feet. Depending on the circumstances, escape from an out-of-control airplane is virtually impossible. The centrifugal force keeps the hapless members of the crew firmly locked in position all the way to the ground.
For the majority of the DeJean crew it was their fifteenth mission. Only the bombardier and the radio operator were able to escape from their plunging airplane. They survived to become prisoners of war. Odds were hard to figure. About three weeks earlier, December 13, 1943 while on a mission to Kiel, a head-on fighter attack resulted in Lt. DeJean's aircraft taking a direct hit in the nose from a 20mm cannon round. It killed his navigator. He managed to bring his crippled bomber home. He too had entered the borrowed time era.
We were up and flying again on February 5th. Our mission was to maul various Luftwaffe airfields in France. Our primary target was cloud covered; therefore we moved to the secondary target. I personally liked missions of this type. As a rule there was minimal flak and we would be hitting the Luftwaffe on the ground. We made our bomb run from 22,500 feet. The target, a repair depot for Junkers aircraft located slightly south of Paris was well covered. Two FW 190's attacked the formation. One of these was shot down. All of our aircraft made it back to Knettishall.
The group was scheduled to again hit airfields in France on February 6th. I had hoped we would be able to fly our 24th mission. But we were not scheduled to fly until February 10th. I took turns and rode the courier Jeep to Pine Tree to share time with Genevieve or pedaled my nearly worn out bicycle to the pub to shoot darts, drink beer and spend time with Barbara.
CHAPTER 20 - THE FINAL TWO
February 10th our 24th mission started out with one of those early morning wake-up calls. We fumbled around in the dark, damp, chilly early morning and headed to the mess hall. From breakfast we went to briefing and saw the long red ribbon mark our target as Brunswick.
The take-off at 0740 hours was up through the usual wall of near invisibility. On our way in on the coast of Holland we received intense and accurate flak from the coastal antiaircraft guns. Heavy damage was inflicted on about half of our aircraft.
Soon after crossing the Zuider Zee the Luftwaffe made an appearance. One group came under attack by approximately thirty FW 190's. Shortly after 1100 hours we were hit again by FW 190's flying in small groups. On our approach to the target the familiar twin engine rocket launchers were back in business. They followed their usual pattern of hanging back, just out of range and firing the rockets into the formation. I could only see one possible defense. I tried to fire short bursts at the approaching rocket. I readily admit, I never saw one blow up because of my efforts. But I felt better. I disliked rockets.
Just prior to bombs away Bad Penny flown by Lt. Evans of the 561st Squadron left the formation with #3 engine feathered. Enemy fighters quickly hit them and they went down. As inappropriate as it may have been my thoughts reflected back to my recent trip to London. I kept saying to myself, "A bad penny always shows up." They did not. Only three of the crew survived. Hell's Bells, flown by Lt. Feeney of the 501st Squadron took a heavy flak hit while over the target. Hell's Bells left formation out of control. Seven of the crew managed to bail out before it crashed. Both of these crews had made it into the borrowed time zone. Each had less than ten missions remaining until their tour was complete. The 561st Squadron lost one more crew. Lt. Tolles's B-17 with #4 engine feathered had fighters pressing home the attack. Somewhere after the coast of Holland they apparently went down in the English Channel. There were no survivors.
Our debriefing was a solemn affair. We all were keenly aware we had one mission left to fly and the potential of not making it was brought home by the day's loses. The weather gave us no choice. We had to wait until February 13th for our 25th and final mission. I made good use of the time. Bad weather or not I caught a ride on the courier Jeep to visit Genevieve. When I arrived she greeted me warmly and told me how much she loved me. We spent a torrid evening; coming as close to making love as possible. Fortunately the day room did not offer much privacy. She again told me she wanted to go to London before I left England. I promised her I would try.
I considered going to see Genevieve again on February 12th, but heard we would fly on the 13th and did not want to take a chance on the courier Jeep not making it back in time for the mission. Another consideration was a need to go to the pub and see Barbara and the others. The weather was cold and wet and the shortcut across the fields muddy and slippery. Riding the bicycle was far more work than it would have been had I trudged through the mud.
"Cheers Yank," greeted me as I entered the pub. My pint of beer showed up without a word out of my mouth. Someone handed me my darts and I knew I was going to buy the beer. I told Barbara I was flying in the morning and could not stay late. She immediately took my darts and put them away.
She said, "Yank, I am not going to have you much longer. Let's go home." I finished my beer and we left. I remained with her until 2100 hours and then returned to the base and cleaned the mud off my shoes before I crawled into my bed.
There was no early wake-up on February 13, 1944. Our twenty-fifth and final mission was scheduled to have a late take-off. We were going to hit military installations in the Calais area of France. Although everyone knew it was our twenty-fifth mission, no one wished us good luck at the briefing. We might as well have been a new crew flying our first mission. Dingle had us off the ground around 1330 hours and it was bombs away at 1519 hours at an altitude of only 19,000 feet.
The 388th flew as low group, one of three groups of the 45th Combat Wing. Two of our aircraft aborted for mechanical reasons and we went over the target with twenty-one aircraft. Flak was moderate but very accurate. Over half of our aircraft had minor damage. Two had major damage and just before bombs away the lead bombardier was hit by flak causing him to miss his aiming point. All of the group's aircraft landed at Knettishall before 1700 hours.
I remained in the tail for the landing. I was suddenly trapped by my emotions. Had it all really happened? Survival of the tour slowly became a reality. Dingle moved our B-17 to the hardstand and shut down the engines. Everyone remained in place. The entire crew was silent. Then almost as if on a signal a cheer went up as we scrambled to the ground. We had beaten the odds. Radioman Bill Pross mentioned how perfect it would be if Mike had made it to the end. But the memory of Mike was in our hearts and the touch of sadness failed to quell our exuberance. M/Sgt. Irelan, our crew chief had a photographer and Mike's dog standing by. He brought Mike's dog to the front of the B-17. Stan Gajewski held the dog and we had our crew picture taken.
We spent minimal time in the debriefing room and then had our own rather personal celebration. After the celebration settled down I return to the tail of our B-17 and removed my gun barrels. I took the barrels to the armament shack and gave them one final cleaning before I gratefully put them away. Suddenly we were finished flying combat. Everyone was excited and wanted to go someplace, anyplace. But they did not seem to know where. I knew where.
Although the water was cold I showered, put on clean clothes and caught the courier Jeep to Pine Tree. I wanted to share the evening with Genevieve. She cried with joy and told me how much she had worried each time I had flown. My return ride to Knettishall in mist and fog was more hazardous than my final mission. The courier driver, operating with only blackout lights drove as if he knew every turn in the road. Every now and then he demonstrated a lack of knowledge and we careened around curves with the Jeep barely clinging to the edge of the road. If he was trying to impress me with his driving ability he succeeded.
There was a big let down. I had no more missions to fly and found myself thrust into the position of instructing new gunners on identification and tracking procedures. I had no idea when I would be going home and there was no rush to get up and go to the flight line each morning. It was as if I had been forgotten and left to fend for myself. If I did not go to Pine Tree I went to the pub and shared the night with Barbara. She was most philosophical about the fact my time in England was drawing to a close. Her complaint was a compliment. She lamented about not being able to replace me. "I'm getting too old to train another one," she said. As I held her close in what was to be a final embrace she handed me my dart case. "Remember me when you use these," she said. There were no tears.
Weather kept the group on the ground until February 20th when they went to Poznan, Poland. Having no other duties I rode my bicycle to the flight line to see how some of my friends had fared. The mission had been a long one and the 388th had provided an "A" group and a "B" group. Two aircraft from the "B" group did not return. I learned they had come under fighter attack at the Danish Coast on the way in and way out.
CHAPTER 21 - GOING HOME
On the morning of February 24, 1944 I was called to the orderly room and told to have my gear packed and be ready to leave in thirty minutes. There was no time to say goodbye to my friends in the pub and no opportunity to contact Genevieve and tell her why we were not going to keep our planned date in London. Within the next two hours I was on board a train headed for Liverpool with orders to report to the transportation officer. I was going home. I was carrying one bit of memorabilia, my darts from the pub.
When I reported to the transportation office I found I was to return on a Liberty ship. Having heard reports about such ships being built at the rate of one a week, I had some apprehensions. Rumors had them breaking up when the ocean became rough.
Unfortunately I can no longer recall the name of the ship on which I returned to the United States. I do recall being met by the Captain when I boarded the ship. I was in a group of about ten others. The Captain greeted us warmly and welcomed us aboard his ship. I could not help noticing the cleanliness of the ship and how everything seemed to have a special place. We were shown our quarters and told we could not go ashore.
I had expected the trip home would be much like the trip overseas. Such was not the case. We were assigned hammocks but there were far more hammocks than there were passengers. In fact the crew outnumbered passengers. I located my hammock and decided to take a short nap. When I awakened I felt the motion of the ship. I went on deck and in the early morning light observed a line of vessels moving out to sea in Liverpool Bay. Our ship was part of the convoy line.
Breakfast consisted of real eggs and bacon. For some this was not much of a treat; their stomachs had trouble adjusting to the gentle pitch and roll of our Liberty ship. Three days into our voyage the weather turned foul. The winter skies opened up; the wind blew and the snow came down. Waves grew in proportion to the increasing wind. They reached gigantic proportions. The ship ceased its gentle pitch and roll. One moment we were on top of a wave and a second later our minuscule Liberty ship would dive headlong into a solid wall of water. The decks were awash and no one moved unless they had a firm grip on part of the ship. The storm lasted for the better part of five days. My stomach survived and I found there was an abundance of food with minimal diners.
On the morning of our eighth day out the weather cleared; the sun made an appearance. With the improving weather the seas settled somewhat. As if by some miracle appetites were restored and even those with queasy stomachs returned to the mess. The remainder of the crossing was relatively smooth.
On the evening of day twelve of our voyage the Captain informed us we were dropping anchor in the outer harbor where we would wait our turn for a pilot to take us to the main harbor. I had trouble sleeping and was on deck to greet the rising sun. It was a beautiful day. A look down at the water told me we were underway. I saw the pilot boat come along side our ship and watched the pilot as he swung onto the ladder and climbed on board.
Then I saw it! In a distance the Statue of Liberty slowly became visible. My God what a beautiful sight. There was a football-size lump in my throat. I stood by the rail and unashamed let tears of joy roll down my cheeks. I thought of my friends, those who didn't make it. I recalled the mid-air collisions; crashes; fighter attacks; bursts of flak and B-17's spinning with the crew locked in position, unable to escape. Somehow it all seemed like a dream. But here I was, coming to America. The sounds and words of the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America echoed in my mind. A lieutenant was standing next to me; he turned, grabbed me and sobbed. Until then I had been in reasonable control of myself. But then I lost it. We clung to each other, looking for some sort of magical relief from our emotions. The relief came in the form of a blast of the ship's horn. We stepped back and our sobs turned to laughter and shouts of joy. "This is my home town," the Lieutenant said and started to point out the sights. It was then I noticed; he was pointing with the stub of his right wrist. There was no hand, only a cap of white over a stub.
It seemed as if time stood still. We were docked; the band was playing and everyone was wondering when we would debark. Someone must have said something because our debarkation was almost immediate. From there it was to customs. My head was spinning with excitement. Before I had time to regain my composure I had joined a group of officers and non-commissioned officers who were being ushered on board a bus. A captain welcomed us home and told us we were headed for Mitchell Field on Long Island for processing. It seemed we were always being processed for something or other.
What a change two weeks had wrought! We were assigned our quarters, issued new uniforms and even had a tailor available to make necessary adjustments without charges. We were told we could go to the city and had only to report to the orderly room at 0800 in the morning for further assignment.
The exact date, like so many things of the era escapes me. About ten of us, were told to be in uniform with ribbons, for transportation to New York City. We were told we were to be guests of honor at a "Wings Club" dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Somewhat of an overwhelming experience for a young staff sergeant barely twenty years old.
During the evening I was offered a free telephone call home. What I learned came as a shock. Mother told me John had been shot down and killed. She had very little in the way of details. But from past experience I knew in my heart the probable accuracy of the report. Nevertheless I assured Mother such reports were not necessarily correct and promised her I would find my brother. I kept the news to myself during the evening. The next morning I was in the orderly room looking for orders to return me to the 8th Air Force.
CHAPER 22 - THE CAMPAIGN TO RETURN
The thought of returning to the 8th Air Force was foremost in my mind. The probability of becoming a casualty was not considered. My immediate goal turned into a campaign to get orders back overseas. It did not take long to learn Mitchell Field did not have the authority to issue overseas orders. Every person I talked with looked at me as if I was a lunatic. When it became apparent Mitchell Field could not issue overseas orders I decided on orders out of Mitchell Field to any place. I got those orders in record time. Within the week I was saying an emotional goodbye to an attractive and very sympathetic civilian clerk in the personnel office who tried her best to have me change my mind. When she failed to convince me she added my name to orders sending me to Lincoln, Nebraska. I was sure I could hook up with a crew headed for the European Theater of Operations.
My new orders authorized a thirty-day delay en route. I caught a Greyhound bus and started my journey. I planned to stop in Hershey, Pennsylvania, but we paused in Lebanon, Pennsylvania for a rest stop. While at the bus station the military police checked my orders. This time there was no apprehension or concern on my part. I could not help but notice how polite they were. I was headed for the refreshment counter to get a Coke when I heard someone call my name. I turned and saw a corporal named Robert crossing the room. He had his hand extended in friendship. My first reaction was joy in seeing him. My second reaction was a flashing memory of a copy of the World Book crashing into my face while I sat in study hall nearly five years prior.
I didn't shake Robert's hand. I hit him as hard as I could. He went down on the floor; his nose was bloody. He had a confused look on his face. The look quickly faded when I said, "Now you bastard, you know your place." Robert was experiencing total recall. The disturbance in the rather small terminal did not go unnoticed. Two military policemen grabbed me and took me into custody. I offered no resistance as they moved me away from the gawking bystanders and led me away from Robert to the office of the area Provost Marshal. "Oh crap," I thought as I observed a young lieutenant who was about to sit in judgment of my conduct. "Sergeant, you are in serious trouble. What do you have to say for yourself?" he asked. I told him the story of the World Book incident. He looked at me over a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and asked in an amazed tone, "Do you mean to tell me your were getting even for something he did over five years ago?" I nodded my head in agreement and mumbled, "Yes sir." He had one of his men bring in Robert. I noticed Robert's nose had stopped bleeding and thought, "I should have hit him harder." The lieutenant then asked Robert if he recalled the incident with the World Book. Robert said he did and had long been ashamed of his act. The lieutenant then told me I would have to remain in his custody until the next bus left. I spent the next half an hour in his office drinking coffee and telling him stories of combat and London. He personally saw me on the bus, shook my hand and asked me not to come back. I promised him he had seen the last of me.
I could smell the chocolate long before the bus reached Hershey. The aroma alone stirred old memories of my high school days. As we rolled past familiar territory and the large farms I reflected on how much my life had changed in such a short time.
My week in Hershey was spent renewing a few prior high school friendships and accepting an invitation to speak to the local Rotary club. I made sure to visit Mr. Hunchberger at the bakery. He looked at my wings and stripes. He quickly figured out I was no longer a baker. I was sorely tempted to hang around Hershey for a few additional days. However; I was anxious to be on my way back to the 8th Air Force and hanging around Hershey would not help. It was time to be on my way.
I boarded the train at Hershey and after a change of trains found myself on the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad. I sat in the Pullman car, looking out of the window as the train rolled on next to the Delaware River. We went through Delaware Water Gap into the mountains and finally through East Stroudsburg. From there the train followed the Broadhead River from Henrysville to the curve of the old tunnel several miles short of the village of Mount Pocono. I heard the whistle blow and thought of our father who had once fired the boiler of DL&W engines, perhaps this very same engine. The train wheezed to a stop at the station of the village of Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania.
Although it had been my intention to get off the train and go home, I did not get off. I continued to sit and stare out of the window. I was three miles from home. I spoke to no one. When the train pulled out of the station I continued to sit and stare out of the window at the passing countryside. I could not bring myself to go home without my brother.
Two days later I got off the train in Chicago. The city had not changed. Girls without guys were everywhere and I was there. Pauline was the first to be called and whenever she was busy there was Beverly. However there was a difference. This time I was truly a veteran; a Staff Sergeant, wearing wings and ribbons. I also had no need of partial pay. Part of my time overseas had been spent sharing the proceeds of a crap game set up and run by another gunner and myself. I found Chicago to be as great the second time around as when I first visited. If anything it was better. Unfortunately I could not linger long to enjoy myself. Much like a migrating bird I felt a need to get to Lincoln Air Base. I had a mission to accomplish.
Someone had a bad idea. I arrived at Lincoln Army Air Base to find I was about to be assigned to a make-up crew of veterans who would fly around the country to promote the sale of war bonds. My first thought was some public relations type must have had one drink too many when the war bond sale idea was sold. I had my name removed from the operation before the ink on the mimeograph had time to dry.
From then on I ended up becoming a perpetual visitor to every unit with a commanding officer who in my mind might have authority to issue overseas orders. Time and time again I was politely tossed out on my ear and told not to come back. But I went back and sometimes was clever enough to get in to see the commanding officer. Unfortunately all I was getting was a lot of empathy minus action.
Dates with young ladies, mostly one night to one week stands were the common event. I was wobbling back to Lincoln Field one night during inclement weather. The night was graced by drizzle. I was wearing my raincoat; in the right pocket was a pint bottle of some sort of alcoholic beverage, perhaps whiskey. When I dismounted from the bus, at the main gate I noticed the presence of the Officer of the Day, a 2nd Lieutenant. My first thought was to conceal my bottle. Without thinking I eased my right arm out of the sleeve of my raincoat. The empty sleeve remained tucked into the pocket. I then held the bottle close to my body with my right hand. The bottle was well concealed by the folds of the raincoat. I realized my error when I approached the Lieutenant. I had to salute him. I did so with my left hand. I was only a couple of steps past him when he called to me and asked, "Why did you salute with your left hand?" I replied, "I am sorry sir. I am with the returned veteran's group and haven't been issued my artificial arm." He was obviously embarrassed and said, "Oh, I am sorry." I brazenly responded, "It's OK sir, it is only off at the elbow," and vigorously waggled my right arm so only the elbow appeared to be moving. I hastened through the gate without further conversation.
I had been at Lincoln Army Air Base for about a month. I had no assigned duties and spent my days on the flight line working with a couple of the crew chiefs putting to use the knowledge I had gleaned from M/Sgt Irelan. The rest of the time it was eat, drink and sleep. I did plenty of each. There was a problem. I was drinking too much and I could not remember with whom or where I last slept.
The orderly room sent word for me to report to Headquarters. When I arrived there the clerk told me he had orders sending me to Miami Beach, Florida as cadre. I went to see the Adjutant, hoping to have the orders changed. I recognized the Adjutant as the Officer of the Day who had challenged my left handed salute. He informed me in positive terms as to the permanence of the orders. He then smiled and said, "Sergeant I see you have had your arm fixed." We both laughed. He stood up, turned serious, shook my hand and said, "I hope you find your brother." For a fleeting moment I thought about ignoring the orders to Miami Beach and going to an airfield, any airfield where I might catch a ride back to the ETO. After some cogitating I discarded the idea and decided to go to Miami Beach.
I enjoyed the three-day train ride and reported for duty at Miami Beach. While there I spent my time either at Buck Grundy's Sand Bar or on one of the recreational fishing boats. I spent so much time on the boat they thought I was crew. I recall two things about the several months I spent in Miami. Jewish girls were the same as Gentile girls except they did not want their parents to know they were dating anyone other than a Jewish boy.
CHAPTER 23 - DYERSBURG
Sometime during the later part of May 1944 I managed to have myself transferred to Dyersburg, Tennessee as an instructor. It took me two days to make the trip from Miami Beach to Dyersburg. The trip was by Pullman all the way. By now I was becoming accustomed to the luxury of the first class train accommodations. But it was without the many interesting embellishments I had enjoyed on a previous train ride. In fact I thought the train would never get there. When it did get to Dyersburg I was thrilled. The place was jammed with B-17's. They were taking off and landing and flying around the countryside. I began to feel as if I had returned to where I belonged.
I reported for duty during the first week of June. "D" Day was big news. My main concern was the war might end before I could get back overseas. When I reported for duty I learned I was going to assist in training new crews during their transition phase. It soon became apparent why Dyersburg was known as the Bloody Battle of Dyersburg. I quickly learned all pilots were not equal in their ability to fly a four engine aircraft and all pilots were not cut out to become efficient and effective leaders of men.
When I reported to the flight line for my first day of duty I was pleased to find myself in the cockpit as the flight engineer. Somehow a new designation had managed to show up in my records jacket. I had no doubt as to my ability. I had spent hours reviewing the G Manual M/Sgt Irelan had given me. My familiarity with the airplane gave me all the confidence I needed. Besides at twenty years of age and with a tour of combat behind me I was ready for the world. Little did I know how frightening my part of the world was about to become.
Pilots reporting to Dyersburg for training were not novices. Many of them had close to sixty hours in the cockpit of a B-17. But it was not long before I began to think some of them should not be hanging on to the yoke. There were those who obviously viewed themselves as having mastered the airplane; they tended to ignore the formal procedure of the checklist and did it all from memory. I silently marked those in my mind as pilots headed for disaster. And there were those who would haul the B-17 into the air. More than once I stood between pilot and copilot and gritted my teeth while we experienced the pre-stall shudders as the props chewed into the air seeking airspeed. Oh yes, the battlers; they fought the controls, on every landing. But worst of all were the "hot shots"; the ones who wanted to demonstrate their ability to fly only slightly over the tops of trees. Then there was another group. Pilots who seemed to have been born to fly. They followed procedures as if procedures were a religion. Their movements were sure and skillful. It was almost as if they were a part of the airplane.
I cannot say I enjoyed my assignment at Dyersburg. I was there for less than two months. I never left the base. Weather permitting I flew constantly. Evening entertainment was at the WAAC club were there was dancing, cold beer and friendly smiles. Being ungifted in the art of expressing myself on the dance floor I limited my relationship to conversation, cold beer and a friendly smile. I enjoyed the walk up to the top of the hill where one could find seclusion and moments of non-enduring romance.
CHAPTER 24 - THE RETURN
Summer was coming to an end and I was not any closer to returning to England than when I first arrived at Mitchell Field. Crews reporting to Dyersburg were already filled with their full compliment of personnel. This offered minimal opportunities to join a crew. Then my luck changed. I heard of a tail gunner who had been grounded. The pilot was desperately in search of a replacement so they could be on their way overseas. I quickly tracked down Lieutenant Martin Hertz, the pilot of the crew and told him I would like to be his replacement tail gunner. He looked at me and asked, "Have you finished your transition training?" I replied, "No sir." He then told me they could not use me. I told him, "Lieutenant, I have already flown one tour of combat as a tail gunner. I think I have sufficient qualifications." Lt. Hertz looked as if he had discovered gold. He changed his mind and personally initiated a request to have me assigned to his crew. I was on my way back to the European Theater of Operations.
This time there was no Liberty ship plowing its way through wild seas. I was flying! My goal was to return to the 8th Air Force and now my goal was within my grasp. I was not overly concerned with our route of travel. Our first stop was Bangor, Maine. Our stay was short and after one night of rest our nose was pointing toward Goose Bay, Labrador, a comparatively short flight over rather barren and uninviting terrain. The weather was in our favor for the flight to Goose Bay. But it changed for the worse soon after our arrival and threatened to delay our departure for the next leg of our flight, to Meeks Field, Iceland.
Contrary to what had been predicted the bad weather failed to develop. We were on our way, from Goose Bay to Iceland. Words barely do justice to the beauty of our night flight. Moonlight-enhanced large cumulus clouds watched us race past as we moved ever closer to our destiny. But the vastness of the sky and a dark foreboding ocean far below revealed our insignificance. The navigator, like the rest of us had no desire to test the Air Sea Rescue Service and as we neared Iceland he displayed his proficiency. He had us on target and Lt. Hertz set us down in a perfect three-point landing. We were shown to our quarters and informed there would be no passes.
We languished on Iceland for two days before receiving clearance to depart. Of all the temporary destinations during our trip to the ETO Iceland was least impressive. The standard joke had a pretty girl behind every tree. But, there were very few trees. Iceland was definitely not my kind of territory.
We left Iceland and headed for the British Isles. Strangely I no longer recall exactly where we made landfall. I do recall boarding a train and going to The Wash for gunnery school. When I arrived at The Wash, a training area on the eastern coast of England I learned what was in store for me. I was to be pulled from the crew and would remain at The Wash as a gunnery instructor. I found this unacceptable. However, a S/Sergeant has little choice when it comes to assignments.
Again good fortune was with me. On my third day at The Wash one of the officers invited me to go pub-crawling with him. I agreed without giving the matter a second thought. I accepted the bicycle he loaned me and we were off to see the village. All went well until the evening ended. After we returned to his office the reason for his friendship became known. He was seeking a lover. I had been selected. I avoided his advances on the pretense of being ill from drinking too much beer. Shortly after breakfast I was in the orderly room. I offered a deal. Send me to the 92nd Bomb Group immediately. I also requested leave time so I could visit the 388th Bomb Group at Knettishall. There were no questions asked. Orders were cut including fifteen days of leave to allow me to visit the 388th Bomb Group. It was my intention to go to the 388th and have my assignment changed.
I wasted no time in getting out of The Wash. I was a passenger on the next train to London. On arriving it was as if I had never left. Adele was still at Rainbow Corners. The Windmill Theater had not closed and the Picadilly Commandos were still working the street. After making the necessary rounds I caught the train to Thetford and a bus to Knettishall, the home of the 388th Bomb Group. I arrived early on a Sunday morning and located the officers' quarters. When I entered I found Dingle, now a captain assigned to train new pilots.
Needless to say he was surprised to see me. I told him I wanted to be transferred to the 388th so I could fly my second tour with my old unit. Dingle told me it was not possible but took me to see the group adjutant. Again the answer was no. Nothing worked. I remained assigned to the 327th Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group.
Having determined I could not get my orders changed I borrowed a bicycle and went to see Barbara at the pub. Again, I was disappointed. Barbara was no longer there. She had moved to London and no one knew her address. I returned the bicycle and bummed a ride with the courier to Pine Tree. I wanted to see Genevieve.
It would not be possible to adequately describe how Genevieve greeted me when I paid my unannounced call. She cried and then she told me she had met someone who did not fly and had been going out with him. From what I learned I decided dear sweet Genevieve was probably not going to be entering a convent. I bowed out gracefully and without too much reluctance headed for London. There were still ten days remaining on my leave. I planned to stay in London and enjoy the sounds and sights of the big city.
CHAPTER 25 THE COMMANDO
It was well after dark when I arrived in London. I made my way to the Oxford Circus area and went into Lyons Corner House. I sat there drinking my beer and feeling somewhat left out of the magic circle. Genevieve had a new love, Flip the ballet dancer from Rainbow Corners was on holiday in Wales and I was alone. An attractive lady came over to my table. I spotted her as a Commando, but in my loneliness thought, "What the hell," and invited her to sit down.
She came right to the point. "Yank, would you like a bit of fun?" she asked.
"No thank you," I replied. She came back immediately and asked me if I only liked men. I laughed and said, "Not at all, I like girls. But I left the seminary to come and serve my country. When this war is over I will go back to the seminary and become a priest." A look of shock came over her face and she quickly crossed herself and said, "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," I said with a smile and asked her name. She told me her name was Molly and she came from Dublin, Ireland. I offered to buy her dinner and she declined.
Our conversation continued. "Yank, don't you ever go out with girls?" she asked. I put on my most pious look and told Molly I had taken vows of chastity and therefore was intent on keeping myself pure. Molly told me about her life in Dublin and how she had come to London to help out in the war effort. She claimed she was not a real Piccadilly Commando but admitted she did date men sometimes if she liked them.
"Yank, I'm lonely. Why don't you come to my flat? We can talk and eat something," Molly said.
"Oh, I couldn't do such a thing," I told her. However, she asked again and I finally agreed to go with her. We caught a taxi and rolled slowly through the fog to somewhere in London, stopping only long enough for Molly to purchase something for dinner.
The bong of Big Ben, muffled by the dense fog reverberated with a dull and ominous sound. Molly complained about the chill of the night and snuggled closer as the taxi chugged along. She put one hand inside my jacket and cautiously crossed her knee over my leg. Her embrace was more than a friendly hug. I gently pushed her away and reminded her of my vows.
After winding around the fog-shrouded streets we finally arrived at Molly's apartment building hidden away among a hundred identical other buildings. Molly guided the way with her tiny flashlight and I followed. Once inside she turned on the gaslight and the small wall mounted gas heater to take the chill off the room. I looked around. It only took a glance to see everything. The room consisted of a small two-plate gas burner and a tiny sink next to a table barely large enough for two. At the far end of the room was a small bed. A makeshift closet contained her limited wardrobe. I sensed immediately I was seeing the kitchen, dining room, lounge and bedroom all contained in a space of less than four hundred square feet. "The toilet and bath is down the hall," she said.
Molly took a bottle from the shelf and offered me a drink. She poured about three fingers into each of two glasses. "Cheers," she said and tossed her drink with one quick motion. I did the same and by the time it was halfway down my throat recognized it as gin of a questionable quality. "Make yourself comfortable," she said as she helped me remove my jacket and motioned for me to sit on the bed in the corner.
"I bought fish and chips," she said. "I hope you like them." "One of my favorites," I replied. Molly then poured another two glasses of the 'not so good gin' and brought the fish and chips to where I was sitting. Again it was "Cheers". We sat there, eating and drinking. After the third hit from Molly's bottle of gin I noticed there was an improvement in quality and flavor.
By the time we finished the fish and chips I heard the distant bong of Big Ben announce the hour of eleven or twelve. When I told Molly I had to be leaving she insisted, "It is too late to get a taxi. Stay here tonight. In the morning we will go to Hyde Park." She promised she would not do anything to cause me to break my vows. It was either the gin or circumstances or perhaps a combination of both. I was feeling good.
I removed my clothes and placed them along side the bed. In the dim light I could see Molly dropped out of her costume faster than I would have bailed out of a burning bomber. "I just want to sleep with you," she mumbled and pulled me down along side of her, on a bed barely large enough for one person. I thought Molly had stripped down to her slip, but when she wrapped her arms around my neck and snuggled I found the slip had disappeared. If Molly had gotten any closer she would have been on the other side of me.
My physical reaction was normal; however I insisted on being true to my vows. I fell asleep only to be awakened by the air raid sirens and the sound of antiaircraft fire. I asked Molly if she wanted to go to a shelter. She indicated she did not want to go to a shelter, she only wanted to be loved. I surrendered.
When dawn arrived Molly was filled with remorse for causing me to break my vows. I decided I had to stick to my story. We never did get to go to Hyde Park. Molly decided once the vow was broken I was free of my obligation.
The next day we went on a train ride to Cambridge. As we rode along Molly continually commented about how much greener it was in Ireland. When we returned to London after sun down; Molly was in a depressed mood. The next morning she told me she was going back to Dublin. I helped her pack her meager possessions; two small suitcases held it all. We went to the station. When it came time to say goodbye she held me close and cried. "Yank, you have made me look at myself. I am going home to Dublin. I will pray for you every day." With her final goodbye she gave me a small envelope which she said contained an Irish blessing. I put the envelope in my pocket and helped her get on the train; there was one final embrace before it was time for me to get off. I watched Molly through the window as the train departed. I was glad I had never told her of my deception. Her words, "I will pray for you everyday," remained with me as I turned my focus to joining the 327th Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group at a place called Podington. I could not help but wonder what it would be like in a different unit.
CHAPTER 26 - BACK TO WORK
I wanted to see Genevieve one more time even though I was sure she had a new love. I took a detour via Pine Tree before going to my new unit. I spent the evening with her in the lounge of the day room. She asked me why I was treating her so coldly. I told her I thought she was romantically involved with someone else and I did not want to interfere. Genevieve was visibly upset and denied being romantically involved with anyone.
She berated me for leaving England without ever saying goodbye. I told her the reason for my sudden departure and how it had not been possible for me to contact her before I returned to CONUS. In a moment, too short to describe, everything returned to the way it was before my departure. She reminded me of my promise to again return to London with her. We snuggled in the day room until long after the legal hour for visitors. I finally went to the transient barracks and found a bed for the night. Early the next day I caught a bus to the hospital to see Haley Thompson, a member of Genevieve's unit who had recently undergone surgery.
I knew the Glen Miller orchestra was located near the hospital and decided to go there and see if I could see any of the orchestra members. I arrived at the orchestra's compound shortly before lunch. I did not expect the reception I received. I was a combat veteran; the members of the orchestra were musicians who had not been exposed to combat. To them I was the important person. When I told them about visiting the orchestra during their rehearsals when they played at the Hershey Bandstand one of them called Major Miller to come over. I told him I still had his autograph from Hershey. I was amazed when he recalled I was the kid who was learning to play the trumpet. We talked for a few minutes and he asked me to stay and have lunch and to sign their guest book.
I left the orchestra's location and headed for the 92nd Bomb Group fully stoked from the excitement of the day's events. I arrived at the 92nd late on the afternoon of August 10, 1944, and found my way to the orderly room where I presented Special Orders 218, Headquarters Station 112 dated August 5, 1944 assigning me to the 327th Squadron. I had expected to be questioned about the extra leave I had taken. To the contrary, I learned I was a gunner without a crew. I located Lieutenant Hertz and found the crew had been disbanded. He told me the enlisted men had been reassigned to other units. I was chagrined. I had returned to fly not sit on the bench as a substitute.
It took me a few weeks to become adjusted to my new surroundings. The only flying I did from the day I reported until nearly the 10th of September was practice missions. But on September 11th the group was headed for Merseburg. I had never been to Merseburg and wanted to make the mission. It took only a short search to find a tail gunner who was suffering with a severe head cold. I checked in as his replacement. No one questioned me. No one asked who I was or how many missions I had flown. To the crew I was a spare gunner. To me the pilot and crew were people I did not know and I was not interested in making friends. All I wanted to do was fly and they were my ticket to a to the show.
I found there had been changes. The oxygen mask had a simple but effective safety catch which greatly reduced the chance of an accidental disconnection. Oxygen supply failure at high altitude was serious and had cost a few gunners their lives. The waist windows were now closed. No longer did the vicious freezing winds howl through the waist. My next discovery did not come until we were assembled. I looked to my rear and gasped in amazement. My first thought was of a gigantic flock of crows coming off the roost. Everywhere I looked I saw bombers, miles of bombers. This then was the bomber stream.
I could not help but reflect back to the days in 1943 when we thought a hundred aircraft over the target was a big mission. I was still musing over the changes and thinking how great it was to have fighter escort to and from the target when I heard someone on the intercom report fighters in the area. I searched the sky and observed only a few. The fighter attack was coming in from the front of the formation. Not so the flak; it was coming up and was in such a quantity I decided there had been another big change. The flak was more intense and seemed to be more accurate than it had been in 1943.
No one had to tell me we had been on a rough mission. I had seen at least half a dozen aircraft go down. On landing I learned we had lost eight aircraft, one of which went down in friendly territory. I marked Merseburg in my mind as a place best avoided.
The next day was dedicated to shopping for a bicycle. This time, more aware of what I was doing I hunted around and found one in excellent condition. It even had a small generator and a tiny light. The light was a joke. It was too feeble to be of any use other than to have some Bobby or Air Raid Warden shout the usual, "Turn off your light Yank." I suppose having been bombed mercilessly they had good reason to be light sensitive.
Determined to test my new transportation, I peddled my way off base in search of a pub and a pint of British beer. I had my darts in a carrying case and thought I would like to try my hand. I had practiced religiously ever since I left England and now had in mind an opportunity to win back some of the beers I had earlier bought when at Knettishall.. The bartender greeted me with cordiality and poured my drink. I eased over to the side where a game was in progress and asked a few questions about scoring and rules. I was soon invited to participate in a game. I used house darts for the first round and lost. I agreed to another game, raised the ante and broke out my own darts; the same ones my friends near Knettishall had given to me. I won the next three games. By the time the third game was finished most of those in the pub were observing. I collected my winnings and then spent it all buying drinks for the house. It was still early when I left the pub amid echoes of, "Hurry back Yank" and returned to Podington. I decided to check out the NCO club.
Because I had been off base I was wearing a class A uniform with ribbons. When I entered the club a gunner challenged me because of my Distinguish Flying Cross. "Hey, aren't you the new guy who just checked in?" he asked. I told him I was and asked him what it was he wanted. He made some comment about my wearing a decoration I had not earned. Not being a person short of words when sufficiently annoyed and plied with a few drinks I told him he was full of shit and would do well to mind his own business. He loudly proclaimed his opinion regarding my wearing of unauthorized decorations. When I walked out of the club he was sitting on the floor with a dazed look on his face. I was off to a great start in a new outfit.
There was another mission scheduled for September 13th. I checked and found the tail gunner was still suffering and again took his place. I laughed as I left the barracks, telling him, "You will have two more missions on your tour after today." When I arrived at the mess hall I found myself sitting across from my acquaintance from the NCO club. He had a fat lip. "Who the hell are you?" he asked. I told him, "They call me Wing Ding. This is my second tour. I came back to find my twin brother, John who was reported killed over Athens, Greece." He offered his hand and said, "My name is John too. I am sorry about my remarks last night." We talked all through breakfast. I learned he was a waist gunner flying his seventh mission. We shook hands and I promised to buy him a beer after the mission.
We finished chow and went to briefing room. A hush fell over the room as the briefing officer made his appearance. Someone called, "attention," followed by an immediate, "be seated." John sat next to me in the briefing room. He said, "Lord, I hope we don't have to go back to Merseburg again." The briefing officer droned on and I thought, "All briefing officers sound the same." He finally pulled the curtain aside and a strong murmur ran through the room. Merseburg again. The briefing officer assured us of a strong escort and commented briefly on the anticipated flak. "It will be heavy," he promised.
John and I rode the same truck out to the aircraft. As he dismounted the last words he said to me were, "You owe me a beer." I never had a chance to buy the beer. The route to the target and the promised flak was as briefed. The flak was not the heaviest I had ever seen but it was deadly and accurate. We lost four aircraft in the vicinity of the target. I observed what I thought was John's B-17 in flames. It blew up. I did not see parachutes. There were several large holes in our tail and waist section and number three engine was running rough. We returned to base without further incident. The ground crew chief counted sixty holes. I was convinced my second tour was not going to be a milk run. The flak was making up for the missing Luftwaffe.
The weather was miserable and I expected to end September without being able to fly another mission. I kept myself busy by going to the flight line and helping various crew chiefs when they were short handed. Most of them were surprised to find a tail gunner who would volunteer to work on the line. When I was not working I would peddle my bike off base and throw darts with my friends at the pub.
On September 22nd while at breakfast I met a Texan, S/Sgt. Guy Weddel, a waist gunner on the crew of Lt. Conrad Thorall. Guy had completed three missions and was about to fly his fourth as a fill-in on the crew of 1st Lt. Edmund Dornburgh to temporarily replace a wounded waist gunner.
Guy told a story of having been forced down in friendly French territory on his third mission. He expressed anger when he related how their tail gunner had claimed his guns were jammed and deserted the tail while under fighter attack. Pounded by 20mm hits they ended up with only one good engine, one dead engine with a prop they could not feather and two sick engines. Crippled and without radio their B-17 continued to lose altitude until they were skimming over the rooftops of Frankfurt. They remained airborne long enough to make it to friendly territory where a P-47 led them to fighter strip A-64, at St. Diezer, France.
According to Weddel they were stranded at A-64 for three days. The field had no shower facilities and they had to scrounge for rations. Although the shortages were not much of a hardship it was sufficient motivation for them to hunt for a quick way back to England. During a search of the area they located an abandoned twin engine Cessna AT-17 trainer parked at one end of the strip. Also at the field was an A-20 pilot who had been forced down by enemy fire. He was now without an airplane. The A-20 pilot looked over the AT-17 and said, "I think I can fly this thing." There was no hesitation. Guy Weddel and Mel Engle, navigator squeezed into the rear seat. The A-20 pilot and John Willet copilot of the Thorall crew were in the front seat. They were unable to get fuel from the grounded B-17 and had only enough fuel in the trainer to allow them to get airborne and quickly search for another airfield where they might find fuel. After a minimal warm up they were airborne. Just as the engines were near to sucking on air they found an abandoned airstrip near Paris. There was not enough fuel to make more than one pass. The A-20 pilot skillfully landed on a runway littered with wrecked trucks and trash. Moving from truck to truck they were able to siphon an estimated thirty gallons of fuel which they transferred to the AT-17. Realizing their fuel situation was marginal they talked the situation over before deciding to take off for England. Weddel continued his story. "We were flying not over 500 to 1,000 feet over the water when about half way across the English Channel one engine ran out of fuel and died. The propellers of the AT-17 cannot be feathered and the dead engine's propeller began to windmill. The windmilling action of the propeller created a drag causing us to rapidly loose altitude. From my seat in the rear I could see Willet and the A-20 pilot scrambling to get the engine restarted. They hit the tank switch and vigorously operated the primer pump. We were almost in the water when the engine came to life. Ahead the White Cliffs of Dover came into view. I wondered if we could clear the cliffs and if we had enough fuel to make land fall. We crossed over the cliffs with little altitude to spare and set down at the first bit of smooth terrain we could find." After he finished his story Guy asked me if I might be interested in joining their crew as tail gunner. I did not answer, only shook my head and laughed. It was later in the day I began to think Guy Weddel was cursed. I went to the control tower to watch the group return. The B-17 of Lt. Dornburgh and his crew on which Guy Weddel was flying as a replacement waist gunner had not returned.
The notice on the Aero club bulletin board announced the Glen Miller orchestra would appear at the Sports Arena on the afternoon of September 23rd. I knew I would not be flying and planned to be at the Arena early to get a good seat. I was there at least an hour or more before the scheduled performance and managed to say hello to a couple of the musicians I had met at the hospital. When the performance started it was Major Glen Miller who said hello. He stepped up to the microphone and said, "Before we get started I want to say hello to a tail gunner friend from Hershey, Pennsylvania. He then called my name and asked me to stand up. I darn near drowned in my moment of temporary prestige.
CHAPTER 27 - THE INVITATION
On September 27th there was mission to the cathedral city of Cologne. I was fortunate and found a tail gunner who did not mind being replaced. I went to breakfast and was surprised to see Guy Weddel. I asked him what happened on the mission he flew with the Dornburgh crew. He told me they had been hit bad by flak and had to put down on the continent. He again broached the subject of my replacing their tail gunner. I made no comment.
We sat together through the briefing and heard the promise of escort and a prediction of light flak. I remembered Mike our bombardier on my first tour. Mike was killed when a small piece of flak penetrated the artery in his groin. Ironic as it was this took place on a day when there had been hardly any flak at all. My thought was, light flak, heavy flak, it makes no difference. I considered the flak to be light. However, at the debriefing I ran into a highly irritated Guy Weddel. I asked him what was wrong and he said, "The son-of-a-bitch did it again. When the flak started he left the tail and came to the waist and tried to hide." He then asked me, "Would you consider being our tail gunner?" I laughed and said, "Shit, man you have flown five missions and been shot down on two of them. Why in the hell would anyone want to fly with you?"
However, I needed a crew as badly as the Conrad Thorall crew needed a tail gunner. On October 7th, I again filled in for a tail gunner, this time on the Conrad Thorall crew. It was rapport from the beginning. My first mission with the crew was to Ruhland. Flak was light as we approached the target. The leader of the low squadron, Lt. Kerr left the formation after being hit in engines #3 and #4. We were bounced around by the flak but did not suffer damage. After we landed Guy Weddel commented, "Wing Ding, I know we don't have to worry about the tail with you back there."
While we were at the debriefing someone told me the chaplain wanted to see me. I went over to where he was and asked him what he wanted. He asked, "Do you have a twin brother by the name of John Carson?" I told him I did and he had been reported killed December 20, 1943 over Athens, Greece. The chaplain's words echoed in my ears. He said, "Your brother is alive. He is a prisoner." I thanked him and tried to control my emotions. But the news was too much. I did not trust myself to speak. In my heart there was nothing but joy and thankfulness. I had found my brother and he was safe. My excitement did not allow me to sleep. I tossed and turned until nearly dawn. I wanted to share the news with someone and thought of Adele Astaire. I asked for and received a pass to London. Thus, Adele became the first person I told about John's survival. She suggested I stop flying and take a ground crew assignment. I never gave the matter a second thought. Instead I bought a ticket for the show at the Windmill Theatre and enjoyed the scenes while thinking how much John would enjoy the show. I sat through two runs of the same show before I left the Windmill and went to one of the Corner Houses to get something to eat.
Who can recall what it was they ate in London half a hundred years ago? I suspect the answer would almost always be no one. But I have good reason to remember the girl. She was seated with a friend at the table next to me. I could not help but notice her frequent glance in my direction. I managed to strike up a conversation and introductions revealed her name to be Sue. I soon found out her friend was from Liverpool and about to catch a train home. With this bit of information Sue became a person of importance. We went to the station and saw Sue's friend depart. Sue said she would like to see a show. We went and from the show to a pub for a few drinks. The few drinks led to an invitation to go to Sue's place. She lived in a typical working girl's single apartment, not unlike the one Molly had occupied.
Before we went to bed Sue turned off the gas pilot lights. This she explained was necessary in case the pressure should be disrupted during an air raid and then come back on. The gas entering through the pilot light vents could asphyxiate people in their sleep. Sounded like a good idea to me.
I think it was about two o'clock in the morning when I awakened. I felt something moving across my chest. At first I thought it was Sue's arm. I reached for my flashlight and right then and there damn near died. The bed had a third occupant! A large rock python of at least six or more feet in length was waving his tongue in the air and eyeballing me as if I might be his next meal. I bumped Sue and said, "Wake up, there's a snake in the bed!" Sue excitedly warned me, "Don't hurt him Yank, it's mine."
Her explanation was simple. She was a dancer and used the snake in her act. She kept the snake in a box under her bed. But on chilly nights the snake would wiggle out of the box and come to the bed for warmth. I had Sue put her dance partner back in the box and tried to go back to sleep. This was my second experience with reptiles. I was hoping there would not be a third.
CHAPTER 28 - MY BROTHER'S STORY
It was with considerable excitement I made my way to the Customs House at 2nd and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia. I never had a second thought. I signed my name, John W. Carson and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. My heart beat as if it would come out of my chest as I was sworn in with a group of others. When the oath was concluded I turned to a guy about my age and shook his hand. With wide grins and much emotion we both exclaimed, "We made it!" Although he is but a distant memory of the past, I still recall his name, Francis J. Slocum. I never saw him again. Little did I know in those days there would be many whom I would never see again.
The Army Air Corps wasted no time. The group I was with promptly left Philadelphia and went to Ft. George G. Meade in Maryland for a brief initial indoctrination, inoculations, receiving of uniforms and quick lessons on the intricacies of military life. In about a week many of us were on a slow train on our way to Keesler Field, Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. Keesler was splitting at the seams with trainees and we ended up in a tent city as members of the Army Air Corps Unassigned. It seemed every drill sergeant at Keesler spoke with a Southern accent, dipped snuff and delighted in teaching us "Yankees" the rigors of the military. I endured basic training believing at the end things would improve. Things did improve. We were all assigned duties commensurate with our experience. My experience being limited resulted in my doing thirty days of KP, peeling potatoes, and washing pans while waiting to ship out to somewhere.
During this waiting period I attended class and heard an inspiring recruitment speech by Captain Ralph DePalma of Indianapolis racing fame. He was touting the benefits and privileges of being an aerial gunner. Captain DePalma stressed the thrill of flying, quick promotions, flight pay and freedom from the more mundane chores of military life. His speech fell on ripe ears. As a basic trainee fully involved in the more mundane chores of military life, I needed little convincing. I think all I heard was the part about a quick promotion, flight pay and the silver wings. When I compared the glory and glamour of the picture he painted to the day in and day out drudgery I was currently experiencing the grass on the other side of the fence looked much greener.
Sufficiently inspired by the prospect of a glorious future I quickly signed up for the program and requested radio operator training. My first training on my new venture was at the Stevens Hotel on Michigan Boulevard, Chicago, Illinois. What a change of life style this presented. We were the first radio operator's class at the Stevens Hotel. We lived in the hotel, ate in the hotel and went to class in the hotel. I began to really appreciate the value of my decision. When radio operator's school ended I shipped out to Tyndall Field, Florida for training as an aerial gunner. Despite a few bouts of airsickness training went well. At the completion of gunnery school I received my promised promotion to S/Sgt and the silver wings of an aerial gunner. My next stop was the replacement depot, at Salt Lake City Fairgrounds, Utah. I was at the Fairgrounds for a week or so and then off on another train ride. This time to a rather desolate area, Blythe, California where I was assigned as first radio operator for a senior officer on a B-24.
At this time my twin brother, Gene was cook at Hamilton Field, California. He managed to fly to Blythe and spent a day with me. He arrived looking like the real thing. He was fully equipped, had his own parachute, leather jacket, flight suit and helmet. No one would have suspected he was a cook engaged in unauthorized barnstorming around the country. We spent a wonderful day and night together. The next day he was down at the flight line where he caught a flight back to Hamilton Field. I smiled as I reflected on his ingenuity which always seemed to take him to wherever it was he wanted to go. Little did I know at the time how soon I would again see him.
Knowing well my brother's desire to fly, I tried to help. In my naiveté and unfamiliarity with military protocol I wrote a letter to General Hap Arnold asking to have Gene assigned to my unit. My letter received immediate attention. It was returned via channels with disastrous results. I received a stern lecture on military procedures and was removed from my position of first radio operator on the B-24 crew. The next day all of the other B-24 first radio operators were promoted to the grade of T/Sgt; I remained a S/Sgt and became the assistant radio operator on a B-17 flown by Flight Officer George A. Levchek. Assistant radio operators normally flew in the ball turret. However, claustrophobia and airsickness made it impossible for me to fly in the ball. I traded my position with the tail gunner and he took over the ball turret.
We were now a part of Lt. Col. Plummer's Provisional Group and training in earnest to deploy as replacement crews. We received our new B-17F; our pilot promptly named it "Julie-A", no doubt in honor of our pilot's girl friend. With our new B-17 we moved to Rapid City, South Dakota for further training. It was now summer and much of our flying was low level over the Black Hills and Bad Lands. The summer air was turbulent and airsickness was a regular visitor to many members of the crew.
I was in for a surprise. Without warning or prior announcement a new aerial gunner made his appearance at Rapid City. It was my twin brother, Corporal Eugene T. Carson. He had managed to do the impossible. Somehow he had moved out of the kitchen and was here as a replacement gunner. He was on temporary duty as a clerk in the orderly room while waiting further assignment. I thought of one of our grandfather's expressions, "The fox is watching the hen house." We walked outside; when I asked him how he did it he grinned. Then I told him of my concern. He knew nothing about the guns and other procedures. We went to the armament shack and I watched him strip and reassemble a fifty-caliber machine gun with speed most gunners could not match. I shook my head in amazement; knowing my brother I knew for him almost anything was possible. Our phase training completed we moved to Grand Island, Nebraska which was to be our jumping off place. I wondered what my brother was doing. I soon found out. His next appearance was at Grand Island where he was assigned to a replacement pool. We had time for one quick goodbye before I departed with my crew.
Our trip from the United States to North Africa was uneventful but exciting. We detoured slightly to buzz Milwaukee, Wisconsin the home of our navigator, Jack Drummond. From there it was on to Bangor, Maine, then Newfoundland where we waited for favorable weather before flying to Scotland. From Scotland we made it to Casablanca and then to Tunis our final duty station where we again lived in a tent city. Showers became an infrequent luxury, enjoyed whenever the water wagon came around.
CHAPTER 29 - THE GLITTER FADES
It did not take long for the glitter and glamour to fade from my new silver wings. My first mission found fighters lined up on our tail. The shock of first combat caused me to either go blind with fear or else I was too damned busy praying and shooting to recall what took place. I was suddenly faced with the stark realization this was real; I was at war and training was over.
But there was much more to come. On nearly all of our missions we had some form of engagement, flak or fighters. It did not matter whether it was the ME 109 or the FW 190, both were deadly adversaries. The Germans were great pilots. I found myself busiest on the bomb runs. It was there I was either warding off fighters or praying. I suspect they may well have been simultaneous acts. My thought was to keep the fighters outside of 800 yards from our airplane. If they could get inside of 800 yards you could count on being hit.
I vividly recall the day our waist gunner, S/Sgt. Clayton Kahler made a kill. The ME 109 came through on a frontal attack. He was high, off our right wing when Kahler opened up on him. The tail of the ME 109 came off and the pilot bailed out. His chute opened in my field of fire. I had my guns trained on him and for a fleeting moment nearly pressed the butterfly triggers. Fortunately I could not bring myself to shoot. I have forever been thankful for my moment of self-control at such a critical time.
The initial mission of the 15th Air Force to Wiener Neustadt, Austria proved to be a difficult day. Fighter attacks were heavy and when not firing I found myself counting blossoming parachutes and out of control aircraft as they fell from the sky. We were hit! A cannon shell damaged a propeller and forced a reduction in power for the engine. A supercharger on another engine failed. Soon after bombs away we were confronted by all sorts of German fighters. Directly to our rear a B-24 crew was bailing out. Their parachutes were floating between us and approximately twenty-seven or more German fighters. There was no way I could fire without endangering the lives of the B-24 crew. I had to wait until they dropped to a lower level. Of course the German pilots obviously felt no restriction and continued to work us over. We took another hit from behind and my new gun covers were reduced to rags.
Our running gun battle continued. In addition to our propeller and supercharger there was other flak and fighter damage. Fortunately the fighters left us, either to refuel or to look for other quarry. But being crippled we were unable to keep up with the formation. Our pilot, Philip Devine knew he could not fly our seriously crippled B-17 back to our base in Tunis and opted to put us down in Sicily. We waited there over night while a maintenance crew gave us a replacement propeller and a new engine. The next day we returned to Tunis.
As the war progressed our unit moved from Tunis to Foggia, Italy. I was still seeking the evasive fifth stripe of T/Sgt. and learned of a first radio operator vacancy on the crew of Lt. Dave Rohrig. During the later part of December 1943 I had my first indication of having made a bad decision. It was my twenty-seventh mission; we were flying on a B-17 named "What a Tomato". Fighters jumped us and severely wounded our tail gunner, S/Sgt Corley. I will always believe Corley was a contributor to our trouble. He had two previous kills and wanted another. He had a habit of waiting for fighters to get in close before he fired. However this time he waited too long; a fighter moved in and Corley was severely wounded during the attack. Cannon shells from the fighter took off our right wing tip and crippled our hydraulic system. Jagged foot-long holes appeared all along the fuselage. "What a Tomato" took on the appearance of a sieve and began to vibrate like an overloaded washing machine.
We had dropped out of formation and were continuing our battle with the Luftwaffe fighters when our own fighters arrived and pulled our ass out of the fire. One of the B-17's from our group dropped back and joined us, flying along side. They kept looking us over and the radio conversation was not at all encouraging. The pilot of the other B-17 kept saying, "I don't think your going to make it Dave." Admittedly, "What a Tomato" was one hell of a sick bird. But the skill of Dave Rohrig nursed it back to our base.
CHAPTER 30 - SHOT DOWN
Our next mission was to strike the Airdrome at Athens Greece. "What a Tomato" was in no condition to fly and we were assigned to fly the B-17 "Eager Beaver". We did not expect fighters but were told the antiaircraft fire would be accurate. It was accurate. We were flying lead and had already taken a few minor hits from flak. As we turned on the IP (indicated point) all hell seemed to break loose. I was about to reach for the front door of the radio room door so I could look into the bomb bay and report when the bombs had cleared when I heard pilot Dave Rohrig, on the intercom. He asked the bombardier, Lloyd Haefs, "How are you doing Lloyd?" Haefs replied, "I am going to drop them any second Dave." The response was no sooner out of Lloyd's mouth when we took a hit under the aircraft. At the time of the hit I had my hand on the handle of the radio room door to the bomb bay. But I never had a chance to open it. I looked up and out of the radio room toward the tail of the "Eager Beaver" where I observed two bursts of flak tracking to the rear of the vertical stabilizer. I never saw the third burst. It probably struck in the area of our waist door or it could have been slightly aft of the waist door. The rear radio room door splintered from the explosion and struck me in the face. For a moment I was stunned.
"Eager Beaver", now minus its tail, rolled over and started down. I looked to the rear and saw figures struggling in the dust and smoke in the waist area. I tried to assess my own situation and found myself straddling the radio room gun. We were at 21,500 feet upside down, out of control and headed down. I was tangled in the debris looking at the ground. Centrifugal force and tangled metal had me locked in place. I could not extricate myself. I heard the engines screaming in a high pitched moan and realized I was trapped. I tried to cover my fear by fainting. It did not work. Then I thought, "This is going to cut my legs off; no it is going to kill me." My next thought was, "Please God, I don't want to go to Hell when I die." Somehow, I cannot explain how, I extricated myself from the tangled wreckage. I fought my way back through jagged metal of what was once the waist. I bailed out and pulled the ripcord of my backpack.
I do not remember the opening shock of my parachute. But I found myself floating in air. Below bombs were going off; above me the antiaircraft shells were exploding. I was convinced I was someone's target and decided to get out of the battle area. I pulled down on the shroud lines of my parachute to slip out of the area. This was a bad decision. I found I had started an oscillation. I began to swing like a pendulum. The motion coupled with the stress of the moment made me sick. I looked down and saw I was going to land in a field. Off in a distance I observed two soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets running to where I was going to land. They did not approach my projected landing site nearly as fast as I did. My landing was not easy. The ground was hard and I hit with a thud. I was immediately taken into custody, but not before I had time to stay on my knees and say a prayer of thanks for having been spared. I quickly took account of my physical condition and noted I had no serious wounds other than surface wounds from the splinters of the rear radio room door.
On my second day of captivity along with waist gunner Walter Chesser and ball turret gunner Louis Crawford, I was loaded on a JU54 Trimotor and flown from Athens, Greece to Solonika, Greece. Chesser having suffered a broken leg was in pain, but Crawford was in relatively good condition. We were held at Solonika until late in January when we were all loaded on a German troop train and headed for Germany. The trip was uneventful until somewhere in Yugoslavia. Partisans attacked the train killing and wounding some of the German soldiers on board.
On our arrival in Frankfurt Main we were marched through the streets. The attitude of the population was hostile and frightening. Credit must be given to our guards for the protection they gave us. We remained at the Frankfurt Main interrogation center for several weeks and then boarded another train for Hydekrug, East Prussia the site of Stalag Luft VI. Shortly after departure I became ill and it was determined I had acute appendicitis. In an act of human kindness I was taken off the train at Thorn, Poland and put in a German military hospital. The hospital also had a number of British soldiers as patients. My operation was successful and I was to eventually recover. However, six days after surgery my sutures became infected. The doctors reopened the incision. This procedure was done without the benefit of anesthesia and was, to say the least, painful.
CHAPTER 31 - LIFE AS A POW
Still recovering and only two weeks after my appendectomy I was transferred to a Stalag XXA. This was a British prison holding mostly prisoners captured at Dunkirk. After three months at Stalag XXA I was shipped with one guard to Stalag Luft VI, another frightening journey. My guard enjoyed showing me off to every Hitler Youth Group congregated at various stations on the way. You can bet they were not friendly.
At Hydekrug I met many old friends as well as Chesser and Crawford. But the unusual thing was the Eighth Air Force men from the 388th Bomb Group flying from England. They would come up to me and ask, "Wing Ding, we thought you finished your tour." One of them, a gunner named Lew, had used my brother's old parachute harness with "Wing Ding" stenciled on it. The question was always the same, "How did they get you?" I would explain to them they had me mixed up with my twin brother Eugene Carson.
Around mid July 1944 the Russian advance made it necessary to evacuate Stalag Luft VI in Hydekrug. About 2,500 of us were crowded into the holds of two dilapidated coastal coal tramp steamers. The trip to the German port of Swinemunde took five days. As I think back I am reminded of fishworms in a can. Men were ill or suffering from wounds, nevertheless they were stacked in the hold without thought of their comfort or survival. The trip was a horror of horrors; there was no water to speak of and there was no way to relieve the body. There were no sanitary facilities at all. The stink was incredible; I could not bring myself to go down into the hold. I went only half way down, seated myself on the drive shaft and clung to a ladder for the entire five days.
On debarking we loaded into box cards for an overnight trip to a rail station near Stalag Luft IV. To prevent escape our shoes were taken from us and we were handcuffed in pairs. Many of the men were ill or wounded. As for myself the incision of my surgery was still draining. On arrival we were permitted to retrieve our shoes but remained cuffed to a partner. Now we were double-timed through a cordon of young German guards who used bayonets, rifle butts and dogs to keep us moving. To fall meant dog bites and to lag behind also meant a jab from a bayonet or a blow from a rifle butt. I was handcuffed to a Jewish gunner; as I recall his last name was Adler. In order to give us maximum protection I instructed him to dump his personal belongings (our homemade knapsacks) and get in the center of the column. It worked and saved us from any major injury as the column ran a distance of one or two miles to Stalag Luft IV.
Like everyone else I settled into the routine of obedience and slow starvation. We had a daily ration of bread, the content was 50% bruised rye grain, 20% sliced sugar beets, 20% saw dust and 10% minced leaves or straw. When fortunate we enjoyed a little margarine, boiled potatoes and soup. The soup was a mixture of potato, turnip, carrot, dehydrated sauerkraut, rutabaga, kohirabi and .a small amount of what was probably horse meat. About twice a week we were given cooked barley and millet. Our Red Cross parcels, when received were share with other prisoners. The Red Cross parcels were regularly pilfered and choice parts eaten by the guards. Like everyone else, I found myself suffering from serious malnutrition and steadily lost weight.
The meager rations were matched by meager bathing and sanitary facilities. Each lager had open-air latrines. They consisted of two back to back twenty holers and urinals. These were for day use only. At night each barracks had a two-hole latrine which was shared by 240 men. There were no facilities for bathing and the fleas, lice and bedbugs had a field day.
Late in October 1944, I was approached by a couple of new prisoners. They were from the 92nd Bomb Group located in England. It was the same story as before. They wanted to know when I had been shot down. It was then I learned about a second tour gunner. They were not sure of his name. They only knew him as Wing Ding. However, from their description and stories about the second tour gunner's activities I had no trouble in knowing the identity of the gunner. They were talking about my twin brother. I knew in my heart, he had come back looking for me. I was determined to survive.
CHAPTER 32 - WAITING FOR JOHN
I flew with Conrad Thorall as his tail gunner again on October 15th to Cologne. My attitude had changed. I believed my brother was safe in a prison camp and no longer in danger. Now my motivation was to end the war and see his release. I thought him safe, sitting out the war in a prison camp. I had no idea of the hardships and deprivation the prisoners had to endure.
My thoughts went back to another October week in 1943. I remembered four days: Bremen on October 8th; Gydnia on October 9th; Munster on October 10th and Schweinfurt on October 14th. Our losses of men and aircraft nearly put us out of business. During those October days of 1943 we were at times outnumbered by Luftwaffe fighters. This was no longer the case. Now the long-range P-51 escorts to and from the target insured us there would be minimal enemy fighters. But the flak was accurate and constantly bounced us around.
We returned without damage and I found the late in the day landing with rapidly closing weather more of a challenge than the mission itself. After the mission we had the usual debriefing and learned we would not be flying for approximately five days. I decided to spend my free time by visiting Cambridge.
Compared to London Cambridge was somewhat on the dull side. The patrons of the pubs were friendly and more than willing to allow a Yank to join their dart games. I won some, but in the long run the pub veterans ate a hole in my wallet. The ladies were much different from those found in London. They were perhaps more reserved and not so brash and bold. Needless to say, Cambridge had its fair share of attractive young ladies and they were friendly.
While in Cambridge I visited a small medical supply store where they sold manufactured human skeletons for use by anatomy students. I was going to buy a full sized skeleton to take back to Podington. Because the price was a bit too high and it was too cumbersome to carry, I settled for a very fine looking replica of a skull. The skull was dubbed Yorick; I carried Yorick to Podington in my gas mask case. The mask it once contained had long ago been discarded.
With much ceremony Yorick was mounted over the inside of the barracks door. A small red light was installed. If a mission was scheduled the light would glow. Alas, poor Yorick; he was in place less than a week. What a stir he caused. Someone without a sense of humor objected to his presence.
I was ordered to attend a discussion on the subject of Yorick. I reported to the squadron commander's office as ordered. When I entered I found myself in front of the squadron commander, the flight surgeon and the chaplain. They gave me no choice. Remove Yorick or else. The flight surgeon said he thought I might need a rest. The chaplain suggested I consider the impact Yorick might have on the morale of others. The squadron commander, bless him, struggled to keep from laughing. In the end he said, "Wing Ding, take the damn skull down."
On October 21st there was a dance at the Aeroclub. I decided to go and have a look. I entered the club and was surprised at the number of ladies. I was even more surprised to see members of the WAAC. I wondered if it could be possible for Genevieve to be there. I did not wonder long. A member of the WAAC group collared me. "Genevieve is here," she said. We soon located her and my evening became a success. We slipped away from the crowd and went to where we could communicate in private. The evening passed far too quickly. As we said goodnight she reminded me of my yet unfulfilled promise of another trip to London.
I was back in the tail of Conrad Thorall's B-17 on October 22nd, destination Hanover. Yorick went with me, carefully wrapped and in a sack. I quietly tied the sack to the tail fin of a bomb.and returned to my tail guns. When I heard the call, "bombs away" I could not help but grin and say, "Alas, poor Yorick; his era of fame was short. I knew him but not well."
Winter weather flying in England left much to be desired. Many of our departures and our return trips were hazardous. Taking off more often than not meant climbing to altitude in the most adverse weather conditions imaginable. The danger was increased by an overloaded sky containing hundreds of others all seeking a clear sky and their rendezvous destination. Unfortunately for many the rendezvous destination came as a mid-air collision. Return trips, often near dusk with a low ceiling also required skill and a bit of good luck. More than one crew was lost when they flew into the ground or attempted to share the another bomber's air space. It was a dangerous business we were in. Marginal visibility became as big a hazard as the fighters and the flak.
Still in the tail, I flew again with the Thorall crew on October 26th, this time to Bielefeld. Guy Weddel after his prior experiences had come to the conclusion I carried a rabbit's foot in my pocket. I continued to marvel at the sight of the bomber stream and wondered what our bombs were hitting when we dropped them through the clouds.
The month of October ended with a trip to Munster on the 30th. Someone asked me how many missions I had flown since my return. I was not sure because I had flown without being on the crew list and the credit went to someone else. My goal was not to complete a required number of missions and go home. All I wanted to do was fly. I flew four missions during the first nine days of November as Conrad Thorall's tail gunner. Then had a break until November 25th. I am not sure, but I think the crew went to the flak home.
During mid November I had a pass and planned to meet Genevieve in London at the Barclay Hotel. When I arrived at the hotel she was waiting for me and told me she had already registered for a room. I started to register and she told me it was not necessary. "We can share the same room," she said. I almost jumped out of my skin with excitement and anticipation. We went to the room and barely had time for the door to close before we were involved in a fit of passion. There was a knock on the door. "I ordered tea," Genevieve said and added, "I want this to be like the first time." We enjoyed our tea and after a torrid and amorous half-hour I was the one who suggested we go and see a show. We caught a taxi to Rainbow Corner and picked up tickets.
I am not sure either one of us paid much attention to the actors on stage. Our dedication was more directed to a script of our own making. We went to one of the Corner Houses after the show and then returned to the hotel and our room. Genevieve said she wanted to take a bath. I sat impatiently for about thirty minutes until she came out wearing a beautiful negligée. I gathered my toilet article kit and headed for the bath.
I came out of the bathroom clad in my pajamas hoping my emotions were not too obvious. If Genevieve objected she did not say so. She was under the covers waiting for me. Our three days of bliss ended all too soon. On the last evening Genevieve asked me, "Wing Ding, why did you make me wait so long?" I had no answer, I too wondered the same thing.
On November 25th we were back in the air. The flak was moderate to intense, but for us there was no significant damage. Being a tail gunner had taken on a different image. On most missions the Luftwaffe was conspicuously absent from the sky. The intense excitement once experienced during a mission was a thing of the past. There was little to do other than sit in the tail and watch. However, there was no let up in the antiaircraft fire. The density and the accuracy of the German antiaircraft defense had turned the sky into a gigantic shooting gallery; we were the clay pigeons.
I was tired of riding in the tail and had been spending more and more time on the flight line working with several of the ground crew chiefs. I had a goal. I wanted to move to the flight engineer position. I wanted to see where we were going and I wanted to be promoted to T/Sgt.
Conrad Thorall did not fly on November 26th so I filled in for another tail gunner. Fighters were reported to be in the area and flak was intense. The B-17 of Lt. Kirkbridge was hit by flak and forced to land behind friendly lines. S/Sgt Arthur Wilson, the ball turret gunner was killed and a waist gunner wounded. The lead aircraft of the Group was also hit and was forced to land on the continent with two fatalities.
November 30th was a rare day. Visibility was good and we bombed Merseburg from 28,000 feet. The flak was of the usual Merseburg quality and took out the B-17 of Lt. Arthur M. Smith. Although they went down in a flat spin seven of the nine man crew managed to bail out. Lt. Smith was not one of the survivors.
CHAPTER 33 - A PURPLE HEART
It was a rainy day, early in the month of December 1944. Actually it was not a heavy rain, but a drizzle combined with a mist so heavy you could cut it with a knife. I thought about going to the flight line and decided against it. Then I remembered a newly acquired flare pistol and flares I had liberated from a no longer serviceable B-17.
I stood in the barracks doorway fiddling around with the flare gun. I don't think I intended to fire it, but after I loaded it the urge to shoot seemed to take over. I pointed it out of the doorway and pulled the trigger. As one might logically expect, it fired. The bright red flare arched through the shroud-like mist into the direction of an approaching figure of the deputy squadron commander riding his bicycle. The flare moved in his direction as if guided by a spirit. The deputy, no fool, had enough sense to bite the dust. I think it might be more appropriate to say he bit the mud.
I made no attempt to run or hide. I stood there and laughed at the sight of the major going in one direction and his bicycle going in another. He climbed to his feet. Mud covered his entire uniform. His face was contorted in anger. In a flash he zeroed in on the smoking flare pistol. He demonstrated no sense of humor as he ordered me to report to the orderly room. He stated his intention to have me reduced to private and put on permanent guard duty. I figured I had pushed my luck one notch too far. He seemed to be really pissed. He picked up his bicycle, shook his fist in my face and rode off, headed to his quarters to clean up.
I went to the orderly room as ordered and reported to the first sergeant. He instinctively knew I was in trouble. He asked, "Wing Ding, what in the hell have you gotten yourself into this time?" I told him the story in detail. I did not notice the squadron commander standing in his office partially concealed by the door. The squadron commander stepped out and asked, "Wing Ding, what the hell am I going to do with you? You are supposed to shoot Germans not people on our side." He confiscated my flare pistol and booted me out of his office.
December 1944 was one of the most miserable and coldest Decembers in over fifty years. Flying time was limited because of the weather. On December 4th we went to Kassel. If ever there was a milk run this was it. The flak was light and there were no fighters thanks to our escort. We were off to Merseburg on the 6th. The Merseburg mission was also easy. Again, light flak and heavy fighter escort.
Along about the 10th of December I flew as a flight engineer on a practice mission. I have no desire to embarrass anyone or cast a cloud on a pilot who may well have relatives or friends read this story; therefore the date and the name of the pilot are not essential.
It was late in the afternoon, evening was not far away. Flying conditions were marginal and we had been instructed to land at an alternate field. The pilot's comment as clearly as I can recall was, "The hell with it, I have a hot date. There is no way I am going to divert." He turned and flew away from our base for a while. He then turned again, lined up on a signal and headed towards what he thought would be Podington despite the navigator's strong advice to divert. We were slowly letting down as we approached what he thought should have been the runway. The altimeter was creeping lower and lower and the fog became thicker and thicker. We were below 500 feet and there were no runways in sight or signal flares to indicate a runway. Suddenly the fog thinned. On our right there appeared a tall brick chimney; on our left there was another structure. Rooftops were reaching up toward our ball turret. I looked at our airspeed and saw it was 140. Although I did not have a lot of time to think about it my thoughts were, "This is not too good."
Everything took place in a matter of seconds, but it seemed to take forever. The navigator came out of the nose and popped into the cockpit area. He was busy making the sign of the cross. The pilot panicked; he let go of the controls, covered his face with his hands and screamed, "Jesus Christ we are all going to die." Our copilot was not ready to die. He took over the controls, eased the throttles forward, raised our right wing to clear an obstruction and continued to climb out of what seemed to be a forest of tall chimneys.
Off to our left we spotted two yellow flares. Someone knew we were there and they knew we were in trouble. The copilot turned the B-17 like a liaison aircraft. In a flash we were over a runway, down on a runway and stopped. I knew I had been given another chance to live.
On December 15th Thorall was not flying and I went to Kassel as the tail gunner on the crew of William Lambert, an easy going Texan. I had become very comfortable flying on the Thorall crew and was not pleased with the change. However, on reaching the airplane I was made to feel welcome by a friendly crew.
I flew again with the Lambert crew on December 18th. We took off in the fog and bombed marshalling yards at Ehrang. Our return was under equally difficult weather conditions. But the flak was light and there were no fighters. The most exciting part of the mission was the take-off and the landing. I thought the weather was the worst I had ever seen.
December 23, 1944 the weather demonstrated it could become worse. I was having my last ride as a tail gunner and was back with the Thorall crew. The fog was so bad we had trouble finding our aircraft. I was sure we would not fly. Then out of the dense fog came the green flares. The mission was on! We were going to Ehrang to hit the marshalling yards.
Flak on the mission to Ehrang was light, but it was there and a burst came near our tail. There was a sharp crack. My head snapped backwards. I knew I had been hit, but did not know the extent of my wound. A jagged piece of flak cut the left cheek of my face and another caught me just above my left eye. There was more of a burning sensation than there was of pain. My oxygen mask was still operable and the bleeding not too severe. I decided to wait until we landed to report being hit.
CHAPTER 34 - OUT OF THE TAIL
December 28th was a big day. The sutures of my relatively minor wound had been removed. I was well on the way to healing. A goal had been achieved; I was in the cockpit as flight engineer for the William Lambert crew. For me this was a new combat experience. I could now see the flak long before we entered the field of fire. My first impression was awesome. Before I had always watched the flak while we were in it or while other groups were flying through it. Now I had the opportunity to contemplate our potential fate well in advance. I immediately developed new respect for pilots.
New Year's day I went to Magdeburg, with Lt. Peters as the pilot. My notes do not indicate his first name. Probably because I was not on first name basis with the average officer. I had been to the same target area before but this time was different. I was up front where I could see the full show. Somehow we missed our timing and were either too late or too early for our escort and we ran into a dozen or so of the Luftwaffe. For the first time I had an opportunity to fire the top turret guns in combat. One thing was apparent; the fighters did not demonstrate the same degree of aggressiveness as those I had seen during 1943 era. Again, as usual the flak was of more concern than were the Luftwaffe fighters.
January 2nd we were headed for a place called Bitburg. It was one of those rare days when we had visual bombing. The pilot was Lt. John Bosko. I had never flown with Lt. Bosko before but he was some sort of a legend. During an August 1945 mission to Merseburg while on the bomb run his aircraft was struck in the open bomb bay by flak. The damage was incredible. The radio room was destroyed and the ball turret gunner killed. Aileron and elevator cables were cut. Fully armed bombs, not yet dropped failed to explode. A fire in the bomb bay increased the probability of armed bombs still on board exploding. Working in an open bomb bay in a faltering aircraft the crew managed to extinguish the fire and drop the bombs. As if by some miracle Lt. Bosko and his copilot kept the crippled B-17 in the air. They nursed it along, steadily loosing altitude until they were over England. When the second engine died Lt. Bosko order the crew to bail out. He and his copilot then landed the battered B-17. I felt privileged to fly with him as his engineer.
January 4, 1945 marked my 21st birthday. I knew we were to fly the next day so my celebrating was limited to going to Aero Club but I did not drink. It was in fact a very dull birthday. I left the club and rode my bike out to the flight line and drank coffee with the ground crew. I owed them much for all the lessons they had so willingly taught me. Among the things I tried to learn was code. This was a failure. My radio skills were limited to turning the equipment on and searching for music. I never did learn to tell the difference between a dot and a dash.
On the morning of January 5, 1945 prior to our trip to Niederbresig, Lt. Peters assembled the crew. He announced I had been promoted to T/Sgt and would continue to fly as engineer for his crew. My promotion was celebrated by a genuine milk run. Flak was scarce and we had an escort of over a hundred fighters. I wondered how my brother was doing and thought it was good and was safe in the prison camp.
I was not scheduled to fly on January 6th but I filled in to cover for a hung over tail gunner. He had suffered all night with the dry heaves and was in no condition to fly. Our trip to Cologne was uneventful. I thought about the Luftwaffe's rare and intermittent appearance and wondered when and where we would see them again. I also noticed I was having trouble staying awake. Although the long hours spent searching for nonexistent fighters in the sky was boredom, it was not sufficiently boring enough to make me wish for the intense fighter activity we had experienced in 1943.
On January 10th I was again in the cockpit with Lt. Peters. We were headed for Gymnich to bomb the airfield. The flak was heavy and on the way in our lead aircraft with Captain O'Halloran and Major Bideganeta took a severe hit on the right wing and lost the number #3 engine. They continued on; a second hit cost them engine #4. They left the formation and quickly lost their final two engines. The B-17 was now, for all practical purposes, a glider. They opened the bomb bay doors and dumped the bombs. Captain O'Halloran then maneuver his "glider" to an open field in friendly territory where he skillfully made a wheels-up landing in a field covered with snow.
One other B-17 took hits and lost three engines and was forced to land near Liege. Tragically the waist gunner bailed out at about three hundred feet and was killed when his parachute failed to open. The remainder of the crew escaped injury.
Shortly after bombs away a burst of flak knocked a hole into our airplane behind the copilot's seat. Miraculously no one was hit. But an oxygen line and a hydraulic line ruptured. The fire was immediate and intense. Nothing, absolutely nothing short of having your wings fall off is more attention grabbing than fire in the cockpit. The pilot cannot divert his attention from his formation flying and there is insufficient room for the copilot to help. I grabbed the fire extinguished from the bulkhead and sprayed the area. A box of flares was starting to burn. I threw the burning box out of the still open bomb bay. The fire died as the oxygen at the location diminished. The B-17 is provided with four oxygen systems operating at a pressure of 400 pounds per square inch. Each system is separate to minimize the impact of failure of a system in combat situations.
It was not to be my day. As we prepared to land the ball turret gunner announced the landing gear was not down. The pilot told me to crank it down. I moved to the bomb bay and prepared to crank the gear down. I inserted the crank and started to crank the gear down. I was on the third turn when the copilot decided to try the landing gear switch one more time. The drive motor to the landing gear turned on causing the crank to turn. The crank struck my right elbow knocking me partially onto the bomb bay doors. I had no parachute on and hung on to the walkway with my left hand as I stared at the ground from the partly opened doors. My right arm was useless; I was sure it had been broken. When I managed to get back into the cockpit I proceeded to tell the copilot he was a dumb shit. It did not relieve my pain. But it made me feel better. Later, at the debriefing his apology was profuse. So was mine. I knew there was no excuse for my insubordination. Fortunately, the damage to the arm amounted to no more than a severe bruise.
Despite my arm still throbbing on January 13th I decided to fly. My choice was a good one. There was good visibility and a minimal amount of flak. We bombed a railroad bridge at Karlsruhe with good results. The mission was, for us, a genuine milk run.
CHAPTER 35- -THE SECOND PURPLE HEART
January 15th should have been one of the easiest missions of the war. We were going to bomb marshalling yards at Freiburg. The cloud cover forced us to use PFF (pathfinder) and there was no way to tell how successful we had been. The flak was sporadic and it seemed as if we would escape without damage.
Shortly after bombs away a near burst of flak appeared to the front of our airplane. I recall seeing the red flash in the center. Several quick companion bursts followed. They had our range. I heard the sharp crack and at the same time felt the pain. No one had to tell me I had been hit. Unlike the first time I had been wounded, this one really hurt. I came down out of the turret and doubled over. A dark stain was appearing on the front of my flight suit at the crotch. I remembered Mike, our first tour bombardier and how he had died when his femoral artery had been cut with flak. He had not bled. I was bleeding. I was sure my penis had been blown away. Because of the pain I had trouble breathing. I pulled myself back into the turret and turned my oxygen on full. I cautiously looked down; the bleeding did not seem to be severe, but I could feel it running down my right leg.
I reached inside of my suit and tried to assess the damage. The slightest touch caused excruciating pain. I was sure I had been totally emasculated. I had determined I was not going to die. But my thinking was I would have to sit down to pee for the rest of my life. For some reason the thought struck me as funny and I laughed. The flight back to our base took forever and I went directly to the base hospital and from there to the Seventh General Hospital. I was overjoyed to learn my injuries were actually slight. I still had one of the family jewels intact and to my way of thinking one was a lot better than not having any.
I spent the remainder of March and almost all of February at the hospital. The food was great and regular passes were available. I took full advantage of everything they had to offer. Numerous times during February I had asked to return to duty. The hospital adjutant kept telling me to wait. One day while in the mess hall one of the hospital corpsmen told me I would be going home soon.
The prospect of leaving without finding my brother pushed my button at the wrong time. Within minutes I was in the office of the Commanding Officer. I told him I was not going to fly any more but had to wait for my brother. My persuasiveness prevailed and I was on my way back to Podington. My return route was rather circuitous. It took me through London and three days at the Barclay Hotel with Genevieve. She was pleased to learn I had fully recovered.
I came back to Podington and flew a mission with Robert E. Williams on March 1st. I was quite comfortable being back in the air, although I was still very sensitive in the area of my groin. We went to the marshalling yards at Reutlingen. The weather permitted a visual bomb run. The destruction to the yards and buildings rendered them useless. Captain Williams was back in the air on March 2nd, this time headed for Sachische where we helped to put the finishing touches on a coal drying plant storage facility. Bombardiers were again provided with an opportunity to bomb visually. The results were impressive.
On March 4th a visitor came to my barracks. Flight Officer Anthony L. Marozas from Chicago asked me to fill in as his engineer. I thought back to a practice mission and recalled a near crash when a pilot had used bad judgment and nearly cost me my life. The copilot of the practice mission had been Flight Officer Anthony L. Marozas. I did not have to think long. He had my answer without hesitation or reservation. Although I had only flown with him one time, he had left me with no doubt as to his ability and skill as a pilot.
A 1st Lieutenant from Texas was assigned as our copilot. I thought it unusual for us to have a pilot who was a Flight Officer and a copilot who was a Flight Officer, but said nothing. We flew a couple of practice missions as a crew and our copilot was impressive. He knew how to fly in a tight formation and his landings were smooth without a lot of cockpit movement. He was a really good pilot. We learned he already had flown five missions and were happy to have an experienced man in the right hand seat.
On March 9th we were on a mission to bomb Kassel. As we approached the IP and prepared to bomb under visual conditions the flak to the front of the formation was moderate and accurate. There were no fighters in the area and I was out of my turret, standing between the pilot and copilot. I noticed the copilot had covered his face with his hands. He removed one hand for a moment, turned toward me and gestured wildly as he pointed to the flak bursting to our front. He continued to keep his face covered, but soon after bombs away he caught a glimpse of a/c 44-8326 flown by Lt. Fred Stewart take a burst of flak. It exploded; only two parachutes were seen. At the sight of the loss our copilot became extremely distressed and was barely able to function during our return to base and during the landing.
I had a serious discussion with Flight Officer Marozas and he wanted to give the Lieutenant one more chance. However when we flew pathfinder missions to Dortmund on the 10th and to Molbis on the 17th of March our reluctant copilot was suffering from blocked sinus and did not fly with us. I thought it was unfortunate he missed the two missions because both were in the milk run class.
Our sick copilot had recovered enough to fly with us on March 18, 1945. The briefing officer pulled back the curtain to reveal a long red line all the way to Berlin. He predicted intense and accurate flak. I wondered how our copilot would hold up?
We turned on the IP. Far ahead the flak appeared like a dark cloud. As we continued on course the dark cloud began to demonstrate the familiar individual octopus shaped black bursts of flak. Moving still closer we now could see the ball of orange explosion in the center of each burst. I turned my attention to the copilot. He was again covering his face. A burst slightly above and to the front of us knocked a hole in the windshield on the pilot's side. I quickly checked and determined Mr. Marozas had not been hit. But we had serious problems. I saw Mr. Marozas pull down his goggles to protect his eyes from the subzero blast of air coming through the windshield. In the meantime our copilot decided he had seen enough. Without warning he seized the controls and tried to turn us out of the flak pattern. How we missed being involved in a midair collision will forever remain a mystery in my mind. With two men struggling for control we moved through the formation without direction. Mr. Marozas continued to struggle for control of the airplane without success. The copilot had lost his steel helmet. Flak continued to pummel us. I took the fire extinguisher and hit him hard enough to knock him out. I was temporarily without oxygen and nearly passed out. I reconnected my oxygen as Mr. Marozas slowly moved us back into position in the formation. The copilot remained slumped in his seat until well after we left the target area. In retrospect I know the entire incident took place in less than a minute, but it seemed like a long slow bad dream while it was happening.
Later I was called to testify before a board of officers as to the copilot's conduct during the two combat missions he flew with us. Despite his actions I felt genuine sorrow for him and testified with reluctance. I never learned what happened to him and I never saw him again.
On March 20th I again filled in for a tail gunner on a mission to Hamburg. Flak was minimal and fighters continued to be non-existent. It was obvious the war had to be coming to an end. Even the anti aircraft fire for most targets had become sporadic. On March 28th I flew my final mission. We went back to Berlin, a place where we could still count on having moderately intense flak. However, this time I flew with a copilot who was capable of conducting himself with the courage required of a man in the right hand seat.
I reported to sick call around the end of March and found myself grounded because of a severe ear infection. Pending the flight surgeon's determination I decided to go to on leave to London. I returned from London on April 5th and was told Flight Officer Marozas had been shot down on April 4th. On further inquiry I learned he and the crew had been taken prisoner but had been held for only a short time before being retaken by British troops. When they finally returned about two weeks later Flight Officer Marozas had a vivid scar at least six inches long on his left cheek where the surgeons had operated to repair a badly broken jaw.
Somewhere during the period of the second tour I had lost count of the number of missions I had flown. The mission count was not important, I was not flying with a goal of going home. I was waiting for my brother who unbeknown to me was marching across Germany in one of Europe's worst winters in nearly one hundred years. I had no idea he was slowly starving and getting weaker with each passing day. In my ignorance I continued to be thankful he was no longer flying and safe in a prisoner of war facility.
CHAPTER 36 - JOHN'S WINTER WALK
On February 6, 1945 in one of the toughest winters Europe had experienced in a long time we set out on a forced march. The guards told us our march would last only three days. Seventy-five days later we were still marching. Our three day forced march did not end until April 26, 1945. The march led us from Stalag Luft IV near Gross, Tychon, Poland to Halle, Germany. I was but one of nearly 9,500 others who endured the march.
The march was, as some have said, "savage". Most of us were malnourished and for the most part in need of medical care. It would have been a test for a healthy well-trained paratrooper. For us it was a test of pure guts and a determination to survive. The winter weather was bitter cold and we were nearly starving. There was no way to take a bath. Fleas and lice feasted on our bodies adding discomfort to our problems of hunger, exhaustion, frozen feet and dysentery. In many cases the survival of a prisoner was the result of another prisoner sacrificing his own comfort and well being to care for the less fortunate.
We marched on in misery. Each day was a new ordeal. My feet were giving me trouble. I sort of lost track of time as I plodded on day by day. The winter weather eased and seemed to be warming. But, food remained a rarity, body lice and fleas continued their feast. They did not seem to mind our malnourished bodies.
It was near the end of April when we marched through the front lines at Bitterfeld, Germany. A pair of P-51 fighters flew over us at a low altitude. Their canopies were open and their wings waggling. I am sure I was not the only man who choked back sobs of joy over the end of our incredible journey. There was no longer anyone in control of the prisoners so another guy and I bummed a Jeep ride to Halle and holed up for a couple of days at the German airfield where we found beds and showers. We convinced the local Military Government to give us rations and located a BMW motorcycle with which we toured the area. The next day a C-47 landed at the airfield. We satisfied the pilot, a colonel, as to our identity and talked him into giving us a ride to Rhemes, France where we were deloused, issued clean clothing and fed. From there I went to Camp Lucky Strike where all former POWs were congregating. I managed to persuade authorities of the need for me to go to London because my twin brother was waiting for me.
I crossed the English Channel in some sort of a British ship and managed to make my way to London. When I arrived at the Rainbow Corner Red Cross Club at Piccadilly Circus I made inquiries. A kind lady, Adele Astaire told me she knew my brother, Gene, and would contact him. She arranged for us to meet in the Red Cross Club on VE night.
The night in London was one of the greatest in our lives. I can still see my brother coming down the left side of the hall to greet me. He was taller and a T/Sgt. We hugged each other for the first time since I had last seen him in Rapid City, South Dakota. He showed me around London, taught me how to drink English beer and took me to the Windmill Theater a burlesque house open twenty-four hours a day. The Windmill Theater was a great place. You paid your money to go in and when the curtain fell on the show for intermission everyone scrambled over seats to work their way to the front row. Here I met a very nice young member of the cast, Valerie Ware. She was about eighteen, blond and attractive. I still remember her address, 39 Marlow Dr. N. Cheams, London, England.
It was a reunion to remember, and the lights were on in my heart as they were all over London.
CHAPTER 37 - NORTH AFRICA AND HOME
John left England and I returned to Podington. Combat was over and now I spent time flying on several sight seeing trips to the Rhur Valley for the benefit of ground personnel. I had to decide what I wanted to do. The 327th was being reassigned to Port Lyautey, French Morocco in support of the Green Project which was intended to provide support service for the relocation of prisoners of war and other high point personnel to the United States. The squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel James A. Smyrl asked me to be his engineer. Despite having more than double the number of points required for rotation to the United States I wasted no time thinking about an answer. I am no longer sure of the date of our departure from England. But I vividly recall the flight. The moon was bright; scattered cumulus clouds were sprinkled across the sky. Our B-17 had been stripped of all war time equipment and we flew at an altitude of 5,000 feet. I had never seen the sky or the ocean appear with more elegance.
We flew back to England around the middle of July for a conference and I managed to reach Genevieve. She told me she was soon to return home but wanted to see me. We managed to spend three days at the Barclay hotel in London. We left the hotel to eat and see a few shows, but most of our time was spent in our room. In the end we parted with love. Genevieve was returning home and I was to return to North Africa. I think we both knew our romance had come to an end. She looked at me and told me, "Wing Ding, I have no regrets." I returned to French Morocco with a clear conscience and a happy heart.
My time at Port Lyautey had come to an end. I returned to England for a final visit before heading home. Before leaving England I made a heartbreaking trip to Cambridge and visited the American cemetery and said goodbye to Mike and others. As I walked among the markers I silently cried my heart out. The following poem, written by and unknown author said it all:
THEY CAME TO MADINGLEY
If chanced I wandered Hardwick way
From Cambridge on a sunny day.
By pleasant lanes in early May
And here I parked, an hour to stay.
Then o'er the trees against the sky
I saw Old Glory flying high
And remembered nearby lay
War Dead of the U.S.A.
'T was Madingley I'd choose to stay
Where often aged couples stray
From several thousand miles away
And at a grave to stand and pray.
Maybe o'er their only son
And clasp the medal that he won
As he was on his fateful way
To come to Madingley to stay.
He may have come from Santa Fe.
He may have known the Great White Way.
Some came who knew Pacific spray
Blowing in from 'Frisco Bay
They came from North, East, South and West
Certain their own state was best;
Reckless too with love or pay
Then came to Madingley to stay.
By various paths they made their way
To come to Madingley to stay,
Some bombed Schweinfurt in the day
And, in air-combat's lethal fray
A bullet does not ask what race,
Not even colour of a face
And some could fall to "friendly" stray
Then come to Madingley to stay.
And these at Madingley do stay
Are very much the same as they
Our Brits; in France or in Maylay.
And "Senseless slaughter" some may say
But such are easy words to speak
For Belsen's chimney ceased to reek
Due to young men such as they
Who came to Madingley to stay.
Oh do not let the Dead March play
O'er these at Madingley do stay
For they were young and old-style gay,
Play their music of the day;
Tunes of Dorsey, songs of Bing.
Let them hear Glenn Miller's swing
Then too the crosses well may sway
With those at Madingley do stay.
Although, in truth, those boys don't stay
I've 'Knowledge" and I hereby say
The empty bodies are not 'They'
Below in that cold Cambridge clay;
Such happy souls don't stick around
In that well-tailored burial ground
But you be sure they see you pray
And pray for you, as you for they.
-- Author Unknown --
On arrival in the United States I found my next duty assignment was the National Airport, Washington D.C with duty on one of the "Brass Hat Squadron's B-17's". While there I met a WAAC M/Sgt. Margaret Hayes. Maggie worked at the Pentagon for General Eisenhower. We soon became close friends and shared many evenings talking about our past and hopes for the future. Maggie was promoted to Warrant Office and convinced me I should go to Officer Candidate School. At the time the Air Force did not have an OCS program so I opted to go to Infantry OCS and then jump school.
It was then I decided on the demise of Wing Ding. Somehow it did not seem appropriate to aspire to troop leadership while being known as Wing Ding. I queried a plastic surgeon and quickly found I could not afford the surgery required to remove my tattoo. However I had made up my mind. I learned there was a "do-it-yourself" method. The method consisted of rubbing the tattoo with gauze and salt until the skin began to seep. It was then permitted to heal until a scab formed. When the scab peeled it had tinges of color. The process was then repeated, each repetition resulted in a lightening of the tattoo. It took more than six months, but the identity of the tattoo slowly disappeared and became an unidentifiable faint scar. And as the scar faded so faded Wing Ding to become a historic memory of a life once lived and a war now over.
For a long time in my possession was an Irish Blessing given to me by Molly. It read:
"May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
Let the rain fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand."
As I reflect on the words of Molly's Irish Blessing I am forced to conclude:
The road did rise up to meet me and I found the wind always at my back. The sun did shine warm upon my face and the rains fell soft on my fields. For what reason I will never know, God chose to hold me in the palm of His hand. He let me look deep into the shadows from where there was no return. But then He gave me strength and led me back into the light.
I could write forever, but I could never express it with more truth and dignity than did Col. Bud Peasley in this beautiful passage:
"The tumult and the shouting have died away. The B-17's and B-24's will never again assemble into strike formation in the bitter cold of embattled skies.
Never again will the musical thunder of their passage cause the very earth to tremble, the source of sound lost in infinity and seeming to emanate from all things, visible and invisible.
The great deep-throated engines are forever silent, replaced by the flat, toneless roar of the jets and the rockets.
But, on bleak and lonely winter nights in the English Midlands, ghost squadrons take off silently in the swirling mist of the North Sea from ancient weed-choked runways, and wing away toward the east, never to return.
On other nights the deserted woodlands ring with unheard laughter and gay voices of young men and young women who once passed that way.
Recollections of all these fade a little with each passing year until at last there will finally remain only the indelible records of the all-seeing Master of the Universe to recall the deeds of valor excelled by no other nation, arm, or service. These sacred scrolls will forever remain the heritage of the free and untrampled people of this earth."
Colonel Budd Peasley,
C.O. 384th Bomb
Group (H), 8th Air Force
This story has been under construction for almost two years. It was written at the behest of my daughter, Esther H. Price. She often urged me to put down on paper my war time experience with the 8th Air Force. It was not easy. There were things I did not care to remember. Ever so slowly I made the transition and finally started the story. I could not devote full time to writing because I had a business to run; therefore my writing has been done in the early morning and late evening.
On June 18, 1999 I asked R. J. Rake-Herrmann from Sierra Vista, Arizona to assist me with proof reading and editing. Her initial reaction was to decline. Fortunately she read part of my original draft and changed her mind.
Her attention to detail and the long hours she spent proof reading and editing have undoubtedly served to improve the story you have read. I am grateful. Her work was a labor of love and has added much to the content of this story.
There are still living from our original crew pilot, Otis C. Ingebritsen and copilot, Edward J. Meginnies. We have become good friends and they contributed essential information. We flew our twenty-five missions with the 560th Squadron, 388th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, mostly in 1943 and without fighter escort.
My second tour from August 1944 to the end of the war was with the 327th Squadron, 92nd Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. Navigator Mel Engle and waist gunner Guy Weddel have helped me fill in details of a tour when the Luftwaffe no longer ruled the sky. However, the fighters had been replaced in part by extremely accurate antiaircraft fire.
I am indebted to two friends, no longer with us, Edward J. Huntzinger for use of his excellent reference, "The 388th At War" and John S. Sloan for his "The Route As Briefed". There are two other great reference works, "B-17 Nose Art Name Directory" by Wallace R. Forman and "The B-17 Flying Fortress Story" by Roger A. Freeman. In addition there is a Combat Recon Marine, Wayne Sirois, known to his friends as Crunch, a superb graphic artist who did the art for the cover of the book.
I must note with appreciation the time spent on The Heavy Bombers web site created by Scott Burris. The site enabled me to communicate with others who shared and cared. Many were pilots, navigators, bombardiers and crewmen who contributed to revitalizing a fading memory. Also were the widows, sons, daughters and grandchildren who told the same story over and over. "I wish I had talked to him about it while he was still living." To name one is at risk of slighting others.
There one final person, my twin brother, John W. Carson, who when he was reported killed motivated me to return to search for him. I am grateful to him for telling the story dealing with his time as a prisoner of war. It represents the first time we have ever talked about it.
Fifty-seven years ago is a long time to remember. Some of what I have written has brought back memories and once again a dreams of days spent in another life. A life of excitement, and moments wondering whether or not there would be a tomorrow.
Let the reader be aware, in writing this story I have altered a few names and dates. This has been necessary to protect the image and details when I was of the opinion it might embarrass an individual or his family.
Today, as I look back to 1942 until mid 1945 there are times I find it difficult to accept the fact, I was there and I did it.
----- Gene Carson
The forgoing is the contents of Gene's Book, Wing Ding. If you would like to Order the book to have for your own, you may do so through Amazon.com. Click on the book cover image below.
Click Here to Order Gene's Book
This is no run-of-the-mill WWII book. It is the exciting story of a cook in the Army Air Corps. It tells of his unauthorized move from the kitchen to life as an aerial gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress in the unfriendly skies of Europe in 1943 to 1945. You will laugh cry and share in his life as he fights for his country while snatching moments of relief and love between missions. For those who were there it will bring back memories. For others, it will tell what it was like for grandfathers, fathers and uncles.
Eugene T. Carson lives in Kaneohe, Hawaii. "Wing Ding", his first book tells the story of his life as an aerial gunner through sixty mission on a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 8th Air Force during the 1943 -1945 air war over Europe. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel Regular Army late November 1971 after service in Korea and Vietnam. His military decorations include the Legion of Merit with one oak leaf cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster.
See Mr. Carson's homepage
A Tail Gunner's Story
Copyright 1999 Eugene Carson, All Rights Reserved
B17 Tail Gunner Position, Photo of Eugene T. Carson, 506th Bmb Squadron, 388th Bmb Group
Biography of John Harvey Carson, 1st Lt., Company E, Second Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division, USMC, Vietnam, Use Back Key To Return
Biography of John W. Carson, Lt. Col (S/Sgt), Radio Operator/Gunner, 96th Bomb Sqdn, 2nd Bomb Group, 15th AF, USAAF, USAF
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