BENNETT HOWELL'S RECOLLECTIONS OF CARL McHENRY - - - CIRCA 1944-45
This is a copy of a cassette tape from Bennett Howell to Dr. John K. McHenry, in October, 1982. This was in response to a letter sent to former crewmember's by Dr. McHenry, Carl McHenry's son born while we were overseas and shortly before Carl was killed on a mission.
This cassette tape is being made in response to your letter of August 25, 1982 concerning the activities of your father, Carl E. McHenry, during the war years and more particularly during the period from August of 1944 through February 3, 1945. This tape is being prepared by Benneft D. Howell who was one of your father's best friends during this period and was a tail gunner on a B-1 7 and was with your father during the fatal mission in which he was killed.
I first met your father when I joined a reserve (1) training unit after completing gunnery school at Walla Walla, Washington. Your father had gone through similar gunnery training and had also qualified as the radio officer of our crew. The picture that was attached to your letter was actually taken at Walla Walla, Washington during our training period. Sterling Jensen was the pilot of the crew and can probable give you all of the other addresses of the crewmembers. In this picture, I am shown on the far right in the second row. To my knowledge every member of the crew had taken their gunnery training on B-24's; at that time known as a heavy bomber. We trained in Walla Walla as crews on this ship and gained a considerable amount of experience. A B-24 had a tricycle landing gear in which you land on the two wheels under the wing and then set the nose down similar to the way most jets do today. During training at Walla Walla, we mainly took gunnery training in which we qualified for the pistol and also a considerable amount of training in shooting the fifty-caliber machine gun plus training in leading targets with shotguns. Your father and I were together most of this time and actually became fairly proficient in handling a shotgun when shooting against skeet or trap. During this period your father was also a great poker player. At that time, high stakes in a game would be 25 to 50 cents, a bet being a normal nickel and dime. Remembering that we received $50/ a month as a private and about $54/ month as a PFC, [I don't remember what a corporal got], a buck sergeant received $75/month and a staff sergeant received $96/month. Therefore, the stakes in such poker games were considered rather high. Your father and I also took several passes together in Walla Walla where we mainly went to a hotel and drank beer in a room so thick and so full that we were elbow-to-elbow and beer had to be passed to us over the head of other troops or GI's in order to get a glass. I don't remember an awful lot about our off time at Walla Walla except that I think it was during this time that your father received a pass home just prior to the time you were born. I am not sure of these details. After finishing our training as a reserve unit, we were given a pass home and then reported to Hamilton Field, Calif. just outside of San Francisco. It was at this base that we were loaded on a huge troop train and headed toward the East coast. This train was rather unique because it had a great ability to pass through almost everybody's hometown. There were guards on the train that did not allow us to get off or make a telephone call since our movement was supposed to be strictly confidential. I think the only people that didn't know about our movement were our wives and sweethearts because I'm sure the German Army knew everything that was going on as I later learned. I can remember that while going through my hometown, which was then Chicago, I passed within about 4 blocks of my house but was not able to contact my folks. As I remember at that time, McHenry's hometown as Wheeling, West Virginia. From there we went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. This was a staging area for going overseas. We all took overseas physicals. This meant that you were still breathing. It was impossible to fail it. We also received new equipment, duffel bags, flight suits, and other things that we carried with us as we made our overseas journey. At this Gamp, we also had various USO shows to entertain the troops and also had some beer busts. I believe your father and I even engaged in bridge games but my memory is not clear on that point. From Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, we were loaded on a train or a bus and sent to New York where we were then loaded on the Aquatania, (2) a four-stacker British ship which was being used on reverse lend lease for the purpose of transporting American troops over to England. Prior to the time that we boarded this troop ship, we were given a pass to New York City where your father and I attended several of the main nightclubs in town. You must remember that during World War II, the American troops were held in great reverence. This was a popular war and during these shows we were invited in at no cost to ourselves. We also met my uncle and aunt who showed us the town at that time. I would say the average soldier in New York, before going overseas, could not even buy a drink if he wanted to. Somebody would treat him. Back to the ship. The Aquatania was a large four stacker with several decks. Since your dad and I were enlisted men, we were put in one of the lower decks [I believe it was G deck with A deck being on top]. The trip to England took about five or six days and we went without escort or convoy since the ship was fast and it was felt that there was minimal danger from submarines. However, on the ship, we had boat drill or abandon ship drill all the time. The first time they rang abandon ship drill it took about 45 minutes to I hour to get to our drill space. After that some of us on G deck agreed that the boat drill was not worthy our time and if we were to be sunk by a sub we would jut be a casualty of war. The food on the boat was rather interesting; in the morning we got porridge, British style. In the afternoon, we got one meal of sandwiches made out of beef or something we couldn't identify. I remember that the food was not delicious and we were given about 5-6 days K rations in case we were shipwrecked and floating around. It is my recollection that by the time we got to the British Isles (3), all of the K rations were eaten as regular rations. During this time we got into large poker games and I lost the $50 my uncle had given me for spending money in England. We landed in Southampton (4) and were sent to a staging area in England called Stone. My only recollection of Stone was that it  it always drizzled and/or rained and  the British supplied us with about 2 lumps of coal to keep us warm. Needless to say, as far as I am concerned, I was never warm, just wet and damp and cold all the time I was there. We were assigned to the 379th. Bomb Group of the Ist Squadron (5) of the 8th. Air Force. At this time we were a replacement crew in our squadron, I can't even think of the squadron number now and we were to fly 35 missions. Upon the completion of the 35 missions, we would go home. We also found out that we were not flying B-24 Liberator's in which we trained and knew something about but were assigned to B-17's. This was amazing to us and also our pilot since our pilot had never flown a B-17. Steriing Jensen, our pilot, had never had any experience and was allowed to go up with an experienced pilot prior to the time we did any further training. We had a Colonel in command of the group but I canl think of his name (7) whose fine to the pilots was 2 Pounds for every bounce that was made on a landing (9) Your father in a humorous manner used to get on the intercom as Jensen landed and kept track in U.S. dollars how much that landing had cost. He did it out loud on the intercom; when Sterling heard him [I might add made Sterling discipline (10) you father several times] however to my memory it never did stop him from counting off the cost of a landing. After the pilot had made several preliminary flights with other crews, he then took our crew up to get us acquainted with the airplane. The airplane was vastly different from the B-24 in that the B-24 had all turret guns and was operated primarily with hydraulics while the B-17 had all hand-held guns (11). In the tail section, which was my position, I had two hand held 50-caliber machine guns; both waist gunner's had a hand-held 50-caliber machine gun. The ball turret was electrically operated and had two 50-caliber machine guns. The radio room, which was your father's position on the plane, had one 50-caliber gun that was hand held. It was virtually of little effectiveness. I might add that during combat the radio operator had other duties so his position as a gunner was secondary. The bomb bays divided the crew positions with the radio room, waist and tail gunners back of the bomb bay and the pilot, copilot, top turret [also flight engineer], navigator, bombardier and nose gunner in the front of the aircraft. When we were in training we had a bombardier assigned to us however when we went into B-17s we lost our bombardier and the nose gunner acted as toggler. The lead ship had a bombsight and a bombardier (12). When the lead ship dropped its bombs it also dropped a smoke bomb; when the nose gunner saw the smoke he would toggle our bombs. The B-17, I think, could handle about 5000 lbs of bombs (13) in the bomb bay or we could handle 1000 lbs of bombs if we had wing bombs (14) or bombs on wing tanks (15). We had a very ineffective payload. The B-17 was also a slow ship and would travel to the target with a full load of bombs at about 90 (16) miles per hour coming home at about 120 (17). In those days fighters would travel about 350 mph so our relative speed was slow and if we made a deep penetration into Germany it was not uncommon for us to be gone for at least ten hours on a mission (18). During most of the mission we were under radio silence and were not supposed to communicate at all because the Germans could utilize this in fixing our position (19). The radio operator would basically communicate back to base with flight reports. He would also get fixes on various radio stations, which could aid in navigation. If we were going down, he could lock his radio in and allow people to get a fix on us for possible rescue. He also had another important function; during the time that we were in flak, he would throw out 'chaff' [like tinsel], which would jam up the German radar.
Back to our war games and other activities. Our pilot first flew with an experienced crew on two missions (20). In total your father and I flew 15 missions over Germany. I cant recall all of them but I can recall that some were flown during the Battle of the Bulge (21). These missions were pretty much milk runs. One was to Cologne to bomb a triple railroad bridge. As a prisoner I took a train over that same railroad bridge; we must have missed it or they repaired it fast. Other mission was to hit railroad yards to cut troop supplies. After the Bulge, we started flying some deep penetrations, again against transportation systems. I remember one mission we flew to Kassel (22) where the flak was deadly accurate. At one time a new pilot thought that he was real hotshot and bragged to all the other pilots that he could take off on half of a runway with a full load of bombs. He was right; he did lift off halfway down the runway (23) but didn't gain enough airspeed and landed in our squadron area. The incendiary bombs cooked off the high explosive bombs and leveled the area.
At the beginning of the tour our pilot flew missions ahead with another crew to familiarize himself with combat. Therefore the pilot finished first. Your dad and I decided that it would be smart if we would volunteer for several missions with other crews so that we could catch up with our pilot and go home at the same time. After a poker game and beer bust we went to headquarters and volunteered for a mission the next morning. We had about an hour and half of sleep and were awakened for a mission. During briefing we learned that we would be in the low element of the low squadron [Purple Heart Charley position]. On a mission to Berlin we were to fly over the Netherlands, cross the barge guns, we were to have fighter protection all the way. Our hearts sank because we had not volunteered for a milk run but one to Berlin. The crew we joined were on either their last or next to last mission; I believe their last. Our assigned plane had problems so we were assigned another plane (24) that had already flown 136 missions. We did not have time to preflight our guns and your fathers radio had not been property pre-flightged. We went over the British Channel and at that time the pilot of the crew said that he did not think it was necessary to test fire the guns as we had fighter cover all the way. On only two other missions had we been hit by fighters. This day our group did not get hit heavy by flak but the group following took quite a beating and I think they lost several planes. By the time we got to the IP (25) one of our engines started acting up and our pilot didn't want to go to a target defended like Berlin with only three engines operating. We aborted the formation and headed back to the North Sea alone. The crew we were in was not as organized as well as my regular crew and so instead of going back the same route we came in and have fighter protection, we chose our own route which took us between Bremen and Hamburg. In this area was a German fighter field and we would have to skirt their base to get to the North Sea. It was at this time that we were picked up by for German fighters. The first fighter attack was by three fighters. At this time I started firing at them but my guns jammed. I don't know what your father was doing since my position was behind him. The only other gunner that could fire to the rear fired some then his guns jammed. During this time a fighter came in so close that I could almost see the pilot's face; he was firing 9.9-millimeter cannons directly into our ship. Our ship caught fire and was smoking; our communication was gone and I saw that the crew was bailing out. Your father could have been coming back to warn me or he could have been hit or engulfed in flames; I don't know. My face and part of my body was severely burned. I thought that your father did not crash with the plane but must have bailed out. After I was captured a German told me he had been killed in the plane crash. I do know that your father was a brave man. He did not complain about combat nor did any of us. We felt our duty was to be there. I know that he was proud of his family and I remember smoking my first cigar when you were born.
Corrections are noted below and were made by Sterling Jensen, the Pilot of this Crew.
(1) We were a regular AAF unit; not the typical reserve as we now know it
(2) It carried 1 0,000 troops
(4) Glasgow, Scotland; Southampton is on the southern England coast
(5) Actually the First Air Division
(6) 525 Bomb Squadron
(7) Lewis Lyle [retired as a Major General]
(8) English pound; worth about $4.16
(9) Don't believe this!!!
(11) The B-1 7 had a top turret, a chin turret and a ball turret
(12) The deputy lead also carried a bombardier and bomb sight
(13) Actually 60OO lbs.
(14) No wing bombs, these were on some fighters
(15) We never carried bombs under the wings; there was no provision for this
(16) 150-160 mph, landed at about. 90 mph
(17) 150-160 mph
(18) Longest mission was about 11 hrs.
(19) This never seemed a problem with contrails, etc.
(20) Actually five; some of which were with our crew
(21) Our first mission was on Dec.24 to Frankfurt. because of heavy fog, each plane was guided by a jeep to the end of the runway; take off was by gyro compass as the runway lights were barely visible
(22) Kassel 1 Jan 1945; 9 ships minor, 6 major damage, and 1 shot down. Casualties: 1 wounded, 9 missing
(23) 23 Jan 1945.We took off just ahead of this plane
(24) Birmingham Jewel
(25) Initial point: from here vou flew at a constant speed, altitude and direction.