SCARED? FRIGHTENED? NERVOUS? YOU BETTER BELIEVE IT.
Many times I have been asked: "Were you seared while you were flying your bombing missions?" My answer has always been: "I certainly was, and anyone who declares negatively is either a damn liar or a damn fool!" The next question normally is: "What was your most frightening mission?"
I successfully completed 33 missions on which light to heavy flak was encountered most of the time, had one aborted mission, resulting in a crash landing, and numerous other experiences that were common to combat flying. Surprisingly, none of these resulted in the most frightening moments encountered. Those moments occurred during the nerve-wracking flight across the north Atlantic en-route to England from C-3 ;Goose Bay, Labrador, across the southern tip of Greenland, thence to Reykjavik, Iceland. The flight from Bangor, Maine to Goose Bay was uneventful with no icing problems, but the experience we had upon arriving there was unbelievable. The snow was up to the windows of the second floor of the barracks but the runways had been neatly plowed and each runway light had a neat hole for exposure, creating a beautiful sight. I had heard of the Northern Lights but being from Texas had never actually observed them. On this night (11-18-44) they were literally ablaze. The intensity and the array of colors are indescribable. God pulled out all the stops on 'that night! Thus ends the fun!
We were in a convoy of 30/35 B-24s headed for England. After about 4 hours of sack time we reported to the briefing for the next leg of our journey, which was to be across the southern tip of Greenland and then on to Iceland. In the opening moments of the briefing we encountered the statement:" Gentlemen, listen to me and listen to me very carefully, because your very lives depend on doing what I will tell you in the next few moments!" Did that get our attention?? You can damn well bet that it did,", This was estimated to be an 8 to 10-hr. flight. Our plans were to pick up the Greenland beacon as soon as possible, fly by it and then pick up the Iceland beacon and home in on it. Sounds simple enough, let's do it Simple if you are doing it in the summer time. This being November changes everything,
His instructions to us were: "Gentlemen, you have 3 "Certainties" to contend with! Certainty #1-- you ARE going to ice up! Certainty #2-- you WILL go down UNLESS you follow the instructions I am about to give you! Certainty #3--Should you go down, THERE IS NO HELP VAILABLE FOR YOU here in this North Atlantic. You can stay afloat less than one minute and after that there is no chance of survival! Did I get your attention?" "Now, here are your instructions: WHEN you Ice up, DO NOT turn on your de-icer boots until your air speed drops xx M P H and your altimeter drops xx feet per second. ( I cannot remember the exact numbers ) If you tum the boots on too early the new ice will form over the expanded boots and it will be impossible to break away. If you wait too long, the ice will then be too thick for the boots 'to break." (The de-icing mechanism on the B-24 was hydraulically operated by inflating grooves of flexible rubber imbedded into the leading edge of the wings. The alternately inflated grooves would break the ice away from the leading edge -when used properly.)
Further Instructions:" We are presently experiencing icing conditions with accumulated snow and your planes will probably need to be swept off before your departure from this base and your crews will be responsible for this chore. Should you feel the need for de- icing, you can go through hanger xx, but it will delay your departure. Greenland airbase will be used only in an emergency since it is very treacherous for landings and take-offs. There are Fjords and mountains to contend with!" Our crew DID sweep the snow from the plane's wings and though all were virtually exhausted, all agreed with "Mother" Hathaway that we should go through the de-icing hanger even though it caused us to be near the last crew to depart.
Finally, we were airborne--destination Meeks field, Iceland (hoping to avoid an emergency landing in Greenland). The entire flight was by instruments and our navigator, Henry Pearce never had the opportunity to "shoot the stars". Thank God for the radio beacons! We shortly picked up the Greenland beacon and were on our way. The #1 "certainty" did happen before long ---- we were icing up --- but we knew we were not to take any action until we reached 'the designated readings that were given to us. We continued to be "hell-bent" on NOT permitting certainty #2 and #3 to ever come to pass, Yes, there was extreme anxiety and "puckering" but we did not dare use the de-icers until the critical parameters were reached. We were completely surrounded at all times by "ice-producing" clouds and if one could forget 'the tenseness of the happenings, it was a beautiful sight caused by the reflection of all our running lights bouncing off the white clouds. It could be best described as "Flying inside a bottle of milk". We continued with our tenseness and finally reached those exact parameters necessary to turn on the de-icers. A personal silent word of prayer from all -- a flip of the switch and VOILA -- the most beautiful sight I have ever witnessed as well as the instantaneous feeling of relief. There must have been a trillion fragments of ice that instantly burst from the wings and each one was magnified by our many running lights on the plane as well as being reflected by the clouds we were in. Instantly our air speed and altitude started returning to normal and we proceeded to Greenland with no major problems. Fortunately, our crew was not required to land 'there. Several crews did, but with disastrous results. We were given clearance to proceed on to Iceland. . We picked up the Iceland beacon and homed in there with few difficulties.. WHAT A FLIGHT!!! On this flight, as is true on all combat missions in England, OLD MAN WEATHER was our worst enemy.
WHERE IS THE B-17
I know, I know, I know-this is a B-24 plane and crew and the 379th is a B- 17 group! What's the deal'? This is the end-result of a very strange series of events. We did, in fact, train as a B-24 crew which came together at Westover Field, Ma in late Sept - 1944 and immediately banded together as a family. We were ten young men, all from different states, Tx.,Pa.,La., Ky., Mt., Mn., Ma. ` IL., N Y., and Ok, destined to spend an unknown period of time with each other in situations where our very lives would depend upon each other.
Our overseas training was at Chatham Field (now Savannah Municipal airport) in Savannah Ga. We knew we were ultimately heading into combat overseas but knew not where. Our bombardier, Tom Shively did not accompany us overseas. Mass pattern bombing had become the desired method and a bombardier was not needed on every plane. Tom remained stateside to train other bombardiers and was the only one of our crew that followed a military career. He never bad the privilege of fly-ing with the magnificent 379th! From Savannah we reported to Mitchell Field, N.Y to await further assignment. After one week of weather delays we finally got our orders. England it would be, with stops at Goose Bay, Labrador - Reyjkavik, Iceland and the final destination at Valley, Wales. Then on to the replacement center at Stone, England on Nov. 22, 1944.
I suppose all crews went through Stone, England, both entering and leaving England, It was a period of extreme anxiety when entering and extreme excitement when leaving. Our entire group of 30 plus B-24 crews were suddenly mixed with air crews of all descriptions. Those entering with no idea as to what to expect and those leaving, having completed their required tour and probably thinking "'you innocent devils, I survived my tour, now it's your turn" Those 6 days spent at Stone were extremely enjoyable, as well as educational. It was truly our first experience with an "Airman's Melting pot".
On Nov. 28, 1944, we left Stone to report to our newly assigned base, the 379th Heavy Bomb group, located at Kimbolton, England. The short trip was by rail and upon alighting from the compartment in our rail car this B- 24 crew observed NOTHING but B- 17s in all directions. In astonishment, we immediately looked at each other said, "what the hell are we doing here. " We double- checked our written orders and we were at the correct destination. We immediately reported to the officer in charge, presented him with our official transfer papers, watched him go over them, then turn to us with eyes as big as saucers and exclaim, "what the hell are you guys doing here- - you are a B-24 crew --- this is a B-17 outfit". Our instant reply was, sir, that's what we would like to know. We too are dumbfounded!" His reply was, " 0 K, I'll put you up for the night and call Pinetree (code name for headquarters in London) to see what the hell I'm supposed to do with you and will see you tomorrow morning at 09:00." Confused?, scared?, excited?, full of anticipation? YES, all of the above!! Here we were, finally ready for combat after hundreds of hours in training, and the authorities don't even know what to do with us!!!!! Good Grief, What Now??
09:00 A M., following morning, we report to the officer in charge who reports to us, "Pinetree advises me that I am supposed to keep you, train you, and use you as a B-17 combat crew, which we need. They tell me you are " quite adaptable and we can train you readily" Note- (We were one of four such crews assigned to the 379th from the 30 plus crews involved in this particular movement of B-24 crews. In the mighty 8th Air Force the 1st and 3rd divisions were B-17 s and the 2d division B-24s,-- hence-- twice as many B-17 crews needed compared to B-24s) We wondered at the time: "Do they really mean "ADAPTABLE or EXPENDABLE.' We later found that it was a genuine compliment that they considered these four crews capable of being readily adaptable to unusual situations as needed.
After approximately 6 hours training as co-pilot while slow-timing newly installed engines and 2 missions as co-pilot (Re; Group mission # 248 and 252) 1 was pronounced ready to go as first pilot The rest of the story is hereby spelled out on this disk, detailing our 33 completed missions. Please join me by reading and listening to the stories as indicated on some of the missions.
P S- - After the initial short training experience we had, we were all happy that the transfer to the B-17 took place. It is a more "forgiving" aircraft and is truly capable of "coming in on a wing and a prayer" However, I am most grateful to have had the unusual privilege of piloting both of these fine bombers.
MID-GROUND ENCOUNTER BETWEEN A B-17 and A LINK TRAINER
January 23,1945 A miserable day at best. The "Battle of the Bulge" was raging and due to the deplorable weather conditions existing for the past 60 days. The "Battered Bastards of Bastogne" had received only a minimum amount of support from the 379th or any other 8th Air Force group. Not that we were not attempting to give them support (as well as attempting to weaken the defenses all over Germany); it's just that "Old Man Weather" was working against all of us.
Up practically every morning, breakfast with butterflies, briefing (with hearts pounding as the drape was drawn revealing the blue line into, and the suggestive red line out from the target), maybe a scrub before take-off and maybe a scrub after take-off (thus adding to the complications with full bomb and gas loads). And, just maybe, the stinking weather lifting enough to complete the mission scheduled for the day. (Hooray! One more kick in Hitler's rear and one less mission to fly!)
As this day started, long before the crack of dawn, little did any of us anticipate the variety of events that would occur before the day's end. Each flying day started at some ridiculous hour with the ominous click of the metal latch on the doors at the end of the long hall; the orderly entered to give us the "Teaser" for the day, consisting of briefing, time, bomb load, gas load, rounds of ammunition, and the assigned plane for the day. The target, of course, was just a guess until that anxious moment in the briefing room when the drape was drawn. All night long, and with mixed ernotions, I subconsciously listened for the click of that damned latch - thus indicating we may, (yet one more mission behind us - or its silence indicating we would get a little more precious sack time." On this particular day the latch did click. The orderly did enter, and the 'Teaser' for the day was: "Briefing at 05:00, bomb load = 10-500#'s, and 2- M 17s, gas load = 2400 gals, ammo.= 2,500 rounds, 50 cal., and flying plane #42-107213 (F-4).
As the curtain was drawn at briefing, the target revealed was the Marshaling Yards at Nuess, Germany. Not exactly a "milk-run", but it didn't draw the gasps usually heard when the curtain was drawn revealing a deep penetration, or one of the many well known heavily defended targets. We knew that on this day one of our worst enemies would again be the deplorable weather. And sure enough, as the day developed, this proved to be the case. On this particular mission the name of the 524th lead pilot eludes me, but the fact that he was known to all of us as "Mr. Precise" does not! Black was black, white was white, and a departure time of 08:00 was 08:00, not 08:01. He was very quiet and small of stature, but what he lacked in physical size was more than made up in exactness and proficiency. It was always comfortable to have someone of his caliber as lead pilot instead of some "Hot Rock". Instructions were to assemble on the lead plane at 10,000 ft., with departure to follow shortly thereafter.
Anxiety was ever-present as we worked our way through the overcast to the assembly altitude, since we knew that not too far away was Molesworth, and other nearby groups also attempting to climb through the "muck" to their assembly altitude. I can best describe it to outsiders as flying inside a "humongous" bottle of milk, with absolutely no reference except your wingtips and instruments (and you'd best be- lieve your instruments). As we reached the designated 10.000 feet altitude there was no blue sky in sight, but it presented no serious problem at this point since we had a few minutes leeway built into our departure time. As we continued through 11. 12, 13, 14, and 15.000 feet we were still in solid overcast and our "pad time" had now more than been used up. Problems - but we had no alternative other than to continue to climb until we eventually broke out, and it became increasingly difficult at these altitudes with full bomb and gas loads. Through 16, 17, 18 and continuing on for what seemed an eternity, we finally broke out at 23,000 feet.
As expected, "Mr. Precise" had departed right on schedule and our formation was spread, single file, from Kimbolton to the English coast, across the channel and on into France, precisely the kind of formation the German Luftwaffe just loved to encounter - each and every plane becoming a "sitting duck." With a little additional power, there would normally be no problem to catch the bulk of the formation before reaching the target area. I had closed the gap considerably by the time I crossed the French coast, and had full confidence that I would ultimately be in proper formation, when my #1 engine chose to quit. With #1 engine feathered and with as much power on the other three as was considered reasonably safe, I started "losing ground." It quickly became obvious that I could never catch the formation, but I contin- ued to trail, in hopes of coming up with some "brain- storm" to permit me to complete the mission. Far behind our formation when we reached enemy territory, I made the decision to abort - since I had no desire whatsoever for our plane and crew to become one of those aforementioned "sitting ducks." Disappointment! Frustration! All we could do at this point was head back to Kimbolton.
During the course of the day, the weather conditions had not improved and I was instructed to jettison my bomb load at given coordinates in the English Channel, which was accomplished without incident. Upon reaching Kimbolton I was advised the weather conditions there were zero-zero and was instructed to proceed to Wendling as my alternate landing site. Little did I realize at this time that a major disaster had occurred at Kimbolton after I had taken off that morning. As one of the last four planes took off from the icy runway, it crashed in the 525th squadron area (with full bomb and gas load), destroying or damaging every building in the squadron, and with a loss of nine lives. This tragic event has been well- documented and dozens of heartbreaking - as well as humorous - stories can be drawn from it. Only after learning of this disaster did I understand the probable thinking of the control tower operators when they diverted me to another base upon my arrival, since I had landed several times in conditions as bad as, or worse than the existing conditions at the time. In all probability, they were just plain "gun-shy" about a crippled plane coming in under adverse weather conditions on that particular day.
Upon arrival at Wendling I found the weather conditions equally as deplorable as those back home at Kimbolton, but I did get permission to land. Under normal conditions, landing the magnificent B-17 with 3 good engines presented no problem, but these were not normal conditions and I was setting her down on a strange air base. With #1 engine feathered, caution was the by-word and gentle turns and corrections were exercised at that necessarily low altitude. On the downwind leg, only an occasional glimpse of the run- way was to be had, and my gentle 180-degree turn to the final approach turned out to be a little "too gentle". I was virtually on the ground before I finally broke out on the final approach and found that I was slightly to the right of the runway, but too low to make the necessary corrections to land on same.
With no problem, I could have landed on the unpaved ground paralleling the runway, but immediately a recent incident at Kimbolton came to mind. One of our proficient pilots (did the 379th have anything else?) had come in on 3 engines with a full bomb and gas load, missed the runway, landed on the soft adjacent ground, had to be towed out, and was promptly reprimanded for not making a 3-engine go-around. There I was with three supposedly good engines, no bombs, and only a half load of gas. To land on the soft ground and get my "fanny" chewed out was not even considered for a moment!
Full-power for go-around! Upon reaching the far end of runway, #2 blew a cylinder! With #1 and #2 out, and #3 and #4 with full power, tremendous left torque forced the plane into a 45-degree bank. Things were happening so fast the landing gear never did get raised. With full right aileron and rudder applied she didn't respond and the turn was getting tighter! I slacked off on the power to attempt to gain control. Some control was gained, but I couldn't maintain altitude with the reduced power. Full power was applied again to hold her off the ground as long as possible. The water tower was dead ahead at same level - had to maintain 45-degree bank to attempt to miss water tower even if we went down on left wing! Water tower somehow missed - bank was getting tighter and steeper. Amazing how many hundreds of things can flash through the mind in those few seconds, but my most vivid thought was, "I've always wondered what it would be like and this ain't gonna be bad at all. Please let me keep this thing in the air at least until I can clear the barracks area." Enter - miracle! With the left wing tip practically on the ground we found ourselves over the drill field with no buildings and no people! It was "now or never"! Such a landing! Simultaneously, as power was chopped, altitude was retained and we "pancaked" in with a respectable 3-point landing!
I couldn't believe it - we were on the ground - but somehow we had to stop that machine on all that snow and ice! We proceeded diagonally across the open area, chopped our way through the typical English hedge row about five feet thick and ten feet high, bounced across a wide drain ditch paralleling the hedge row, and observed the typical H-shape building directly in the path of our right wing, and I'm thinking: "Gee Whiz! What have I done to deserve all of this?" My brakes were completely ineffective on all the snow and ice, and to add insult to injury there was a huge truck backed up to the segment of the building that my right wing was headed for. That meant the truck was destined for my nose - broad sided! Yes, it was - yes, we did - and yes, we stopped, minus one huge truck rolled up under our nose and minus one magnificent Flying Fortress #213 with the yellow K triangle on her tail.
Absolutely shocked that we were on the ground and stopped, I called out, "Is everyone O.K.? No reply! Expecting the worse, I looked out the cockpit window and observed 6 crew members, leaving the wreckage, who would have qualified for the Olympics in the 100-yard dash. With me in the cockpit area were the co-pilot and engineer - safe and sound. No one seriously hurt. Will miracles never cease? So relieved that all were safe, I was routinely removing my headset and throat mike when a booming voice rang out near the right wing position; "Get the hell out of there - this thing's on fire!" With #1 and #2 out, #4 had caught on fire and some alert Samaritan had the fire extinouisher on it at that very moment.
The portion of the building destroyed by my right wing housed all the link trainer equipment for the Wendling air base! The opposite side of the H-shaped building was base headquarters, which would have been the next encounter with my right wing. I was instantaneously "greeted" by most of the "top brass" at Wendling, although I can honestly say that it was not the warmest reception that I have ever received. I sincerely trust that the drivers of that truck have forgiven me. The truck was heavily loaded with the lat- est version of link trainer equipment that they had been demonstrating throughout England and they were scheduled for departure back to the States with their technical cargo. I did not know what occupied the opposite end of the link trainer building.
Our crew remained at Wendling for three days and became known as "the only B- 17 crew in the 8th Air Force to have had a collision with a link trainer." We took a lot of good-natured kidding and met a lot of wonderful folks. Upon return to Kimbolton, normal routines were resumed and when the war with Germany ended, I had completed 33 of the 35 missions required for a regular tour and was rotated back to the States.
Several months later, in October 1945, while stationed at Kelley Field in San Antonio, I was sitting at the club having a friendly conversation with a Catholic priest. The conversation eventually evolved into the normal "where have you been and what outfit were you with," to which I responded. "524th Squadron, 379th Group, based at Kimbolton." His response was, "Oh yeah, I've heard about that group - they're a fine outfit. I was based at Wendling - do you know where that is?" My response, "Yes, I landed there once." As I was relating my story to him, he suddenly stood up, grabbed me by the collar with his left hand, drew back his doubled-up right fist as if to "lay me flat" and exclaimed, "Was that you!" Shocked the imminent possibility of being "cold-cocked" particularly by a priest, my reply was, "Yes, but what's the big deal?" He then advised me that his church was in the opposite end of the link trainer building that I had destroyed, and that all services had moved to a make-shift location for the length of it took to re-build the building.
It's a small, wonderful world, isn't it? It's wonderful to be able to be sitting here, 56 years later documenting this experience!
P.S. The nice priest forgave me!