World War II
Memories and Biography
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
It is with a sad hear that I relate to you that my memories are very sparse when it comes to any operations attended by me while in the AAF 115 at Shipdham. I never was a member of the Ketchum crew while at the Shipdham and in the 506th Squadron. I was removed from that crew while at Topeka, Kansas, at the overseas staging area. Even the few photos that I still have of some instances while billeted in those Quonset huts is only a faint reminder of what I was doing there in England.
The relationship between the Ketchum crew and myself is only the distant memories while in flight training at Mountain Home training facilities, in the state of Idaho prior to the overseas facility in Kansas. It is there where I was separated from the Ketchum crew. I was transferred to the Lt. Smith and Lt. Owen crew because one of their crew members did not return form his furlough on time and they were shipping out to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey for shipment to England. The Ketchum crew was on standby and we did not get furloughed, as did all of the other crews that came down from Mountain Home.
We were a close knit crew and worked like a fine machine in all venues of the training that we were so good. This made us liable to be placed on any combat crew that proved short of personnel. We were able to recognize silhouetted aircraft in an instant and reliable with the use of the twin 50 caliber armaments. It was not a long time that we shared together, but there was a trust that was built upon mutual respect for each other. That period was about four months. We were mostly young kids trying to be heroes with a gung-ho attitude to get at the "paperhanger" in Germany or the Japanese in Tokyo.
Unfortunately, we did not meet often enough to recollect any specific instances that stood out, so I can't remember today after 57 years have passed. It is mostly generalities like Hillburn Cheek, the engineer and top turret gunner, how sure he was that he always had the plane in the best possible shape for training missions. Jim Stammers, ever so proficient at the radio controls and Al Natkin with his long legs in the waist of the plane and his head so close to the ceiling. Of course, Ray Davis, the "old" man of the crew and his expertise as an armorer. I remember the flour sacks that we dropped in training for the bombardiers and the jackrabbits that we would shoot at with the tracer's shells during low level flying. I cannot forget the bush fires that we set with the tracer shells while following the rabbits into the brush. Herman Riefen was the intellectual in his quiet manner in all matters in and out of the plane.
Most of my "off" time while over there in England was spent at the pistol and skeet range and the 12-gage shotguns, to keep the ability to use the "lead and lag" of a target, be it a far-off silhouetted enemy aircraft, or an ME109 coming in on a pursuit curve on the squadron. And being as I played on the baseball team that required time for practicing when no flying and less time socializing in the 66th Squadron billeted area.
The distances on the base were great, required a bicycle that had tires that were reliable, but mine were flat most of the time. Being that the combat mess hall was quite a distance form our Quonset hut, most of the fellows had some sort of container such as an orange crate to store food that we could munch on instead of trudging up to the mess hall. Eventually, the mice found their way into the unlocked containers. Eggs were a staple that most fellows had in the Quonset hut and scrambled eggs on a cook stove fire was welcomed in place of the long walk or a bicycle ride to our mess hall. We bought the eggs from one of the local farmers who delivered eggs every week.
Weekends or on pass were spent mostly in Norwich and in which we were driven there in six-by-six motor pool trucks, bounced around on those hard wooden seats in the back end. They were called Liberty Runs. On he way back to the base we often were eating fish and chips, wrapped in newspapers, and it was a hot delicious delight. Riding on the left side of the roads in England was hard to get used to, but we had no accidents due to any confusion.
My last recollection of the Ketchum crew was that of a radio message that our radio operator received while on our way home after the surrender of Germany. It indicated that they had crashed and did not survive the crash. We were in the Azores refueling for the trip across the Atlantic and home.
Yes, I was an original member of the Ketchum crew. You might have found the records from Mountain Home Training facility or to Kansas of the overseas staging area data. The Ketchum crews records will show that they arrived at Camp Kilmer approximately two weeks after we did. We were assigned to the Ill de France ocean liner for the voyage to England, and the Ketchum crew arrived just before we sailed, were with our crew on the trip across. Upon arrival, we were assigned to the 44th BG, 506th Bomb Squadron.
All of my 23 missions were with the Smith and Owen crew, while the Ketchum crew was assigned to the 66th Squadron and they all completed more than 30 missions. Yes, I knew Ray Davis. He was 26 years old and I was a kid of 19 years. Al Natkin was 18. So Ray was the old man of the crew, but he was a fair and valuable friend with a wealth of information on anything that one could think about. He was very quiet and unassuming, and at times even bashful about his age, even older than their officers. I don't ever remember him going to the small community of Mountain Home to their local bar and gambling rooms like most of us. The only experience I can recall of the bar and gambling room was when Al Stewart (from Tennessee) and I went to ton with three dollars between us and we had one beer. We decided to gamble the remainder at the dice table. After 21 passes, we left with approximately $75.00, even after the house kept feeding us drinks.
I cannot recall many incidents while with the Ketchum crew except once when the ground maintenance crew failed to safety one of the gas caps on a practice flight. After we took off, there was a heavy odor of fuel from the siphoning around the loose fitting cap over number three engine (right side). Fearful of a fire, Lt. Ketchum demanded that no smoking be observed. Smoking was one of the things that we normally did when flying. We all said our prayers and or crossed our fingers that no spark finds the path to that fuel. However, we landed quickly and safely and soon we were airborne again with a determination to complete our training mission.
Another Ketchum crew experience, though a more enjoyable one, was Navy fighter planes that flew pursuit curves on our squadron of planes in a mock battle with them. The firing at the planes were with cameras and at racking with the gunsights. It simulated what to expect form German or Japanese pilots that we would encounter overseas. On the way back to the base at Mountain Home, flying alone, and approaching Lake Tahoe we suddenly entered into a downdraft that scared the BGs out of us. We dropped about six thousand feet before the pilots regained control of the ship. Those of us in the rear of the plane felt like we were stranded in mid-air and we had no communications with the command deck. We had no idea what happened and were speechless, had no words from Ketchum, as the intercom connections of the officers was disconnected. But the pilots did not seem to be disturbed because they were aware of such things as a downdraft due to their training. We were not, so that is why it was so frightening to us.
For four months of our training, the Ketchum crew was just like my family. One month ago my bride of 53 years succumbed to cancer suddenly and in four months she was gone. She expired at home here in Cressona, PA on 22nd of January 2002. It will take time to adjust to that.