THE AIR WAR YEARS
Howard W. Edmunds
U. S. Army Air Force, 1942-1947
THE EARLY YEARS
I have often been requested by my family to put in writing my memories of five years of service in the U.S. Army Air Forces and more particularly my service with the 8th Army Air Force in England during 1944. To more fully understand me, however, it is also necessary to describe my life prior to joining the military.
I was the third child born to Walter Edmunds and Cecilia Louise Robertson of Blue Island, Illinois. The first child, Richard Clark Edmunds, was born April 9, 1918, but died when he was only three weeks old. The second child, Robert Henry Edmunds, was born eleven months after Richard’s birth on March 27, 1919. I was born on April 12, 1922 and my sister, Gertrude Louise Edmunds followed on July 3, 1923. My parents were both in their thirties and had courted for twelve years before their marriage.
The first six years of my life we lived in a flat on Walnut Street in Blue Island, which was owned by my maternal grandparents, Thomas C. Robertson and Dorthea Wiebking. In 1929 my parents bought a home that was owned by a prominent local family who wanted the home to be moved from their property so that they could erect a more modern structure. My parents paid about $3,500.00 for the home and also paid to have it moved to a lot they owned about a mile to the north. The moving took two days and created quite a spectacle in Blue Island.
I attended first grade in Whittier School but then transferred to Greenwood School, which was across the street from my new home. I started school at Greenwood in second grade but the school officials placed me in an accelerated program whereby I attended second grade for the first half of the school year and third grade for the second half. The following year I was placed in fourth grade. I continued to perform well in school, but six weeks into the sixth grade I had a nervous breakdown and could not attend school for the remainder of the school year. I believe that today the diagnosis of my illness may have been Attention Deficit Syndrome. My health was sufficiently recovered by the beginning of the next school year to allow me to return to school. My mother then had me enroll again in the sixth grade so that I could study the subjects that I had missed because of my illness. Unfortunately, however, the school authorities promoted me to the seventh grade. My parents objected, but to no avail. I therefore did not learn the parts of speech, the multiplication and division of fractions and other fundamental grammar school studies. The school systems were hard pressed at that time and they did everything possible to push a child ahead in order to save a few dollars. In fact, near the end of my senior year the high school system was actually closed down for two months because of a lack of funding. When the voters finally passed a bond issue on their third election try, we finally were able to return to school to finish the year and graduate but it was late in the summer.
From the time of my ill-advised promotion to seventh grade my grades suffered and I became a very poor student. I was already one year younger than most of my classmates and probably still suffered from the remnants of my illness. When I graduated from Blue Island Community High School in 1939 I placed about 200th out of 230 graduating students. You have to know that the students who finished behind me in the class standings were not related to Albert Einstein. I have often heard my classmates praising the education they received in BICHS, but I don’t share their opinions.
When I graduated from high school I went to work rather than attend a junior college. I do not remember the reason why I did not attend college, but it probably related to my scholastic record. Economic times were difficult in 1939 because of the terrible depression that had gripped the country for ten years. My father was employed as a railroad engineer and made a good income for those difficult times. More than 25% of the workforce was unemployed and jobs were very difficult to find. I was employed by the Peoples Gas, Light & Coke Company of Chicago as a deliverer of gas bills. It would have cost the company two cents each to mail the gas bills, but they found it cheaper to hire us to deliver them. I took the suburban train each morning and went to downtown Chicago where I received my bills and then I delivered them to my assigned area in south Chicago, an area of the poorest slums in the city. My primary area was one in which thousands of poor blacks lived, having recently emigrated from the South. I entered the buildings in which these poor people lived and delivered the bills to their doors. More than twenty people lived on some floors, with just one toilet and one washbasin to each floor for their personal use. There was no bathtub or shower and the toilet did not have a seat.
My work area also covered the “Back of the Yards” area. It was there that the Polish, Slovakian and Italian immigrants lived. They performed the hard physical work in the nearby Union Stock Yards and they were a pretty tough bunch of men. In the entire year that I worked in those areas, however, I never encountered any threats or dangers from any of the residents. I was paid $65.00 per month for my work and was also given a streetcar token (seven cents) for my transportation to my home. While I was in this job I joined the company tennis club that played once a week during the summer at the University of Chicago tennis courts. The rest of the members were all older employees, most of who were college graduates. I had played on the BICHS tennis team for two years and was the number one doubles team participant. I won every match I played during the year and the head of the club had to take me aside and suggest that I allow all of my opponents to win at least one game of each set. Out of my wages I paid my parents the sum of $50.00 per month for my room and board.
Beginning in 1940 I attended Morgan Park Junior College, which was located about two miles north of our home in Chicago. While I attended college I also worked for the A&P store in Blue Island. I worked three days a week from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. stocking shelves, and then worked eleven hours on Saturday’s packing groceries for the customers. I was paid 25 cents per hour for my work. That was the minimum wage. My college grades improved over my high school grades, but they still were not outstanding. I also found time to play on the basketball team. At 6’1” I was the tallest player on the team so I played center. My opponent center was often three or four inches taller. We won 2 and lost 27. I was not offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois.
In the summer of 1941 I applied for a job with Swift & Company in the Union Stock Yards. They hired me and promised that I would be chosen for their Young Men’s Training Program as part of my work. When Swift & Company learned that I had been employed by the A&P store; they required that I obtain a release from my manager because they did not want to hire employees away from one of their customers. My manager, however, was a real jerk and he refused to agree to the release unless I would continue working for the A&P on weekends. Swift & Co. then had to give me a job where there was no possibility of my having to work weekends, which was loading boxcars full of soap products.
I went to work on that job in the soap house as one of a gang of twelve laborers and one straw boss. The other eleven workers were all black and not educated. We would load steel drums of liquid soap and heavy boxes of many other types of soap onto boxcars for shipping. I really impressed Joe, my Polish straw boss, because when he told me to get 20 cases of Swift Arrow I knew what floor it was located on. There were only four floors and Swift Arrow had been on the same floor for twenty years. He thought that I was so bright that he recommended me for a promotion and I was assigned to the job for which I had been originally hired, the time study department. As part of my job I attended the training program each week to learn the entire organization of the Company. My work took me throughout the plant. My salary was $115.00 per month, which was enough for me to afford a cheap used car.
We lived a very strict home life. We went to the Congregational Church every Sunday for school and church services. When I was in high school I also went to church on Sunday evening at the Chi Rho Society, which was attended by many of our schoolmates. We had very strict morals. None of us smoked or drank beer. My father didn’t do much parenting, but my mother did a whole lot. Nevertheless, we were a happy family. Bob, my brother, was three years older than me, but he was a very good brother. The quote under his picture in the 1937 BICHS yearbook was “Life is the Art of Being Well Behaved.” He certainly was a tough act to follow, but we all got along very well. My sister, Trudy, and I used to team up to defend our territory, but we still liked Bob. We all got along well and never fought with each other. I believe that what contributed the most to our not fighting with each other was the fact that our parents were at a constant war with each other. I really dreaded their example which I believe caused me to refuse to fight or argue with my spouses, when my marriages would have been better served if I hadn’t withheld my true feelings.
During the summer of 1941 I met Betty Rose Pahlke, who was destined to become my wife. She was the daughter of Julius and Edna Pahlke and was the eldest of four sisters. Her sister Edna Mae was a classmate of mine. Betty was a year and a half older than me but was three classes ahead of me in school. By starting very young and by twice taking two years in one year she graduated in 1936 at the age of 15. Therefore her mental age was probably at least three years in advance of mine. She was employed as a legal secretary with a Chicago law firm. Nevertheless we went steady and enjoyed our courtship. We usually double dated with her sister Edna Mae and her beau, Ray Jenner, who was in the class of 1937.
PEARL HARBOR DAY, DECEMBER 7, 1941
Everything changed on DECEMBER 7, 1941, PEARL HARBOR DAY. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was playing in a touch football game at Memorial Park, after having earlier gone to church. About 3 p.m. someone came to the game and told us that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. We were shocked, but not frightened. Everyone agreed that we should feel sorry for the poor Japs for what we were going to do to them. Reality was slow to come to us.
All of the young men had previously registered under the Selective Service Act (draft) and the government immediately started to call up men according to their draft numbers. My number was fairly late for a call up so it didn’t affect me immediately. However, we knew that my draft date was fast approaching and that fact ruled our personal lives from that moment on. Betty and I decided to get married and set the date for June 27, 1942.
We had a big wedding by Blue Island standards. It was held at Betty’s church, St. Paul’s Evangelical Church. Relatives of the bride and groom, including the flowers and the food served at the reception, did everything. My brother Bob was my Best Man and Betty’s sister Edna Mae was the Maid of Honor. In addition, my sister Trudy served as a bridesmaid. The church was packed, which meant about 200 people were present. After the service we left for our honeymoon to Green Lake, Wisconsin, and spent our first night at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Believe it or not, that night a virgin bride and groom finally lost their virginity. It was about time!
After the honeymoon we returned to our rented one-room apartment. No, I don’t mean a one-bedroom apartment. I correctly described it as a one-room apartment. The bed was in the living room and it was a pull-down bed that when it was raised went back into the wall. It was called a “Murphy Bed.” It didn’t get back into the wall very often.
In the fall semester I enrolled in a Trigonometry course at Armour Tech, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology. At the same time a decision was fast approaching for my draft call. I decided that since I didn’t want to live the life of an infantry soldier that I should volunteer for a service where I would at least have a clean bed and a decent meal when I was not in combat. I chose the U.S. Army Air Force, which had a program to enlist men into their Aviation Cadet Program. In October of 1942 I applied for that program and was tested to determine if I qualified to become a cadet. After two days of physical examination and educational testing I was accepted into the program. I was told that I could be called up at any time on 24-hours notice and was released to go home. What the Air Force was doing was getting the men into a program that was not yet ready for us to begin training. Christmas 1942 came and went and I hadn’t been called. I thought this was a pretty good program and hoped they never would call me into active service.
CALLED TO ACTIVE DUTY JANUARY 27, 1943
On January 26, 1943, however, I received a telegram that I was to report to a railroad station in downtown Chicago the next morning and that I should be carrying only the clothes that I was wearing. When I received the telegram we had been under a massive blizzard and my car was buried in several feet of snow. My brother took me to the station the next morning where I boarded a train to an unknown destination. There was much crying by my wife, my mother, my father and me. We were placed 52 men to each car, which were like the old suburban coaches where four people sat, two across from each other. We were given food, water, a toothbrush and nothing else for our 60-hour trip to Miami, Florida. The best part of the trip was when we stopped in little towns throughout the South and the townspeople would bring cake and cookies for us to eat. The trip took so long because our troop train was constantly pulled off into a siding to allow trains carrying war materials to pass.
We arrived in Miami about 10 p.m. and I was taken to a hotel in Miami Beach and given a room with seven other guys and told to go to sleep. That was about 1 a.m. At 5 am we were jolted out of bed by the sound of reveille (“You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get up in the morning!”). We fell out and after breakfast we had another physical exam in which we were given several immunizations and issued some clothing. We were then given the Army General Classification Test (AGCT) that would be used throughout our military careers to determine our intelligence level. Having not slept in almost four days we were in no shape to take such a test.
We stayed in Miami Beach for one month. We got burr haircuts, visited dentists, received more immunization shots, and marched and marched and marched. After I had been in Miami Beach about ten days my wife Betty joined me there. Of course, we could not stay together, but we saw a good bit of each other. We also saw Ray Jenner with whom we had double-dated, and who later married Betty’s sister, Edna Mae. Ray was also in the Air Force, but had an office job.
UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA COLLEGE TRAINING
From Miami Beach we were sent to the University of Tampa in Tampa, Florida, where the army had formed a College Training Detachment. Three hundred prospective air cadets formed the detachment and we were divided into five sections of 60 each. The first section consisted of those who had made the highest ratings in all of the tests. They would be there for only one month. The second section would be there for two months, the third for three months, etc. I was in the third section.
We went to class every morning, and the scholastic requirements were quite high. I greatly benefited from the one year of college that I had experienced, from my trigonometry course at Armour Tech, and from the employee-training program at Swift & Co. During the afternoon we marched all over Tampa, and while we marched we also sang. We were quite impressive and people would stop and watch us and would clap their hands.
During our last month we took flying lessons at a private airfield. We had civilian instructors and we all received 12 hours of instruction. We were required to take off and land a Piper Cub, but we didn’t solo. (The Air Force didn’t yet want us to be killed). We also learned the first rule of the Air Force, which was anyone who becomes airsick cleans up his own mess. This rule is probably still maintained in the Air Force, because I know that many a high-ranking officer, including generals, had to do that unpleasant chore.
I had flown only once before I flew in Tampa. In 1940 Bob Hughes and I paid $5.00 each to take a 15-minute flight at Midway Airport in Chicago. My parents were not aware of that adventure. When I flew in Tampa I became airsick three times on my 12 pilot training missions. That was probably about average because we flew in the afternoon and the summer heat thermals really tossed that little plane around. Those were the only times that I became airsick while I flew in the Air Force.
Betty followed me to Tampa. She rented a room and got a job as a secretary the day she got there. I could be out on Saturday night but had to return to school by 1 PM on Sunday, We enjoyed Tampa and that was the first place that I ever ate fried shrimp.
from the College Training Detachment at Tampa about June 1, 1943. I finished
first in my class and really enjoyed the studies. The military discipline
y taught me how to study. We traveled via train from Tampa to an unknown
destination. It was a two-day trip across the southern part of the United
States. On a beautiful day we pulled into the train station at San Antonio,
Texas, for assignment to the San Antonio Classification Center. The rail
station was planted with beautiful flowers and the air was fresh and breezy.
I had an immediate love affair with Texas.
SAN ANTONIO CLASSIFICATION CENTER
I was in San Antonio to attend the Classification Center. This was where the aviation cadets were subjected to intense motor testing to determine if their skills would enable them to become a proficient pilot, navigator, or bombardier. If they did not qualify they would be washed out and sent to gunnery school. The testing scores ranged from 9 (for outstanding) to 5 and any thing less (a wash out). My scores rated me as 9 for navigator, 7 for bombardier, and 5 for pilot. This process took a few weeks and then we waited a few more weeks for our assignment.
While we waited we marched in huge parades every day. The temperature was over 100 degrees and the parades lasted a long time. They lined up ambulances behind the marchers to pick up the many cadets who fainted. When I received my assignment I was selected to go to pilot training. I objected to that selection and asked to be sent to navigation school. They told me that I could not object to their selection, so they washed me out and scheduled me to go to gunnery school at Wichita Falls, Texas.
On the day before I was to be shipped out, I walked into the officers hearing board without an appointment and asked for an immediate hearing. They gave me the hearing, but warned that I had no chance of their changing my orders. I told them that I was not mechanically inclined and that their tests indicated that I would wash out of pilot training and wind up being a gunner. Further, I told them it didn’t make sense to send a cadet who had tested to be highly qualified as a navigator to end up being a gunner. I argued vigorously with the board members. They thanked me for my presentation and said that I would receive their decision the next day. The next day I was also scheduled to go to Wichita Falls to gunnery school, but I ignored those orders. An hour later I received the word that I was assigned to navigation school.
ADVANCED NAVIGATION SCHOOL
My next base was the Advanced Navigation School at Hondo, Texas. Hondo is 45 miles to the west of San Antonio on Highway 90. It had a population of less than 1,000 people. This navigation school was all business. We went to school every morning and often in the afternoon. Most afternoons, and some evenings, however, we were on the flight line doing training flights or practicing shooting celestial fixes. We did map- reading everyday and even studied German and French maps. We learned “Pilotage” navigation, which is where you identify where you are in the air by observing objects on the ground and finding your location from your observations. We also studied “dead reckoning” navigation, which is where you keep track of your air speed by factoring in the wind direction and speed to determine where your plane was located. We did “radio navigation”, which is where we determined our aerial position by calculating the directions of radio beams. Finally, we did “celestial” navigation, which is where we used a sextant to shoot stars and planets and to determine our position from celestial logs books we carried. We flew in a Beechcraft AT-7 airplane. It carried a pilot, a navigation instructor who sat in the co-pilots seat, and three student navigators. We would fly a triangular route of about 200 miles on each leg. We were graded on the success of our navigating.
While we were at Hondo we closely followed the activities of the overseas bombers of the Army Air Force. Particular attention was paid to the bombing activities of the 8th Air Force in England, whose missions were described in all of the newspapers. About halfway through my 18-weeek-navigation course I was notified to attend a hearing on whether I was physically and mentally able to fly in aerial combat. I did not know what had caused the hearing because my conduct and work had been exemplary. When the hearing was held I learned that the Army had been advised by a source not identified to me that I had suffered a nervous breakdown in my earlier years and that I had never recovered from that illness. I realized that my Mother must have notified the Army of my childhood illness. I had never listed that illness in my application to join the military. I told the hearing board of my high school athletic activities and my employment record and they agreed that I should not be discharged from the Army or prohibited from flying in combat. I never mentioned the hearing to my Mother, nor did she ask me about it.
I completed the 18-week course and was given a physical examination prior to my being awarded my Second Lieutenant’s Bars and my Navigator Wings. The physical exam, however, revealed that my vision was no longer 20/20 without glasses, as it had been when I started the course 18-weeks before. The Army Air Force decided that since I was not a pilot, my vision deficiency should not be an objection to my becoming a commissioned officer.
During my time at Hondo Army Air Field the only breaks we had were from 10 a.m. on Saturday until we had to return by 1 p.m. on Sunday. That did not leave me with much time to spend with Betty. She had returned to the job she held during her first stay in San Antonio, as a legal secretary to the United States District Attorney.
SEVEN-DAY LEAVE IN CHICAGO
When I was commissioned on February 26, 1944, my orders were to proceed to my residence in Blue Island for a seven-day leave and then proceed to Gowen AFB in Boise, Idaho. We took the train to Chicago for our week’s leave. The news from England that greeted our arrival in Chicago, however, cast a pall on our festivities. The papers and radio broadcasts told of a major aerial bombardment attack by the heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force. This attack was termed “The Big Week.” The raids are described at:
As this website describes, during the “Big Week”, 3,300 bombers were dispatched from England and 500 from Italy with 137 of the former and 89 of the latter being lost. Also, 28 AAF fighters were shot down by both flak and interceptors in a desperate defense of the Fatherland.. The number of U.S. personnel killed, missing, and seriously wounded totaled 2,600, but 75% of the buildings in the German aircraft industrial system were destroyed. In addition, 600 Luftwaffe airplanes were claimed as destroyed in vicious air battles over Germany.
GOWEN FIELD, BOISE, IDAHO, RTU
After a week in Blue Island, Betty and I took a train to Boise, Idaho. When we arrived there she rented a room and found a job. I reported to Gowen Field, which was a Replacement Training Unit (RTU) training the 10 crewmembers to become fighting heavy bomber crews. To accomplish this, the crews were trained for 12 weeks of very serious flight training in B-24 heavy bombers.
Unfortunately for me, however, when I reported I learned that I had been assigned to a crew that had already received 8-weeks of training and lacked only a navigator. That meant that I would only receive 4 weeks of large bomber training with the crew and then it was off to the war.
During the next four weeks we concentrated on flying navigational missions of every type: Dead Reckoning, Celestial, Pilotage and Radio. I had to learn to work in the cramped quarters that I shared with my bombardier in the front of the plane. I had to work under extremely cold conditions and wear bulky clothing. I had to go to the firing range and learn to shoot every gun available in the Air Forces arsenal. We also did low level shooting where we shot 50 caliber machine guns from the open waist doors.
At the end of the four weeks we left by railroad train to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up our new airplane.
OUR TRIP TO ENGLAND AND COMBAT
I liked my new crewmates. Vernon (Mac) McCardle was the pilot. He was a 26-year old from a small town in Minnesota. Robert Kimberlin was the co-pilot, 24 years old, and a hell-raising guy from Indiana. John Tigue, the bombardier who also manned the front turret, was a 28-year old Irishman from Massachusetts. Our engineer and waist gunner was Andy Millican, a 21-year old Scotch-Irishman from Massachusetts. The radio operator was Phil Pagano, a 21-year Old Italian ladies-man from Iowa. Walt Lockhart was our 22-year old top-turret gunner from New York. Worth Neel was our 22-year old ball turret gunner from North Carolina. Bob Weise at age 19 was the baby of the crew, was from Philadelphia and was one of our waist gunners. Bob Haynes 26 was from Iowa and operated the tail turret. Regardless of their heritage they were all at least third generation Americans. They were all great guys. We never argued or bitched about any of our crewmates. They were all very capable and they performed beautifully under great pressure. They were all high school graduates and I was, to the best of my knowledge, the only crewmember who had been to college. And I only had only one year at a Junior College. The Lord was with me when I was assigned to this wonderful crew.
In 1980 I
joined he 446th Bomb Group Association and it was through that group that
I learned the whereabouts of my two of my crewmates, Andy Millican, our
flight engineer, and Worth Neel, our ball-turret gunner. The three of
us met in 1998 at an annual meeting of that Association held in Savannah,
Georgia at the 8th Air Force Historical Museum. We compared notes and
learned that six of the seven other members of the crew were deceased.
We did not know the whereabouts of Philip Pagano, our radio operator.
I subsequently made an effort to locate Philip through the Internet, but
my efforts were not successful.
We all flew alone on this trip so my navigating was extremely important. After we reached our assigned altitude I did a wind check and found that we did not have the predicted tail wind, but rather had a head wind. I told Mac, the pilot, that we needed to preserve fuel and instructed him to go to a lower altitude. Because we were then flying beneath the storm clouds I could no longer take celestial star fixes. I resorted to dead reckoning until we could again see the stars. As we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean we flew over several convoys carrying war materials to England. In two of those convoys we saw ships on fire. They had been torpedoed by Nazi submarines and were probably ready to sink.
I had determined an estimated time of arrival at an island just off of the Irish coast. That island held a powerful radio transmitter for use in guiding us to England, but I could not use radio navigation because the Nazis had installed a similar beacon off the Brest peninsula in France. If I had followed the wrong beacon, it would have tricked us into flying into the Nazi flak batteries and fighter planes. When we passed over the beacon on the Irish coast we were just 30 seconds off of my estimated time of arrival.
I told Mac that we did not have enough fuel to fly to our designated airbase in England and directed him to land at Nutts Corner in North Ireland. We landed with only 20 minutes of fuel remaining on a flight that had taken 11 hours and 10 minutes. We later learned that of the 40 planes sent directly to England that night, eight of the planes didn’t make it. Three of them landed in neutral Ireland, and five of them went down in the Atlantic. Andy Millican, our flight engineer, also had some recollections of that trip:
“On our trip to England via the northern route we were running low on fuel. I was asked to transfer fuel from the auxiliary tanks to the main tanks. As this was my first real job on the flight I was a little nervous but looked the valves over and proceeded. All went well and we did make North Ireland with very little fuel left. We had to go around a couple of times so we could get permission to land. They sent up fighters and we finally got the right colors of the day and were allowed to land. While we were on the taxi strip one engine ran out of fuel and shut down. We knew we had used all we had”
What a waste of men and material when all that could have been avoided by taking the extra stop in Iceland! Plane losses and crew deaths in accidents like this happened frequently. They were never counted as combat losses. When all of those killed and injured in training crashes are taken into account and added to the percentage of those killed in action (KIA) or missing in action (MIA), the chances of finishing a tour without being a casualty were almost zero.
We stayed in North Ireland for two days and then took a passenger ship from Belfast to Carlisle, England. We were trucked from there to Stone, England where we would receive our assignment to a bomb group. About May 11, 1944, we received our assignment to the 446th Bomb Group located at Bungay, which was 12 miles south of Norwich, England. We took a passenger train from Stone to Norwich, where a truck from the 446th Bomb Group met us. Andy Millican remembered the trip on the boat from Belfast, North Ireland to England as:
“After a few days we were put on a ship and sent to Scotland and then boarded a train to Bungay, England. It wasn’t a good trip and the meals we got were poor. For breakfast I remember we got one boiled potato. After we got to Flixton (Bungay) things were very much better. Before each mission we had eggs cooked our way. We were on missions almost every day and our crew did nothing else but sleep.”
446th Bomb Group
The 446th Bomb Group consisted of four squadrons: the 704th, 705th, 706th and 707th. At full strength each squadron consisted of 18 combat crews, but we never came close to filling that quota. We were assigned to the 704th Bomb Squadron. We lived in Quonset huts with each hut containing nine crews of four officers each, or 36 men to a hut. Each crew was placed so that they slept in the same area. We introduced ourselves to the members of our new squadron, but received a rather cool response. We learned later on that this was the standard response to new combat crews. The veterans just didn’t want to talk about their experiences. They were also leery of making new friends because they knew that the new friends could very well be killed or missing within a very short time. We accepted that treatment, and, indeed, followed it as our response after we experienced combat flying.
On May 18,
19, 21, 22 and 23 we flew practice missions wherein we shot take-offs
and landings and formation flying. When we came down from our practice
mission of May 23, we were informed that our pilot, co-pilot, navigator
and bombardier would all fly the next day, each as part of a different
veteran crew. The mission on May 23 was to Orly Airport near Paris, France.
On that mission one of the planes crashed with all 10 crewmen being killed.
There had been no enemy fighters encountered and flak was only moderate.
Apparently the plane had an accident wherein they dropped the bombs without
opening the bomb bay door. Then, after dropping to 9,000 feet in a slow
spin, the plane went into a spin that broke off the tail and the plane
disintegrated. No parachutes were seen. This crew was one that lived close
to us in our barracks and it gave us something else to worry about before
our first mission of the next day.
On May 25th, we flew in combat with our entire crew. The mission was to Mulhouse, France, where our target was a railroad-marshaling yard. The mission took seven hours, but a seven-hour mission required about 14 hours to complete. It involved waking up, eating, going to a full crew briefing, going to navigator briefing, going to the flight line and waiting for take-off, flying the seven-hour mission, landing, going to crew debriefing, going to navigator debriefing, eating and finally going to bed.
On this mission, flak was light and there were no enemy fighters. However, one plane lost an engine due to flak and had to leave the group. This plane called for fighter protection and this was given by four P-38 planes. While being escorted, the plane encountered more flak and lost another engine. Not being able to make it across the English Channel to England, the crew abandoned the plane and bailed out over northern France. Five members of the crew were able to successfully evade capture and eventually cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and were repatriated. The other five men were captured and spent the duration of the war in a POW comp. This loss of a plane and crew illustrates the fact that if a plane was hit by even some minor damage, the loss could have been averted if the pilot had the option of making an emergency landing in Europe. This greatly contributed to the decreasing loss rate after the Allied Forces had broken out of the beachhead and recaptured some territory in France. That would have been towards the end of August of 1944.
Another plane was lost on May 31, 1944, when it crashed during the assembly formation. All crewmembers parachuted and were OK. Of the eight days we were operational in May, we flew combat on seven of those days.
We flew a mission on the afternoon of June 5, 1944, that was comprised of 10 of our replacement crews who had not been able to learn the new formation methods to be used for the D-Day invasion. We knew from all of the ground and seaport activities that we could see throughout England that the invasion was about to take place. Our mission of June 5th was to hit the Pas de Calais area in order to make the Nazis believe that that is where the invasion would land. We had heavy flak but no enemy planes and no losses. Coming back over England we could see the thousands of ships getting ready to move out.
On our way to the debriefing room after we landed, we heard a loud roar coming from the room. We went into the room and it was packed with the crews that would lead all Allied Air Forces that day as the first to strike a blow for freedom and liberation. The large wall maps showed the route they would take. They also showed the narrow restricted lanes that comprised the only escape routes to return to England if a plane needed to abort. If it flew outside of those lanes, Allied army, naval and air forces would shoot it down. This was to protect against the Germans sending in captured allied planes to surprise attack our landing forces.
We went to bed, but when we awoke we were scheduled to fly the third mission of the day in support of the invasion. As we flew over the English Channel, naval ships were shooting onto the beach with their big guns. The beaches were crowded with landing ships, many of which had obviously never made it to the beach. Our thoughts and prayers were with those gallant men. We dropped our bombs on a bridge near Caen, France, in support of the British and Canadian landing forces. I felt immensely proud that I was able to participate in the largest invasion force in the history of the world.
On June 7th a plane of the 705th Squadron spun in over England and all were killed except one who safely parachuted.
On June 8th on a mission to Granville, a plane from our squadron was shot down by a group of 15 ME 109 enemy fighters. Five of the crew were KIA's and 5 became POWs.
On June 10th, a plane crashed at Metfield near our airbase after returning from a mission to Wimereux. This crew from the 705th squadron parachuted to safety except for the co-pilot whose parachute did not open.
On June 12th, on a mission to Rennes/Ploermel, the planes encountered intense, accurate flak. A plane of the 705th squadron was hit and forced to straggle. A Luftwaffe fighter jumped on it and the crew had to parachute. Six of the crewmembers were KIA, one became a POW, and four evaded capture.
On June 14th on a mission to Orleans, France our plane was hit by heavy flak right over the ball turret. It was on this mission that Andy Millican had to repair the controls for a carburetor. He recalled:
“I changed a control for one of the carburetors oneday. I had taken off my oxygen mask and all of the other gear that I was wearing. I changed it in the wing and when I came back to the waist I fell in. Bob Weise put my oxygen mask on just in time.”
That story illustrates one of the dangers of flying at 25,000 feet. Just a few minutes without oxygen were enough to kill a person.
On June 15th our engines failed on takeoff on a mission to Tours, France. We were able to restore power and continued on the mission where we encountered heavy flak.
We flew combat missions on 13 of the first 16 days of June. That meant that we flew 20 missions in 24 days. When they woke us up to fly another combat mission on June 17th, I discovered that I had lost my voice. I just could not speak. It was a combination of fright and exhaustion. Our pilot, Mac, took me to the flight surgeon while the crew continued on a mission to France. When the flight surgeon learned what an exhaustive schedule we had been flying he grounded the whole crew. I spent one day in the hospital, mainly sleeping. When my voice had returned he prescribed a 5-day rest leave and suggested that I also go with the crew. He thought that several days in London would do me good. My old men co-officers on the plane had the pleasure of introducing their teetotaler navigator to the pleasures of alcohol.
The entire crew went to London on the railroad train. When we arrived in London we learned that V-1 bombers had attacked the City. These were pilotless planes that were catapulted from a ski-jump like device across the English Channel in the Pas de Calais region. When the V-1s ran out of fuel they would crash and the bombs they carried would explode. At this time the English still had all of their anti-aircraft guns within the city where they had been used to defend against conventional aerial bombing. The English fired their guns up at the pilotless planes and their own flak was coming down and killing the English people. That was the situation that we walked into.
We stayed at an officers club on Jermany Street. The second night we were lying in bed and listening to the V-1s flying, hoping they did not run out of fuel. When a V-1 exploded about a block from our hotel an old man came into our room and said, “I think you young men had better go down into the subways.” We bolted out of the room, almost causing a 4-way jam at the door in our haste to go to the subway. We spent the rest of the night in the subways with thousands of Londoners. The next day we returned to the quiet of combat flying. I came away from England with a tremendous respect for the courage of the English people.
resumed flying in combat on June 22nd. We had missions again on June 24,
25, 28, and 29. While we stood down, however, we missed some very difficult
missions. On June20th, on a mission to Politz to bomb a synthetic oil
plant, the group encountered air opposition and intense accurate flak.
One plane from the 705th and two planes from the 794th were seriously
hit but flew enough to land in Malmo, Sweden, where their crews were interned.
On June 21st, on a mission to Genshagen/Marenfelde, a crew of the 707th
Squadron was missing with the loss of all ten crewmembers.
“One piece of flak broke the trim tab cables in the waist. Mac, our pilot, asked me if I could do anything to make the plane fly easier. I got to the waist and trimmed the ship via the intercom with the pilot and he was happy again.”
On June 24th on a mission to Conches, our plane was hit by a flak burst that caused considerable damage to the plane and knocked out two of our four engines and caused the other two engines to leak oil. We were forced to abort the rest of the mission and head for England without the group. We hit the deck by flying at a very low level, which would make it difficult for the German’s 88mm flak guns to hit us and a little more dangerous for the German fighter planes to attack us.
On June 25th, we flew a mission to a “No-Ball” site at Boulogne. A “No-Ball” target was one that was usually on the French coast nearest to England where the Germans had installed facilities for launching V-1 and V-2 bombs. They were short and quick missions but were still very dangerous. A plane from the 707th received a flak burst that riddled the nose of the plane after the bombs were dropped. Flak bursts hit the front section doing serious damage, and also hit the bomb bay where it cut the main hydraulic lines and the trim control cables. The oxygen bottles exploded and started a fire. The pilot somehow flew the plane back to the base. When he made a downwind landing on the runway, the bomb bay burst into flames before the plane could be stopped. The crew got out safely and removed the body of a dead gunner who had been killed by the flak.
On June 29th, on a mission to Bernburg, we encountered intense and accurate flak. In a plane from the 706th Squadron, the pilot issued a warning to his crew to be ready to bail out after flak had damaged the leading edge of the wing. After bombs away, however, the plane became easier to control and flew well thereafter. The bombardier and navigator in the front of the plane evidently didn’t hear that the plane was going to continue to fly because they both bailed out right over the target. I was flying next to their plane and I saw the navigator sitting with his legs sticking out of the nose wheel door ready to bail out. It appeared to me that the bombardier who followed him shoved him out. Both of them wound up in the same POW camp for the duration. We all knew the irony of this situation because we knew the two guys hated each other. Life was not very pleasant for them the following year in Stalag Luft.
Another plane of the 706th, The “Wistful Vista,” was also heavily damaged in the June 29th raid to Bernburg. A burst of flak blew off the top of the tail turret and another burst killed the ball turret gunner. The plane lost its rudder but the pilot regained control, kept the plane in the formation, and dropped its bombs. The whole fuselage was damaged, the bulkheads were loosened, and the bomb bay doors would not close. The pilot bravely struggled with the controls and was able to bring the plane back to Bungay. He landed successfully by turning off the runway onto the grass. He was awarded the Silver Star. Two of my crewmates, Worth Neel and Andy Millican, went over to view the damaged plane and remembered how amazed they were that the pilot could have landed the plane. Andy also tells of a problem we had in our plane:
this mission we were carrying 40 twenty pound bombs. After we dropped
the bombs I went back to the waist to check. One of the bombs was lying
on the bomb bay door. I picked it up carefully and carried it to the waist
and showed it to Bob Weise, the other waist gunner. I said that we have
to get rid of it and we opened the bottom hatch and dropped it out. We
were both relieved.”
On July 11th, Col. Jacob Brogger, our highly respected Group Commanding Officer, told us at the briefing that our bombing objectives that day were to be very different than our normal goals. In this mission to Munich, Germany, our goal was not to drop a tight and small bomb pattern upon a specific target. Instead, we were to drop 1,000 lb. bombs at 1,000-foot intervals beginning 4,000 feet from the center of the city to 4,000 feet past the center of the city. The Germans had ordered General Kesselring, Field Marshall of the German Armies in Italy, to withdraw from Italy and to proceed to the Normandy Beachhead where the Germans still had the Allied Forces trapped in the beachhead. It was imperative to bomb the center of Munich because all roads and railroads out of Italy led through the center of Munich. Col. Brogger said that this was a maximum joint effort by the 8th Air Force, which would be sending more than 1,200 heavy bombers from England, and the 15th Air Force, which would send 700 heavy bombers from Italy. It was extremely important that the roads and railroads through the center of Munich be destroyed so as to prevent Kesselring from having that means of retreat.
A plane of the 707th was hit by intense and accurate flak over the target area. It lost an engine and headed for Switzerland where the crew hoped to be interned. The crew was forced to abandon the plane and parachute out in Germany. Nine of the crewmembers were captured by the military, but a German civilian who captured the pilot assonated him with a shotgun That was the reason we had all been advised that if we had to parachute into Germany, we should always try to surrender to the military rather than to a civilian authority. One of our crews had previously been captured by a group of German civilians who hanged them from a telephone pole.
A plane of the 704th had completed the mission and was heading back to base when it realized it was running out of gas. The crew jettisoned everything they could to lessen the weight of the plane, but to no avail. They were forced to ditch in the North Sea. The plane broke up when it hit the water and none of the life rafts were thrown clear of the wreckage. Six men got out into the water in their Mae West jackets. Our plane went down to the wreckage and our crew threw out life rafts, but they were unable to get to them. The air/sea rescue team finally was able to get rafts to the men, but five of them were dead by then. Only one man survived. Our plane was hit by heavy flak and the #1 supercharger was knocked out.
On July 12th, I went to the briefing room and saw that the map showed the same route to Munich as that of the day before. I went back to my locker and wrote a goodbye note to my wife and family. I thought that I could never survive another trip to Munich. As we approached Munich, we could see the smoke of the city from at least 200 miles away. The only thing different from the first mission was that this time we were carrying incendiary bombs. They were small and were designed to spread the fires that were already burning from the day before. On both days a dense cloud layer had covered Munich. We dropped our bombs using PPF, MPI a newly developed radar system that enabled the bombardiers to see through the cloud layers. A plane of the 705th was hit by flak and lost an engine. It was last seen circling through the cloud layer. Nine men were seen to parachute from the plane. The pilot and the left waist gunner both died. Eight other men became POWs.
On July 15, 1944, the 8th Air Force announced that they were raising to 35 the number of missions that qualified for a complete tour of duty with the right to return home. At that time we had flown 28 missions. We were very disheartened, even though under the new rules we would only have to fly one extra mission because we had flown between 25 and 29 missions. We were certain that our number would be called on that 31st mission.
On July 21st, the group again flew to Munich, but our crew was not selected to fly that day. Maybe our squadron commanders did not want to send us on this mission because we were so close to finishing our tour. As the group approached Munich, however, the clouds were so high and thick that the primary target had to be abandoned and other targets of opportunity were selected to replace Munich. Three planes were missing in action.
Captain Sherman, who was leading the third squadron, was hit by intense flak and crashed and went down. Sherman and most of his crew had almost finished their tours, and, indeed, the navigator was flying his 30th mission. This crew was composed of the best, the brightest, and the most experienced, but luck was not with them. The crew consisted of 12 men and all but 3 were killed. Only the pilot and two gunners became POWs.
The Luftwaffe fighters shot down a plane belonging to the 705th over Germany. Only the co-pilot survived to become a POW. The other nine men were killed.
A plane belonging to the 706th received a flak hit and was last seen going into the lower clouds as it made big circles. The crew parachuted out, eight men became POWs, and two men were killed.
On July 24th, 1944, we flew our 31st and last mission. It was flown in support of the ground troops who were massed for a breakout from the beachhead to penetrate through the German positions. We were supposed to drop general-purpose bombs close to and behind the German lines before the breakthrough started on the ground. Unfortunately the weather was so bad that we could not safely drop without endangering our own ground forces. In a plane that was flying next to us as we approached the bomb line, the bombardier flinched when a bundle of unopened chaff hit his turret and accidentally hit the toggle switch that released his bombs. This resulted in the deaths of about 90 American soldiers including a high-ranking general. About 200 more Americans were wounded. We bombed a road and rail intersection about 18 miles south of St. Lo.
When we returned
to England our plane and that of Capt. Ryan, whose crew had also flown
their last mission, left the formation and we buzzed England for about
two hundred miles. Capt. Ryan had been a lead crew since the 446th Bomb
Group entered combat in December of 1943. I mean we really buzzzzzzzzed
England. We flew only 100 feet above the ground. I can remember looking
out the front of the plane as we were flying directly alongside a traveling
railroad passenger train and I could see the passengers screaming. When
we arrived at the airbase we waited for everyone else to land and then
we buzzed the field and the control tower. When we stopped, the Old Man
was waiting for us and really chewed out the pilots. If Capt. Ryan had
not been one of his fair-haired boys I am sure we would have been more
severely reprimanded. Capt. Ryan was the pilot of the plane on which the
Colonel had headed all of the Allied Air forces on D-Day. He issued an
immediate order banning all future buzzing.
On one mission Andy Millican stood behind the pilot and copilot on the takeoff and called out the airspeed as it increased. This was to guarantee to the pilot that he had sufficient airspeed to get airborne with a full load of bombs and fuel Andy wrote:
“When the airspeed got to 120 mph the plane got off the ground for a few seconds and the pilot called “wheels up” to the copilot. The copilot put his hand on the gear lever to pull up the wheels, but hesitated. While he hesitated the pilot applied the brakes to stop the wheels from turning. The plane immediately slowed down and came back down to the runway with the wheels locked. We burned rubber, but the pilot hit emergency full power and we finally managed to take off anyway. It was the longest runway we had ever used and we barely cleared the trees that grew at the end of the runway. On returning from the mission I told the pilot that the tires were badly worn as a result of the takeoff mishap. There was severe danger that we could have blown tires when we landed. Fortunately, the pilot gave the plane its most gentle landing and the tires held. After landing we learned that we had burned 12 plies, of the 18 plies the tires had. This was the most serious time I could recall in all of our missions that we came that close to crashing on takeoff and/or landing. Mac, Bob and I had a few minutes to pray before we sat down on the runway. It was another one of our lucky days. We had many and as I said before we were lucky to all get back without a scratch.”
In the 62 days since we started flying we had completed 31 combat missions. During those 62 days the Group lost 18 airplanes, had 64 men killed and another 84 men who were missing or became prisoners of war. The 8th Air Force did not count in the losses of planes and deaths from crashes that did not occur in combat. There were many of those and they should be added to the list of losses.
In the book “The 446th Revisited, Ed Castens, The Roll of Honor at pages 307-312 lists the names of the447 men who were killed and 77 who were missing in action (also killed, but their remains were never found), for a total of 524 men who were killed during the time the Group was engaged in combat. That would be from December 16, 1943 to April 25, 1945. Page 227 lists the names of 248 men who were prisoners of war. Page 233 lists the names of 50 men who were interned in neutral countries. And finally, page 246 lists the names of s28 men who evaded capture after being shoot down. Those lists total 850 casualties without even counting those who were wounded or injured while flying in combat missions.
The actual carnage we viewed was beyond description. The Second Air Division had a total of fourteen B-24 bombardment groups. The First Air Division was of a similar size and they flew B-17 bombers. The Third Air Division was a mixture of B-17 and B-24 planes. If all of the divisions flew a maximum effort mission General Jimmy Doolittle, the Commanding General of the 8th Air Force, could put over 1,200 airplanes in the air at one time and all aimed at the same target. When we looked out into the sky we did not just see the aerial actions of our own group of bombers against the German planes and anti-aircraft gunners. We saw a tremendous number of our planes against a vicious and smart enemy. The sky was filled with burning planes, exploding planes, diving planes and parachuting men.
In the Military History of World War II, The Military Press, 1986, at Page 216 the author described the dramatic effect of the Air War:
“The mounting of the American daylight air offensive in Europe between 1942 and the spring of 1944 represented a monumental achievement of logistics and administration. The campaign was fought by a veritable army of young men, fighting in foreign skies far from home against an enemy frantically defending his homeland. Those were the days never to be forgotten by the survivors; the blue skies high over Europe with vast condensation trails from hundreds of bombers whose crews were battling their way to some distant target as the fighters weaved their own fleeting webs of tracer fire. History has never recorded a grimmer battlefield.”
According to the book Dirty Little Secrets of World War II (Dunnigan and Nofi, 1994, page 209):
“In the first half of 1944, allied aircrews in Europe had the following percentage of being killed in action (KIA) or missing in action (MIA), usually meaning dead, but sometimes being taken prisoner.”
And T. Childers in Wings of the Morning, page 50, said:”
“Until mid-1944 the life expectancy of a bomber and crew was 15 missions, and a flyer had only one chance in three of surviving a tour of duty.”
In addition to the combat worries we also had our weather worries. We flew at 25,000 feet and it was bitterly cold, often as cold as 35 degrees below zero. You could not touch any metal or you would stick to it. You wore heavy clothing to fight the cold, but they were bulky and hard to work in. You wore oxygen masks and they too were bulky. If you were in a flak area you also wore a heavy flak suit, and wished that you had another one to wear. It was impossible to defecate at 25,000 feet and if nature urgently called the only option was to go in your clothing. It was a tall order to try to perform a difficult job while striving to survive the elements and at the same time fight a dedicated enemy.
after I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant.
We were also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with
three Oak leaf Clusters (each representing an additional air medal) and
the European African-Middle East Campaign Medal with four bronze stars
for having participated in four major air battles.
The Mariposa left England early in September of 1944. Two English destroyers for protection against attack escorted us by German submarines. U.S. and British planes provided aerial protection for us against the dreaded submarines. After two days, however, we were out of the range of their protection and had to zigzag alone constantly to avoid being torpedoed. The weather was beautiful and we enjoyed lying in the sun on the deck. We ate just twice a day, but the food was fantastic. We ate in the dining room with tables set with tablecloths, fine china and fine silver. Filipino waiters served us. The food was everything from soup to nuts. We worried about out enlisted crewmates, but they reported that they too were very well fed.
Two days out of Boston we were picked up by two American destroyers, which were to safely escort us into Boston Harbor. A few hours after they joined us we were in a terrible storm. It turned out to be the 4th largest hurricane ever to hit the east coast of the United States. The destroyers were forced to leave us because they were completely covered by water and there was danger of their boats being thrown against our ship. Everyone on the Mariposa became seasick, including the ships regular staff, except for the airmen. We had been tossed around the sky so much that the motion of the sea did not bother us.
A few days
later we pulled into Boston Harbor and were greeted by a band of musicians
welcoming us home. GOD BLESS AMERICA!!
The basic information for my flying record is kept on the Individual Flight Record, Form 5 for the months of May, June, and July 1944. This record is kept in Book II, Memories of WWII, located in my bedroom.
I was also fortunate to have our mission record verified by a wonderful diary kept by Worth Neel, our excellent ball turret gunner.
Much of the basic record of the 446th Bomb Group is obtained from The History of the 446th Bomb Group (H) 1943-1945. Harold Jensen compiled this book. Mr. Jensen was only 12 years old when a 446th plane crashed in his hometown in Holland. In the 1970s he became interested in exploring the history of that plane. That led him to become interested in doing a history of the 446th Bomb Group. By the time he finished he had researched the records of the War Department and met many of the survivors of the 446th. In March of 1989 he published his book as a limited edition. The printing has long ago sold out and copies of used books can bring a large price. The pages that I have used for this memoir are 101-148. Those pages give a summary of each mission mixed with interviews with some of the participants of the mission. He uses this format for the entire combat history of the 446th Bomb Group, from its fist mission on December 16, 1943 to its last mission on April 25, 1945.
The 446th Bomb Group Association authorized the 446th Revisited, collected by Ed Castens. It is an interesting collection of war stories, pictures, statistics, names, and tables of organization. I used this very definitive book toe assemble my lists of those who were killed, missing in action, prisoners of war, and evaders.
Dirty Little Secrets of World War II, Dunnigan and Nofi, 1994, Pages 201- 209.