was the last member of our crew to finish his allotted thirty-five missions.
I flew my thirty-fifth as nose gunner in the lead ship with Lt. Col.
Pred Schmidt as our pilot and I remember wishing I had not drawn such
a fire-eater for my last flight. We ran into heavy flak as soon as we
got near the target, and I tried to guide the plane away from it with
a little knee pressure, much as a pinball player will use body English
to steer his pellet. To my amazement, the plane veered from the path
of the heavy flak instead of going right through it as I had imagined
Col. Schmidt would do. Soon we came upon other bursts in front of us.
Again, our plane took the path of discretion and went around the fire.
I breathed another prayer and wondered if it was also Col. Schmidt's
last mission. I had taught Jim Christian, our engineer, some code so
that he would recognize 7BZ, our call letters, and changed places with
him a few times, manning the top turret. But this was my first, and
only mission as a nose gunner. We would always bemoan our fate if our
group had to fly "Tail End Charley", the last group over the
target. Now, instead of my customary position at the radio operator's
desk, I was literally in a front-row seat. After two more turns evading
the flak, I felt much more relaxed.
The rest of my crew was on hand to greet me when we touched down. The
Red Cross girls had baked me a cake, as they usually did for someone
on his last mission, and that was it for my combat-flying days.
The following day, or it might have been the second day, a plane crash-landed
after takeoff. No bombs went off, but machine gun bullets continued
to pop for more than an hour. To my recollection and relief, no one
About ten days later, some of us got our shipping orders to go back
to the States. Christian, Gilbert, our tail gunner, and I were on the
same orders, destination Liverpool.
As the senior non-com, I was put in charge of the shipment of about
twenty men. One of them asked me to give him his orders so he could
detour by way of London. I felt like doing the same but thoughts of
home and family kept me in line. I told our fellow traveler that he
knew our reporting date and destination and if he wanted to go by way
of London he was on his own, I held on to his orders. We sailed on the
ocean liner the U. S. Manhattan, now commissioned as the USS Wakefleld.
Gilbert, who had never been to a seacoast city, asked me how long I
thought the trip would take. He said, "I'm going to the back deck
and I'll stay there 'till I can't see land any more. Then I'll go to
the front of the ship and keep looking until I see land!
It was mid-January of 1945. The trip may have taken ten days. One day
we were in the same ocean swell all day—the swells as high as
the ship. We spent a wonderful day or more in warm waters, taking a
southern route for evasive action and to get out of the regular ocean
The ship's crew was a raw one. Some of the sailors got seasick and manned
their stations with a mop on hand to wipe up their heaving. Christian
and I would go through the chow line together, determined not to get
sick. We would look at our food trays and then at each other and grin.
Apart from the able-bodied air crews who had completed their missions,
the rest of the passengers were a mix of shell-shocked men, both white
and black, who had cracked under fire. You could not help sympathizing
with them, especially at night when the heavy metal trash cans would
roll around and bounce noisily on the decks. The wounded would cry out
in terror, their nerves breaking again. There may have been some fakers
among them but who is able to measure someone's breaking point? Terror
can easily spread and become universal: it asks no questions when it
attacks, like a natural disaster that falls equally on the innocent
and the guilty. I used to pray as I crouched by the open bomb bay doors
while on our bomb run over the target that this mission would help shorten
the war and that no innocent people would be hurt.
There was a guy from the 1st Division who had been in North Africa,
Sicily, Italy and the D-Day landings in Normandy. Hit, and suffering
a concussion in his last action, he got a doctor who told him he was
putting him in for hospitalization because maybe be had used up all
his luck. He was not entirely happy about it, but figured he should
Someone had brought the highly contagious scabies into our barracks
and I was one of those who became a victim, along with Ron Hansen and
a couple of other guys I knew. In a scene reminiscent of a Marx Brothers
comedy, the four of us would shower together regularly and smear the
liquid medicine on each other's backs.
During the trip several of us developed a streptococcus infection and
we were liberally dosed with sulfa. We had three tiers of bunks and
I had taken a top one so no one would get sick on me. Some days I could
hardly climb up to my bunk. I had always wanted to take an ocean trip,
so I still considered myself lucky.
As we sailed into New York Harbor we were greeted by ice flows, something
I had never seen before. We docked, and I thought for a moment of just
taking off by myself. I saw familiar west side diners, then buses took
us to Camp Kilmer, NJ.
We stayed overnight and got very efficient and welcome treatment. The
officer in charge of the mess hall had us line up and said we would
all get steaks cooked to order. The steaks were followed by ice cream
and another dessert. Later, we went into a large, bustling PX where
you could buy the ususl selections plus grilled frankfurters. One of
our fellow returnees actually growled "look at this. Hot dogs!
And we ate that crap back in the mess hall!"
from "The Beachbell Echo"