The Trip Home
by Vincent Manno

I 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 was hurt.
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 lanes.
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 accept it.
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!"

Reprinted from "The Beachbell Echo"

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