18: B-24 Combat Crew Training

Tonopah, Nevada
April-June, 1944

“It’s mornin’ in the desert
And the wind is blowin’ free.
It’s all here for the askin’
So drink up, just you and me.”

The poem went on and on about the glories of the desert. I never did see any of them.

Tonopah sits about 200 miles south of Reno and north of Las Vegas. In 1944, as far as I could tell, there was nothing else between the two cities. Tonopah was solely a training airfield base- no town, no nothing. In fact, any spouses of the men stationed there lived in Goldfield, a small town about 20 miles away.

When Maury Schwartz and I arrived in Reno by train, we were curious about the city that was then famous for only one thing: divorces. There was a big sign hanging over the main street: “Reno: The Biggest Little City In The World”. We saw Harrah’s gambling casino and Maury really wanted to go in, but there was no time. Our bus to Tonopah was leaving.

We joked as we left Reno, but as the mile after mile of flat, nothing desert rolled by, we both became quiet. Just the trip alone made it clear that the fun and games of navigation school were over. How many jokes can you make about the desert?

We rolled into Tonopah late in the afternoon. The base consisted of a bunch of low barracks, a big airstrip and a lot of B-24s. We had seen pictures of the four-engine bomber, but we had never seen the plane itself. It was ugly- a box car, with wings sticking out from its side and two large rudders fixed to the back.

We reported in and were assigned to the same barracks. The building had a hall going down one side, with six rooms opening to the hall. Each room had two names posted on the door. I found mine. The other name was: William Hemeleski. Inside the room were two beds and a desk. I unpacked and lay down. It had been a long day. Suddenly the door burst open and in walked a young officer in flying clothes. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Hemeleski, bombardier. Are you a good navigator?” Since I thought that I knew that my answer might not please him, I just laughed.

Hemeleski took me next door and introduced me to our pilot, Lee R. (Jack) Stepp and co-pilot. J.P. Waldrop. They welcomed me aboard. We were to be the officers of a ten-man B-24 bomber crew. Out the outset, we four were all second lieutenants.

Lee R. Stepp was a big, rugged-looking man. He was six feet tall, light-skinned, blond, with even features. His voice was somewhat high-pitched, crisp and easily understood. Most importantly to me at the outset was that he was 28 years old, considerably older than the general run of men I had been with previously. Stepp was mature and he had a strong presence. Almost immediately, I felt his quiet confident leadership quality- very reassuring.

J.P. (Jack) Waldrop, was handsome. He was almost as tall as Stepp, with darker features. He was about 25 years old and married. His voice was always clear, even and quiet. He had an easy, smiling way of approaching any situation and conversation. He was self-assured. A solid man.

William P. (Bill) Hemeleski was also very good-looking. Every characteristic was Irish, including his good tenor singing voice, but somehow, as he said, a Polack had crept in. He was only slightly older than I was, but he was married. He had a strong voice and a great sense of humor. It became rapidly very clear and he and I would be the crew clowns and that Stepp and JP would have to maintain order.

I met the remainder of the crew the next day:

Sgt. William (Bill) Kerr was the engineer. In addition, on the B-24, when we were in combat, he would be the top gunner, sitting in a turret above the plane. He was very quiet, very efficient. In some unspoken way, he had command over the enlisted men.

Sgt. Curtiss Justice was the radio operator. He was also a quiet man, very easy to like. I would be working most closely with him.

Cpl. Jack Kirk was the tail gunner. He was a young, thin boy, possibly 18. He was the “kid” of our crew, the butt of jokes, which he took in good stride.

Cpl. Gratton Gearon was a side gunner. He was well-spoken and clearly well-educated. I had the feeling that he came from “money”, but he put on no airs.

Cpl. Robert Bischoff was the other side gunner. He always seemed street wise and enjoying of life.

Cpl. Joe Collier was our nose gunner. He was a young man who came to our crew just before we left Tonopah. I did not get to know him well.

In a very short time, I realized that I was a very, very lucky guy.

1. Stepp had actually helped build B-24s for a number of years. He knew the plane better than anyone else we met in training or combat. He was an excellent pilot, but also an excellent captain. He was well organized and he knew how to handle emergencies.

2. J.P. could have been a pilot and captain of his own crew. Instead, he chose to fly with Stepp. He was also an excellent pilot and a perfect team player.

3. Hemeleski was a wonderful buddy for me. We hit it off magically and laughed constantly.

4. Kerr had been a B-24 flight engineer instructor before volunteering for combat duty.

5. Justice had been a flight radio instructor. He and I quickly became very good friends.

6. Kirk, Gearon and Bischoff were easy to get along with. They were helpful, cooperative and great guys.

Life at Tonopah was all combat flying training and very little military. While there was a distinction between officers and enlisted men, such as in eating facilities and sleeping quarters, it was kept to a minimum. We were training to be effective crews. Each person was respected whatever the position, since every position was invaluable.

The B-24 was not an easy plane. It had a narrow wing, designed for speed, not comfort. This made for problems on take-off and also a bumpy ride. On take-off, the navigator, bombardier, nose-gunner stood right behind the pilot, co-pilot and engineer for balance purposes- and, on my part, to pray for success in getting into the air. The radio operator sat in a small open compartment to our right. That entire area was called “the flight deck”. After take-off, the three of us would go down steps into a separate compartment, below and in front of the pilot. For some reason, I made it a strict habit to shake Justice’s hand every time before going below.

We flew very frequently, training both to be a good crew and to sharpen our individual skills. At some point, each of us would be having flight checks by trained observers and it was essential that the others cooperated fully during those times. In addition, the pilots had to practice flying in formation with other B-24s, a very tricky business.

As to my personal flying problems: (1) Fear of height: When we began flying at higher altitudes, I no longer had a sense of height. The ground looked like a carpet of various colors and shapes. (2) Motion sickness: Oygen removed the problem. As soon as we were up in the air, I grabbed for my oxygen mask and kept it on. (3) Not knowing left from right: That did not disappear. However, in training, all directions were given in numbers of degrees, so it was not a hindrance. In combat, on the other hand, this handicap did become very real.

Several incidents remain in my mind.

1. We were on a practice bombing flight, with Hemeleski and Stepp co-operating on being effective together. I had nothing to do, so I sat on a fold-down table right behind Hemeleski as he was bent over the Norden bombsight. Stepp called me on the intercom, asking me to check to see whether his wing lights were on. These were green and red lights at the wing tips, which could not be seen from the pilot’s position. They could be seen from the nose turret. The turret was empty this day, there being no need for a nose gunner. Rather than climbing into the turret, I decided just to lean in and look both ways. My intercom chord would not stretch that far, so I disconnected it and leaned into the turret. As I did so, my hand brushed the right gun handle, making the turret turn very slowly. At that time, the turrets were powered hydraulically, that is by oil. The only way to stop the turning was by moving the gun handle the other way. As I looked one way and the other, I suddenly became aware that I was stuck. As it turned, the turret hatch was closing the opening between it and our compartment. I was wearing a very thick flying jacket since we did not have electric suit heaters. Not only was I stuck, but I was getting squeezed, tighter and tighter. There was no way to call for help. I thought to myself, “What a totally stupid way to die- not in combat, but by being cut in half by a gun turret!” I began squirming, trying to move my hand toward the gun handle. It didn’t work and the pressure on my waist was getting pretty strong. Somehow, I pushed myself in a desperate body thrust and my hand hit the gun handle, not only stopping the turret, but making it move the other way rapidly, releasing me. I fell backward and down, right on top of poor Hemeleski, knocking him and his bombsight screwy. All I could do was to lie there. He was squirming and shouting, finally pushing me aside. Of course, the airplane was so noisy that he could not hear my explanation. I reached for the intercom chord, plugged myself in and told Stepp that the lights were working. After it was all over, Hemeleski was very nice about it, given that I had ruined his day. My sides carried welts for at least two weeks.

2. My navigator check test consisted of a flight to Tucson, Arizona, going at night and returning the next day. I was not allowed to use the radio compass, which, of course, would have brought us right into Tucson on the radio wave of a local station. Instead, I had to do celestial navigation, “shooting” the stars with a sextant to determine where we were from time to time and then giving the pilot the directions to fly. I had been highly unsuccessful in using a sextant in navigation school, so I was fairly sure that this test would be a disaster. However, at high altitude, the B-24 was far more stable than the training school planes. There was a plastic glass bubble above my desk. I stood on my chair, aimed my sextant at certain stars, and began clicking away. I estimated my readings, found the factors in my manual, triangulated my star lines and adjusted for where we had been when I took my star shots. As we went along, I called off headings to Stepp. I found that every now and then, he was off my headings and I would have to correct him. Somehow, the system worked. Thank goodness that Tucson was a good-sized city and that we were high enough up in the air to see a long distance. In any event, there it was, bright and beautiful, with an arrival time sufficiently close to my ETA (estimated time of arrival) to be acceptable. I slept very well in Tucson that night.

Coming back the next day was a triumph, not just because I did it correctly, but because I literally knocked Hemeleski off his cocked hat. Evidently, he had had some navigation training, because he was constantly putting me to the test whenever we flew. This time, I flew a “sun-line”, heading the airplane very far to the left of the straight line between Tucson and Tonopah, and then turning the plane right into the sun’s light. All the time that we were flying off course, I could see my buddy Hemeleski looking at his map, shaking his head and smiling in pity. But when we came in dead-on over Tonopah, his jaw dropped. I was “made”! There were congratulations all around.

3. The following day, as we were flying, Stepp asked me to come up to the flight deck. He got out of his seat and told me to take the wheel. I sat down in his chair and grabbed the wheel, placing my feet on the rudders. Stepp said, “I have flying us at 270 degrees. Please maintain that heading.” I looked at the compass and it did read “270”. But then the dial started to turn, moving to “275”. I corrected, by turning left, and suddenly we were heading “250”. I corrected again and we were at “285”. The plane was swinging beyond my control. I looked at Stepp and said, “What do I do?” “Nothing,” Stepp said. “There’s nothing anyone can do. I wanted you to see how hard it is to maintain a steady heading with the B-24. Yesterday, you sounded sharp as you called off corrections. I was doing the best I could to maintain your headings.” Instead of arguing with me during my test flight, this was Stepp’s quiet and effective way of teaching without embarrassing.

4. We practiced a bombing raid on Long Beach, California- a flight of six bombers, flying in formation at 25,000 feet. On the way, we were “attacked” by a squadron of Navy Corsairs, FVUs. These beautiful fighters, with their unique bowed wings, swooped through our formation. Movie cameras replaced the bullets in our machine guns. That night, we viewed the films of the raid. While there were occasional glimpses of FVUs, there were constant shots of B-24s. In other words, had we been in actual combat, we would have shot each other down. The message seemed to be that in actual combat we would be better off not firing our guns. It was a sobering evening.

5. I was assigned to be the navigator for another crew on a daylight flight to Los Angeles and back. As soon as we cleared the Sierra Mountains, the crew began emptying the oxygen tanks. When I asked what was going on, I was told, “Hey, it’s L.A.!” They wanted to have a night in Los Angeles and they knew that we would not be allowed to fly at an altitude high enough to return across the mountains unless we had oxygen. They were right, of course. But now, I had to find the Army airfield at Los Angeles. When my calculations indicated that we were there, I looked out and around, but I could not see an airport. I called the airfield on the radio, asking for directions. “You are here, guy,” the ground controller said. I looked carefully. There was no airfield. “Where are you?” I asked. “Right below you,” was the reply. All that I could see were city streets, houses, other buildings and trees. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t see you. I’m right over the city. There’s no airfield below me.” “We’re camouflaged, my good man. Bring her way down and you’ll see us.” I told the pilot to circle down and sure enough, after a while, the outlines of a landing strip became clear. It was an extremely effective camouflage job.

Contrary to the crew’s plans, new oxygen tanks were installed that day and we were sent on our way. We took off in the twilight, flying into eastward into night. I gave the pilot a heading for Tonopah and decided to use the radio compass to “home in” on our airfield. I had estimated our flying time at about three hours. However, at about two hours, the radio compass, which had been pointing dead ahead, suddenly flipped, pointing behind us. I figured that something was wrong with the gadget. On we flew. When we had flown three hours and Tonopah was not yet in sight, I figured that we hit a strong head wind, so I let the pilot keep going ahead. At four hours, I finally realized that we had now flown some two hours past Tonopah, Nevada. Most likely we were over Montana or even Canada. Without any explanation, I gave the pilot a new heading in keeping with the radio compass that was still pointed at Tonopah. Two hours later, we landed at our airfield. A two-hour flight had taken six hours. But the pilot and the crew members thought that I was pretty sharp, getting us in there, right on the nose.

Several weeks later, while flying over the Grand Canyon, the pilot of this crew thought that their plane was in danger, He, the co-pilot and the navigator bailed out. The bombardier brought the plane back safely. However, a major rescue resulted in bring back safely the three who had bailed out. Somehow, this got national attention. The three were called heroes, received special decorations and never did go into combat. Another lesson learned: Life isn’t always fair.

6. While at Tonopah, I made two trips into Reno. The reason for the first was that I needed some additional money for Maury Schwartz. He had gone to Las Vegas and then called to say that he had been gambling and was now out of funds. I had called my folks and now I was going to a Western Union office to get the money. As I walked in, I saw two absolutely beautiful girls sending money via a telegram. I said something about the coincidence of my getting money from home while they were sending money home. One of the beautiful girls looked carefully at me. “Little boy,” she said, “We’re not sending money home. We’re sending money to daddy!” In one concise sentence, she had covered the entire situation. I felt like a kid dressed up in a soldier suit. More education.

7. The second trip to Reno was far more important. Knowing that I would be going overseas shortly, my mother and father came out by railroad to be with me for three days. They arrived on June 5, 1944. I had rented a car and had made reservations at a Lake Tahoe hotel. As we drove up the Sierras to Lake Tahoe, the car decided to become cranky and we had some anxious moments, when I had to back down some hills in order to get a good enough start to clear the top. We reached our hotel in the evening and had an outdoor meal along the lake, under moonlight.

At breakfast the next morning, we heard of the Allied landings in France. It was D-Day. It was very difficult to keep the conversation light when we knew that many of our boys were dying and that I could be there soon. Whatever foolish hopes we might have had about the war somehow ending without my being involved in combat- those hopes were gone. We spent the day by that beautiful blue lake and returned to Reno the next morning.

My parents kept the conversation light. But I knew that although they were proud of my earning my wings and bars, they must have been deeply worried. I will never understand how they maintained their composure. When we parted at the railroad station, there were no tears, only smiles and laughs.

Finally, our combat training was over. Although nothing was said, it was clear that we were headed for the Pacific, since all of our training had been geared that way. For hours, we had practiced identifying various Japanese fighters and naval vessels. We were told to buy the light suntan clothes, which we did. Those many long flights, using only the sun, moon and stars for navigation, had no relationship to conditions in the European Theatre of Operations. We were sent to Hamilton Field, California to await our orders.

© Steven E. Schanes 2001
April 6, 2000

Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 3:06 pm  Comments Off on 18: B-24 Combat Crew Training  
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