We traveled by bus from Tonopah, Nevada to Hamilton Field, California. It was a beautiful trip through the Sierras. I was able to take some nice photos of the entire crew. The ride gave the ten of us B-24 crew members the chance to relax and just have fun together.
When we arrived at Hamilton Field, we were given a day off. Gearon, Bischoff and I decided that despite the length of the trip, we wanted to see San Francisco. It turned out that in June, San Francisco is damp, cold and foggy. We were dressed in our suntans and we froze. I don’t know what we expected, but arriving late in the afternoon, and having no plans, we found nothing to do. Someone suggested that we go to the “Top of the Mark”- the lounge at the top of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. We climbed the hill to the hotel, entered the magnificent lobby and took the elevator to the top floor. Arriving at the lounge entrance, we were met by someone in a hotel uniform who told us that we could not enter. We were too young! I protested, arguing that we were about to go overseas to fight for our country. It was useless. We were rejected. It was embarrassing. As we left, I thought: Here my country had honored me by making me an officer, and yet I couldn’t get into the “Top of the Mark”. It was all very discouraging. We took the next bus back to the base. (Years later, I was allowed in. I felt a double sense of pleasure while sitting at a table overlooking the city.)
At Hamilton Field, we were assigned to a specific B-24, a new shiny plane. It was our job to check the plane out by making various flight trials. This included my determining the magnetic compass deviations at different headings. Each airplane had its own way of affecting the compass readings and it was important to know these in order to correct for compass errors. This process involved my use of an extremely intricate and beautifully designed instrument, called an astro-compass. I made correction marks around the sides of my top plexiglas bubble.
Although we received no specific information as to our destination, we also had last minute training sessions on identifying Japanese fighter planes and naval vessels. We also learned something about flying the Pacific, spending time analyzing the possible errors that Fred Noonan, Amelia Earhart’s navigator, might have made which cost them their lives. The technique I had used so successfully in our flying back from Tucson to Tonopah was highly recommended. This gave Stepp and JP some degree of comfort.
Finally we packed all of stuff into the plane and we were told to take off. We headed westward over the Golden Gate Bridge, over the Pacific, waiting for Stepp to open our flying orders- all of us standing right behind him. Stepp opened the big brown envelop, took one look at the top sheet, handed it to JP and turned to the rest of us. “We’re going to England.” he said. Someone said, “We are going to freeze!” (All of our clothes were geared for the South Pacific.) Stepp handed me the flight plan papers and began turning the plane around. We were to fly to England, via a number of steps on the way, the first being Lincoln, Nebraska. “OK, Schanes,” he said “Give me the heading for Lincoln, Nebraska.” I went down into our compartment, put away all of those Pacific Ocean maps that I had laid out, and dug out a US map. Lincoln was due East of us. I gave Stepp the heading. Then I checked with Justice, our radio operator. He already had the Lincoln Airfield radio compass readings. We were on our way.
It is very easy to date the time we were flying to Europe. While we were still over the United States, we heard that an assassination attempt had been made on Adolf Hitler. If successful, it would mean the end of the war in Europe. That possibility was most exciting. Unfortunately, the plot did not succeed. Hitler lived, the war would go on. The date was July 20, 1944.
We traveled across the country listening to local radio stations as we passed over various cities and towns. This was our longest trip together. I called off the various geographical features and places. It was very relaxing- like a tour. Most of the crew napped, the pilots and I being the only people required to be awake. We landed without incident.
As we rolled to a stop, we saw huge airplanes lined up along the runway. They were the new bombers- B-29s! They were so much bigger and better looking than B-24s or even B-17s. Their long noses and large engines made them look much more deadly. Clearly they could carry bigger payloads, further and faster than we could. We understood that they could fly up to 35,000 feet- two miles higher than our limit, so that they were much safer from anti-aircraft fire. Nothing could stop them. In a short letter to my parents, I wrote, “I have seen the end of the war.” (Of course, at the time we knew nothing about the A-Bomb. It was not dropped until ten months later.)
As I walked toward the mess hall, I met two officers wearing B-29 insignia. We wore no insignia. One of them asked me who we were and what bomb group we belonged to. I told them that we were unassigned. “Huh,” one of them sneered, “Just a replacement crew!” They turned away in contempt. I thought that they were ridiculous.
After refueling, we were on our way to Goose Bay, Labrador. It was pretty far north, so that although we arrived at about 11 PM, it was still light outside. Being thoroughly tired, I walked into a barracks, found a bed, laid down and fell asleep immediately. When I awoke, it was 1 PM. The sun was shining brightly. I had slept 14 hours. I jumped out of the bed, feeling completely refreshed, and jogged outside. Stepp was walking toward me. “Boy,” I said, “I must have been exhausted, but there’s nothing like 14 hours of sleep to make you feel ready to go again!” “What are you talking about?” he replied, “I’ve just finished checking us in. We’ve been here about two hours!” It was 1 AM. I could feel all that new, built-up energy flowing away from me and I slumped down, completely tired. So much for the power of mind over body.
The next morning, we were on our way to Reykjavik, Iceland. This was to be a long flight, with our crossing over the southern part of Greenland. A heavy cloud layer below us obscured the ground. The Reykjavik airfield had a very powerful radio beam and Stepp was flying directly down it. There was nothing for for the rest of us to do. A good time to sleep. The four engines droned me into a wonderful dream-filled rest.
Suddenly, Stepp said, “Schanes! Reykjavik is socked in. We’re told to go to Bluie West One. Give me the heading.” I immediately told Stepp to turn to 270 degrees- due West. Then I tried to figure out where we actually were, where Bluie West was, and how we were to get there.
While I did know our airspeed and the amount of time we had flown, I had no idea of the effect of the wind on ground speed or course. I knew that Bluie West One was an airfield somewhere in Greenland and that we had already passed that island. Checking my maps and aerial photos, I learned that the airfield was located inside a narrow fiord on the west coast of Greenland, hard for any enemy to find. We would have to re-cross Greenland. That gave me some time. Looking through my material, I found that the code name for Bluie West One was “Blondie” and that at the front edge of the fiord, there was a control radio station, code name “Dagwood”. Dagwood’s permission was required to go into Blondie. While this was very cute, it also told me that Dagwood had a radio beam. If I could get us within range of that beam, we could fly down it to Dagwood, and then up the fiord to Blondie. That gave me much more room to work with.
Using my sextant, I took a sunshot. I combined the results with my guesstimate of the distance we had traveled before turning around. This gave me a hopeful idea of the general location. If I could verify this in some way, I would be much more comfortable. Then I did something which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been done before or since. I dug out that very complicated instrument, the astro-compass, and used it to determine the magnetic compass deviation. If the deviation was what it should have been for my estimate of our location, then I was safe. If there were a difference, I would have to start working all over again in some other way. As it turned out, the magnetic compass deviation was what it should have been for my estimate of our location. I called to Stepp and gave him a revised heading to Dagwood.
As we re-crossed Greenland, we were still flying over a total cloud cover. In front of us, there appeared a small vertical cloud. I hear Stepp say to JP, “We’ll fly above it. I don’t want to take any chances.” As we passed over that cloud, I looked down and saw the rough edges of a mountain peak. Had we gone straight ahead, we could easily have hit it and disappeared forever. We reached the west coast of Greenland and flew down to Dagwood. After getting permission to go on to Blondie, we turned into the narrow fiord. I could see the steep hills on both sides. The space between narrowed down as we approached the airfield. It was not possible to turn around. Now I could see the airfield and I could also see that there was a very steep hill right at the end of the runway. You had one chance to get in safely, since there was no way that a B-24 could pull up from a landing and get over that hill. As we came closer, I could see, up on the hill, crashed airplanes that had not made it. We landed most beautifully.
We slept at Greenland. In the morning, I got up and walked into the rec room. There a GI was trying to play a phonograph record by holding a sharp nail on the record and leaning over to hear faint sounds. Outside, in the warm summer sun, the flies were swarming. All in all, it was a dismal place.
After we took off, going down the fiord, and out over the open water, I gave Stepp the heading for Iceland. We flew high enough to clear any danger. Curtiss Justice was on the intercom. “Captain, there’s some news. Hitler might be dead!” Stepp told him to tie us all into the radio and so we heard about the bomb attempt on Hitler’s life by some German officers. There was talk that if Hitler was dead, the war might be over. It could be great news. But then there was another report that Hitler had escaped the bomb. The war was still on. Hemeleski decided to put me to the test. He asked me for my ETA. Then he got into the nose turret, to look for Iceland. Since we were flying down a radio beam, I had no fear of being lost. However, making my estimated time of arrival was another matter. We were above a complete cloud cover as my time ran out. Hemeleski began counting the seconds that passed. “1-2-3..” and then, at “10” the clouds opened, and there was the Reykjavik airfield directly below us. I said nothing, but it sure felt good.
From Iceland, we were to fly to an airfield in England. It should have been clear sailing, assuming that we did not encounter German fighters. However, there was one other hazard. The Germans had installed a radio beam in Norway which sent out the same signal as the English airfield. If you stayed awake, this should not present a problem, since you could see where you were at all times. On the other hand, if you did not pay attention, you could be led into German territory. The guns of a ferried airplane were not loaded and, in any event, they would not have helped a crew escape being shot down. As it turned out, we had no problem. My happy friend, Maury Schwartz, did have a close call on the same route. After giving his pilot the radio beam heading, he decided to nap, and only awoke in time to see the Norway coast approaching. They were lucky.
Immediately after we landed, we were shipped out in a transport plane to Ireland for additional training. As we flew, we heard from other crews about some of the accidents that had occurred in coming over- men falling into the cold sea, planes crashing. Not everyone was lucky.
© Steven E. Schanes 2001
April 6, 2000