The 8th Air Force was located in England. There were three bomber divisions: the 1st and 3rd Divisions flew B-17s, the 2nd, B-24s. There were many bomber groups in each division. At maximum, each division could put about 1,000 airplanes in the air at one time. On most missions, there might be from one to two hundred bombers assigned to one target. Each bomb group flew separately and in sequence, resulting in a long line of groups of airplanes. A bomb group might put up from one to three squadrons, each in its individual triangular formation. Organizing this parade was a complicated procedure, requiring several hours of flying in circles, usually over the English Channel. This meant that we had to get up very early- 3:30 to 4 AM- for mission briefing. It also meant that there was no hiding from the German radar that we were coming.
We flew in the daylight, while the British RAF bombers went out at night. On the bomb run, we flew in tight formation, while the British planes made individual bomb runs. Thus we were easier to see and easier to hit by both ground fire and German fighters.
At times, we were escorted by fighters as protection against German planes. Our escorts would stay with us up until the bomb run. Wisely, they would stay away from where the flak was the heaviest. Then they would pick us up to return home. In 1944, the P-47s and P-38s were had a limited range- they could not stay with us on the long runs. Then P-51s showed up, with far greater flying radius. We loved those beautiful P-51s.
There was no way to hide from us that the bomber losses were horrible- ranging as high as 25% on one mission. We all knew that the likelihood of making it through the required tour of 30 to 35 missions was exceedingly small. Any day, when guys from our hut took off in the morning, there was a fair chance that we would never see them again.
The 93rd Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force was based in Hardwick, a little town near Norwich in East Anglia, that part of England bulging toward France. For some reason never explained to us, the bomb group was called “Ted’s Flying Circus”. In 1943, the 93rd and the 44th bomb groups had flown from Africa to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. Although the targets were hit, the raid was a disaster in terms of men and planes lost. We were told that the plan was for the 93rd to arrive first, dropping their bombs and clearing the area. The 44th would then come in with delayed action bombs, which would go off as the ground personnel went back into the target facilities. However, through some foul-up, the 44th got there first and dropped their bombs, and then the B-24s of the 93rd, coming in at very low level, were met and destroyed by the exploding bombs. The remnants of the 93rd were then re-assigned to England. None of that group remained at the base by the time we arrived.
There were twelve of us to a Quonset huts, the officers of three crews. Each hut had two wood stoves. England was cold. Somehow, I made friends with a little kitten. She would curl up against my neck each night and purr me to sleep.
I kept a diary of my time with the 93rd Bomb Group. It is full of phrases that had special meaning at the time. Here, I will intersperse some diary notations with comments and stories.
“Sept. 11, 1944. Took off from Cluntoe, Ireland, and landed at the 448th. Ate there and got a lift to the 93rd. Passed Justice on road. Saw adjutant- heard regulations. Hemeleski and Stepp called for me. Got mail- 29 letters plus Clarions and candy from Button. Went to see the boys. Shared some Haig & Haig and Cognac, which they picked up in France. They’ve been non-operational, luckily for me…”
Comment: Curtiss Justice was our radio operator, Bill Hemeleski, our bombardier and Lee R. “Jack” Stepp, our pilot. “Clarions” were copies of the Montclair State College student newspaper. “Button” was Iva Hemeleski, Bill’s wife.
“Told me about their first mission yesterday- to Augsberg. Hemeleski out of oxygen, back at 13000, prayers, flak from Strasbourg…good job…”
Comment: During our training, Stepp had instituted an automatic “check-in” process. Every fifteen minutes, each crew member had to call in. On the bomb run at Augsberg, Hemeleski’s oxygen tank had been punctured by flak. On the way home, when he did not check in, someone found him slumped over the bombsight. In order to save Bill’s life, Stepp left the bomber formation and dropped down from 25,000 to 13,000 feet. They flew home unescorted, from Germany, across occupied France, to England. On the way they flew near enough to Strasbourg to be fired upon. At 13,000 feet, a B-24 was an easy target. It was a long, very stressful flight, as they worried about German fighter planes. Usually, lone bombers were dead ducks.
“Capt. Novotny went down- co-pilot Rudnyk, both of hut 14. Piled their stuff up. I moved into their place.”
Comment: We had lost one plane- Novotny and his crew of nine boys. It was amazing how quickly we moved on. Some of the cots had mattresses- mine didn’t. I would have to wait my turn.
“Gilbert has 60 missions, Waldrop, two. A bad day- the 409th lost two. And Bridgeman came back with bomb bays full of gas- Magdeburg.”
Comment: Captain Gilbert was a wild man. Somehow, he had stayed well beyond his required quota of 30 missions- with or without official permission. His two passions were flying and killing Germans. He would leave high-flying formations, dropping his B-24 to ground-level, and then have his gunners strafing anything and everything before pulling up to altitude again.
Magdeburg was a tough target- a lot of flak. J.P. Waldrop was our co-pilot. Bridgeman was the pilot of another crew- a tall, thin guy. He and his officers shared our Quonset hut. His plane could easily have exploded.
“Sept. 12, 1944. Milk run- all back. Went to hear Miller’s band. The Major was absent. Ray McKinley put on a good show. Gilbert- 61.”
Comment: A “milk-run” was an easy mission. Everyone of our planes came back safely. Glen Miller’s band was the one of the most popular in the United States. He had been given the rank of Major. The reason he wasn’t there to perform- he was missing. Later we learned that his plane had been shot down and that he was presumed dead. Ray McKinley took over the band after the war.
“Sept. 13, 1944. The crew, minus Hemeleski (on pass) and me, flew; but they were recalled past Paris. Quite a mess- contrails.”
Comment: A recall involved hundreds of airplanes. To return with bombs aboard could be a major problem. Most times, they were jettisoned in the English Channel. “Contrails”- meant that they saw high-flying German fighters approaching at a high level- the condensation produced by their wingtips left long white trails against the blue sky. The possibility of being attacked while the bomber formations were disorganized would be scary.
“I went to Stone with Wernlin- also to Wharton. Some ride- buzzed Stone. Good food there- took along our mess officer to show him. Gee excellent, pilotage impossible. Alerted for tomorrow’s mission.”
Comment: Werlin was another hot shot. I was able to navigate using “Gee” radio signal waves, but at the low level he liked to fly, I could not locate us using my maps. After we returned, I was told that I would be called early the following morning for the navigator briefing for my first mission. Sleeping was not easy.
“Sept. 15, 1944. Mission scrubbed. Stepp and I flew racetrack course- practice for lead-crew. Really messed it up- all my fault. Alerted again.
Comment: I found that the tension involved in preparing for missions that were scrubbed was as wearing as the actual flights. Notice that although he had only been there a short time, Stepp had already been picked out for flight leadership.
“Sept. 16, 1944. Mission scrubbed. Scheduled for milk run in the afternoon- a bridge in Holland. Captured before we could take off- scrubbed at the last minute. Still sweating out the first one. Alerted”
Comment: British and American paratroops had been sent out, far ahead of our forces in France, to a place called Arnheim in Holland. This whole misadventure later was recorded in a book and movie called “A Bridge Too Far”. We were to bomb a bridge to cut off the Germans. They beat our troops there.
“Sept. 17, 1944. Mission scrubbed. Stepp, Waldrop, Hammack (a bombardier) and I went out to practice bomb at Woodbridge. A small land, this one. Gilbert and five others practiced low-level flying. Breakthrough at Aachen. Football game. Sanders and officers lost to enlisted men of crew- sore legs. Alerted.”
Comment: The Allied troops in France had broken through the German lines and now it seemed that we were really going to win this war.
“Sept. 18, 1944. Stood down. Gilbert and others carried supplies to Holland. SNAFU. Heuin missing- with Greenberg as navigator- His first mission. Gilbert- 62. They got hit by small arms fire and couldn’t find dropping points- Arnheim. Hemeleski’s a navigator. Rudgers is our bombardier. Alerted again.
Comment: “Situation Normal All Fouled (polite word) Up”. Flying low-level, right at the tree tops, if possible, Gilbert and the others were to drop supplies to those men who were now surrounded by the Germans. Our troops were in the forest and could not get out to signal where our guys should make their drops- so the packages were dropped in any open field. Our crews said that they could see the Germans running out and getting the packages. Gilbert came back to attack the Germans. It was a military disaster.
It had turned out that since each airplane in a bomber squadron dropped its bombs when the lead crew did, there was no need for a bombardier with every crew. However, every plane needed a navigator in case an emergency developed. Hemeleski took on a new assignment.
Rudgers was an experienced bombardier of a crew that had flown their crippled airplane to Sweden, a neutral country. Somehow, he was back in England on flying duty. Whenever bombers flew to the northern parts of Germany, a number of them found it necessary to go on to Sweden, whether for real or imagined (manufactured) emergencies. Upon landing, those crews were “out of the war’ and by the rules of war, they were not to be sent back into combat. We wondered what we would do if we were given that opportunity.
“Sept. 19, 1944. Up at 5:30. Briefed to go to Kassel. Flak and fighter trouble. Weather lousy. Mission scrubbed.
“Sept. 20, 1944. Our boys had guard duty. Nobody went nowhere.”
“Sept. 21, 1944. No. 1- to Coblenz. Marshalling yards. A little flak. Sanders got some holes. No bombers- bombed PFF. All back- six hour mission. Formation turned away after run just in time for us. Pass pushed up a day. That back ‘chute weighs too much! One tired lad, indeed. From now on it gives a chest pack.”
Comment: On my first mission, I had nothing to do except record where we had been and what the weather was like. It was hard to believe that those puffs of black, exploding near us, were really dangerous. Marshalling yards are railroad assembly places. Good hits could tie up a lot of transportation. “Bombed PFF” means that we bombed through the clouds. Who knows what we hit? Another bomb group came at the target from a different angle just before we came in. Luckily they dropped their bombs and got out of our way.
A back pack parachute was much safer than a chest pack. You wore it all the time, so that you had it if you had to bail out of the airplane. A chest pack sat on your desk and was hooked onto a chest harness when needed- which might well be too late.
It was cold- minus 55 to 60 degrees at high altitude. The bombers were not heated. We wore long underwear, flight clothes which were like overalls, and over that heavy, bulky flight pants, jacket and boots. On top of this went the parachute harness. Under my fur-lined gloves, I wore thin silk gloves- so that I could write without getting frost-bitten. Without them, it would be easy to lose fingers. We looked like Eskimos.
Later on, the newer airplanes were equipped with electrical outlets into which we plugged our new heated suits. Then we didn’t need the heavy outer clothes, making life much easier.
“Sept. 22, 1944. Stepp and I went to London- a swell room at the Savoy. Quite a thing- buttons, meal in room. Saw Piccadilly at night- amazing! Also got lost in dark on the way back. Meal good, with music, but liquor costs! Swell bed.”
Comment: The Savoy was the leading London Hotel. When Stepp and I first got into our room, I immediately lay down on one of the beds, while he went into the bathroom. Suddenly, I heard him shout, “Schanes! Get in here!” I jumped up and ran to the bathroom. Stepp was standing just inside the doorway, pointing at a plumbing fixture I had never seen before. “What is that?” he shouted. “I don’t know!” I replied. Gingerly, we advanced on the thing. It looked like a toilet, but obviously it wasn’t one. There were handles. I turned one and a geyser shot up in the air. We both jumped back. “Let’s not fool around with that thing,” I said. “Good idea.” said Stepp. It was some days later, through asking question very delicately, that we both first learned about bidets.
“Sept. 23, 1944. Visited “Tower of London”. Old fashioned guide in fifteenth century dress, very interesting….Bought three books- I Believe, Apostles of Revolution, and Nothing Dies. Couldn’t get Spengler- looked all over London. Saw “Arsenic and Old Lace” at night- very good…Another expensive meal at night- wine, which we didn’t drink. Had breakfast in bed! Sent my pants and shoes out to be pressed and shined respectively.”
“Sept. 24, 1994. Saw a Newsreel Movie. Stepp caught a bad cold, Read I Believe- very good, especially Pearl Buck. Came back to post.”
“Sept. 25, 1944. Sack time. The others, including Hemeleski, went to Coblenz. We missed the yards, evidently- or repair work is good there. Gilbert has 66- Hemeleski- two.”
Comment: We had bombed Coblenz through the clouds on my first mission. The odds of our hitting any assigned target, even as large as a railroad marshalling yard, were very small. Even on clear days, our accuracy was far from 100%. Anything in a given target city could have been hit- as could have anything in the outlying districts and farms.
“Sept. 26, 1944. Supply crew- bomb trainer. Saw Norwich. They went to Hamm, today.”
Comment: We flew to a major depot and picked up cases of K-rations. On the way, Stepp and Rudgers practiced bombing runs. Norwich is the major city of East Anglia. It has some wonderful old buildings, including a castle. After returning, I “appropriated” some of the food supplies for our hut, The K-rations included some excellent fruit bars and other items.
“Sept. 27, 1944. Went to Kassel, PFF- But we didn’t drop bombs since the lead ship didn’t. Very sad. Looked for target of opportunity, but stayed away from any breaks in the clouds.- and brought them back!
Stood with flak suit on for three hours- oof!
445th passed Kassel- fifteen minutes. Caught by 150 FW190s- only eight got back out of 36- with twenty dead on board. Rough!”
Comment: This was a bad day all around. For some reason, the lead pilot decided not bomb the target at the city of Kassel through the clouds. If we did not drop bombs at the assigned target, we were authorized to find other appropriate places- called “targets of opportunity”. However, this normally required a clear view and since our leader did not want us exposed to flak, we stayed over clouds. Bringing the bombs back and landing with them was a tricky and scary business. Much more importantly, somehow, the 445th Bomber Group navigator got lost and so 36 airplanes flew beyond the target and outside of our fighter assistance. They were eaten alive by the German fighters- 24 crews totally lost and the other eight badly mauled.
“Sept. 28. Kassel again- No. 3 for me. Waldrop has five, crew four. Gilbert aborted and bombed Coblenz alone on three engines. We blasted the target- Henshel & Son made AA and Tiger Tanks. Lots of flak. Lots of flak and no mail- very tired. Alerted for tomorrow.”
Comment: It was an especially good feeling to hit a factory that was producing anti-aircraft guns.
“Sept. 29. Swung compass- Rudgers and Stepp- and lots of sack. 49 Bombers lost two days ago, 42 yesterday.”
Comment: We had taken a new plane up to determine its compass deviations- my job. At the same time, Stepp and Rudgers were training for lead crew work.
“Sept. 30. Went to Hamm- complete fighter cover. But whole group dropped on deputy lead- four minutes from the target- sad! Saw flak from Ruhr, Munster burning, rocket flak. Waldrop- Air medal, Gilbert- 69, Rudgers- 13, crew -five, me- four. ”
Comment: The nose turret gunner of all but the lead plane, had a toggle switch, which he was to hit when he saw the lead’s bombs drop. For some reason, the deputy lead dropped its bombs early and all the nose turret gunners hit their toggle switches. If we were making a ground speed of 150 mph, four minutes meant that the bombs fell some 10 miles short of the target- a waste for us, and disaster for civilian locations below. The Ruhr was a major German industrial area- city after city. Munster was one of them.